Meet a Grubbie: Nathan Oates
GrubStreet runs on coffee, printer ink, and community. This series features just some of the Grubbies who make our community strong. In this edition, meet Grub instructor Nathan Oates. Nathan’s debut collection of short stories, The Empty House, won the 2012 Spokane Prize. His stories have appeared in The Antioch Review, Witness, the Alaska Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, Crazyhorse, Copper Nickel, and elsewhere. His stories have been anthologized twice in Best American Mystery Stories, as well as in Forty Stories. Catch Nathan in action during his 6 Weeks, 6 Stories online class, starting on June 6th.
What author, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with and why?
I’ve had the good fortune, for the past seven years, of running a reading series at the university where I teach, so I’ve gotten to meet many of my living literary heroes: Deborah Eisenberg, Ben Marcus, Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks, E.L. Doctorow, Jennifer Egan, and many others. So, given this choice, I would go with those now out of reach. It would be hard to pass up on dinner with James Joyce, or James Baldwin. Both have written what I think of as some of the greatest short stories ever written in English – Joyce’s “The Dead” and Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” – and both lived dynamic, cosmopolitan, complicated lives. Both, I imagine, would have great stories to tell about their time in Italy (Joyce) and France (Baldwin) and about their own sense of themselves as exiles. I am moving abroad for the coming year – to Florence, Italy, where my wife will be teaching at the NYU campus there – and so am particularly drawn to such stories right now.
What are you working on right now?
I’m currently working on two projects: a collection of short stories and a novel. I suspect this puts me in the company of nearly every other fiction writer. The projects are at least conceptually related: the story collection is made up of stories that combine literary and genre techniques: mystery stories, speculative stories, ghost stories. A few of the stories are based on the plagues from Exodus, and a few are essentially realistic. Some of my favorite recent books of stories have been put together this way, such as George Saunders’s Pastoralia, Helen Phillips’s Some Possible Solutions, and Stephen O’Connor’s Here Comes Another Lesson. My novel is also speculative – like a lot of other people, writers included, I’m obsessed now with the seemingly inevitable dark future – but is also really a domestic novel about a family. Set in a fracturing American South, the novel tries to grapple with some of what I feel to be the urgent issues of our time: our political polarization, the role of religion in our culture, the deep, primal responsibility we feel to our children and families. Behind these lurk a couple of other projects that are trying to claim my attention, but I’m hoping to hold them at bay at least a little longer.
What’s one piece of advice you’d like to give to writers?
I believe that one of the crucial developments in a writer’s life is to be able to become one’s own harshest critic. This is, by no means, the first step to writing, of course: first there’s the thrill of creation, when the imagined world is opening up, revealing itself, making its way into words. Then there’s the early stage of editing, when it all still retains the shine of the new, when the words on the page are inflected with the memory of the act of writing. Gradually though, that shine fades and the piece begins to look less brilliant, sometimes even revealing itself to be not very good at all. But one has to keep going, keep working, slashing away at the sentences, erecting new ones that are clearly inadequate, then tearing those down, making new ones, over and over again. If you keep pushing through that stage when the story has lost its initial magic for you, the writer, you can sometimes move the work into a new, better space, where the shine is there not just for you but for the reader as well, which is, of course, the goal. Many writers have talked about this process: allow yourself to write a shitty first draft, Anne Lamott says. And other writers have said that the difference between someone who wants to be a writer and someone who is a writer is that the real writer works when it is hard, when the words won’t come, when every sentence clunks. Even on those bad days, you have to stick with the work, which feels a lot like work at such times. Throughout this process there is the temptation to give up, to tell ourselves that this is good enough. This is the moment when I think we need to be critical of our work, to keep pushing it up that slope towards the works we love and admire and made us want to write in the first place. Forcing oneself to work through the hard days is a struggle, especially when they pile up, one after the other, but it is the only way to really be a writer.
Weirdest, or worst job you ever had?
When I was in high school and college my parents insisted we always have a job, and looking back it seems to me the more awful the job the more they approved of it. One summer, early in grad school, my father got me a job working for minimum wage at the university in Kentucky where he was the president. The job was to clean the metal bars that held up the drop ceiling throughout one of the campus buildings, and to replace any tiles, and to remove any insulation. All summer I lay on my back atop scaffolding and scrubbed the inch-wide metal strips with a coarse sponge I dipped now and then into a diluted cleaning solution I hope wasn’t bleach. The work was boring and repetitive and probably unhygienic, but the co-workers were incredibly interesting. There were three others on the project: an international student from Northern Ireland who claimed to be descended from a king; a young man who planned to become a DJ (he and the Irishman argued about music all summer); and an older man – in his thirties, which to me at the time seemed old, and now of course I see it’s in fact the bloom of youth – who almost never spoke. All summer we cleaned the metal strips, hauled out fiberglass insulation to the dumpster, took breaks to smoke cigarettes, debated what to put on the radio. Once the Irishman tried to fight the DJ when the former dismissed the notion that guitar playing was art. The lives of these co-workers kept slipping into our days – the DJ, who was at least twenty-one, had a girlfriend who was sixteen years old; the older man lived with his mother in a rundown part of the city I would never have seen if I hadn’t sometimes driven him home; the Irishman was seething with a rage that would, not long after that summer ended, get him expelled from the university and the country. I’ve always wanted to write about that summer, but still haven’t found the right way to do so. But I haven’t given up hope yet.
Do you have a favorite local, independent bookstore? Where and why?
A few blocks from my apartment is the fantastic Community Bookstore in Park Slope, Brooklyn. At the front of the store they have sections for independent presses, like New Directions, Europa, Tin House, and others – a bit like bookstores in Europe and Latin America are arranged – and the staff is always knowledgeable and excited about books. They also have a fantastic reading series. There are many other wonderful bookstores in New York – Greenlight, McNally Jackson, Book Culture, Unnameable – and I love visiting independent bookstores when I travel: Kramer Books in Washington D.C., Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis, Prairie Lights in Iowa City, and so many others. I first discovered independent bookstores in Charlottesville, Virginia while in college, and they kept me spiritually afloat while I stumbled through some office jobs after, in D.C. and New Orleans. I will only buy books at an independent store.
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