Inaugurating my new interview series, “5 1/2 Questions,” is novelist and short story writer Bonnie Nadzam. This year marks 10 years that I’ve known Bonnie and this is what I know to be true about her: She is as sharp as a knife-point and does well on standardized testing. Her long-time companion is a German Shepard named Clyde. She cares deeply for the environment. She’s a quick thinker. She has visited every U.S. state minus Alaska and maybe Hawaii. She likes to cook from scratch and once baked me a sugarless apple pie for my graduation. Born in Cleveland, raised in Chicago, edumacated at Carleton College in Minnesota (B.A.) and the University of Southern Califas (M.A., PhD), Bonnie received her doctorate this year. Short stories of hers have been published in The Kenyon Review, Callaloo, Alaska Quarterly Review, and, just this August, in Harper’s. Her debut novel, Lamb (The Other Press, 2011), already hoarding all the rave reviews and Amazon Five-Stars, is released today and is already short-listed for the Center for Short Fiction first novel award. My review of Lamb can be read in an earlier posting.
This interview occurred over email on September 7, 2011. Now on with it!
John: Your first book, Lamb, has a very disturbing subject matter. And yet, the language in it is poetic, which makes the novel a very beautiful one to read. As a poet, I appreciate a novelist who pays attention to language. Were there any specific writers, poets, teachers, or books that influenced your attention to language?
Bonnie: Whatever I was reading during the time I wrote it, I circled and underlined words. After reading a few books, I’d go through them a page at a time and make lists of the words I’d circled in a little notebook. I was not ever looking for anything in particular. I was in graduate school at the time, so it was a lot of books, a little of everything—criticism, philosophy, poetry, novels. Not always engaging philosophy, not always beautiful poetry, not always good novels.
John: Even though what comes out of David Lamb’s mouth has malevolent intentions, his dialogue is seductive and disarming, which is what makes it scary. If Lamb spoke colloquially, a lot of what makes the book great would be lost, which tells me a great deal of attention was put into his dialogue. How hard or easy was it for you to create Lamb’s dialogue, and was there a particular resource that helped you create it?
Bonnie: If Lamb’s language is seductive, that is at least partly the listener’s/reader’s responsibility—this has been my experience both as someone who has been misleading in speech and who has been ripe to be misled by it. Both sides of the dialogue exchanges are in me. If Lamb were to speak like a true literary westerner and cowboy, which is to say, not very much, he would never be able to spin the tales of the west that he does—nor, I think, would he particularly want to.
John: I recently read two blog posts by an unpublished novelist and a well-published one. The unpublished writer was disappointed that her first novel would never find an agent, much less a publisher, after so many years of hard work put into it. It was really hard for her to admit this and let it go. The published novelist, despite having three novels, admitted to having a failed unpublished also, but was detached from it. It’s my understanding that Lamb wasn’t the first novel you finished and that you prefer this “true” first novel to never see the light of day. Why do you think it was easier for you to let go of that first novel? Was the experience of writing the second novel easier than the first?
Bonnie: It’s true, that first novel manuscript had too much of my teachers’ voices in it. I wince whenever I look at it. It’s embarrassing.
I didn’t know—couldn’t know—that Lamb would ever be published. I wrote it not first because I thought I wanted to be a writer, whatever that means, but because there was something really knotted up in me that I had to use the rope of language to pull out. Had to. I don’t think that’s unique to me—there’s something in everyone, isn’t there?, that wants to be pulled out of the shadow. I think it’d be a scary person who said it wasn’t so.
(My note: For a little more from Bonnie about throwing away drafts, click here.)
John: Lamb was written as part of your creative dissertation at the University of Southern California. Very few writers go on to PhD programs in creative writing. What is one advantage to having written this novel in a PhD program? What was one advantage to writing it in a PhD program?
Bonnie: The only person on my committee to read Lamb before my defense (at which point it was already published and in ARC form) was my phenomenal chair and Eighteenth-Century advisor, Emily Hodgson Anderson. The great advantage of the program was in knowing that once I finished writing the novel manuscript, there’d be artists like Aimee Bender and TC Boyle and Percival Everett to bear witness, at least once. I cannot think of a single disadvantage to having been in LA at USC while I was. The rigorous critical reading and expectations, the world-class teachers, the brave friends and fellow writers, the oddness and inclusiveness and breadth of the city…I am so grateful.
John: I’ve been following your short story publications for many years now. To me, I’d say you have enough to make a collection, but you never talk about publishing one. Do you have plans to publish your stories as a collection? How do you see the market for story collections in the time of economic and print publication uncertainty?
Bonnie: I don’t think I have enough strong stories for a collection—but maybe soon. I also don’t know very much about the publishing industry, yet—what it is, to say nothing of how it’s changing. But I can say that I’ve been amazed and impressed, this summer, by how many people there are out there writing, reading, blogging, posting, reviewing, critiquing, twittering about stories and novels.
Ultimately, I think people who love reading and writing stories will always share them. Perhaps we’ll end up doing so back in the cave, making shadows on the wall by torchlight, telling and re-telling important and life-changing stories that—like our own published books and e-books—ultimately leave no record.
John: Fill in the blank: “___________” would be an excellent choice in playing David Lamb in the film adaptation”
Bonnie: Harold Bloom. Or else, a dashing 40- or 50-something actor who’s tired of being pretty and wants to prove his chops.
For list of Bonnie’s publications and her upcoming appearances, please visit www.bonnienadzam.com
You can also follow Bonnie on Twitter: @bonnienadzam
Check out these great books published by The Other Press!
And you can follow my goings-on @johnespinoza