A.D. Nauman & the Mansion of Surprise

A.D. Nauman’s short fiction can be found in The Literary Review, Knee-Jerk, Other Voices, The Chicago Reader, and many other literary journals. Her piece entitled "Just Go Back" is featured in Volume XLI of the Roanoke Review. Her novel, Scorch, published by Soft Skull Press, is available as an e-book and on Amazon. A.D. is an education professor in Chicago; she lives in Oak Park with her fella and a highly pampered tuxedo cat. Alexandra Reynolds speaks with A. D. Nauman below.  

“Just Go Back” presents a strong narrative voice from a second person perspective. Many writers stay away from the second person point of view, but you handle it marvelously. Why did you choose to write from this point of view 

I knew you’d ask this question. It’s true: a lot of writers don’t use second person, perhaps knowing that some readers dislike it. But second person seemed exactly right for “Just Go Back.” I relished the effect of pulling the reader directly into this situation. It was fun to imagine all varieties of readers, including sizable men, suddenly finding themselves at a mirror, regarding their mismatched bra and panties. I enjoyed pouring my feelings and thoughts directly into “you, erasing the line between reader and author. But perhaps the truer reason why I wrote the story in second person is so I wouldn’t have to write it in first. By convention, this would be a first-person narrative, and originally that’s what it was; but then it read like a personal narrative, oozing narcissism. I, I, I. There’s enough narcissism in the world without me adding to it. “You” allowed me to avoid feeling like a narcissist—so, thank you. 

The humor and compassion present in “Just Go Back” struck me. How do you go about crafting characters and narrative voices in your fiction?   

Like most writers, I feel directed by the characters in my head when attempting to render them. I don’t think this means writers have some sort of special powers. All of us, including people who don’t write fiction, have a legion of characters and voices in our brains: different versions of ourselves, mental representations of people around us.  Perhaps writers are simply more attuned to those characters and voices, more adept at attending to them, than people who don’t write fiction. (This is another way of saying we’re kind of crazy.) 

The main character in “Just Go back” is a version of myself, so, in the drafting stage, I listened to her—how she sounded, what she was thinking, what she wanted to do next. In the revising stage, though, it’s the character’s turn to listen to the author. I often have to stop my characters from talking too much or veering off on a tangent or becoming too self-righteous or completely embarrassing themselves. Part of crafting a character, too, is creating the context that tests her. A character is not only revealed by, but defined by her interplay with others and with the challenges that arise. If I transported the main character from “Just Go Back” into a different context, she’d be altered—similar, but yet another version of myself. 

There is a great sense of place in “Just Go Back.” As a resident of Virginia, I found myself nodding in affirmation with descriptions of Busch Gardens, Richmond, and Newport News. How do you decide where to place your stories?  

Honestly, I don’t “decide” where to place my stories. These days we talk about writers’ “choices” and writers’ “decisions,” but I wonder how accurate that language is. Usually I feel like characters, places, and stories choose me, not the other way around. I don’t say this in an attempt to sound mystical. I believe most writers write by instinct, rather than first reviewing all the possible choices and then making some conscious, rational decision. If I had to first review all possible settings and characters and actions, then consider all possible outcomes, I’d probably end up on a psych ward. 

To me, place is extremely important, not just as a setting but as a force that shapes characters and their actions. For instance, compare the flatness of the Tidewater region with some mountainous Western locale. In a flatland, your mind rolls around unencumbered; in a mountainous region, you’d be continually distracted by some environmental protrusion. In Tidewater, you can amble around unimpeded. In Colorado, you’d be striving up and down the landscape. Place sets the rhythm of our days, gives us attitudes as well as accents, so I need to know a place well before I can enact a story there. I’m lucky to have lived in several places—Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago, as well as Tidewater—and I’ve fallen in love with them all. Newport News is the bright, flat, watery, easy place of my adolescence, and my fondness for it probably accounts for the genuine warmth I felt for the characters in “Just Go Back.” 

I enjoyed the sincere and understated ending to “Just Go Back.” How did you decide to end the story as you did? Do endings come easily to you? 

Endings either come easily to me or they don’t come at all. I’m in trouble if I begin a story without knowing its end. That’s not how everyone writes, but it is true for me.  I don’t need to know the exact last line, but I need to know the destination, or I’ll be meandering all over the place and never arrive anywhere. To this day I have old stories without ends. 

