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You Step Outside The Loud, Bright Party: An Interview with Delaney Nolan photo

Delaney Nolan is the newest kid on the block. The one everyone whispers about, envies. Finding her story, “My Man,” in Wigleaf was an I-know-the-words-by-heart-before-you-all-recognize-the-name, let me officially plant my flag as reader, fan, one to champion a champion moment. In the past two years she’s published pieces in The Rumpus, Hobart, Oxford American, and equal big league, name-drop places. Delaney’s stories hold no allegiances toward camps. Sometimes the monsters are literal fang-dripping, faces in the dark, and other times they are beasts of the heart and imagination. Her prose is muscular and gritty and drives at a certain desperation in her characters. Sometimes the stories take place in Louisiana. Other times they don’t. Every time they kill. 

You were born in Massachusetts, right? And spent some time in North Carolina for school and then a few years in New Orleans, correct? What was it about your time in New Orleans that made you want to write about it? This was post-Katrina, yes? Your stories have a real sense of despair, a page-turning sense of urgency. There’s this dual broken down feeling that haunts Shotgun Style because of the inner turmoil of the characters coupled with the destruction around them. 

I was born in Boston, though I spent some time living in NY and CA as well when I was little. I moved to NC when I was 15, and then moved to New Orleans when I finished undergrad in 2010. So I did arrive there post-Katrina.

I think the reason I chose to write extensively on New Orleans was twofold. First, the easy reason—it’s just a remarkable city. It’s been through so much, and people there love it so deeply and are so proud to be in NOLA. It’s this incredible contrast of being a place which suffers greatly from violence, poverty, and blight— higher rates than almost anywhere else in the US—yet it’s also so joyous, with a great music culture, secondlines (like parades) every week, and bright, festive architecture.

Most of all, though, that’s the city I lived in while I was making that difficult transition from youth to adulthood. There’s that year or two when you’re on your own for the first time, and all of a sudden you’re terribly free. The world becomes enormous. Every choice and movement and mistake is irretrievably your own—you might have six dollars to your name, but they are your six dollars, or it is your eviction, or it is your arrest. It is thrilling and scary and you are tender all over. I spent that year of the everything-sublime in Orleans, and that's why I chose to write about it.

That dual broken-down feeling you mention is tied, for me, with both of the above—things are terrible because we are alone and the city is falling apart. Things are perfect because there is a parade today and I have this beer money left over after rent. I felt that kind of split; I believe my friends there felt that split, and the city is a physical embodiment of that split. And it is so good, I think, to love that duality—a bright pink, abandoned house alive with vines. That is endlessly fascinating.

To piggyback off of that, when you wrote the New Orleans pieces in Shotgun, did you map out a section of the city that you knew you wanted to cover and then write a story around that section or did you write the pieces and try to organically cover some bases?

I wrote the pieces over a period of about two years and only noticed later, that I could organize them into a kind of coverage of the city. It wasn’t intentional, it was definitely an organic process.

When you write about a place and decide to make your fiction so place-centric (because obviously some of your stories aren't necessarily "reality"-based) can you do so while in that space or do you have to gain some physical and psychic distance from the actual location to then be able to really render it for the readers?

Sometimes I have to walk away. But I think generally, there are two things you can do—to portray a place, you may need that distance, in order to gain perspective, to figure out the geometry.  But I think for place-centric fiction to work really well, for me at least, it needs to be written from within that place.

I noticed this a lot when I was in Iceland. If I try to write something about Iceland now, I'll be painting over it with big shapes, shipping in mountains, laying down great swatches of frozen hay. But writing while I was actually in Iceland, that atmosphere kind of steamed up from within. I didn't intend to write a story that had anything to do with Iceland, but it came through—long dawns and dusty freezers and gray teeth. I think if you step back and try to explain a place, it's not as effective. I still struggle with that. If I'm trying to explain what a place is like, it's not going to turn out well.

You've also taken photographs that have been published and even took the photograph that was the cover to your chapbook, right? Do you ever use these images as impetus for your writing? Do you often start with images or turns of phrase? Plot ideas? What's your starter pistol? And does it generally stay the same or does it differ from project to project?

Yeah, it just sort of worked out that way. I don't take photography very seriously, but I do it for fun, and also as a kind of method of control. When I can't capture the reality of a time or place in writing, photographs become necessary. They do a lot of heavy lifting, and they don't make me feel self-conscious, like, “I did this, so I can't really trust it.” Photographs then become these grounding stakes upon which I can lay the world, knowing, “Yes, this is real.” So that's useful.

Occasionally a story will start with something I heard in real life. I heard about a business of after-the-rapture pet care, and that became a story that ended up in Grist. “We Shall Fill Our House with Spoil” came from real life: an ex-boyfriend really had that job filming things people were trying to sell in Pennysaver ads, and then putting those little clips on Public Access Television. Obviously that business failed. So yeah, some stuff starts with big bubbly structures and I just glue on the details.

Other times it's a first sentence that has a voice and an exciting background already built in. I don't know where the sentences come from.

Most of all, every story has a color scheme. Maybe that sounds weird. I guess it's connected to mood and plot and voice, but every story that I have out there, I can tell you the colors. “The Animals Next Door” is blue and purple. “Nothing Can Cross” is largely black and white. “Seeds Like Teeth” is mostly yellow. I don't mean that those colors are necessarily prominent in the story. But they have colors.

Now that you’re hitting a stride, getting stories out there, publishing larger works, can you pinpoint an ah-ha moment or story that made everything click for you? It may not have been your first published story, but maybe a story that made you feel like, okay, I think I know what I’m doing. For example, David Foster Wallace said that story for him was “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.” Barry Hannah said it was “Mother Rooney Unscrolls the Hurt.” Stories where it felt like they really unlocked something or figured out their own voice. Do you have that story or do you feel like maybe it’s still coming?

I felt a bit of that with “We Shall Fill Our House with Spoil.” The speaker in that story—it’s the point of view I want to always be coming from. You step outside the loud bright party to the backyard where it’s quiet, and the character is there, also looking for some clarity on the porch. That’s the character I want to build. I wanted to be on her side and keep processing everything through her voice.

On top of that—I remember being at a lecture by Meghan Mayhew-Bergman where she talked about handling the weirdly sublime. She explained how the conventionally, cleanly beautiful is not beautiful at all—I think her example was Celine Dion—and the strange, unusual, almost grotesque is what’s really compelling—she read us an excerpt about an old man with a raccoon-penis-bone-necklace. The trick has been getting those strange bits of tinsel on the tree without feeling like they’ve been deliberately placed. “Here’s a strange thing that happened; here’s a strange detail; here’s a strange character trait.” “Fill Our House” was one of the first stories I wrote where I felt like the details came from within the story, rather than me coming up with them and sprinkling them on top.

That said, I definitely don’t feel like it’s all clicked. If anything, I have the constant conviction that I’ve already peaked and everything I do from now on will be shit; I’ve lost the feel of it, that’s the end. Usually when that fear reaches its height is when I end up being able to write something lengthy and new.

You talked in a previous interview about your editing process and how you don’t really like to belabor the sentences in a flash fiction piece because you feel like it’ll disrupt something in the balance of the magic of the moment, but how is your process changing as you’re getting into longer stories and other longer pieces?

Yeah, I’m still a brat about editing. I definitely go back and tighten up, but I still, even now with longer pieces, find that if I haven’t found the flow of the story within my first or second attempt, it’s just not going to happen.

I don’t understand and I’m envious of writers who sit down and write a story and then edit and edit until they’re happy with it. Generally, when I sit down to write something, it’s forced and it comes out brittle and ugly, and no amount of editing can get that necessary ecstasy into it. Then, every once in a while, I’ll find the right space, and it’s important to keep that balance. I have just a few tries to make the story. If it’s not coming along easily, if I’m not excited about it at the end of the day, if I don’t go back and think of certain sentences after I’ve stopped writing and feel a warm glow about them—then it doesn’t have what I need.

When I do get in that correct headspace, I will sit down and write for a few hours in one long big breath. It still needs editing at the end, but I’m never going to be going back thinking, would this character say that? Have I built up the tension enough? I should be intuiting those sorts of things as I go along. If it’s not coming out on the first try, I’m never going to resolve the issue by thinking about it intellectually. It can’t be patched.

Most writers have a few strains of their predecessors’ DNA that are obvious to most readers: Amy Hempel bearing some of Grace Paley’s genetics, Sam Lipsyte owing a bit to Stanley Elkin, etc. What early writing/reading influences made you want to write even though you don’t necessarily write like them? What influences would readers of your work be surprised to hear inspired you to put pen to pad?

Annie Proulx is the first writer I can remember being caught breathless by. I sat in my dorm room in college reading Close Range: Wyoming Stories and felt my whole body buzzing when she would get taken away by the landscape. “Other cultures have camped here a while and disappeared. Only earth and sky matter. Only the endlessly repeated flood of morning light. You begin to see that God does not owe us much beyond that.” I loved the cadence of her sentences, how they would catch up in a rush and move you along and make you powerless; I was also probably influenced by the way she writes to capture place—Wyoming in that collection; Newfoundland in The Shipping News.

Here’s a strange one—the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Oh man. I loved that show. But I really loved the writing on it; I loved the way the characters were formed and changed, the dialogue or silence that was written in. And here was a show where a woman was doing the saving and fighting, where a woman was learning to lead even when it was difficult. It used the magical to address issues that were especially relevant to me, a young girl. That was when I started writing stories in my head all the time.

Joss Whedon seems to make a conscious effort to write well-rounded women, whether it be in Firefly, Buffy, Dollhouse, or even The Avengers, with its male heavy cast. I’ve read in interviews with Claire Vaye Watkins (a talented, young writer who also delves heavily into landscape) that she gets a lot of backhanded compliments about “writing like a man.” I think I’ve read the same things about Lindsay Hunter. Have these sorts of “compliments” floated your way? And what does it mean for contemporary literature that even in 2013, a woman who tends to lean toward describing the flora and fauna of a particular land and writes a bit toward the grotesque gets the merit badge of “writing like a man?”

That’s a good question, and I think that I’ve experienced that more in the sense that when I write stories from a man’s perspective, they are viewed as this neutral sort of piece—male perspective being the default—whereas when I’ve written from the perspective of a female, then it’s a “woman’s story” or some such. I haven’t had those kinds of anti-compliments directed at me, but I think it’s related.

Sarah Menkedick recently wrote an excellent essay in Vela, “It’s Not Personal,” about how women’s writing is usually viewed as more personal and gets all the negative connotations that go with it, whereas a man’s writing, even when he is being personal, doesn’t get that same backlash. For the most part, though, I don’t think I’ve heard too much feedback that feels gendered—which is one of the great things about the internet. The author is more of a blank space, floating out in the void, without a flowery cover or a back cover you scan over first. You get to investigate the author afterwards, but when stories are online, you initially find them floating.


Delaney Nolan is currently working on essays about perceived versus actual danger in the Istanbul protests. And she’s been working on a novel tentatively titled We, the Unhoused, that focuses on a town that has been permanently flooded. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Chattahoochee Review, Guernica, The Huffington Post, Narrative, Oxford American, The Rumpus, The South Carolina Review and elsewhere.

Her prose chapbook, Shotgun Style, is the winner of the 2012 Ropewalk Press Fiction Editor’s Chapbook Prize.


image: Caleb Curtiss