Stuart Nadler’s debut collection, The Book of Life, has been aptly compared to Bernard Malamud’s work. Like Malamud, Nadler crafts stories that are straightforward, classic and unsparing—and these stories explore tradition, faith, work and the strains of love and family. But beyond these evident similarities, Nadler is a writer wholly his own. His characters don’t feel like fictive devices but like real people, facing some of the biggest ethical quandaries of their lives. These stories are smart and big and ambitious – tightly plotted, psychologically rigorous and emotionally generous. Molly Antopol spoke with Nadler over the phone from his native Boston about his writerly anxieties, the benefits of sports talk radio and the novel he’s just completed.
The Rumpus: When I was reading your collection, I kept thinking about the complicated role that the past plays in these stories, both in terms of what’s happened to your characters, and, on a structural level, the way you work with backstory. Was that deliberate, or did it develop naturally?
Stuart Nadler: Some it probably came naturally. But part of it came out of some structural concerns I had when I started on working on the stories. I love the feeling in a story when time changes, and when it picks up again somewhere surprising. One moment you’re in Boston in 2010, and then you’re in New York in 1969. I love that. And I knew that for most of these stories, I didn’t want to write the typical back-to-front story. Generally, they don’t excite me the same way. So that’s why you see time coming into play in such crucial moments in the book. This all worked well with the sorts of stories, and the kind of characters, I was interested in writing. The people in this book are at a moments of crisis in their lives. They’re wondering how to cope in some really desperate moments. I was interested in the idea of what keeps a family together and what breaks it apart. How did these people get here? What choices did they make? What do they regret most in their lives? The structure of going back and forth, jumping around – that all helped tell the story.
Rumpus: Was this a question you were obsessed with even before you started writing?
Nadler: I don’t think so. I wrote most of these stories during my second year at Iowa, and I think I developed these preoccupations during the move I made from New York to the Midwest. I found myself continually writing about these things—alienation, religious identity, infidelity—and then I looked at all the stories together and thought: why am I so interested in these things? This is what happens a lot with story collections, I think. So much of it isn’t planned. Writers get obsessed. I’m a different writer now. When I was writing these stories I felt like I could go into it freer, with a big, blank slate—but with longer fiction, I think you have to be more pragmatic about these things. It’s a bigger investment. You have to pace your preoccupations out book to book, rather than story to story.
Rumpus: Another thing that really struck me was the writing itself—it’s so lyrical but never arty for art’s sake. And even in the most emotionally messy moments, the prose never falters. Does that happen in a first draft, or does the control and ease come with revision?
Nadler: It doesn’t come with revision in the sense that I write something and then go back to it with the goal of cleaning it up and making it perfect. I think I’m more of a macro writer in the sense that I want my first drafts to be relatively clean—I work sentence to sentence. Every sentence has to work before I write the next one. And I don’t let myself go to the next paragraph until the paragraph I’ve just finished is perfect. It’s just how I’ve always done it. As a reader, I tend to dislike more showy prose, so when I write I try to keep that showiness out of the prose.
Rumpus: Were these stories already worked out in your mind, then?
Nadler: Most of them started with the beginning and the destination already worked out in my head. Not all of them—not the first one, and not “Catherine and Henry.” But most of them. I kind of agree with what John Irving says about how if you don’t know the story before you begin—if you’re making it up as you go along—then you’re a common liar. Some of that kind of thinking can get excessive, and can ruin what’s fun about writing. But I think that if you’re interested in telling good stories, not knowing where you’re going can get in the way.
Rumpus: So you’ve never been surprised by where a story ended up?
Nadler: I constantly want to outline because I’m obsessive, but usually the work just suffers if I do. So I just keep a loose outline in my head. In the title story, the fourth and fifth turns surprised me. I thought to myself: what would be a great thing to happen next? And then I’d let that happen. See where it took me. In that sense, there were some great surprises. When I was writing my novel, I made so many outlines. I think I have a dozen of them, and all of them are covered in notes and ideas. But the key work I did came from just having the story in my head, trying to reach the destination I needed to get to. I did a lot of thinking about the story when I was away from my desk. That kind of thing works better for me when I’m writing longer fiction than it does for shorter fiction.