I’m of the philosophy that endings should provide a quiet sense of closure while leaving a few big questions in readers’ heads. In “Just Go Back,” a woman is grappling with the consequences of her major life choices—she finds herself in a moment that demands serious self-reflection.  Catapulted back into the realm of her youth, she has to admit that most of her life is now done, and she’s wondering how she did.  I wanted to leave her—you—with peace of mind, her neuroses assuaged for the time being at least, by suggesting we all end up with the lives we were meant to lead. But do we?  It would be nice to think we do. Who knows? 

When did you start writing? What drives you to keep going?  

I hate when writers brag that they started writing at the age of four, but I started writing at the age of four. Of course what’s ridiculous about that is everyone writes at the age of four—all children make up stories with pictures and scribbles—so the real question is your second question: what keeps me, or any writer, going?  

When I was a kid, the fact of my writing distinguished me from the blur of other students at school. I was not an athlete or a big personality; I was a writer.  Writing also provided me with an identity in my artistic family. My older sister played every instrument on the planet, and everyone painted, so I got to be “the writer.” I wrote obsessively through my childhood and teen years—ridiculous stories about ghosts with British accents and adolescent girls dying of cancer—and I won adult praise and a few little awards. But what kept me going after that?  

University English departments are full of undergraduates aspiring to be fiction writers, many of whom become MFA students aspiring to be fiction writers. A decade later, most of them have quit, swallowed up by their more-than-full-time jobs and families and the endless annoying chores of life. Two decades after that, the shrinking pool of survivors are trying to soldier on in the face of disappointed dreams; no matter how often one publishes, there’s always someone with more publications, more awards, more royalties. Young writers need tenacity and grit to keep going; being somewhat delusional and prone to mania also helps. Older writers must learn resilience and, most of all, humility.  

But perhaps the short answer to your question is this: The physical act of putting words on a page makes me happy, and I’ve come to understand that it really doesn’t matter what I do with my life—as long as I’m not hurting anyone—so I may as well spend my life doing what I love.   

What has been the proudest moment of your writing career so far 

Once a bookstore employee told me he’d overheard a group of guys discussing the ideas in my novel, Scorch. That was cool. Sometimes a friend, out of the blue, makes a reference to one of my stories.  But I think my proudest moment was the morning I opened the door to my teenaged daughter’s bedroom and found on the floor next to her bed the entire manuscript of the young adult novel I’d been writing—she’d stayed up late to read the whole thing. Yeah, that was my proudest moment. 

Tell us about Scorch. How is writing a novel different than writing short stories in terms of your own writing process? 

Scorch is a sociopolitical satire about the evils of unregulated American capitalism, a dystopian novel which, in my humble opinion, was ten years ahead of its time. Occupy Wall Streeters and Bernie Sanders supporters would love it. (And hey, it’s still available on Amazon.) Scorch was also released at the worst possible moment in American history—November 2001, two months after the terrorist attacks—not, as you might infer, the most auspicious time for books critical of American culture. That said, Scorch garnered many positive reviews and I know it made some people think more deeply about how a hyper-capitalist system affects individuals’ lives. What more could an author wish for? 

But you asked how my writing process differs between novel and short story writing. To me, writing a novel is like walking through a strange mansion, entering one room after another, seeing what’s there; writing a short story is like walking the length of a studio apartment. In the latter, you can see pretty much everything at one time; you can know everything that’s there. By contrast, the mansion is full of surprises. The mansion is exciting, exhausting, and also scary, because it’s easy to make a wrong turn and waste time bumbling around some peripheral room.  There you are in the conservatory, penning lovely descriptions of leaves, when the real action is taking place in the billiards room.  

Novel writing requires a daunting commitment: do I really want to spend two years or more in this place, with these people? It also requires the tedious delay of gratification. However, it’s fun to create and inhabit a parallel world, month after month, and to live someone else’s life for a while.  

What are you working on now?  

Well, I have made that daunting commitment and am writing a new novel. The working title is Down a Steep Place. Set in our beloved Tidewater in 1963, it’s a story about the daughter of a Klansman. I refer to the novel as a faux memoir: it is wholly fictitious, occurring in a made-up town near the site of Nat Turner’s rebellion, but it reads like a memoir, told by a now 60-something woman who, having returned home for her estranged mother’s funeral, recounts the events that led to the break with her family at the age of fourteen and enabled her to overcome her own racism.  

I’m loving doing the historical research and exploring the complexity of race relations in that time and place. Most Americans are familiar with the Civil Rights era through the lens of the Deep South. As any Virginian, such as William Styron, would tell you, the history and culture of the Tidewater region are unique; I’m working to capture the nuances as well as honestly portray the shockingly racist attitudes that surfaced then—and which continue to surface now, everywhere in the US. 

And, by the way, I’m in the market for a new agent.