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Charles C. Mann, the author of "1491," talks about the thriving and sophisticated Indian landscape of the pre-Columbus Americas.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Atlantic Unbound | April 11, 2002
Angles of Prose

Antonya Nelson, the author of Female Trouble, talks about her unsentimental take on the untidy worlds her characters inhabit


Female Trouble
by Antonya Nelson
249 pages, $24.00

he next time you awaken at three in the morning, you might take solace in the knowledge that you're not alone in your sleeplessness. Down in Las Cruces, New Mexico, less than fifty miles north of the Mexican border, there's a good chance that Antonya Nelson is also awake, crafting sentences and inhabiting characters while those around her slumber.

In the daylight, Nelson exists in and observes the world; at night, immersed in the fictional landscapes she can enter only in solitude, she makes sense of her observations. "I'm writing for the same reasons I read," Nelson says. "To entertain myself and to enlighten myself."

For the last twelve years, since the publication of her debut story collection The Expendables, Nelson has also been entertaining and enlightening readers. In stories and novels that are intelligent, heartbreaking, and unflinchingly honest, Nelson depicts the familial and romantic entanglements of modern life. This month marks the release of Nelson's latest collection, Female Trouble. The thirteen stories in the book tackle, among other subjects, both the good and bad kinds of tension that exist between men and women; Nelson investigates "the checks and balances of intimacy" and sheds light on, as one character puts it, "the continuing dilemma we intuitively understood to propel the world: what did women want? Rescue, or amusement?"

A master of the casually scathing observation, Nelson writes in Female Trouble about a mutually unfaithful (and unwitting) husband and wife who "could believe no one else would find their spouse attractive enough to bother seducing"; a brother-in-law who "had a knack for narrating the obvious—'Well, here we are eating,' he would cheerfully note, or, 'Guess I'll get myself a Kleenex now'"; and a woman named Annette who spends her shift at the pizza parlor "pacing the front in her surly predatory manner, squelching jokes by taking everything literally, telling long tedious anecdotes about her day, which revealed her as the person other people thought they might pull something over on."

Yet for every moment of sardonic humor in her work, Nelson shows one of vulnerability, and her writing is ultimately defined not by its cleverness but by its heart. Her characters struggle with what she calls "the irony that we all go through—that you can know an awfully lot and still not know the most essential things about yourself."

The author of three novels and four story collections, Nelson, forty-one, teaches creative writing in the Warren Wilson MFA Program and at New Mexico State University, where she serves as the fiction editor of the literary magazine Puerto del Sol. She has received the Flannery O'Connor Award and the PEN Nelson Algren Award, and her stories have been anthologized in the Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Awards. Nelson lives in Las Cruces with her husband, the writer Robert Boswell; their daughter, Jade, fourteen; and their son, Noah, eleven.

I spoke with Nelson on April 3.

—Curtis Sittenfeld

antonya nelson
Antonya Nelson   

To get started, will you talk a little bit about growing up in Kansas and about your family?

I grew up with parents who were English professors at Wichita State University, and we were more liberal-minded as a family than most of the people I hung out with in Wichita. During summers, we went off to Telluride, Colorado, where I've returned every summer since I was born. I think my background has everything to do with my parents having been academics and with our having two homes. I was given a lot of freedom in terms of what I read and what I was exposed to. My father was among the first of his generation to look into writers who've become part of the American lit. canon. When he wrote his master's thesis on William Faulkner in the forties, he couldn't find anybody on the faculty at Columbia University to oversee it because they didn't read Faulkner. Our house was a place full of all kinds of books—not just what you might expect from the house of an English professor, but more like the house of a writer.

And then we had this other life that went on during the summers in Colorado, where I also had a kind of freedom out in the world. Telluride was a dying mining town then and not a ski resort and celebrity haven as it's become. We're still in the little miner's shack we bought there the year I was born.

What about siblings? Siblings show up a lot in your work, and in Female Trouble there's that very funny line in the story "Irony, Irony, Irony": "Lionel had been an only child; in Elaine's opinion, he had no idea how a real family worked."

I have three brothers and one sister, and I'm the third child. Sometimes people say, "It's only natural you would become a writer—your parents were English professors." But my four siblings were brought up in the exact same household, and no one else became a writer or an English professor. I have two siblings who are psychologists, and I think the pursuit is pretty similar. They're very interested in how people behave and the stories that they tell to make their lives make sense. My other brothers are a union carpenter and a teacher of youth prisoners in Salt Lake City. And everybody in our family is a reader.