Rumpus: What’s the hardest thing for you as a writer?
Nadler: Well, for this book, it was making these characters likable enough. I worked on these stories with Ethan Canin. He believes really deeply that the most important thing is to have a likable narrator, or a likable main character. This is probably what makes his own characters so sympathetic. That was a challenge for me. To learn how to do it is difficult, but to understand the concept is difficult, too. Humbert Humbert is a repugnant person, but an entertaining, likable narrator. My impulse, when first working on these drafts, was that it was somehow better and braver to put into the work all the stuff of who these characters were, all their faults, their terrible sins. And I didn’t really consider the reader. But that was a mistake. I had to walk a few of these stories back, realize I’d gone too far.
Rumpus: That’s interesting—this notion of considering the reader. Do you mean that you feel it’s your duty as a writer to keep the reader entertained, or to be as honest as possible with the reader about the story you’re telling? In other words, do you think it’s the writer’s job to trim any self-indulgent flab from the writing and think purely about what the reader needs from the story—or do you think that sometimes that excess, and those self-indulgences, might be what makes a reader connect to a certain writer’s work, on a deeper emotional level that goes beyond being entertained?
Nadler: I think I believe in both of these ideas. There’s a fine balance to strike, obviously. This is one of those facets that helps differentiate artful writing from writing whose main aim is commercial. But I see nothing wrong in trying to assume what the reader’s thinking or feeling at any given moment of my stories. In fact, it’s key, and often my goal at those moments is to subvert the reader’s expectation. To make an interesting choice. To go somewhere they’re not expecting. One of the best things I learned from Ethan, and this is something he says over and over, is that the reader is smarter than you think. So in the sense that I consider the reader, that’s what I mean. I consider their intelligence. As for those acts of self-indulgence you’re talking about, I can think of a few instances, and a few books that I love, where it seems like its only instrument is its own self-indulgence. A lot of the good literary fiction in the nineties went like this. And I think you’re seeing a lot more of that come back into fashion. Right now, I’m interested in telling good stories. There’s less room for obfuscation when that’s your goal, less room for indulgence, for staking your flag in the ground on behalf of some literary movement, or some theoretical idea.
Rumpus: “Catherine and Henry” struck me as such an ambitious story—you’re writing from both the male and female points of view, you do that impressive leap in time toward the end, and you’re also able to narrate from two different perspectives without ever feeling like you’re covering the same ground, each section complicating and contradicting what we’ve already learned. What was it like to attempt so many tricky technical things in one story?
Nadler: I worked on this story for probably fifty drafts. There was something there I really liked and kept going back to. The key for me was to never do that Rashomon situation where you’re articulating the same action the reader has already seen. And then I just had to be totally honest about the situation these characters were in. It took a lot of drafts to figure out what the right emotion would be for them. I actually feel like I got Catherine’s emotions down quicker than Henry’s—she was complicit, but she didn’t sleep with anyone else. Her guilt felt easy enough to draft. The challenge for me was to figure out what was truthful about these two characters, and that was hard. I wrote a lot of drafts trying to figure out Henry’s family history, drafts that never made it in. One of the drafts, toward the end, came close to a hundred pages. I had all this business in their about his father’s apple business, about his father’s disappointment with Henry becoming a painter. I just went a little nuts getting all this down. In the end I cut all of it, but it helped me figure out something crucial about his psychology. Some of the things always existed, from the first draft to the end. One of them was that jump in time two-thirds of the way in. The hardest thing to get, I think, was to figure out what, if any, resolution might occur between these two people. That was hard.
Rumpus: A lot of writers talk about getting that one “gift,” where a story arrives in their mind fully-formed, and I know that many of these stories came relatively quickly to you. Did you have to do much revision at all, or was it more like transcribing what was already in your head?
