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Eight am, Las Cruces, New Mexico. Antonya Nelson has dropped her son off at school. Her daughter, 11, doesn't start school until 8:30. Half an hour to kill. Not enough time to do anything substantial, too much time to do nothing, at least with an 11-year-old.
Sometimes they hit the grocery store, but that's a hectic thing to pull off in a window of time this small. And so Nelson and her daughter sit together in the car, the ungainly block of time as tangible between them as the stick shift. Obvious solution: homework.
It's the mother, a professor at New Mexico State, who takes out her homework, the daughter who watches. Strike that: listens. Later that day, Nelson is teaching John Cheever's magnificent "Goodbye My Brother" (the opening story in The Stories of John Cheever). To prepare for class, she reads the story aloud to her daughter.
This is a girl whose mother is a terrific writer and whose father, Robert Boswell, is a terrific writer, too. She does not, however, want to grow up to be a writer. She wants to grow up to be an explorer.
In other cars outside the school, parents check homework, and children fly out of cars and hit the playground; parents and children exchange their day's agendas. In this car, an 11-year-old daughter listens, enthralled. A 37-year-old mother listens, too, awed anew.
Nelson's most recent novel, Nobody's Girl, is a deceptively simple book about a few months in the life of a 30-year-old ex-Chicagoan named Birdy Stone, who has moved to a tiny, poor town in New Mexico, where she teaches high school English and lives in a trailer and has one friend and looks upon her life like a bemused observer, as if it's all a caper, a temporary thing lacking consequences. In other words, the way, in late-'90s America, most 30-year-old Americans see their lives.
Equally au courant is the book's funniest (and ultimately darkest) stripe, a warm satire of America's current orgy of solipsism: the memoir craze. The widowed mother of one of Birdy's students hires Birdy to help edit her memoir -- a cliché-ridden ("clichés spoke the truth; that's why people had been repeating them for all these years"), bromide-spewing, sentimental, New-Agey, malaprop-genius ("reeked haddock" for "wreaked havoc") mess.
Nobody's Girl, like all of Nelson's best work, is supremely well crafted, without a show-offy clause or phrase, the sort of book you could recommend with equal fervor to your most sophisticated-reader friend and your least. Perhaps best known as an award-winning writer of short fiction (including several appearances in Best American Short Stories), Nelson shows in her novels that she is a writer equally at home telling longer stories.
"Story writing fed my temperament," she says. When she started writing, "I needed immediate gratification. I could tell more quickly whether what I'd written was a success or not. Stories also sort of suited my life. It's hard to focus on any one thing when you have two little kids running around."
"I came to the novel quite honestly," she says. She didn't set out to write one, but rather let the form fit the story she needed to tell. Her first longer work was the title novella in Family Terrorists, then the love-triangle story that became Talking in Bed. "Finally," she says of that novel, "I had a story that wouldn't fit the format. Something that couldn't even be a long short story."
Nobody's Girl is quietly innovative, a novel told in third person from a single character's point of view. "You'd think that'd be the most common way to tell a story," she says. "But when you look around, it's about the least." She laughs. "It's something writers would think about, but most people don't think about craft or don't care."
Even prospective writers. She tells me a story of a student of hers, who came to Nelson's office to talk about the story he wanted to write. It was going to cover the last 50 years of the main character's life. It was going to be told from several points of view. It was going to be a long story.
"How long?" Nelson asked him.
"Really long," he said. "Eight, maybe even ten pages."
Nelson is a resolutely kind person. She picked up the anthology she'd assigned for that class. How many stories in there covered a whole character's life?
"None, that's right. And how many were from multiple points of view?"
"Like, maybe two or three?"
"And how many were under 20 pages?"
The kid's eyes got wide. Eureka. He grinned. Then the grin fell. He realized how exponentially harder writing was than he'd thought when he entered this room.
"I love teaching," Nelson says.
From beginning to end in Cheever's long, august career, he was with a total of two publishers (Harper Brothers, then Knopf). John Updike has had only one. Line up the last couple of decades of Joyce Carol Oates's books on the couple of shelves it'd take to do that, and what do you notice first? All those cute script D's (Dutton's logo) on the spines.
"Those days are done," Nelson says. "Publishers merge and get bought out; editors don't stay at houses very long," she says. "Why would writers think they'd stay in one place?"
Five books into what looks like the front edge of a long and august career, Nelson has had five different editors. Four different hardback publishers. A stint where a couple of the books were out of print. Now, happily, Nelson's entire body of work has just been reprinted by Scribner in handsome, uniform editions.
Nelson is thrilled by this, but pressed for details about how this shot of redemption came about, she is characteristically self-deprecating. She doesn't remember. She's not sure whose idea it was. She's "way down here in New Mexico," she stresses, away from the depressing inside-dope vagaries of the publishing world, concerned much more with the quality of her writing than the marketing of it.
Another 8am. Another dead half-hour in the school parking lot, brought to life by a mother and a daughter and a book. This time, though, at her daughter's request, it's one of Nelson's own stories she's reading: "The Control Group," from In the Land of Men, a wow of a story about a boy with a crush on his teacher, the kind of too-ordinary story too many apprentice writers write, except that in Nelson's hands there is (as so often) a traumatic back story: The boy's mother killed her father (the boy's grandfather) with a claw hammer, a locally notorious case, and now the boy is in a foster home and really hasn't a clue about what love is. All of which happens before the story starts. In the story, he takes the teacher to lunch.
Nelson's daughter listens, and Nelson keeps thinking she'll be bored or be faking interest just to be nice to mom. With 11-year-olds, you never know. When Nelson finishes, her daughter nods and says, "Wow" -- my sentiments exactly.
Nelson shrugs and says thanks and hugs her daughter and says have a good day in school.