An Interview with Author Scott Nadelson
Oregon Book Award winner Scott Nadelson has written three story collections, centered mostly on the experience of families in suburban New Jersey. His new collection, The Next Scott Nadelson, (Hawthorne Books) is an autobiographical essay collection that falls loosely into the genre of memoir. It tells the story of Nadelson's crumbling relationship and the fallout that followed, carefully retracing the steps back into his life to find the most formative moments. Nadelson uncovers the facets of identity that most writers, and most people, gloss over, plucking the puzzle pieces of music, literature, and heartbreak to destroy any sense of security in the self. The result is an exploration of the comedy of failure and the sometimes brutal beauty of loneliness.
I had some questions for Scott about the memoir and what it takes to shift genres, especially when such a shift has the potential to expose all the tender bits hiding behind the fiction. And he had some great answers for me:
Ann Marie Schott: First of all, has this memoir been a major shift from your fiction work? Or has this been brewing for a while?
Scott Nadelson: In a lot of ways, this book came out of the same well as the rest of my work. Many of my stories begin with some nugget of autobiography from which I improvise to create a narrative. In this case, I set out to do the same thing, to tell a story that felt real to me, using a combination of memory and invention. But early in the process I decided that rather than give the character a different name, I'd simply call him Scott Nadelson -- it made me more vulnerable as I was writing, which excited me. And then rather than invent new situations for this character, I found myself sticking closely to my own experiences, trying to go as deeply into them as I could. And what I found while doing so was a sort of giddy nervousness that emerged from the process, as if I were shouting secrets from a rooftop. I ended up laughing a lot as I wrote, which was a new experience for me. And autobiography opened up different possibilities with form, too, allowing me to move away from the dramatic and structural demands of straight narrative; I could digress more easily, slip into reflection, meditation, even literary analysis. It felt very freeing, though by the time I finished I was ready to imagine other characters again and adopt other voices.
AMS: The Next Scott Nadelson is somewhere between a memoir and a collection of personal essays, but there is certainly a larger narrative that is unfolding in the book. Can you talk about how these stories came together?
SN: Short form is where I feel most comfortable as a writer, not only practically but in terms of sensibility; the story and essay reflect my experience of the world more accurately than an extended narrative arc. My life hasn't been dramatic in novelistic ways. Rather, I see it as a collection of moments which, together, form a pattern of change and growth. The drama tends to be quiet and internal, and in my writing I want to capture the weird moments when that internal drama surfaces. So I did what I usually do, which is to write a bunch of smaller narratives, this time all in the same voice, and when I had enough of them I started thinking about how they speak to each other and how they might fit together. And when I put the pieces together an arc did emerge. On its own each separate piece or chapter is an investigation of identity, how it can be constructed in romantic relationships, in friendships, in being writer or reader, and together they form a journey: the larger story is about how I moved through a particularly difficult period with a new, complex sense of who I am and how I got to be that person.
AMS: You do so much personal "work" through the lens of things you're reading or music you're listening to. Can you talk a little bit about crafting a memoir in the context of literature or music?
SN: One of the joys of writing autobiography for me was to be able to write directly about literature and music and art, to think about how the things I read and listen to and look at are a part of who I am. I spend so much of my time experiencing the world through the lens of various art forms, it's impossible to separate those things from my sense of myself. And as a writer, my life story is inevitably shaped by the writers and artists who have influenced me. And it was just plain fun to riff on Philip Roth vs. Joseph Roth, to meditate on the legacy of Townes Van Zandt, to analyze David Malouf's minor characters in relation to my own experience. Doing so broadened my sense of what was possible in a narrative and gave me a way of looking outward as well as looking inward.
I also found myself reading some great examples of criticism-as-autobiography while writing this book. My favorite is Geoff Dyer's brilliant and hilarious Out of Sheer Rage, about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence. I also love Jonathan Lethem's The Disappointment Artist and Nicholson Baker's U and I.
AMS: Several stories in the book deal with the import and tenacity of identity. You say on page 187 that upon going to college, you realized that "an identity was something [you] could create for [yourself]." Is The Next Scott Nadelson an embrace of that idea? Or a denial?
