Each month, we will be featuring an interview with a contributor whose work stood out to us in some way. This month, we’re featuring Nels Hanson, whose short story “Yellow Fish, Green Shoe” can be found in our April issue, “Coasts.”
Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and his stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, and Montreal Review, among others.
TGS: Where do you live?
I’ve lived in San Luis Obispo on the California Coast for the last 20 years, after I quit being a farmer. I grew up on a small farm in the San Joaquin Valley south of Fresno, graduated from college in Santa Cruz, and in Missoula, Montana, and lived briefly in Colorado.
When did you start writing?
I started writing at about 14 or 15, pieces for the high school newspaper, and then poetry. Adolescence coincided with a number of deaths in my close-knit family and writing was an outlet, an attempt to deal with pain.
“I spent a long time trying to tame a tendency to write poetry in prose—to learn to develop a style that still had lilt and meaning in the sound and rhythm of the words but was always firstly in the service of the story.”
It wasn’t until my freshman year at UC Santa Cruz that I began to concentrate on fiction. My initial drive was in poetry and I spent a long time trying to tame a tendency to write poetry in prose—to learn to develop a style that still had lilt and meaning in the sound and rhythm of the words but was always firstly in the service of the story.
In your bio, you state that you’ve worked as a farmer and teacher as well as an editor and writer. How have you made writing a part of your life over the years, and have these other parts of your life contributed to your writing? Or do they compete?
For many, many years I was terribly frustrated because there was almost no time to write. I taught English composition briefly and my writing stopped—I don’t see how writers teach and write, especially if they have to talk a lot. At least in farming I was out in nature everyday, my mind was quiet, and I could think about writing as I pruned trees or vines.
Somehow or another I always kept my hand in—I always read, which kept my love of language alive, and probably helped a deeper part of my mind absorb technique, plotting, etc.
“The ego retreats as characters step forward.”
When I’m deeply involved in a story or book, I think about it all the time, and usually encounter some synchronistic events that help me along—I think this happens to many writers. The long hours of silence and solitude probably create a kind of contemplative state where time dissolves and the ego retreats as characters step forward.
Is there anything that you find frustrating about the discipline or work of writing? (And if so, how do you work through it?)
I love to write and don’t get so nervous anymore about being able to, or getting started, and I’ve learned to love re-writing, which is most of writing.
I do sometimes get frustrated when I’m trying dramatize something complex with clarity and patience, to wrestle the competing component elements into a form that is necessarily stretched out in linear space and time. The really good fiction writers, at least the ones I like, seem always to be attempting to transcend time and space.
Your dialogue is so enjoyable to read. How do you approach writing dialogue? Any tricks of the trade that you use to achieve such realistic conversations in your writing?
Thank you for the compliment. In school, teachers remind you that people don’t listen to one another very much, that they’re mainly listening to their own thoughts and that’s what they express (projections?).
“I edit dialogue carefully, a trick I learned from my writer wife, Vicki.”
For years I was scared of dialogue, but I like to write it now. It’s in dialogue, in scenes, where the characters really come alive. I do try to visualize, to see the people who’re talking to or at one another, their gestures and facial expressions, the physical signals people give when they speak.
I edit dialogue carefully, a trick I learned from my writer wife, Vicki. I try to leave little leaps or spaces between each speech, to suggest other things are going on between the spoken sentences.
What is your favourite piece you’ve ever written?
I guess I have two favorite pieces, novels I’ve worked on for years, “Angels, Awake” and “Sleeping Child Lake.”
I worked on both books off and on for 30 years and grew to love them. I don’t know if I ever did get them right, they haven’t found a commercial publisher, but I’m happy with them. What is most deeply myself, what I most feel and believe, is in those books. So I did express myself, I had my say, and somehow that’s good enough.
Are you influenced by anyone’s work in particular?
I went in phases, as most writers do. As a teenager I was struck by Camus, then Faulkner, Hemingway, Kerouac, Marquez, Borges, Melville—and then especially Malcolm Lowry and Fitzgerald, who I think have each written some of the most beautiful sentences of all time.
“Reading is a dialogue and a chance for anyone to chat silently with amazingly sensitive and intelligent people across time.”
I feel that the work of Lowry and Fitzgerald and Kerouac has the most love and sympathy, it’s in their style. They’re religious writers.
I’m a big reader and an even bigger re-reader. Reading is a dialogue and a chance for anyone to chat silently with amazingly sensitive and intelligent people across time.