So what made you the one who became a writer?

I was the first daughter, and I think I was aimed in that direction by my parents, particularly my mother, who wanted to be a writer and who writes now. I think she saw in me some aspect of herself that she could promote and encourage, and I was interested in pleasing them. And, actually, writing was the only thing I had any aptitude at, to be perfectly frank. I read all the time, and because the house was so full of books—trashy books as well as literature—I was given free range of everything from pornography to Baudelaire. I don't know if my siblings had that same voracious appetite for books or for looking to the written word to inform them fully of what the world was up to.

Do you and your mother share works-in-progress?

We used to but not anymore. She's become much more private about her writing, and the longer I write, the less I end up discussing my writing with my family. Maybe they're bored with it, or everything they've had to say about it they've already said. We see each other all the time, and I'm very close to them. And my father, who used to build furniture, has built a bookcase in their dining room that is a sort of shrine to my fiction. So it's not as if they're ashamed of what I write, but after a certain point, I think there's very little for them to say about my work—which is fine by me.

It's interesting that you were encouraged to become a writer, because for a lot of writers, their families are slightly—well, horrified might be overstating it, but once the books start coming out, if there's any tiny bit of autobiography, it seems that the family can feel betrayed or threatened. Did your mother feel any differently about your writing after your books came out than she had before?

I think she was pretty happy about it, but she probably has more mixed feelings than other mothers because she's so close to the world that I occupy. She was also an English professor; she also wanted to have her novels published. She has to approach it with a slightly different perspective than my husband's mother, who's just purely proud. She can't tell you the difference between Knopf and the guy in the basement xeroxing his letters to the editor, whereas my mom has a much clearer and fuller sense of the publishing world.

In your new collection the protagonists are varied in terms of gender and age and point of view. Because a lot of collections have different protagonists who could all be the same person, I'm wondering whether you made a conscious decision or whether you just wanted to write varied stories.

The material in Female Trouble has been accumulating over the last eight or so years. It's not a mindset I occupied exclusively for two years, as one might in writing a novel, where you'd expect a sustained voice. Also, I'm so interested in the same questions that I like to interrogate them from as many angles as possible, which makes these issues gain a kind of geometric shape. I know I re-enter the same world a lot—I have a tendency to write about family and infidelity and depression—so I think the best thing to do is to create variety by exposing that world through various people's points of view.

It's very hard to avoid what it is you're interested in or what is hanging you up in your life. I had a writing teacher who said, "Your obsessions will make themselves known. It's not like you have to expose them; they will expose themselves."

When I read your novel Living to Tell, which came out in 2000, I was reminded of The Corrections. They seem similar in that they're both from multiple points of view and they both chronicle the lives of a midwestern family of ailing parents and their three endearingly screwed-up adult children. Have you read The Corrections?

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Mainstream and Meaningful" (October 3, 2001)
Jonathan Franzen, the author of The Corrections, discovers that, when it comes to fiction, "serious" doesn't have to mean "marginal" or "boring."
I haven't, and part of the reason I haven't is that when I read about it, I thought, I'm going to read this and just be jealous or angry. Also, Franzen gives his father character Parkinson's, which my father actually has. Over Christmas, my brothers were doing nothing but talking about how much they love The Corrections. I thought, I didn't hear about how much you loved my book. But I have The Corrections on tape and I'm going to listen to it when I drive to Colorado in a month or so and depress myself thoroughly for about a hundred different reasons.

While you were working on Living to Tell and writing from the perspective of so many different characters, did you find yourself favoring any of them?

I'm fonder of Mona, the youngest sister, than I am of any of the other characters. But I liked writing from all the points of view, and I intentionally withheld the brother's point of view because I wanted him to remain a cipher for the reader as well as the family. A great deal of what interested me about that book was its reliance on faith as a way of approaching your family. If you know the point of view of the one in whom you need to have faith, then some of the effect is lost.

As for the others, I tried to find ways to identify with all of those characters. Purely personality-wise, I'm probably closer to the point of view of Emily or the father, but Mona was the one I liked best, so her parts were the ones I was most eager to return to and had more fun writing. I had the least fun writing the mom; in fact, if I could have not written from her point of view at all, I might have skipped it. Until recently I haven't occupied the point of view of mothers very often.