SN: Maybe a little of both. If anything, I think the book is about the slipperiness of identity, its elusiveness: there are ways in which you can actively shape or construct it and there are ways in which you are stuck with what you've got. The book itself is an attempt to construct an identity for myself, to create an image that others can recognize as me, but of course that, too, is just a construction. Finally, it's just language, not a human being. Is the person in those pages really Scott Nadelson? Is the one writing this? I continue to be a mystery to myself.
AMS: I love the descriptions of masculinity and what you call "dickness." It seemed that most of the "dickness" you experienced was a reaction to feelings of hurt and vulnerability. Do you think that is true?
SN: Part of that exploration of identity certainly had to do with gender and masculinity. I'm straight, but I don't comfortably identify with most of straight male America. I come from a family in which the men tend to be cautious and passive, but I also grew up in New Jersey, epicenter of male aggression, of which I was both victim and sometimes admirer. Our culture rewards men for being assholes, but the women I've loved have all been strong feminists, some of whom see straight through male bravado, some of whom are secretly attracted to it. At times I've found myself ashamed of my masculinity, trying to hide any signs of aggression or assertive desire, and that's destructive. And then, of course, I found myself in this absurd situation, in which my fiancée is leaving me for a woman who dresses up as an aggressive man, and it threw me into all sorts of confusion about maleness. It also provided the ideal situation for a writer to explore these questions. Hell at the time but a gift in retrospect.
AMS: Your character has such a complicated relationship with the drag king Donny Manicotti. And yet, this story is so relevant to larger conversations about gender and sexuality in relationships.
SN: Donny Manicotti became a perfect mirror for me to explore my experience of gender and also my role in romantic relationships. When am I performing? When am I myself? How can I tell the difference? And I do hope it's relevant to people in all sorts of relationships. We're so often wearing masks in our dealings with other people, and our desires are often conflicted; there are times when we want the people we love to be something other than they are, when it's easier for us if they play a role rather than be themselves. And when it comes to sexual identity, things can be incredibly complex; you can be a feminist and bisexual but have a need for some very conventional gender roles -- and then a woman who performs as an aggressive man is more appealing than a man who's less conventionally masculine.
AMS: In "Leaving Portland," one of the most relatable, moving chapters, you say, "Ambivalence is sturdier than love... inertia more reliable than epiphany." Portland becomes a metaphor for the apathetic state of a lot of 20- and 30-somethings I know. But, you did leave Portland. And you did move on. Can you explain how you broke the inertia finally? What has that meant for your work, especially this memoir?
SN: I don't know that I ever really broke through the inertia -- certainly not in any dramatic way. Rather, I suspect I was never actually as stuck as I thought I was. I was always moving forward, slowly and steadily, and soon I found myself on a path that was a bit more stable and healthy -- pursuing relationships and career and family and writing all the while. When I finally did move away from Portland it was with plenty of regret; I love the place and miss it, and if the commute weren't such a soul-killer, I'd still be there.
That said, I couldn't have written this book if I weren't in such a solid place in my life. I needed the emotional distance in order to see the humor in it -- and I really do think of it as a comedy -- and to be able to give that difficult time the perspective it needed: not to see it as some great tragedy but rather a temporary dream-state in which everything in my life was slightly askew, allowing me to see it more clearly.
AMS: At several moments in the book, you come to epiphanies about your life and lies you've told yourself or events you've romanticized. These moments are the most revelatory for the reader, as well. The beauty of memoir is grappling with the "truth" of things. Can you talk a bit about how that happens for you?
SN: For me, writing is always a process of discovery, an effort to push toward truth and complex understanding. I have a very sensitive bullshit meter, and whenever a line or scene I write feels dishonest, I keep probing it to try to find what I'm missing. In this case, I kept asking myself whenever I came to conclusions about any moment or episode from my past, What were you afraid of? This seemed to be the key to the whole book: finding the source of my fear, and how it influenced my actions. And I was constantly astonished to find how deep that fear could run, and how easy it was to deceive myself into believing I'd overcome it. And maybe that's what writing memoir is: peeling away layers of self-deception until you're down to bone and blood and nerves and you can no longer hide even the things you still might want to keep hidden.
Nadelson is the Hallie Ford Chair of Writing at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.
-Ann Marie Schott Hawthorne Books