Thisbe Nissen: Interview

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Thisbe Nissen's "Five Shorts" appeared in our first online issue.

TriQuarterly Online: How did you get the idea for this mother-daughter relationship in the short shorts here?

Thisbe Nissen: You know it’s funny, that actual mother-daughter relationship came about in the accretion of those pieces. There are five of them now, and they weren’t necessarily all connected initially. There were some written that were more based on my parents. My dad was really sick for a long time with a Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s kind of dementia, and my mom cared for him. There were pieces I had taken from that, and then there were other things that sprang up along the way. There was the haircut piece, which sprung up from a comment I had heard. And as they started to accrue I realized I had all these mother-daughter things, and I thought, “Huh! Maybe these are all the same mother and daughter!” So I then started to edit them with the idea that these characters were the same mother and daughter.

TQO: That’s interesting that the hair cutting and the Parkinson’s came from your life experiences but the mother and daughter came purely from your writing.

TN: Right. I mean, kind of.

TQO: Do you draw from your relationship with your mom?

TN: Yes. I’ve drawn many times from my mother. She is the greatest character in the world! Or she sparks the greatest ideas for characters. I wrote a whole novel about a mother and daughter. The Good People of New York is a mother-daughter novel, and it has roots in my mom and me and then goes off and takes on a fictional life of its own. It was very gratifying when my mother first realized, “Okay. It’s fiction. It’s not me.” She kind of embraced it in this kind of way where anything that was flattering was based on her and anything else was fiction! It was creativity! She was off the hook on everything. She was great. She was very understanding about being fictionalized, which makes it easier.

TQO: I really liked reading “What Hair Does.” How do you feel about this obsession women have about hair? Because the characters talk about cutting bangs for a good portion of this short.

TN: Well, that was sort of the root of it. Also, mothers have this sort of proprietary attitude about their daughter’s hair. It’s the thing they can change. You can’t change too many things about someone’s appearance except hair. It’s the thing you can fight over.

TQO: While you’re also fighting over the hem of a wedding dress.

TN: Exactly! You can fight over clothes and hair! It’s the mutable things. My mother always tells this story about us having a huge fight when I was three years old. It was a beautiful sunny day, and I wanted to wear my raincoat out, and she had a huge fight with me about how ridiculous it was to wear your raincoat out. At some point she decided, “Why don’t I just let the kid wear her raincoat out? What does it matter?”

TQO: Picking your battles.

TN: Right. Raincoats did not matter in the grand scheme of things.

TQO: This is similar to what was happening in the short. Compromises were made. Why do you think that was important to write about—or did it just work well with the other stories?

TN: That’s part of it. Having lived through my dad’s decline for so many years, I found there were so many fascinating things—that sounds sort of awful because he was dying—but there were such strange things happening in his brain. Some of them were just incredible, and I’ve used a bunch of those little things in different places. The things he would say and the kinds of hallucinations he would have became a part of our daily life. It was mostly my mom’s daily life. I was living in Iowa and they were in New York. My mom would tell me the stories of the things he had said and the ways he perceived things. I ended up trying to get inside his brain and figure out what it is like to feel that way, to think that there are people all around the table with you who aren’t actually there. That fear and certainty that something is here that no one else is acknowledging.

TQO: The narrator doesn’t really talk about her father’s condition. Most of the information about him comes from the mother. Why is that?

TN: I think that’s probably because I didn’t have an active role during my father’s decline. I was hearing these stories from my mom and kind of fictionalizing them but relating them from my mom’s point of view. There are a few other short shorts in my story collection Out of the Girls’ Room and into the Night that are from a lot earlier, when my dad was first getting sick. Somehow that seemed like the way that I was able to write about it. I don’t know if I could sustain a longer narrative about it. Maybe it’s too depressing or painful or something for me to immerse myself in it too much. Somehow I seem to be able to do these short shorts. They were a way that I could capture those little moments and not have to fully put myself into that world for too long. That felt sort of untenable personally. I took a few notes, thinking, “The only way I could write about any of this would be in little bits.” I started thinking of tiny shorts about these little experiences of horror. Even now, I don’t even want to think about it enough to relive any of it, but in tiny little bursts I could handle going back to it—maybe. Maybe I need a little more distance.

I’ve known so many people who have taken care of dying loved ones. We’re human. That’s what happens. People get sick and die, and people who love them take care of them and grieve. There’s so much mixed emotion during the process. It’s not just a sick person who is grateful to be tended to. There’s lots of anger. There’s lots of resentment. There’s someone who is not dead and still trying to live a life and be part of the world while contending with a dying person. That person’s life is important as well and trying to maintain a life while having a foot in the door of death. Writing about it in terms of the husband and wife characters in my short short, I am definitely drawing on my parents but also on other friends’ parents or friends who nursed partners who were dying.

