The Beatrice Interview

Thisbe Nissen

"I'm not a New Yorker...I fled the first chance I got."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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When I got hold of Thisbe Nissen at her home in Iowa City, she'd just come off a book tour/road trip across the Midwest with Matthew Klam riding shotgun. "He's fabulous. We got along really well," she gushes. "I felt incredibly sad parting from him and Emma [Richler, who joined them in some cities]. They both come from families with siblings, and I'm an only child. After three days with them, I felt this must be what it's like to have brothers and sisters. We were punchy, we'd play car games when we got bored, we teased each other." (You can get all the details from her online tour diary.) Although she was definitely feeling the effects of being on the road for two weeks, she graciously agreed to spend a half hour on the phone with me to talk about her first novel, The Good People of New York.

RH: Had you tried writing a novel before The Good People of New York?

TN: I wrote a novel at the same time I was writing the stories in Out of the Girl's Room and into the Night. The novel was my MFA thesis at Iowa; it was called Maud and Drew. The short story "The Mushroom Girl" is a version of the first chapter of that novel. In fact, Maud and Drew was the novel that got me an agent, even though it was later rejected by every publisher in North America. Kindly rejected, but rejected nonetheless. I was writing the stories around the same time, partly just to be able to write something that I could finish sooner rather than later, and sent the stories out on my own to contests. Then they got published, and while that was happening, I worked on The Good People of New York.

RH: And the first chapter of that novel, "The Rather Unlikely Courtship of Edwin Anderson and Roz Rosenzweig," is also a short story from the collection.

TN: There are two stories that became chapters--the first chapter, and then a later chapter called "Think About if You Want." When that was originally published, as "A Brownstone, Park Slope," it was about a woman named Sheila and her daughter Miranda.

I had started with "The Rather Unlikely Courtship..." and wanted to write more Roz and Edwin stories. So I wrote, using a lot of the anecdotes I'd heard from my folks growing up, but I wasn't too sure of where I was going. Then, at some point, I was looking at those chapters, and looking at Sheila and Miranda in their brownstone on Park Slope, and I decided that Sheila was Roz, twenty years later. So then I started bridging those stories, and as I started patchworking things in... I'd already written a version of the chapter called "Used to," where Sheila meets her lover in Bloomingdale's, so that became part of the novel. And then if Roz was with him, I had to get her divorced from Edwin somehow.

RH: Did you write the chapters out of order, then?

TN: Definitely. Part of it was writing on a pleasure principle, asking myself what do I want to write about now? I know, I'll write a chapter of Miranda at summer camp. Once it started taking on the novelistic shape, I knew that there were gaps I'd have to fill in, that I couldn't have Miranda just go from being a baby to being nine. I needed another portal in there to maintain a continuum for the readers. And I knew that Edwin couldn't completely drop off the face of the earth after the divorce, so I had to touch base with him at some point.

RH: Did you knew from the start that it would be an anecdotal novel?

TN: Yeah. I have a very short patience for novels that plod through the story. I actually envisioned writing the book as a series of connected stories, but I didn't want to just have a bunch of stories about the same people. I decided to try to write stories from these people's lives, but to give them a novelistic arc. The original goal was for each chapter to stand on its own as a story, but as I realized I'd have to fill in backstory, that goal became less important, so now not every chapter stands alone as a story. But many of them still do.

RH: One comment people have made about the book is that many of what would be the traditional "big moments" of the arc--Roz and Edwin divorcing, Miranda losing her virginity--happen between the chapters.

TN: I didn't mean to leave out the rites of passage that people have commented on. It really wasn't my conscious intention to do that; I just love that way of telling stories. I went to a reading by Kevin Canty recently, and I can't remember whether he said this during the Q&A then or if I read it in an article, but he talks about how his goal in writing a story is to open a door into a life for a few moments, not to provide the reader with closure or arc. That resonates with me in terms of what I was doing with Roz and Miranda--opening a portal into Miranda's life in eight grade, or into Roz's relationship with her lover.

RH: What was it like to write about the New York you grew up in, of the '70s and '80s?

TN: That was great fun, even though I'm not a New Yorker. I am in the sense that I was born there, but I fled the first chance I got. I couldn't hack it there as a teenager, and I can't hack it there now at all. I was a psycho back then, really unhappy. And now people come up to me and say, "Oh, you've written this love letter to New York," and I feel like, "I did?" And the idea that I did would totally surprise anybody who knew me, too. But I look at it now, and I think maybe I just needed that perspective to be able to look back and write lovingly about New York.

It's such an immense world to immerse yourself in as you're trying to write about it. But it's not my world. My world is in Iowa, and my mental health can afford for me to open up that New York world in my imagination from here.

RH: How did you settle in Iowa?

TN: I came here for grad school. I made it out to the midwest for college, at Oberlin, and between college and grad school, I floundered around for a while, tried living in a couple different places, and I wasn't happy in any of them. I set foot in Iowa City when I was 23, and I realized right away that I could stay here, that this could be a good life for me. When I finished the workshop, there really wasn't any reason to go anywhere else. The cost of living here is cheap, and the quality of living is high. It seemed like it would be too much of a struggle to make it anywhere else--to make enough money to live and find time to write--but that was a lot easier to do here.

RH: And then, ironically, you met and fell in love with somebody in the reading room of the New York Public Library.

TN: Yeah, I have to thank New York for something. (laughs) I was fleeing a relationship in Iowa, and went to New York for a week to be with my dad while my mom was on vacation, and at the end of that week I wasn't ready to go back. I knew I wouldn't get any work done, with that relationship in shambles... I wasn't working in Iowa at the time, so I decided to stay in New York and finish the novel.

So the day I was supposed to fly back, I went to the library with my computer and started writing. I had three chapters left to write at that point. And I looked up and saw this man across the library. We looked at each other and I smiled at him on the way out. The next day, I came back and sat in the same place, and he came in and sat right across from me. We spent about a week together, then he went back to Germany. Two months later, we were supposed to meet up in New York, and at that point, my life was so crazy, that I asked him, "If I bought you a plane ticket to Iowa, would you come here instead?" That was Easter Sunday 2000, and he hasn't left yet.

RH: Did you ever think, when you were sending your short stories out, that you'd attain the success you have in the last year or so?

TN: You can't hope for anything. All you hear about is how incredibly hard and impossible it is, and I had no illusions about what would happen to me. My goal was to somehow get a book published so I could apply for teaching jobs. I'd taught undergrad fiction workshops when I was in the program here at Iowa and loved it and wanted to do that again.

What's happened in my life in the last year...I still don't quite know what end is up. Things haven't stopped moving, and I haven't gotten my feet on the ground yet. I'm feeling tired, trying to keep up. Where's the thing that was my life, I ask myself. I don't recognize any of this. Where's the quiet little life I used to lead? But I also feel incredibly blessed and lucky.

RH: What are you working on now?

TN: I'm working on another novel, one I started even before I began to turn Good People into a novel, called Osprey Island. It's a much more traditionally shaped novel, one that was conceived of as a novel from the beginning. It's a very different project for me--it's dark, not funny at all. And while both Good People and Maud and Drew were written in the third person, looking closely over the shoulders of two main characters, this one has a much more omniscient narrator and a larger cast of characters, and it takes place on one island over a single summer.

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Julianna Baggott | Complete Interview Index | Allan Gurganus

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan