An Interview with Scott Nadelson

January 14th, 2011


Shane Oshetski had the pleasure of a conversation with Scott Nadelson, the author of “Backfill” which appears in Camera Obscura Journal’s second issue. The story follows a man working on a construction crew, so I thought I’d ask Nadelson about work within this piece as well as the often hard labor of writing stories.   

 Shane Oshetski: Part of what stuck me about “Backfill” was that it put the characters job in the forefront of story, something fiction doesn’t seem to do often. What lead you to write about work?

Scott Nadelson: It’s true, a character’s job is often background in stories, something to provide context for conflict, but in this case the job is the conflict; Robert’s identity is tied so closely to his work that his struggle over who he is has to foreground the job. The job and the character have become inextricably linked.

 Most of my stories begin with some nugget of autobiography, but this one was different. Much of the credit for “Backfill” goes to my brother-in-law, who used to work in underground construction. When my wife and I first got together, he would come home from work and tell stories about the job, and I was fascinated first and foremost by the specific language he used, a kind of code that seemed so particular to this kind of work: “backfill,” “mainline,” “pipe-layer.” It was all vaguely sexual, even homo-erotic, but even more, it gave these guys a way of distinguishing themselves, almost like an insider handshake. I was also intrigued by the images he described, and the constant presence of danger that was a buzzing undertone to the daily grind. As soon as he described the former rock quarry filled with all kinds of refuse—some of which had the potential to cause real harm—I knew I had to write a story about this world. The image was just too rich with metaphoric as well as physical possibility for me not to find a way to use it, even if I didn’t know how.

 SO: Robert is a college graduate who chose to work construction and to me, the story doesn’t just use work as a lens though which we get to know the characters, but it seems concerned also with the meaning of different kinds of labor. What interested you about this?

 SN: This is really the key to the story, I think. My first few attempts at writing it didn’t get me anywhere, in part because I couldn’t quite access this blue-collar world. I’ve done very little manual labor, skilled or otherwise, and couldn’t quite imagine the life of someone who knows he wants to work in a construction job from early on. But as soon as I discovered that Robert is really a white-collar kid who longs for the perceived “realness” of a working-class life, I had his number, especially when part of his motivation is to impress a girl from a similar background. This longing is an emotional state I not only can access but can inhabit quite easily. And once I understood that Robert is simultaneously outsider and insider in his working world, then the story became about how the character defines himself, how he constructs his identity on somewhat false premises, and then finds that he has become someone he no longer wants to be.

 And yes, there are different kinds of work at play in the story, and Robert is good at some and not so good at others. He works hard at his job but not at his marriage; when presented with the hard work of relating to and empathizing with other people he often fails, or doesn’t try. He wants the simplicity of numbers and straight lines and can’t deal with the messiness of emotions. I wasn’t aware of it while I was writing, but now I can certainly see that I was influenced by Philip Levine’s poem “What Work Is,” which is one of my favorites.

 SO: Speaking of the hard work of emotions, there is the scene between Robert and Lisa at dinner where he tries to present himself as someone she might take back into her life. Their dialogue contains an amazing range of emotions and intimacy. What did it take for you to be able to inhabit both of them deeply enough to write this?

 SN: Compared to the rest of the story, this scene came out fairly easily, though not in one shot. In early drafts, Lisa was entirely closed off to Robert’s attempts to win her back all the way through the scene, and it ended up being pretty flat. In subsequent drafts I spent a lot of time imagining what might bring her closer to seeing him the way she’d seen him in the past, what might shake her resolve, and in understanding her more deeply I saw that it was his physicality more than anything else that connected her to him. Above all, he was a body to her, a smell, a source of laughter, but now she wants something richer, more complex. She’s still drawn to his physicality, enough to waver in the scene, and that makes it all the more painful, I think, when she gathers herself at the end of it and remembers what she wants. The drunk high school girl was in the scene from the very first draft, but I didn’t really know what she was doing there; in the end, she becomes the trigger for Lisa remembering that she has grown up in recent years, that she wants a more mature life than the one she can have with Robert.

SO: The scenes on the jobsite with this crew are wonderfully detailed. What kind of research did you have to do in order to write them or is this drawn from your own experience?

