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
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
RH: Did you knew from the start that it would be an
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
RH: And then, ironically, you met and fell in love with
somebody in the reading room of the New York Public
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.
Buy it from