Actually, it seems to me like there's so much about parental love in your writing.

Maybe the truer unexplored avenue is the relationship of a grown daughter to her mother. I had a baby by the time The Expendables came out, and I had always had a pretty fierce attachment to children. But approaching the mother-daughter relationship from a grown point of view still eludes me. In a number of my works, the mom is dead. Rather than engage the relationship, I get rid of her.

You live in the West, and you were picked by The New Yorker as one of "twenty writers for the twenty-first century" with other writers who were all under age forty. Do you identify with a particular group of writers by region or age?

I definitely don't think of myself as someone identified by region. It's too far-flung a region, for starters, and southern New Mexico is very isolated. I wouldn't think of my identity as generational, either, but maybe as more stylistic, in the school of realism and domestic issues. It seems presumptuous to start citing very well-known and wonderful writers as my peer group, but I think there are definitely genealogical lines of writers. There's a school of writing that I'm not a member of, which would be writers like Don DeLillo—I'm not somebody who writes about the larger picture. I think in the more intimate spaces of family life, to some degree like Ann Beattie or Anne Tyler, people—primarily women—who have been interested in family relationships and how those expand and include romantic entanglements. But maybe I'm slightly more violent and sexually direct than Beattie or Tyler.

Raymond Carver chose your story "The Expendables" to win first-place in the anthology American Fiction 88. I know you were young when that happened, and I'm wondering if the recognition felt like a breakthrough.

It was in 1987, so I was twenty-six. I was ecstatic, but I had won the Mademoiselle young writers' contest when I was twenty-two or twenty-three and had had a story published in Mademoiselle, so that was the moment when I thought, This is the big breakthrough. But, of course, there's never the big breakthrough. It's always an illusion that there's going to be the big breakthrough. By the time you achieve what you'd have once thought was a breakthrough, you've raised the bar so much higher that it gets to be anti-climactic. It makes you realize how much you have to love sitting in front of a computer and writing, because anything else that happens is mildly disappointing; the actual process of writing is the thing that has to pay off. A box of books just arrived a week or so ago, and it was the usual thing where there'd been this flurry in advance of its arrival. But once it's arrived, it's kind of like, now what?

So what are the actual rewards of the writing process?

I think it's in self-discovery and in surprising yourself by being smarter at some emotional level than you thought you were. I write a lot in the middle of the night when I'm very much alone because everybody's asleep and I can feel uninterrupted and unpulled in any other direction. And it's a completely private act. It's in a way like play but very serious play, and sometimes I can escape into the fictional world that I'm creating so fully as to see hours go by without my noticing it. I think that kind of suspension of time and that mindfulness is a real gift.

I've watched my children get involved in the worlds that they've created with blocks or dolls or animals, and they occupy them so fully that if you pull them away, they can't return to them. That to me is what a good writing episode is like. It's the experience that I used to have when I was reading, and now I can't, because I'm always aware of craft and technique and being envious or scornful. It's hopeless once you start writing to be a reader anymore—you've lost a huge part of the pleasure.

Do you set an alarm clock to write in the middle of the night or do you stay up?

I go to sleep at nine or ten and wake up around two and get up. It's not anything I set an alarm for. I've taught myself over the years of being in a pretty close-knit little family to cherish and welcome those hours of solitude, which are very specific hours because I know everybody is safe. As a parent who has got an overactive imagination, it's hard for me to feel completely free to let myself go into some sort of fictional landscape when I know my kids are off at school or riding lessons or on a bus. But if they're snoozing in their beds and I'm in the living room, I can let go of them and write. I stay up for two or three hours then go back to bed and get up with the kids again at seven.

In an article in The Albuquerque Journal, you said that you write intensely for several days and then not at all for as long as a few months. That kind of schedule runs counter to what a lot of writers recommend.

Sometimes when I'm up in the middle of the night I'm reading, or writing an essay, or grading papers. I might have just finished writing a story and have absolutely no urge to write fiction whatsoever. Or I finished the story maybe a week ago, revised it for a while, and now I'm empty. I have to let something collect in myself before I'll be able to write fiction.