 SN: Again, I mostly credit my brother-in-law. He’s a good storyteller, and when he’s interested in something, he can talk about it in incredible detail (you should hear him talk about Burning Man, which he attends every year). I hardly had to ask any questions. I thought about shadowing him on a jobsite, but once I had an idea for the story in mind, I decided instead to let my imagination fill in the gaps. By then I knew I wanted to set the story in New Jersey, where I grew up, rather than in Oregon, where we live. So I thought a lot about the people I knew growing up who would have worked on construction crews, imagining how they would speak, and also picturing the kind of neighborhood they would have been digging. When I was a kid, there was a lot of construction in my area of New Jersey; the suburbs kept expanding westward, and I spent a lot of time walking around newly cleared areas that were soon filled with enormous homes. Once I was able to picture the place clearly, and had a few voices in my head, along with my brother-in-law’s details, I was able to start piecing the world together. It took a lot of drafts, though; maybe fifteen or twenty to really fill it out.

 SO: That is a lot of drafts. Do you often write so many?

 SN: Not always that many, but usually anywhere from five to thirty. It often takes me dozens of false starts before I find my way to the end of a draft, so by the time I’m finished with a story I may have re-written the opening fifty times or more. I have come to really love the revision process, which for me is a process of filling out a skeleton with muscles and skin, etc. On each subsequent draft I know the story better, so my timing gets sharper, my details more precise; I know where to linger, where to hold back. It’s what I imagine it must be like for a musician or an actor reworking the same piece on stage night after night; you start to internalize it, become part of it, so that it comes out more naturally with each new rendition.

 SO: Something I really enjoyed about this was how much we get to know about the individual lives of this crew even though their roles in the story are relatively small. What compelled you to give us their lives in detail?

 SN: I’m glad it comes across that way. This is something I’ve spent a lot of time focused on over the past few years: to make my minor characters feel as real and fleshed out as possible even if we can’t access their thoughts and even if they don’t spend a lot of time on center stage. Especially in stories with a central character who is stuck in his own internal conflict the way Robert is, minor characters can be incredibly effective at creating drama. But they can’t just be tools of the writer, props that serve a purpose. If they’re really alive, and have their own agendas separate from the central character’s, then they can be dynamic forces in the story. I knew early on that Walsh was going to needle Robert and bring out an ugly side of him, but the big surprise for me as I wrote was the role Teo ended up occupying; his loss and his anger parallel Robert’s, and in the end it’s really Teo who nudges Robert into a new understanding of himself, his marriage, his identity.

 SO: You are a creative writing teacher at Willamette University, how has your job influenced your writing?

 SN: Teaching writing has made me a more astute reader, which in turn makes me a better writer. Because I have to stand up in a room in front of eighteen eager undergrads who will ask thoughtful and unexpected questions multiple times a week, I constantly have to rethink my assumptions about fiction and take each piece I read on its own terms. After having done this for a number of years now, I’ve gotten pretty good at being able to figure out the basic structures of a story on a first or second read, and even with stories that are far from realization, I can see their multiple possibilities fairly quickly. This has been incredibly useful in my own drafting process; my early drafts have gotten messier, because I now trust that I’ll be able to figure out what to do with them in the revision process, as long as I pay close enough attention to what possibilities the draft has put into play.

 My students’ energy and enthusiasm also just feeds me on a daily basis, and when the writing isn’t going well, they help remind me how much I love engaging with literature, both as reader and writer. 

 SO: You are already the author of two collections of stories, are you working on another or is there a different project in the works?

 SN: I have a new collection, Aftermath, coming out in September. All the characters in this collection—which includes “Backfill”—are living in the wake of momentous events—the rupture of relationships, the dissolution of dreams—and the stories focus on their attempts to move on with their lives and adjust themselves to their new circumstances. I’ve also been finishing a collection of autobiographical essays that explore longing, failure, and the construction of identity.

 SO: Short story writers often hear (or are told) not to expect to publish collections these days and if they want to be read, to write novels. Since you are now on your third collection, how did you manage to stick with the form?

 SN: It’s true, there’s a lot of pressure to write novels, which I find frustrating, particularly as it’s a pressure that comes from a market-driven idea of art-making. If the same principles applied in visual art, artists would only paint large, decorative, abstract paintings, because those are what sell most. At times I’ve forced myself to work on novels, in order to satisfy these outside pressures, but in recent years I’ve come to accept that my material and my temperament are best suited to the long story and the novella, so that’s just what I have to do, even though those aren’t what most agents and publishers (and I suppose readers) want. And these are forms I really love. My favorite stories are those that have the expansiveness of novels—James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Peter Taylor’s “The Old Forest,” Eudora Welty’s “June Recital,” Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”—and my favorite novels are those that have a story’s compression. Mostly, I have been very fortunate that the publisher of all three collections—the wonderful Hawthorne Books—has generously put up with my devotion to the short form, despite its harm to their bottom line.

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