Mothers Who Write: Antonya Nelson

by Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D.

Photo of Antonya Nelson
Author Antonya Nelson
Thinking of her own mother, Birdy asked how Luziana's had died.

"Pneumonia," Luziana said. "Everybody at our house had it, and Mama, you know, nursed us all, making the soup, putting on the mustard plasters, steaming up the bathroom, being the saint. She forgot to look out for herself. We had to wait on the funeral till we all got better and the weather was nice. It was so cold they couldn't dig a hole at the cemetery. I wore her black dress," she added. "Same one I wear now, the one with the big see-through sleeves?" She stretched out her left arm so that her thin hand was near Birdy's nose, and pulled at imaginary cloth with the other slender hand. "My dad wanted to bury her in it, but I said 'Hey, she don't care what she looks like, down there.' Not hell, but you know, underground. I'm sure she went to heaven, if there is one, taking care of all of us with pneumonia and all. I picked out a red dress, polyester, no wrinkles, and I plucked her chin hairs. She would have wanted me to. She was very vain about her facial hair."

"My mother was cremated," Birdy said.

--From Nobody's Girl: A Novel by Antonya Nelson

Author and mother Antonya Nelson is a literary multi-tasker who switches easily between short and long fiction. Her four short story collections are the evocatively titled Female Trouble (2002), Family Terrorists (1994), In the Land of Men (1992), and The Expendables (1990), complimented by three novels: Living to Tell (2000), Nobody's Girl (1998) and Talking in Bed (1996). In addition, her work has been featured in The New Yorker, Esquire, Harpers, Redbook, Story, and other magazines.

The awards she has accumulated over the course of her literary career are multifaceted, as well. Her first book, The Expendables, won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, and Talking in Bed, her first novel, was given the Heartland Award in fiction. Five of her books were New York Times Notable Books in 1992, 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2002. She is also the recipient of the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Award, the PEN Nelson Algren Award, the Rea Award, the O. Henry Prize, and a Pushcart Prize. In addition, she received both a National Endowment for the Arts grant and Guggenheim Fellowship.

The Washington Post says Nelson's portrayal of women makes her "a formidable writer. That is, she's a woman of piercing intelligence, a first-rate stylist, an explorer of language who questions all its customary uses while fashioning evocative descriptions and incisive phrases."

In a statement to the press on the selection of Nelson as their winner, the Jurors for the Rea Award said:

"In even her earliest short stories Antonya Nelson's passionate writing was marked by a clear-eyed, unflinching and ferocious vision; and over the years her work has grown only stronger and deeper as she focuses in on those aspects of our lives that contain both what is most terrifying and what is most thrilling. The tenderest moments in her stories are laced with an awareness of all that is dark, all that is perverse and unpredictable in human impulse and desire; and in her work's darkest moments, there is an underlying awareness of what is most comical, what is laughably predictable and perhaps forgivable. Wise, tough-minded, often gorgeously written, always surprising, her stories startle us into new ways of thinking about her characters' lives and our own."

The child of two English professors, Toni describes herself as having the right temperament for a career in literature. One of the first undergraduate classes she really responded to was a writers' workshop -- a teaching strategy she still participates in because she feels it is a process that works well. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas, then discovered with great excitement that a person could actually go to graduate school for creative writing, which led her to the University of Arizona for an MFA.

She met her husband there: he was finishing his degree as she started. They married, and her husband began teaching at Northwestern where she found herself pregnant. Within a year, her daughter and her first book were both "born." That book, The Expendibles, was a collection of stories she had written, polished, sent to contests, and had an agent try to sell. Having the book published didn't guarantee another, but it did help her get a job. She and her husband shared a faculty position at the University of New Mexico as she wrote her next books. Now, her children are aged 13 (a son), and 17 (a daughter). Her husband, Robert Boswell, is an acclaimed writer in his own right. She splits her time between Telluride, Colorado, and Houston Texas, where she teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, sharing the Cullen Chair of Creative Writing with her husband. She also teaches at Warren Wilson College and is a frequent visiting faculty at writing conferences.

What inspired you to write?

Nobody's Girl: A Novel by Antonya Nelson
I was encouraged to write by my mother and father, but I thought I would be a special education teacher or photojournalist, because I couldn't imagine making a living from fiction writing. Then my mom sent me an entry form to a Mademoiselle magazine contest and I just happened to have a story I had recently taken to a workshop, so I sent it off. It was kind of a fluke, but I won. That didn't really open doors like I thought it would, but I kept entering all of the contests I could, and my short story collection was a finalist in several before it won the Flannery.

How old were your children when you started to write?

My writing has been pretty much continuous. When they were really little and I was right out of grad school, I gravitated to short stories. They allow your attention to be a little more scattered, and you get that great sense of completion when you finish one. When they got older, I worked on novels, but now that they are teens and require more, I'm back to short stories. When they get through adolescence I'll return to novels!