I've read plenty of interviews where people who are full-time writers go to their garret at eight in the morning, somebody makes them lunch, they go back for a few hours in the afternoon, then they have their healthful dinner. But I can't work that way. My life is cluttered with students and kids and friends and pets, and I like home projects too much and am a little too diffuse in my attention span to have that sort of pattern. I spend a lot of time thinking about writing, and I always feel as if some part of myself is radar-tuned to the fictional possibility, and I take a lot of notes when I'm out and about. If I'm bored at a department meeting, I can turn to writing about a fictional character as a way to tune out my colleagues. But I don't write every day. The only pattern I can see emerging is that every couple years I have enough material to make a book.

I have a question for you that springs from my own experiences. I've been in a lot of writing workshops in which we're talking about a female character in a story who, say, has uncharitable thoughts about her husband, and the discussion turns into a conversation about the woman's morality, even though the word morality isn't used. People say, "She's so manipulative," or, "She's sinister." Meanwhile, there can be a story about a male character who's literally a criminal and is committing murder, and there won't be that morality conversation. Because a lot of your characters, especially your female characters, transgress in certain ways or make judgmental observations, I'm wondering if you've gotten any sort of backlash.

My original family is highly sarcastic and sardonic and rule-bending and unsentimental. It's a way of existing in the world that I have a lot of sympathy for because I know what it's veiling—it's holding off tears and all kinds of emotional displays. It's also a check against cliché. So sometimes readers feel like my characters are no more interested in life than to make ironic commentary upon it, and I just have to say that those readers are going to be happier reading work that is, in my view, more clichéd and sentimental. I'm not going to pass judgment on the whole literary world, but I can't read a lot of contemporary fiction precisely because it's terribly sentimental, its characters have clichéd emotional lives, and it tidies things up in the end far too much.

As for your workshop question, I definitely think gender's a factor. I've asked students in my workshop more than once to consider a story from reverse gender and see if they would feel the same way about it and why they wouldn't. I like to make students think about why that character has to be female or male and why it has to be somebody in her twenties as opposed to her thirties—that those are decisions, they're not just givens.

From the archives:

"Wharton's Sharp Eye" (July/August 2001)
Our author, one of Britain's great novelists and literary biographers, explores Edith Wharton's short stories. By Margaret Drabble
There's a British writer I read and like a lot named Margaret Drabble. What's interesting to me about reading her work is that she always creates characters who are the same age that she is. When I was in my twenties, I read her novels with characters in their twenties, and then, because she's a generation older than I am, I started reading her books where her characters were in their thirties or forties. I found that as her characters aged, they got too jaded for my younger sensibility and I didn't like them very well. But when I read her characters when they're the same age that I am—that is, if I wait and follow them not at the moment she's written them but twenty years later when I've reached their age—they make a lot of sense to me. Younger readers or older readers of my work might be a little offended by the morality of my characters and think that somebody who can make jokes about an abortion is not a character they care to hang around with. All I have to say is, I guess you wouldn't be my friend, either. You cannot please everybody.

There's a bookstore in California that has a Web site with a list of writers who are married to each other. You and your husband are between Iris Murdoch and John Bayley on one side and Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on the other. I'm wondering what the advantages and disadvantages are of being married to a fellow writer.

Personally, I'm somebody who from very early on needed someone else to reassure me that what I was doing was worthy. Thank God I was married during graduate school, because I might have quit thinking that what I was writing was worth writing. It can feel goofy to keep writing when no one else seems to like what you're doing, which is to say that no one's publishing you. When you're questioning whether it's what you ought to be doing and you haven't got any measure except the publishing world and if that world keeps rejecting you, well, how much rejection can you take before you give up? I'm very grateful for my husband's support. I know he really thinks that I'm a good writer, and that's a huge bonus.

I don't always feel like what I've written is good, and he's very honest with me in pointing out where there are gaps and lapses. He's an awfully good reader, especially of plot and motivation and cause and effect. He's much more story-oriented than I am, so while I'm scrupulous line by line, he's more attentive to plot. He reads my work and says, "Very nicely written but nothing happens. Why don't you put this before that, and then there'll be cause and effect." He can discern story, whereas I read his work and mark up individual lines.

Given that you have relatively young children and you both teach, do you ever feel like you're competing not over writing but over time?

There are plenty of times when I've been resentful of that clack-clack-clack of his fingers on the keyboard while I'm making macaroni and cheese. He's a lot better at tuning out the whole rest of the world and writing. But we have this place in Colorado and that's where I get a great deal of writing done. We've worked out a schedule where one of us goes there in early May when our school ends and is there alone for a couple of weeks and the other brings the children up later; then in the fall we do the reverse. So there's this two-week window every year that I can count on, and I so depend on that. It's usually novels I'm working on when that chunk of time occurs, and I really need it to make me get invested in whatever novel I've left behind during the academic year.

