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September 7, 2011

Marissa Nadler Interviews Stuart Nadler

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Earlier this year, author Stuart Nadler interviewed his sister, singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler, about her just released self-titled album. Marissa returns the favor and interviews Stuart about his new short story collection, The Book of Life.

Marissa Nadler is a singer-songwriter whose latest album is the self-titled Marissa Nadler.

Stuart Nadler is an author, his short story collection The Book of Life was published last week.

Singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler interviews author Stuart Nadler :

Marissa Nadler: Stuart, the stories in this book are simply gorgeous. But instead of getting into too many details about the stories right away, let's talk first about your process. The other day you told me that, unlike me, you weren't a perfectionist. But you also told me that one of the stories in this book took you six years to finish? How does that line up? 

Stuart Nadler: Well, it is true that I worked on one of the stories in the book - "Catherine and Henry" - for six years. Mercifully, I wasn't constantly working on it that whole time. That story was the last I wrote before I moved to Iowa for the Writers' Workshop, the first story I put up there, and the last thing we worked on before the book went to print. Part of my stubborn refusal to give up on it was likely just a case of plain affection for the piece, for the characters, for the seemingly endless battle that story represented for me. Every eight or nine months I'd take it out, tear it apart, and then try to put it back together again. Each time, I thought I was only a few small changes away from getting it right. In a lot of ways, that story taught me how to revise. Before, I'd approached revision with a much smaller set of goals, and this was the first time I'd completely uprooted a story. All of this aside, I still contend that I'm not a perfectionist. To me, perfection is an accident. It's a function of time more than a statement on quality. Whenever I work on something for a substantial length of time, whether it's a story that takes a particularly long time to get right, or whether it was the novel I just finished, the large challenge I always find myself facing is my own shifting aesthetics. Time changes my outlook. My tastes change. My points of view change. So much of the process activates obsessive parts of a writer's personality that to head into a project demanding that the product be perfect seems to me to be a recipe for disappointment. I've said this before, but my favorite works of art are imperfect. I love hearing a flubbed note in a guitar solo, or a singer's voice breaking. Perfection is sterile and boring. Imperfections in a story show the writer's fingerprints, and for one, I'm always glad to find them.

MN: One of the things that I think we share is a solid work ethic. Maybe that's a nice word for a compulsion. But sometimes you have to take a break. Do you feel guilty if you don't write every day? How do you deal with the guilt if you find yourself slacking? 

SN: Oh, guilt is the worst. There's no escaping it sometimes. I know you and I both have this problem. The guilt comes from a lack of trust in your work, and a wish, however foolish, that whatever the project is, it turn out perfectly. Like any harmful impulse, I think this takes time to unlearn. When I was younger, I was afraid to take a day off from writing, simply because I was afraid that when I got back to my desk after a weekend away I'd have forgotten how to write. You'd be amazed how many writers I know who admit to this. I've gotten better at it, though. Maybe it's being in my thirties. Maybe it's knowing that these books - the collection, and the novel - are actually being published. But at some point in the last two years some of the anxiety has eased up. I like the time away from the work now. By and large, I feel like I know what I'm doing when I get to work, although, as I write this, I know that a day doesn't go by when I don't doubt myself. The challenge for me these days is to be able to think about the work when I'm away from my desk, but to be able to do it without chastising myself about how good or bad it is, or how much progress I'm making. When I succeed, I can live with the work in my head in a way that feels healthy. When I fail, the guilt chews me up.

MN: Let's talk about endings. In "Catherine and Henry," you left the ending vague. I asked you the other day whether you knew what happened to the characters after that point. And you said you didn't! Why?

SN: The story has to end somewhere! In all seriousness, I'm sure there are writers who have the totality of their character's lives all mapped out, and I'm sure that map includes what happens to the characters before the stories start and after they end. But I've never been that kind of writer. Interestingly, I've never been the kind of reader who leaves a book dying to know what happens. I always feel cheated by epilogues. Part of the fun for me is the wondering, the mystery. I haven't ever thought about what happens to Henry and Catherine when that story ends. In every draft, the story ends there, on the train platform. Or it ends just a few moments later. Nothing has ever changed. If I really thought about it, I'm sure I'd feel compelled to write about it, and then, knowing me, the story would never end.
MN: This is kind of a Dan Savage podcast question, I guess. But there are people cheating on their lovers and their wives everywhere in this book. Even your most likable characters are flawed and fucked up and do bad things. Do you believe people are capable of long term monogamy?