From a practical standpoint, how has being a mother affected your writing?

Most of my first book was written before my daughter was born. I can recall writing while Sesame Street was on, employing some fancy headphones and loud music to drown out Big Bird and the frequent requests from my kids for goldfish or juice. Since then, I've trained myself not to be writing when I'm likely to be called upon for parenting purposes. I work in the middle of the night (sometimes) and in the morning after the children have left for school. I sometimes take notes when in a meeting or driving around, but the actual writing time is that moment when I temporarily put my worries about everyone away and focus on the work. These days we all seem to have found our various rhythms and to a large extent coexist harmoniously. My kids are always priority though: I drop any and everything when they need me.

Does it make your children uncomfortable to have a mother who is a writer?

Both of their parents are writers, so they like the way they've had access to things they wouldn't have had otherwise. One of their dad's books was made into a movie, so they got to meet people and go on the sets. I don't think they mind it at all!

Has there ever been something from your child's life you wanted to write about but didn't for privacy reasons?

I kind of do and kind of don't. This is a topic I spend a lot of time talking to students about: the problems of fiction. Sometimes their writing is too close to autobiography, so I ask them: "Is this a story or meaningful anecdote?" If there are ways to distort and transform and alter situations, you should. It keeps a writer at a distance which makes for objectivity and a better story. You might ask, "Does it have to be a female, this city, etc.?"

I write about both own family and my family of origin, so the characters in my work are similar to characters in my life. I get caught up in issues and then create characters that go sideways from there.

My children are welcome to read my books, but they don't.

How did your own mother influence you as a writer -- if at all?

My mom has been particularly influential because she wanted to write and although she does I was the first daughter and the one to live out her dream. My parents understand publishing more than other writers' families because they are professors. My dad built a special shelf for my books in the dining room because he's interested in them in a way that goes beyond the average person. They think having a story in The New Yorker is best thing that could happen.

Any other thoughts on how being a mother has influenced you as a writer?

Talking in Bed by Antonya Nelson
I'm sure if I hadn't been able to have kids I would have written about that. Unfulfilled desires would have put a slant on my material. I wanted children from the time I was young. I don't think I'm a different person because I had them, but if I didn't there would be longing and sadness. Writers have to have an ability to empathize, and that's one of the ideal traits to use with children, too. Thinking of how others feel is helpful for both moms and writers.

If I wasn't interested in the subject matter of families, I wouldn't be able to write about them. I do occasionally write reviews or nonfiction essays for magazines, but I find them more scene oriented and it makes me a little uneasy to lose my fiction dodge!

What are you working on now?

I have a story collection coming out in next year or so as the second part of a two book deal. It will be called Some Fun and has a novella with seven or eight stories. But writing can be a challenge because you realize there's no guarantee any of the doors will stay open. There's always a blank page to be written on and rejection is always possible.

What are your writing habits?

I write every day. I often feel like I don't have a routine or pattern and that I write very sporadically, but it seems like I gather together material for book every few years. So even though it feels chaotic, every few years a book is ready -- that suggests I really do have a routine.

Do you have any advice for other mothers/writers?

Female Trouble by Antonya Nelson
If you have the impulse to write, trust it implicitly. If you don't succeed, it probably isn't an issue of your material, but the delivery and getting it captured on paper. Trust the impulse, and don't abandon the material. That's where a workshop can help: text is very malleable and elastic, so it's helpful to get input on revisions, and to discuss your work with others. It helps shape your work and can lead you to the proper way to get the story told.

The source of feedback depends on what stage of writer you are. If you're at apprenticeship, there are workshops across the country that can be good. So if you can afford to go to one and decide to do it, find one where there's a writer you like. If you're a beginning writer, you might pick a smaller one that's less stressful and more intimate. If you're more advanced, Breadloaf or Sewannee gets the maximum bang for your buck.

My husband is my writing partner, and I have friends I've met along the way who are good readers. An MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree helps: you learn a lot, but the degree alone doesn't help, unless you want to teach. It just speeds up your writing curve. I learned a lot in graduate school where I was exposed to contemporary writing I might not have read otherwise. Now there are many low residency MFA programs, such as the one at Warren Wilson, where I teach. They're ideal for students who want to commute.

How did you get a literary agent?

I had an agent after graduate school because one of my teachers at the University of Arizona took me under her wing and referred me to hers. He was a big agent, but he wasn't able to sell my thesis, so I withdrew it. Then a fellow writing friend of ours, David Foster Wallace, referred me to his, and I've been with her ever since. It's a good relationship, and she's very consistent. My books have had seven different editors at five different houses, though, so there have been lots of fluctuations there.

**Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D., is a mother, wife, author, and Associate Professor of Medicine at Penn State University in Hershey, PA. She is the author of Surviving Ophelia (Perseus, 2001; Ballentine, 2002), Girl Wars (Fireside, 2003), and The Starving Family (Champion Press, 2005). Her website is located at She can be reached by email at

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