Nelson, Antonya 1961–
Nelson, Antonya 1961–
PERSONAL: Born January 6, 1961, in Wichita, KS; daughter of Francis William (a professor) and Susan Jane (a teacher) Nelson; married Robert L. Boswell (a writer), July 28, 1984; children: Jade, Noah. Education: University of Kansas, B.A., 1983; University of Arizona, M.F.A., 1986.
ADDRESSES: Office—205 Roy Cullen Building, Rm. 234B, University of Houston, Houston, TX 77204-3013. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, NM, assistant professor, 1989–95, associate professor of English, 1995–; University of Houston, Houston, TX, Cullen Cochair in Creative Writing; Warren Wilson College, Asheville, NC, instructor in M.F.A. program.
AWARDS, HONORS: Chicago Tribune, Nelson Algren Award, 1988, for the story "Listener," and Heartland Award, 1996, for Talking in Bed; Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, University of Georgia Press, 1990, for The Expendables; O'Henry Prize, 1991, for "Dirty Words"; New York Times Book Review "notable book" citations, 1992, for In the Land of Men, 1996, for Talking in Bed, 1998, for Nobody's Girl: A Novel, 2000, for Living to Tell: A Novel, and 2002, for Female Trouble: A Collection of Short Stories; named one of the Twenty Young Fiction Writers for the New Millen-nium by the New Yorker, 1999; American Library Association award, 2000, for Living to Tell; Guggenheim fellowship, 2000–01; Rea Award for short fiction, 2003; PEN Syndicated Fiction Award; National Endowment for the Arts grant; named among the "best of the young American novelists" by Granta.
The Expendables (stories; includes "Mud Season," "Cold Places," "Helen in Hollywood," and "You Boys Be Good"), University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1990.
In the Land of Men (stories; includes "The Happy Day," "Fire Season," and "Adobe"), William Morrow (New York, NY), 1992.
Family Terrorists: A Novella and Seven Stories, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1994.
Talking in Bed (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1996.
Nobody's Girl: A Novel, Scribner (New York, NY), 1998.
(Editor, with husband, Robert Boswell) American Fiction, Volume 10: The Best Unpublished Stories by Emerging Writers, New Rivers (St. Paul, MN), 1999.
Living to Tell: A Novel, Scribner (New York, NY), 2000.
Female Trouble: A Collection of Short Stories, Scribner (New York, NY), 2002.
Some Fun: Stories and a Novella, Scribner (New York, NY), 2006.
Work represented in anthologies, including Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: O. Henry Awards. Contributor to periodicals, including Esquire, New Yorker, Quarterly West, Redbook, Ploughshares, and Harper's; editor of the fall, 2005, issue of Ploughshares.
SIDELIGHTS: Antonya Nelson is a fiction writer who published a half-dozen acclaimed works before turning forty. In 1999 Nelson was chosen by the New Yorker magazine as one of its featured writers under forty and was praised as an artist to watch in the new millennium. The bulk of this acclaim rests on Nelson's penetrating stories and novels about families in transition. According to Stephen McCauley, writing in the New York Times Book Review, Nelson's work explores "the ironic inconsistencies of romance, the way families make accommodations in order to function, the endless intrigues in even the most solid-seeming marriages." The critic added: "This is, of course, familiar territory, but Ms. Nelson has explored it in a shrewd, witty voice that is recognizably her own. Her prose is precise and energetic, and her insights delight because they manage to be at once surprising and so right as to seem inevitable." Book Page Online correspondent Laurie Parker called Nelson "a master of the domestic drama" whose pages "crackle with violent emotions, one after another exploding in rapid succession."
Nelson won the Flannery O'Connor Award for her first collection, The Expendables, which focuses on the more trying aspects of modern life. In "Mud Season," for instance, parents grieve the recent death of their daughter, a college student who perishes in a motorcycle accident, and in "Cold Places," a teenager observes a dramatic meeting between her parents and her father's inebriated lover. The volume includes similarly sobering tales in which unlucky and unhappy people triumph by enduring. In "Helen in Hollywood," a woman manages to abstain from alcohol only by imagining that her Alcoholics Anonymous group is convening in her home; "You Boys Be Good" details the agony suffered by a debilitated old man when his wife conducts her weekly socializing away from home, and in the title tale, a young man is preoccupied by the notion that people he encounters are, in effect, expendable. Melissa Pritchard, in her Chicago Tribune Books review, lauded The Expendables as a volume of "accomplished" tales and noted that Nelson possesses "the astute eye of a social scientist and an artist's courageous perception." The Expendables, the reviewer concluded, "is a fine collection of stories."