TQO: That is so hard, I cannot even begin to imagine.

TN: Yeah, and maybe part of it is trying to imagine a little bit. I remember when one of my closest friends lost her partner to cancer a few years ago. She took care of her for a very long time. One of the things that drove her bananas was when other people would say, “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through.” It was always my instinct to give her that respect of “What you’re doing is beyond my imagination,” and she would always say, “Don’t say it’s beyond what you can imagine. You know what? Try to imagine it. Try to imagine how hellish it is. I would appreciate if you would try to imagine what I am going through and then try to help accordingly.” There was something very real about that. It’s safer for those of us not in the process of dying or dealing with a dying loved one to say, “I can’t even imagine it,” because I don’t want to imagine it. You don’t. Who wants to imagine it? For her to say, “Try to imagine it. That would be very helpful to me,” is pretty amazing. So maybe that’s part of it for me, trying to imagine it.

TQO: As I was reading the scene where the peso floats up to the narrator, I couldn’t help feeling that the water was magical. Thinking back on it now, I wonder if that was just my unique interpretation.

TN: These are the great things for a writer, when you capture a scene in your mind. That particular moment was taken from—I can’t even remember what the actual thing that was that happened, but somewhere in my past maybe we found something in the water. I’m sure it came from an actual situation of standing in the water and something washing up. That’s why they’re standing in the water! Then you start drawing out other pieces of it and using setting and the elements that are around your characters. It’s fascinating to hear someone saying, “The water is very important.” You think, “How? How is it important? Talk to me.” There’s that marvelous feeling, that feeling that there are so many times when you can be misunderstood or misinterpreted, but there’s the chance that when you put a piece of writing out into the world someone reads it and comes back to you with an interpretation you never really thought of. Or they are appreciating something in it that for you was just part of the scene, not a major focus. There’s something incredibly gratifying when you think, “Oh, you read my words and thought about them? Oh my god! Thank you!”

TQO: What advice do you have for new writers? Do you have any advice on the necessity of promotion or any words of encouragement?

TN: Oh, screw promotion. My advice for young writers is “Write.” That’s always my advice. Just do it. Find ways to do it. Get the time. Make a schedule. Make your life so that you actually have time to write. The other stuff comes later. For the past few years I have been on a discussion panel for a writer conference they do at the New School. I’ve been on the panel for “Grassroots Marketing,” and it has turned into a big discussion of social networking sites and things like that. Part of me feels like “Don’t put the focus there, on promoting your writing; just get your writing done.” The other stuff comes later. You have to deal with it as some point, but sometimes people get too excited about being visible and getting readers. I truly feel that if you concentrate on the writing and the art, then the rest will come. Readers will come. The other stuff will happen. Your job is the writing. Find some time to do it.

It’s so hard—so hard to make your way in the world as a writer. Figure out how to make that your top priority. It’s really hard if you want to be a writer and want to live somewhere like New York City. You can’t really live in NYC without a full-time job. Where does the writing fit into that? It makes a lot of sense that so many people stick around Iowa City instead, where the cost of living is low and the quality of life is high and there are writers all around. You can figure out a way to have a part-time job and have time for your writing. That is making a life out of writing.

That’s what I find most useful when talking to writers or being in a community of writers. Ask them, “How are you doing it? How are you making your life? How do you physically manage your day? How do you make a living and maintain the brain space to be a writer too?” Those questions don’t end. I’m still struggling with them now, and I probably always will be. You’ve just got to keep in practice. That has to be a priority. How do you keep writing amidst obstacles? It’s not easy, but keep doing it.

TQO: Where do you stand on going to grad school to get an MFA versus not getting an MFA?

TN: I had such a great experience. I’ve always been someone who fled back to school. I love school! I’d stay in school for the rest of my life if I could. It’s community. It’s people who like learning! What isn’t great about school? As I see it, doing an MFA is setting aside a couple of years to really focus and be around a group of people who are as focused as you are. That seems like a gift to me and a great opportunity.

It’s certainly not necessary. You don’t have to have an MFA to be a writer. The way the world is structured right now, if you can find a way to fund yourself for a few years and actually have that time to focus, take it! What a gift it is. The community part of it is important, too. Meeting readers, meeting people who can be your peer editors, finding your way in that community, figure out how other people are making a writing life for themselves—that’s all a part of an MFA program. You learn about literary journals and where neat stuff is going on! If you’re only writing and going to your job, where is your connection to all that? You can find it, certainly, but I think it takes a lot more effort. You go into an MFA program and it is there for you. Here, you can work on the literary magazine! Here’s our small press! Here are your professors who are making their lives as writers—how are they doing it? They’re like models. I’ve always looked to other writers for models for how to live the kind of life that I would like to live.