Renée Nicholson: I really enjoyed your short story “If Only the Rain Would Come.” Your stories most often take place and feature characters from your home state of West Virginia. Do you consider yourself a West Virginia writer and what do you feel that means in terms of your work, the region, and the larger world of literature?
Natalie Sypolt: I know that many people bristle when they’re referred to as a “regional writer”—and probably for good reason as that term has often been used in condescension—but I’m proud to be a West Virginia writer. I believe that the varied interests and aesthetics of the state’s writers represent the incredibly diverse population. That’s important in a state—a region, in fact—that is so often stereotyped, the people lumped together as one sad, poor, mass of humanity. Hopefully this image is starting to change (though there is plenty evidence that it’s not changing fast enough). When it does, the state’s writers, artists, and musicians are going to be at the forefront. I’m happy that I might be even a small part of that awesome group.
RN: Besides writing your own creative work, you do significant amounts of book reviewing, both through our podcast, SummerBooks, and as a reviewer for publications like Los Angeles Review. How does book reviewing influence your creative work? Do you see these as beneficial or detrimental trends? What strikes your interests in terms of reading?
NS: I think that book reviewing is one of the most beneficial endeavors I’ve ever taken on, and I would encourage all writers to try their hand at book reviewing (and not just because you can get free books— though that’s definitely cool). Looking at a book critically, and trying to figure out what the writer was really trying to do with a piece has made me think more about my own writing and what I’m trying to say. Often, I think , we write a story and we know what that story is about, but I’m not sure I always knew what I wanted it to say to the reader, if that makes any sense. This is even more true of my collection, because there are all these stories doing their own thing, but it’s really important to figure out what I want them to do and say together. Renee, you always use this great phrase when you talk about reviewing, and that’s “the project of the book”. Through reviewing, I’ve learned to look for the “project of the book”, even when that comes to my own work.
Of course, reviewing and podcasting has also opened the door for some great experiences, which include corresponding with writers we admire (even if that’s just a Facebook message from Pam Houston—that was something PAM HOUSTON wrote to ME). Through the podcast, we’ve become friendly with some writers whose aesthetic is totally different than either of ours, and whose paths we may never have crossed, if we hadn’t happened upon their books (for example, Matt Bell and Scott McClanahan). We also hosted a “live event” recently at the Press 53 Gathering of Writers that was exhausting, but fun, and really interesting because we were able to talk to several writers about their process and their projects.
Most importantly, though, I think the thing that reviewing has really shown me is how important it is to engage as part of a literary community. Being a writer can often be lonely, as can being an adjunct lecturer at a university. It’s easy to start to feel like you’re in a hole, isolated and cut off. In fact, there are lots of incredible people out there, doing really cool things, and they want to talk about them. They want to talk to us about them. And we want to talk about them too, and share their books, projects, and ideas with even more people. It’s kind of a chain of love—of book love, and of word love—and don’t we all need that sometimes? Doing something nice, or saying something kind about another writer’s work without expecting anything in return can be really rewarding.
RN: Some advice I received early on was that if I was going to be a writer, I should get a dog. You are a dog-lover and puppy parent to Felina, a basset hound. Does having a dog (or other pets) influence your work, and if so, how? Would you give the advice to writers to have a dog? Why or Why not?
NS: This is a funny question. I know you are in dog mode right now, searching for the next perfect four-legged member of our family. What day is this of puppy watch?
I do love Felina and her little mini-dachshund brother Dash. Dogs, often inspired by my own, do sometimes make it into my stories. I’m not sure that my pets really influence my work in any direct way, but having something warm and furry, that won’t critique you or reject you, can be really important and necessary. Being a writer is hard. It’s frustrating. Why did we choose to be part of a profession that is built on almost constant rejection? We’re crazy, and probably getting crazier all the time. Having a little dog time, just to throw a ball or take a walk or scratch an ear, might be the only way to stay even a little bit sane. Adopt that puppy immediately, Renee! Your mental health depends upon it!
RN: You teach, podcast, book review, etc. in addition to your own writing. Can you talk a bit about the challenges of balance for contemporary writers?
NS: Since we’re just going back to work after a too fast summer—and I’m continuing to feel quite depressed about the return—this is probably a bad time to ask.
Let’s face it. Unless you are one of the very few writers who have become wildly successful and/or churn out a book every few months, you’re also doing other work. This is clearly not ideal, because writers need a lot of focused time to just sit and think, and then write. And then re-write, and re-write, and rewrite. How do we squeeze this sitting and thinking and writing in when we’re also teaching a miserable and exhausting amount of classes, getting paid very little, and maybe even trying to have some sort of social life? The answer is that a lot of us don’t. I usually don’t, and I’m ashamed to admit it. This is all a puzzle that I haven’t worked out yet, but I know I’m not alone in this. Talking to other people who have experience or who are experiencing the same struggles is really helpful, and I’m always thankful for my friends who are willing to listen and commiserate.
RN: Since you’re an avid reviewer, what books are you reading, and what books to you recommend to others?
NS: It’s funny that you’re asking me this, because usually in our podcasting/interviewing life, it’s me who is always asking this of other people.
Right now I’m finishing up a book that I agreed to review for Los Angeles Review called This Time While We’re Awake by Heather Fowler. It’s a strange, futuristic collection that’s very different from my style of writing, and from the kind of book I usually read (which is another reason why reviewing is good for a writer—it pushes you out of your comfort zone sometimes).
I currently have a “to read” pile that I’m really excited about. This pile includes review copies of Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips (a West Virginia Writer), The Virgins by Pamela Erens (which everyone has been talking about), and Hill William by our friend Scott McClanahan.
As for books I recommend to others, there are just too many to name, so I’ll stick to what I’ve loved this summer. I really enjoyed the strange Alligators of Abraham by Robert Kloss, put out by the now shuttered Mud Luscious Press. It’s a re-imagining of the Civil War, with enough fact to make you question the fiction and vise versa. I love that. I also really enjoyed Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home and will be teaching it this semester. You and I have both recently read Poe Ballantine’s Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, and I thought that was a really interesting way to approach true crime in a literary way. I also very much enjoyed Mary Akers’ Bones of an Inland Sea, Elliott Holt’s You are One of Them, and Daniel Woodrell’s The Outlaw Album.
Thanks for interviewing me, Renee!
Renée K. Nicholson lives in Morgantown, WV. A former professional dancer whose career was cut short by the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, Renee earned teaching certification from American Ballet Theatre and an MFA in Creative Writing at West Virginia University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Chelsea, Mid-American Review, Perigee: A Journal of the Arts, Paste, Moon City Review, Cleaver Magazine, Poets & Writers, Dossier, Linden Avenue, Blue Lyra Review, Switchback, The Superstition Review, The Gettysburg Review and elsewhere. She serves as Assistant to the Director of the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop, and was the 2011 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State-Altoona. She is a member of the book review staff at Los Angeles Review, is co-host of the literary podcast SummerBooks and co-founder of Souvenir: A Journal. Her website is www.reneenicholson.com.