Nelson followed The Expendables with In the Land of Men, stories that were described by Edward Allen in the New York Times Book Review as taking "place in a sort of aftermath." The reviewer added: "We come upon [Nelson's] characters when their lives have already been fractured, displaced, uprooted." Like the earlier book, In the Land of Men portrays people with rather unusual coping strategies. In the title tale, a waitress contemplates justice when her brothers capture her rapist. Also notable is "The Happy Day," in which a morose aide to a wedding photographer covers her apartment walls with pictures she has deliberately taken of brides blinking and wedding celebrants vomiting; and "Fire Season," in which a thief is unable to rob the rich teenager with whom he has a one-night stand. In "Adobe," which Allen considered the "best story in the book," a middle-aged woman finds sanctuary in the American Southwest after her two husbands have left her for younger women. Critics considered the tales of In the Land of Men to be insightful and provocative, and the collection gained Nelson recognition as a promising writer. Allen observed that "what holds [the stories] together as an emotional unit is Antonya Nelson's unsentimental generosity toward her characters, her perfectionism about detail, and most of all her understanding that unhappiness is not tragic—it's just a fact of life."
Family Terrorists: A Novella and Seven Stories continues Nelson's probe into eccentric family ties. Several of the tales concern adolescents who must face their parents' imperfections, and other stories delve into the realm of sibling rivalry. According to Lisa Zeidner in the New York Times Book Review, Nelson has "proved herself a master of the short story's shape. Her tales of families … are taut and zingy, with a tantalizing sense that we are eavesdropping on a variety of viewpoints." A Kirkus Reviews contributor suggested that Nelson is at her best "when inserting a catch in the narrative voice at moments of introspection … moments heightened by deft or penetrating description."
Similar appreciation has attended the publication of Nelson's novels. Talking in Bed, her debut in the longer form, takes as one of its themes the mid-life crisis that can be engendered by the death of a parent. Two of the central characters in Talking in Bed, Evan and Paddy, become friends as they grieve over the deaths of their fathers. The friendship eventually impinges upon their marriages, as Evan moves out of his home and his wife begins an affair with Paddy. McCauley felt that Talking in Bed "is a satisfying, serious novel," and a Publishers Weekly reviewer deemed it "a stunningly nuanced portrait of the complexities and paradoxes of domestic life."
In Nobody's Girl: A Novel, a disaffected young woman named Birdy Stone finds little satisfaction from teaching English in a worn-out New Mexico town. Only when she is asked to help a grieving widow write a memoir about two suspicious deaths does Birdy begin to become engaged with her surroundings—if not necessarily in touch with her innermost feelings. To quote Suzanne Ruta in the New York Times Book Review, Birdy is yet another Nelson heroine who has "a bumptious energy, a stubborn, ornery streak that pushes [her] off the deep end and into revelations." In Booklist, Donna Seaman praised Nobody's Girl for its "bright humor," noting that Nelson "has never been funnier, shrewder, or more magnetic than she is here." Library Journal contributor Robin Nesbitt also found the work to be "a clearly written novel with characters who are honest and believable."
The tense dynamics of an extended family living under one roof enliven the plot of Nelson's Living to Tell: A Novel. The story begins as Winston Mabie rejoins his family after having served a prison sentence for a drunken driving accident that killed his grandmother. Winston moves back into his parents' home, joining his aging professor father, his mother, and two sisters who are both struggling with immense personal problems. In the New York Times Book Review, Emily Barton noted that a tone of "wry, obsessive observation pervades the novel … as the characters struggle to work through their difficulties and to grow to understand themselves and one another." Barton concluded that the novel's "hard-won, moderately happy ending is a satisfying benediction upon this ensemble cast, about which the reader has truly come to care." Village Voice correspondent Hillary Rosner likewise observed that the book "is full of razor-sharp character portraits and a constant, dizzying forward momentum."
Female Trouble: A Collection of Short Stories contains thirteen stories, most of which are about women returning home, often to men they have known. The protagonist in "Incognito" returns with her young daughter to her hometown in Kansas to confront her past and find the friends with whom she led a life of unrestrained freedom. In "Palisades," a couple who cannot talk to each other find a confidant in a woman who has arrived in the New Mexico town with her baby, creating distance between them and her husband, who is having a mid-life crisis in Los Angeles. Themes include abortion and adultery, romantic and familial love, depression and mental illness. In "Irony, Irony, Irony," a husband and wife head to the hospital together, he for a vasectomy and she for an abortion. The title story finds a man ready to leave town because he does not understand his relationships, including ones with the woman he lives with, a pregnant former girlfriend, and his mental patient lover.