Do you think that having children has made you more productive with your time?

Absolutely. I have graduate students who complain to me about how busy they are, and I just want to smack them.

You have a fair number of stories about adolescent girls. Has your own adolescent daughter read your work?

It's just this year that she's actually started talking about it. I heard her tell her friends, "Yeah, they don't let me read their books," to which my husband and I both said, "You can read our books if you want to—you've never shown any interest." I've felt worried that my daughter's going to turn into the adolescent I was, which is to say a bad girl with a lot of addictive traits, but she's a really sweet girl who seems to have her act together.

It seems surprising that you were both a bad girl and a bookworm. Do you think that's an unusual combination?

It probably is. In Wichita, Kansas, we did an awful lot of bad things, but I was making straight As at school so my parents never worried. I don't know what I would do with me if I were my mother—I'd be just horrified. We did a lot of driving around purely intoxicated, late at night, with men who were a lot older than we were. I was hungry for more than what was available to me, and I knew that what I had available to me was more than most people in my situation in Wichita had, so I don't know what the solution would have been—to move to New York?

Did your period as a bad girl significantly influence your writing?

I have the ability to identify with bad desire and to honor it as a true desire as opposed to something that can be pooh-poohed or something somebody can be talked out of. There are complex reasons for having desires that run contrary to intellectual knowledge, and I think that's what drives most great literature—people who know one thing but do another. It definitely was borne out to me over and over again by my parents' highly intellectual English department buddies who were teaching Milton and the fall of Satan during the day and then having these lascivious relationships at department parties later the same night.

In your stories, it almost seems like marital infidelity is the norm. As someone who's not married, I look at people I know who are married and it seems like they have relatively settled lives, and then I read fiction and marriage is all wildness and scandal. Is it possible to say that one version of marriage is truer than the other?

The conventional wisdom is that an extramarital affair will ruin your life, but from what I can see based on friends and family, sometimes an extramarital affair actually does more good than bad. So what does that tell me about conventional wisdom? People don't stop having desires for other people, and curbing them is not always automatically the right move. In the same way, I think engaging children's serious questions and confessing your own weaknesses is a better approach to being a parent than giving lip service to rules. To me, writing honestly and speaking honestly as a parent and being forthcoming with emotional business all run together.

Would you say that the same logic applies in terms of alcohol and drug use? In your fiction, drinking and drugs are presented in a pretty ordinary way, as if they're just part of domestic life. For instance, in Living to Tell, Mona does a fair amount of casual drunk-driving. Is that supposed to mean something, or is it simply a reflection of the way people are even though, according to the law, they shouldn't be?

My sense of what I'm responsible for is a kind of reporting rather than mandating, and I think it's pretty common that people drink and drive. I know drunk-driving typically is a bad idea, but I also know that for every piece of received wisdom, there's some reason to interrogate it. To a large degree, Living to Tell was written as a way of saying, I know what's bad about drinking, but what's good about drinking? Why do people want to do it so much? There must be something positive about it or people wouldn't keep doing it.

My family is not very demonstrative, but put a few drinks in any of us and we can get very sweet to one another. It's endearing to witness everybody revealing themselves when they haven't been able to up to that moment, and God bless a bottle of wine for that. And this is with full knowledge of all the reasons one shouldn't drink.

In that same Albuquerque Journal article, you said that if you had it to do over again, you'd go into either bartending or stand-up comedy. Was that a sincere comment?

It's not completely whimsical that I said that—I think those sound like interesting ways of making a living. I might also be a psychologist. I like engaging with other people in a way that you can tell stories or hear stories. I'm also a good hostess, so I like to throw parties and cook, and a bar is a place designed in the best of circumstances for grown-ups to go and have fun. Good bars are great places. You just sit and the whole idea is that you're going to talk to somebody.

Being in New Mexico, do you feel remote from the literary epicenter of New York?

I'm kind of glad I'm not as aware as many of my friends are of who's getting what and what's appearing where. That can be pretty debilitating. I could get too interested in the gossipy angles, and I can't think of one good thing that comes from that competitive business. So being down here like a footnote on the bottom of the country is perfectly fine by me.

What do you think? Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Curtis Sittenfeld, formerly a staff writer for Fast Company, now lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.