SN: Sure I do. Just not these people. I'm fully aware that there are characters in this book who, on their face, make some deplorable decisions. They're hurting the people closest to them. They're breaking their families apart. They're willfully sabotaging their own happiness. That said, I wasn't trying to make a statement on marriage or monogamy with these stories. By the time I was working on this book, I'd become preoccupied with some of the bigger questions that exist in these stories - faith, shame, morality, fidelity. Part of my job as a writer, as I see it, isn't to sermonize about these issues. It was important to me that I write these characters without levying judgment on them. That I craft the stories and the situations in such a way that I wasn't degrading the characters. And it was important to me that their whole humanity be expressed - the things that people recognize as good qualities, and the things people may recognize as the bad qualities. I've made a calculated decision to come into their lives at moments of crisis, in part because there's conflict in crisis, and because the drama in that conflict makes for the kind of fiction I like to read. One of the great challenges of writing is to create an unlikable character with whom your readers can eventually sympathize. It's a scary task to take up. Readers enjoy likable characters whose sympathies and weaknesses are, to put it simply, accessible and palatable. Many of the issues here - adultery, familial estrangement, faithlessness - are still uncomfortable topics for people to encounter. If my own feelings on these issues appear at all in the stories, it's in the notion that these people are redeemable. That's something I believe in.
MN: In "Beyond any Blessing" the grandfather tells Daniel that "The line between humor and sadness is especially thin." Your stories straddle this dividing line so well. You take some really tragic events and make them livable and laughable. How important is a sense of humor as an artist these days? How lacking do you think it is in contemporary art? Why did you get the funny gene?

SN: Everyone needs a sense of humor, not just artists! Humor is one of the great gifts of life. People should rush to it and grab hold of it! Although some of the laughter here is grim, humor is the way we express our joy. I don't know if contemporary art is humorless. It does seem that sometimes it's become fairly joyless. What I worry about is that artists have become afraid, aesthetically, to be funny. As if being happy and joyous were a weakness. The humor I think I see most often in the art world is a detached humor, a bad version of sarcasm. A lot of this exists, I think, because of ideas about what's fashionable. The arbiters of fashion whose voices are the loudest are often the youngest people shouting out. Maybe it's not socially acceptable anymore for people to express their emotions without dressing them up with detachment and irony and sarcasm. All of this aside, I think that books have done well to keep their sense of humor in tact. Maybe that's because literature has never been truly cool, and no matter how fancy the devices get which deliver our stories, it'll probably never be cool. But some of the best writers working today are incredibly funny: George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, Gary Shteyngart.

MN: There are remnants of the Old World in the elderly characters in your writing. There is a rebellion and conflict in the more youthful characters. Many of the men marry shiksas and break with tradition altogether. There seems to be a struggle within the youthful characters to find some kind of belief system. Do you think that is rampant throughout much of Generation X and Y? 

SN: I think that it depends where you live. Large parts of this country remain devoutly faithful in a way that has nothing to do with age. If anything, the struggle between faith and doubt clarifies as you age. Part of this has to do with mortality, obviously, and part of this has to do with a certain kind of self-confidence that comes as you get older. The easiest thing to do is to accept that something is true without doubting it. That kind of rigid inflexibility comes from fear. I'd venture to guess that a lot of the public expressions of faithlessness that you saw in the 90's - that particular pose that became so much a part of the white Generation X culture - came from a fear of the future. So much of the irony and detachment that seemed married to that culture came from fear. But every generation has this. And every generation suffers from its own nearsightedness. You could argue with ease that the current generation of young people has more to fear: war, terror, runaway unemployment, increasing global competition. People want to believe in something. That's what the characters in these stories are struggling to understand: what should I believe in? Do I have to believe the same things my parents believe?

MN: Many of these stories takes place in New England. There's a little New York City, but for the most part, the collection as a whole seems like a love letter to New England. Clams, fisherman, the Red Sox, barren apple trees, desolate winters. There are so many details that capture the essence of New England so perfectly. I think it'd been at least ten years since you had truly lived in New England when you were working on these stories. Why did you choose New England? Was it that your childhood had shaped you so deeply that they simply had to take place where you came from?

SN: Obviously, part of the reason I set the stories in Boston was because it was a place where I felt comfortable. But partly, I set the stories where I did because I'd been away for so long. I wrote most of these stores in Iowa, and a few of them in Wisconsin. But I worked on them in so many places - New York, Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania - that after a while it just felt nice to settle into a place, even if it was just on paper.

Stuart Nadler links:

Stuart Nadler's website

Boswell and Books review of The Book of Life
Kirkus Reviews review of The Book of Life
Reviews by Amos Lassen review of The Book of Life
Shelf Awareness review of The Book of Life
Tablet review of The Book of Life

Stuart Nadler's Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay for The Book of Life

Marissa Nadler links and free & legal mp3s:

Marissa Nadler's website
Marissa Nadler's blog
Marissa Nadler's MySpace page
Marissa Nadler's Wikipedia entry

Marissa Nadler: "The Sun Always Reminds Me of You" [mp3] from Marissa Nadler
Marissa Nadler: "Diamond Heart" [mp3] from Songs III: Bird on the Water
Marissa Nadler: "Under an Old Umbrella" [mp3] from The Saga of Mayflower May

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)

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