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 Nona Caspers



Nona Caspers’ book of stories, Heavier Than Air, won the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction and was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Caspers's stories have been widely published in literary journals and anthologies; she has received a 2008 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, an Iowa Review Fiction Award, a Cooper Prize from the Ontario Review, a Joseph Henry Jackson Award, and a Barbara Deming Award. She is the author of The Blessed (Silverleaf Press) and another book of prose is forthcoming in 2008, A Little Book of Days, from Spuyten Duyvil Press, NY. She is an Associate Professor at San Francisco State University.

Short story collections

Heavier than Air (University of Massachusetts Press, 2007) 

Winner of the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction

Reviewed by Elaine Chiew



Interview with Nona Caspers

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Nona Caspers:Oh, stories can percolate in my imagination for a long time, I don’t even know when some of them started — and then they percolate some more draft by draft. TIME does some of the re-writing for me — time allows retrospect and insight, my subconscious tooling around behind my back. Some of the stories began with snippets, images, a paragraph — Country Girls, for example. I wrote the first paragraph, and then didn’t know what happened and was afraid to inhabit the world for a long time, several years. I worked on other stories and projects and then one day pulled that paragraph out and followed Nora’s voice and discovered more about Nora’s country world and her obsession with Cynthia … then in my notebook a few months later I wrote the chicken scene—I didn’t know it belonged to Nora while writing it but one day that became clear. You see the crooked path—I’m not much of a linear thinker—I experience time more physically in layers. The stories, most of them, came out in layers. Mr. Hellerman and The Fifth Season may be exceptions--I wrote them from beginning to end during a summer break from teaching a year before the book won the Grace Paley Prize.


TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

NC: I had nothing in mind at first, except to write the story at hand. Then the collection built itself over time, as I discovered other stories that fit into that geography and tone — each project seems to have a distinct color. When I wrote something that seemed inside that color I added it to the manuscript. I wrote lots of other stories that didn’t fit the color of what turned out to be the book — some of them are published and some of them thankfully just sit in a drawer. I read a lot of story collections, I love them, the intensity of the form, the way stories suggest more than they reveal, how in a collection we move from world to world. I love how stories use MA space, MA being a Japanese word for the space between things that seems empty but is actually full and creates harmony. The space between the individual stories also allows for that feeling of MA.


TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

NC: The final book order came from a brilliant friend of mine, Maria Healey. She’s also a writer. I didn’t know how to order the final stories once the book had been accepted for publication, and she read the manuscript and said — here, try this. I think order is partly intuitive and partly world building and juxtaposition of texture and tone.
    About how I chose what to include, I put things in, I took things out. I got feedback from a writing friend and poet Barbara Tomash (Flying in Water a great book by the way)—and I could feel when I was in that color, that world, usually while working on the story. I had a few short shorts that I took out because they threw the world off. A few stories were pulled out because they weren’t strong enough. The stories that remained were all stories I cared about very much, and they seemed to be in conversation with each other. A conversation between rural and urban perspectives, between longing and memory.
    Mother and The Fifth Season, for example, are set in San Francisco, but the protagonists migrated from rural Minnesota--the rural world bumps up against the urban world and creates tension. Urban people often sweep the whole Midwest and especially rural people into stereotype, and vice verse--and yet rural cultures are so complex. I felt a great loss when I left my rural blue-collar heritage for college and some other world I knew nothing about--and knew I could not return. It’s a similar loss to any immigrant, I think. People who grew up in the working class talk about this class shifting. I loved it when the SF Chronicle said the writing was “unstinting about the decency and clear-headedness of farm women.” And I loved it that the Editors’ of New York Times Book Review included it in their Editor’s Choice, Book of Particular Interest list.


TSR: Do you have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?

NC: Oh, I don’t think so. Unless it’s god. My best writing comes out of love or grief. I have a terrible time with loss and death, I just can’t settle into the idea that we have to die or that people have to leave. I think death is a very bad idea.


TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your
collection, anything at all?

NC: I’m afraid to ask readers anything—I’m hiding in my apartment most of the time—though I’m so happy to hear positive things! I love those characters and inhabited their worlds as deeply as I could. I think maybe I’ll just let readers have their private experiences of them, their own relationships.


TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

NC: Oh, I want the stories to be read--I’m grateful—I feel very lucky to be able to sit around in my lovely apartment and write, and to teach creative writing at San Francisco State University—and to have the book in the world. My father worked as a Minnesota cow breeder driving from farm to farm inseminating Holsteins almost every day of his life for 45 years! My mother was pulled out of school in the eighth grade to help run the family farm. I have worked as a tree planter, a nurse’s aid, a waitress, a childcare worker. I have lathed tobacco for five bucks an hour and spent part of a summer in a factory crashing defective Planter’s Peanuts jars. Now I get to do something I love, teach, and to play with language and my imagination. I am very very lucky.


TSR: What are you working on now?

NC:I just finished A Little Book of Days which will come out with Spuyten Duyvil Press, NY, sometime in 2008. The book is a novella in moments. The narrator tracks moments in her days after a break-up, quoting snippets she hears on the public radio and spying on her neighbors. It was built from my own days when I lived in the Mission several years ago. It’s funny and lively and poetic and strange, or so people tell me.


TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

NC: Alice Munro, Runaway (the goat in the first story broke my heart); Varieties of Disturbance, Lydia Davis; Elbow Room, James Allen McPherson (wildly different from my work). Thank you for these questions and for the Short Review site!