Antonya Nelson has kept a home in New Mexico for 25 years, while raising her family and writing many of her 11 books. Nelson arrived to teach at New Mexico State University right after publishing her first short story collection, staying there for nearly two decades. No matter where life takes her, she returns to Las Cruces each autumn. Nationally recognized as a writer and teacher, Nelson has won numerous awards. The New Yorker, where many of the stories in her books debut, named her one of the “20 best writers of the 21st Century.” The release of her new collection of stories, Funny Once (Bloomsbury USA), reaffirms her place among the nation’s very best short story writers.
Nelson has an uncanny access to the human heart, and to messy families. Readers can recognize themselves in her characters, whose flaws often bring them to an insight or a deeper reckoning. Funny Once features an all-night monopoly game with a child, a tree-house tryst with a childhood sweetheart, and a pathological liar bested by her seemingly innocent husband. In the end, everyone in a Nelson story survives, but it’s a tricky passage, negotiating that journey between love and duty. Besides providing an edgy wisdom, her short stories reflect a wicked sense of humor. Her fiction is popu- lated with characters at crossroads, on the verge of—or recovering from—bad decisions.
A common trend is for short story writers to “graduate” to novels, but you keep coming back to the short story. Why? Several answers occur to me simulta- neously. One is that I truly love the art form of the short story. The short story celebrates the quiet moment of epiphany in a character, a “coming of age” that can be as small and intimate as possible. For me, this represents the subtle yet necessary ways a person makes her way through this life, one significant gesture or insight at a time.
Another is that I have a teeny-tiny attention span, so the form itself allows me to dive in and jump right back out. To make dinner, say, or take the dog for a
walk, or rehang that crooked picture on the wall that is driving me nuts.
Finally, I think the short story form allows the perfectionist in me to thrive. I love to work with single sentences, com- press digressive scenes, cut to the chase, to
the core, to the essential. Short stories oper- ate a little like poetry, with more significant attention to lyric movement (with the added benefit of narrative momentum thrown in).
When you were starting out, which books and writers made strong impres- sions on you or influenced your work? I loved (and still do) the southern women: Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers. I also was fond of writers like Ed McBain and Elmore Leonard, those guys who could make me laugh, who could make me want to know who killed that dead person, and why. I’ve always loved mysteries, especially police procedurals. Maybe because it’s so far from what I can write.
Evelyn Waugh was a favorite writer of mine, and I still look to dry British wit and whimsy as models. Mavis Gallant made a
huge impression on me—the degree to which her stories are elliptical and surprising, the way she captures character and dilemma so efficiently and mysteriously. Some of the writers working today I most admire are Alice Munro, Edward St. Aubyn, and Debo- rah Eisenberg, and my friends whose work ethic and generosity of spirit have always sustained my own work: Kathleen Lee, Dana Kroos, Connie Voisine, and Robert Boswell.
Although you teach now at the Univer- sity of Houston each spring, you keep coming back to Las Cruces in the fall, and often teach at the Taos Summer Writers Conference. What keeps pull- ing you back to New Mexico? The only home I own is in Las Cruces, a house one hundred and five years old, made of adobe, owned by only three families over all that
time. In it is our collected artwork (some of it by our daughter Jade, some by our dear friend Dana, and the rest emblematic of our long making of a home), and nearby are our close friends and favorite restaurants. The resident New Mexican is forever ruined for Mexican food anywhere outside the state; never let anybody in Texas or Massachusetts take you out for burritos. The landscape alone is enough to draw anyone back forever. At this very moment [May 1], I am preparing for another road-trip return to New Mexico, and whether I’m driving south from Colorado, west from Texas, or southwest from Kansas, there’s no landscape I better love than that of those highways and byways.
Rus Bradburd’s most recent book is Make It, Take It, a novel-in-stories.