Is it true that you share something with Kafka?
That’s right. I was born on the old man’s ninetieth birthday.
And you think that makes you special?
Absolutely. I’m unreasonably proud of the fact. And I feel that it gives me full license to go around quoting his famous line about a book being “the axe that breaks up the frozen sea within us.”
So your books are going to break up my frozen sea, huh?
Well, maybe a variation of the quote would apply better to my work: “A book is the space heater that slowly thaws the ice cube you swallowed at dinner.”
Aftermath is your third collection of short fiction. You seem pretty devoted to the story, despite its impact—or lack thereof—on your bank account. Why do you keep returning to such an unprofitable well? Didn’t you promise to buy me a new stereo?
It’s true, I’m deeply devoted to short fiction. Whatever else I may be working on—and I’ll admit, I usually write a draft or two of a terrible novel between every story collection—I’m first and foremost a story writer. I claim the title proudly and often argue that the story be considered a different genre entirely than the novel, rather than its undersized cousin. That said, my stories tend to be on the long side, usually between seven- and thirty-thousand words. A big part of that length is a result of my process; when I start a piece, I never have any sense of what shape it should take, and in my explorations I allow it to take whatever shape seems most natural to it. In other words, I’m a flounderer; most of the time I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, no idea where my ideas are leading me, but I’m stubborn about following them through, and eventually, if I’m lucky, the effort leads me somewhere interesting. This approach is probably better suited to the story than the novel, which requires more structure than this kind of improvisation allows, and that’s why the form is one I’m happy to return to again and again.
The shape my work takes is also a product of my particular interests and obsessions. For me, the long story and the novella are perfect at capturing the odd, plotless, messiness of life and giving it shape. My favorite stories tend to be those that have the expansiveness of novels—James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Peter Taylor’s “The Old Forest,” Eudora Welty’s “June Recital,” Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”—and my favorite novels are those that have a story’s compression. My devotion to these forms, which aren’t as popular with agents and publishers and hordes of readers as I might like them to be, may not have helped me score big advances, but I’ve come to accept that this is what I do best. And I hope that the hordes of readers will soon follow.
You mentioned your obsessions. Care to say a little more?
I’m particularly interested in the drama of consciousness: when internal conflicts come into contact with the external world. In particular, I find myself exploring the ways in which characters’ fears undermine their desires. My characters tend to inhabit a limbo of one sort or another—emotional, psychological, cultural—and they often have to face a choice between remaining in this limbo, or taking a step in one direction or another. Most of my stories are about secular—or ambivalent—Jews in suburban New Jersey, which is a physical and cultural landscape I know well, but more important, one in which characters often have one foot in the dominant culture and one foot out, attempting to live safe, sheltered lives in the shadow of the looming city.
In this new collection, I’ve been drawn, as the title suggests, to write about aftermaths—the period following a significant loss or rupture rather than the moment of loss or rupture itself. What fascinates me about these periods is how people accommodate themselves to their new circumstances, how they fit loss or change into their understanding of the world and of themselves, and how, often, what starts out as rupture leads to growth.
How did you come to write about the New Jersey suburbs? Could there possibly be a duller setting for fiction?
It started during graduate school. I’d just gotten back from a year overseas, and I was writing stories about people in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I’d bartended for six months. The stories were predictably distant and artificial, and a teacher pushed me to look closer at my own experience. I’d grown up in what seemed to me the most mundane circumstances possible; I set out to show the teacher I had no interesting stories to tell about my childhood world, to write the most boring story possible; and I haven’t stopped writing about New Jersey since. His advice was a version of the “write what you know” cliché, but a more nuanced one; what you know is a set of emotional truths rather than a set of facts or details, and to explore those emotional truths as directly as possible brings a level of honesty to one’s writing. My writing journey since then has been one of getting deeper and deeper into my particular perspective on the world, of understanding and exploring the angle of vision my upbringing and experiences have provided me.
I’ve come to find that the suburbs are a very rich source of material for me, because they serve as a perfect container for drama that arises out of the conflict between fear and desire. Fear is one reason the suburbs exist. People are afraid of the perceived dangers of the city, so they build themselves fortress-like houses just far enough away for them to feel safe; but at the same time the city seduces them with the pleasures and mysteries of unfettered life, and they’re constantly caught in the middle.
Fear is my favorite emotion in fiction because it makes for such a powerful engine of narrative. It’s an emotion that’s all about conflict; it gets in the way of characters (and people) being who they want to be, striving toward what they want to become. It brings out the ugliest side of people, it forces them into confrontations with others and themselves. And because I am so acutely aware of how often fear complicates my own life, it’s something I’m constantly scrutinizing in my characters, whether entirely fictional ones or constructed versions of myself.
My characters are most often afraid of a real engagement with life, of anything that puts them at risk—they’re afraid of love, of connection, of vulnerability, in part because of the threat of loss that these possibilities present and in part because of the threat of responsibility. If they keep their distance, then they won’t have to face all the risks and challenges that are part of a real intimacy with another human being.
So what comes next? Are you working on something with lots of action and sex scenes? Is that new stereo in my future?
I’ve recently finished my first nonfiction project, a literary self-portrait called The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Process, which the wonderful and intrepid Hawthorne Books will publish next year. What started as a series of autobiographical essays (another underappreciated and unprofitable form) grew into a book-length narrative about a young man’s halting, and often humiliating, self-discovery in the aftermath of a relationship falling apart. It’s also a meditation on suffering, hope, and literary influence, a search for identity and fulfillment in a life too often governed by fear. A page-turner, in other words, funny as hell, and guaranteed to fly off the shelves. So yes, look for that stereo in 2012.