A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote: "Cheerful uplifting moments may be rare, but this collection's tales of men and women navigating life in all its messiness demonstrate the prowess of a truly accomplished writer." Frederick Busch concluded in the New York Times Book Review that Nelson "celebrates the American landscape and the needy, damaged searchers who cross it."
In reviewing Some Fun: Stories and a Novella, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Katie Haegele wrote that Nelson is "at the height of her powers." The boy in "Flesh Tone" has lost his mother, but she stays with him in spirit, providing a running commentary on his life, while his stepmother, a psychologist who believes him to be gay, provides him with reading material to help him deal with it. In "Rear View," a woman has an affair with an employee of the mental hospital where her husband is a resident. Most of the stories are about love, in one way or another. The drinker in "Strike Anywhere" is a man whose son sits outside waiting for him to finish. The woman of the title novella is an alcoholic whose kids watch her break down. Haegele commented: "Nelson brings the small details of their contemporary suburban existence to shocking, vibrant life, as if to say that even in times of crisis, life goes on, as vital and surprising and beautiful as it ever was."
Nelson is married to novelist Robert Boswell, and both teach English and creative writing. Asked by Publishers Weekly if she felt she had "arrived" as an important literary voice, Nelson responded: "I truly understand the flukish nature of this business, and I don't take seriously the markers of success. I'm happy if I keep writing and I keep writing well."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, May-June, 2002, Beth Kephart, review of Female Trouble: A Collection of Short Stories, p. 75.
Booklist, February 1, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of Nobody's Girl: A Novel, p. 900; March 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Female Trouble, p. 1088; January 1, 2006, Donna Seaman, review of Some Fun: Stories and a Novella, p. 54.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 1991, review of In the Land of Men, p. 1553; March 1, 1994, review of Family Terrorists: A Novella and Seven Stories, p. 240; March 1, 1996, review of Talking in Bed, p. 323; December 1, 1997, review of Nobody's Girl; February 15, 2002, review of Female Trouble, p. 215; December 1, 2005, review of Some Fun, p. 1251.
Library Journal, December, 1997, Robin Nesbitt, review of Nobody's Girl, p. 154; June 1, 2000, Robin Nesbitt, review of Living to Tell: A Novel, p. 200; February 1, 2002, Rebecca Stuhr, review of Female Trouble, p. 134; January 1, 2006, Caroline M. Hallsworth, review of Some Fun, p. 107.
New York Times Book Review, June 14, 1992, Edward Allen, review of In the Land of Men, p. 18; July 10, 1994, Lisa Zeidner, review of Family Terrorists, p. 17; May 26, 1996, Stephen McCauley, review of Talking in Bed, p. 8; March 1, 1998, Suzanne Ruta, review of Nobody's Girl, p. 6; June 25, 2000, Emily Barton, review of Living to Tell, p 13; May 19, 2002, Frederick Busch, review of Female Trouble, p. 13; March 26, 2006, Joyce Carol Oates, review of Some Fun, p. 7.
O, The Oprah Magazine, April, 2002, Francine Prose, review of Female Trouble, p. 192.
Philadelphia Inquirer, April 19, 2006, Katie Haegele, review of Some Fun.
Publishers Weekly, March 21, 1994, review of Family Terrorists, p. 54; February 19, 1996, review of Talking in Bed, p. 200; May 22, 2000, review of Living to Tell, p. 73, and Ann Darby, "PW Talks with Antonya Nelson," p. 73; March 4, 2002, review of Female Trouble, p. 55; January 16, 2006, review of Some Fun, p. 36.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), January 14, 1990, Melissa Pritchard, review of The Expendables, p. 6.
Village Voice, July 18, 2000, Hillary Rosner, review of Living to Tell, p. 57.
Writer, July, 2001, interview with Antonya Nelson.
Book Page Online, http://www.bookpage.com/ (December 31, 2006), Laurie Parker, review of Talking in Bed; Laura Wexler, review of Nobody's Girl.
College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, University of Houston, http://www.class.uh.edu/ (December 31, 2006), biography of Antonya Nelson.
Writers Write, http://www.writerswrite.com/ (December 31, 2006), Cheryl Dellasega, interview with Antonya Nelson.