Interviewed by Hannah Mae Atherton and Charissa Alma Barnett
In A Warm Breath, why did you use flashbacks as a method of portraying how you processed your grief?
Early in the writing process, I found myself making wild associative leaps, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph, and I just tried to let myself follow them wherever they wanted to take me. The first time it happened, I went on a long riff about an argument with a cab driver that seemed to have nothing to do with the main thrust of the essay, and I thought it was just avoidance behavior—I didn’t want to face my friend’s death and instead was looking for any opportunity to relieve myself of the burden that was too much for me to bear. But after a while I began to realize that these associations were exactly what the piece was about: grief had overtaken my entire consciousness—all my memories and thoughts—and focused them so that everything I’d ever done or seen or thought seemed connected. All the associations, no matter how seemingly random, pointed toward the hole I felt as a result of my friend’s absence, the way his death had shattered my sense of normalcy.
I also think the repeated slip into memory captures one of the most challenging aspects of grief, which is the way it disrupts any attempt to stay focused on the present. Even with an infant daughter demanding my attention, I couldn’t get through an hour without drifting into memory and pain, and the conflict between the two demands became central to the essay.
What is your favorite moment or scene within A Warm Breath?
It’s probably the one that surprised me most: there’s a scene that takes place in Budapest, when the narrator, and a young German woman he’s trying to get into bed, watch Balkan refugees fighting outside a youth hostel. The scene turns from drunken flirtation to violence in an instant, rupturing the narrator’s sense of expectation. I didn’t see that coming when I wrote the first draft and didn’t really know what it was doing there, but now I can understand that it had the effect of turning the tone of the essay toward something darker and more mysterious after some of the comic episodes at the start—and it also spoke to the suddenness of grief, the way it so quickly changes your perspective and colors your perceptions.
Did you intentionally emphasize the importance of the process of grief? Was it a natural extension of yourself, as you believe in process over product?
I don’t know how intentional it was, but I think you’re right, that process tends to be my natural way of thinking about most things—I’m much more interested in the journey than the destination. And in this case, I didn’t really set out to say anything in particular about how I managed my grief; instead I was just trying to describe the oddness of being caught between competing emotions, of feeling like I was being torn apart by grieving and new parenthood. There really was no outcome, except the continuation of life and with it, a gradual healing. So in a way, the only thing to write about was process—the story of how I went from someone who felt grief was robbing him of his sanity to someone who accepted that he was going to stay sane but grief-stricken all the same.
Did you discover anything new about yourself as you were writing it?
I think both the experience and the writing taught me something about control and its limitations. As much as I wanted to control my grief and its hold over me, I couldn’t—it found its way into every waking moment no matter how I tried to contain it. And in the writing, every time I tried to impose order or structure, the essay veered into some new territory that scared me or confused me or made me question what I thought I knew, so finally I just loosened the reins and let it carry me into the unknown. In both cases, accepting that I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was heading, that the emotions involved were beyond the grasp of my conscious mind, brought me to a complexity I could never have reached by aiming for it directly.
As you have published your work and developed your writing, have your pieces been received by the general public as you expected?
Luckily for me, I’ve never had much in the way of expectation when it comes to the work’s reception. Of course I want lots of adulation, but mostly I’m happy just to know the work is out there and that a handful of people might find their way to it. I’ve been fortunate enough to get some very thoughtful feedback from readers and reviewers over the years, so that it doesn’t feel like I’m simply writing in a void. But I think the best thing writers to can do is to expect that their work will be met with silence—which is the most common response—and then be pleased when there’s any other kind of reception.
As an artist, what would you say is the main purpose of your writing?
I guess I’m always trying to search for the mystery in the ordinary. In our culture, we tend to celebrate the extraordinary, the unusual, the outrageous at the expense of everyday life, and in both my fiction and nonfiction, I’m hoping to explore what makes everyday life so extraordinary, unusual, and outrageous.
Does anyone close to you play an active role in your writing process?
Only psychologically. My process is very solitary, but other people are very much in my mind while I’m doing it. Especially because writing takes me away from spending time with my family, I’m very conscious of how precious that time ought to be, how important that I not fritter it away. That’s not to say every writing session has to be fruitful, but if I’m not going to be hanging out with my wife and daughter, I’d better be present to the writing, invested in what I’m doing. If my head is only half in it, then I’d probably be better off doing dishes or paying bills or something else practical to keep the household in order.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a collection of stories thematically linked by a tendency toward self-imposed exile, characters who for various reasons have chosen to distance themselves from their origins. Some of the stories are very autobiographical and can be called essays—“A Warm Breath” is one of them—and others are very far from my life and context.
What genre(s) or author(s) have most influenced you?
There are too many writers to name, but the short story is my deepest literary love, and the great practitioners of the form are the writers I return to more than any others. I love Isaac Babel and Leonard Michaels and Grace Paley for their language, their humor, their intimacy; I love Anton Chekhov and Eudora Welty for their deep attention and their subtle strangeness; I love Peter Taylor and William Maxwell for their patient meditation and vulnerability.
As a writer, what are your weaknesses? How do they present themselves, and how do you overcome them?
The hardest thing for me in writing stories, whether autobiographical or invented, is creating genuine drama. Most plotting feels forced to me, not true to my experience of the world. In both stories and essays I struggle to find a narrative arc that doesn’t seem contrived. To overcome this limitation, I’ve spent the past decade studying how other writers create quiet drama—using minor characters, for example, or the contrast between interior and exterior conflict. The structure of “A Warm Breath” most likely evolved out of this weakness—because I wouldn’t have believed in a linear narrative arc for a story about the movement of grief, I followed a pattern that created drama through its abrupt shifts in time and tone.
What do you think separates your work from others?
Cats. I have way too many cats in my stories.
Do you have any advice for writers aspiring to be published?
Support the literary community in whatever way you can: buy books, subscribe to journals, attend readings, and write reviews. In other words, help this fragile industry thrive so that it will be there to support your work when it’s ready to find an audience. That, and write your heart out.
Finish this statement: I think writing should ____________
I think writing should sustain and enliven the person who writes. Above all, it should be something that brings the writer joy in equal measure to anguish. It should make life feel more precious and make writers and readers alike feel more connected to the world around them.
Scott Nadelson is the author of three story collections, most recently Aftermath (2011), and a memoir, The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress (2013). Winner of an Oregon Book Award, the Great Lakes Colleges New Writers Award, and the Reform Judaism Fiction Prize, he teaches at Willamette University and in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.
excerpt from A Warm Breath (a Ploughshares Solo)
In the months after my friend R.’s death, I suffered bouts of shame deeper than any I’d experienced before. These were often followed by unreasonable fits of anger, which had me shaking my fist at drivers when I was walking and shouting at pedestrians when I was driving. At least I considered them unreasonable at the time, which is why I didn’t tell anyone about them. Now I might accept all this as ordinary, a natural part of the grieving process, as inevitable as my eventual recovery. While I was in the middle of it, though, I didn’t know recovery was possible; I believed, with near certainty, that I was slowly and quietly losing my mind. I went through the motions of job and domestic life, teaching my classes, meeting with students and colleagues, preparing dinner with my wife, changing and bathing and playing with our infant daughter, but secretly I was saying goodbye to all of them, imagining I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, be among them much longer. It both amazed and infuriated me that no one seemed to recognize how close I was to taking leave of my senses, how deeply I’d retreated into my sorrow, though keeping everyone from recognizing these things was exactly what I’d intended.