Music and Lyrics

Kent Nelson, author of the short story “Alba” in the 2009 Fiction Issue, explains how the 1960s folk scene and the poetic language of James Joyce inspired him to become a writer.

By
Kent Nelson
Kent Nelson

If you were not a writer what would you do?

If I were not a writer. Well, unfortunately, I have a law degree, so I would probably be a lawyer. I went to Harvard Law School. I never practiced. Writing is so much more fun and interesting and fascinating. My goal, when I was coming up through college, was to be governor of Colorado. And that certainly changed when I started writing fiction.

Fiction is what changed your mind?

I went to Yale on a full scholarship and I took an amazing course in my senior year. I only took two English courses, and one was called Daily Themes, and you had to write a 300-word short story every day for eight weeks. And I just loved that course. I thought, Here is a way you could be curious about anything and everything and everyone for your whole life and make it your life’s work. And then I had a weird experience after those first 40 little stories, which were all terrible. Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes was sponsoring a fiction contest because he had a son, I guess at Yale, who had died in a car crash. And I entered a story in it and won the prize and didn’t even know—this is how ignorant I was—didn’t even know three of the judges, who were Ralph Ellison, John Knowles (who wrote A Separate Peace), and William Styron. That is how ignorant I was. They were all Mike Wallace’s friends in New York. But it gave me this idea: Hey, maybe you shouldn’t be governor of Colorado; you could write fiction.

What was the first thing that you wrote that made you realize you wanted to be a writer?

The story that won that prize. The story was about—it might have even been about a lawyer, a businessman or a lawyer, who is dissatisfied with his work and goes window shopping and imagines these other lives he might have had. It was a terrible story. But it certainly did me a lot of good.

Who or what has been the biggest influence on your writing?

I think I have been more influenced by music than by other writers, but if I had to pick a writer, I would pick James Joyce. When I was growing up, I was a big folk music fan. Folk music was both engaging in the message that it had, and it was also sort of alienating from people I knew, and it made me sort of a loner, I guess. I was certainly influenced by that, by being willing to be alone, to be by myself. Of course, that is what writers do. When I was going to be governor, I had actually some skills in conversation. And those sort of evaporated when I was starting to write fiction, being by myself for most of the day. Also, there’s a kind of lyricism to sentences, and I have always admired Joyce’s work for that. I think it’s quite musical.

What specific influences have you drawn from Joyce?

When I write page one of a story, I will often—I work on a typewriter—I will often type over the first paragraph a bunch of times, like 10 times, just to hear how the sentences work together. And it’s not—it’s almost not an intellectual thing, it’s an emotional thing. I never know how stories are going to proceed or how they are going to end or where they are going when I start out.

Do you have any rituals or superstitions related to your writing?

I live in a small town, and I used to get the New York Times crossword puzzle everyday, and in the last several years it doesn’t come to the little town anymore. But I used to do that first thing in the morning. I would do the Times puzzle, and the Jumble, and just two or three little mind exercises. Sometimes the Sudoku now. And those are sort of rituals I guess.

What are the most overrated books in your opinion?

I can’t answer that, I don’t know what they are.

What are the most underrated books in your opinion?

There is a book called Novel with Cocaine that is almost unknown. Somebody named M. Ageyev. He was Russian and he went to Turkey and disappeared after writing that book.

What book is most essential to you?

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I had that in my car for years and years. When you are stuck somewhere, pull it out and read parts of it. Partly the inspiration is the lyricism, the writing. I think it’s a brilliant depiction of a young guy who overcomes political and religious indoctrinations to become an artist. I mean he’s a poet, Stephen Dedalus, but it applies to painters or writers or anybody.

What children’s book would you still pick up?

Frederick, Leo Lionni. About a mouse who lives in a wall with other mice, and while the other mice are collecting all their winter nuts and wheat and grains and stuff, Frederick is just sitting there absorbing the sunshine and doing nothing. And then in the winter, this is sort of toward the end, in the winter, the other mice are using up their stores and they say, “Well, Frederick, what did you do?” And so Frederick starts to recite poetry, which is what he has been doing. Making up poems.

What book is waiting on your bedside table to be read?

I don’t want to admit what it is because I already don’t like it. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. It is way overdone to me. I probably won’t finish it. I was just in Ecuador for a couple of months looking for books, and I read a whole bunch of books there from Dreiser to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to Fathers and Sons, and a couple of books by Hemingway. It was really fun to go back and read some books over again and read some new ones. I am not the biggest academic in the world, because I only took two English courses, though I did read 200 novels my last year in law school. I already knew I didn’t know anything, so I needed to catch up a little bit. I don’t really read a whole lot when I am working.

—Cotton Codinha

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/08/music-and-lyrics/307596/