Nadler: The title story came to me really quickly, in four days, and what ended up in the book is about 98% the same. I workshopped a draft, got a lot of feedback, and didn’t take any of it. With that story, I loved the idea of working within the built-in ten-day structure between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And once I had that initial scene where Abe and Jane have sex on the pool table, I found that I could cut from there to a space break… I really liked how that movement felt. It was a kind of breakthrough for me—that I could move a story by literally moving it. At that point I was trying to write stories that didn’t jump around in time—backstory is hard, the hardest thing to figure out how to do as a story writer. Teaching writing at the same time as I was working on these stories helped, because it solidified my idea of backstory—unless there’s something dramatic, something that complicates the present moment, it never works. That story was my gift.
Rumpus: You wrote these stories really quickly. And you wrote your forthcoming novel, Wise Men, even faster than it took your publisher to put out your collection. Do you set up rules for yourself—like a daily word count, or a certain amount of hours you force yourself to stay at your desk?
Nadler: No—no word count, no quota of hours. I’ve tried all of that but it doesn’t work. Whenever I force myself to do anything, I never like what I come up with. I just do it everyday. You know—it’s not construction work. I’m not hauling bricks anywhere, or fixing somebody’s roof. I’m not cleaning out a dog bite, or setting someone’s broken arm. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not really that difficult to sit down every day and tell a little bit more of the story. That’s what I try to do. That’s it. There are really bad days, obviously. And there are days when I feel really guilty about how much work I’m doing. But the one thing I’ve gotten better at the last few years is trusting myself, and having patience. When I was writing Wise Men I just wanted to write a good book. I wanted to write the kind of book that I’d want to read. That was all that mattered. I didn’t let myself get hung up by self-doubt. That’s always the hardest part. That’s what slows people down. The doubting, the second-guessing. Sometimes it’s necessary to doubt your work. But sometimes doubt is just evidence that you don’t trust yourself. Whenever I teach, I try to tell my students this. If you can shut off the doubt an hour a day, and keep writing, it’s amazing what you can come up with.
Rumpus: What do you do when nothing comes to you, when you’re completely stuck? Are there authors whose work you turn to for help—and were there any books or stories in particular that helped you solve problems within your own collection?
Nadler: To be completely honest, I usually I watch sports. Or listen to sports talk-radio. Which I do a lot of. But, yes, there are obviously writers I love. I don’t necessarily go to them for help. But I do go to someone like Tolstoy, who I read a lot of while I was writing Wise Men, just to remind myself why I love to read. I don’t think about writing when I read Anna Karenina. I just think—this is such a great book. It’s too bad it has to end. The writing world, at least the MFA, post-MFA, academic writing world that so many of us come out of these days, can make you forget that there’s a difference between being a reader and being a writer. I started to write because I love to read. I try not to forget that.
Rumpus: Who are the writers you admire in a more helpless and depressing way, like they’re so good that it’s hard to write anything after reading them?
Nadler: Marilynne Robinson. There’s something so spectacularly gorgeous about her work. And then there’s something else, something wonderful she has that comes from such a deep, thoughtful, almost holy place. I feel that about her fiction and her non-fiction, and I felt that just sitting in her class and listening to her talk about Greek drama, or Faulkner. There’s really no one else like her.
Rumpus: It always annoys me when people talk about debut collections as precursors to novels—as if stories are what young writers do to get their sea legs, rather than being wildly different forms that require a totally different set of skills. That said, your stories do feel pretty novelistic, particularly in terms of scope—did you find that certain things you learned when writing these stories could transfer over to your work on the novel? Or did you have to learn everything all over again?
Nadler: The novel presents so many problems that a story doesn’t. And they’re usually bigger, scarier, more difficult problems than you encounter when you’re writing stories. If you’re stuck on a story, you can delete a page and take it somewhere else, and in a few days you can have something new. Obviously, you can dig yourself into some pretty intractable holes in a novel. Holes that take months to dig out of. But there were certainly aspects of technique I used in the stories that worked well in the novel—certain ways of pacing a scene, or ways of going confidently from section to section. But I feel more at home in the longer form. It was the stories that were hard to get right.
Rumpus: Do you want to tell us anything about the novel?
Nadler: A plane crashes in the first sentence. I can’t wait for people to read it.