Niya C. Sisk interviews writer Nathan Alling Long.
N.S. Two things that strike me immediately as I read your pieces, “In China” and “Flies,” is your range with unifying elements and stylistic efficiency. “Flies,” for instance, was humorous while not one word too many to convey the twists and turns of action and emotion in that scene. Do you aim to hit us right between the eyes with truth in the subtle crafting of elements or do you just have a very sharp editor’s knife?
Nathan: I’m not sure, though I think my writing process is really like everyone else’s, a bit of inspiration on the first draft, and a willingness to go over it with a comb. I’ve come to believe though that I owe my writing practice largely to being dyslexic. Several writers are, such as my literary hero, Samuel Delany, and Richard Ford, who commented once that the pleasure of this disability was that a sentence always looked different each time one came across it—it never entirely settled on the page. For me, it meant getting used to spending hours rewriting papers in college to make them passible; from that, I got comfortable with the idea of revision.
N.S. The tension you create in the piece, “In China” is stunning. The detail in the breath patterns of the dying person. The heartbreaking loneliness expressed in the comfort of bad news. And again, the efficiency of words. Volumes are spoken. I would imagine flash fiction is your first art. Is that true?
Nathan: I suppose it’s true, in the sense that my flash publications outnumber my longer stories five to one. Perhaps the more appropriate way to say it is that I struggle at getting any of the other forms right. I worked on a novel for almost five years, but it was too large of a thing for me to get my brain around. It was like carrying fifteen bags of groceries at once; something kept slipping out of my grasp and spilling all over the place. I also have about a dozen long stories I’m working with at the moment, some of which I’ve worked on for ten years. I don’t give up on them, but they seem to grow as slowly as children—they might well be eighteen or older before they finally seem ready to leave the house.
But flash I think of more as an experiment, a thing I do for fun. That takes the pressure off; it invites me to play, since, if I fail, the consequences are smaller. My computer is a big workshop, with all kinds of failed projects. If I have fifty flash pieces published, I have twice as many that will never see the light of day.
N.S. Who are your influences? Are they writers mostly? Or are there other artists, thinkers, people who have helped shape your writing style and motivations?
Nathan: I love what arists and musicians do for my writing. Really, anytime I’m in the presence of an amazing artist or scholar, even at a lecture or reading, I walk away inspired to write.
That said, I have to thank the English Department at the University of Maryland, where I earned my BA years ago. The authors I read there have really stay with me, particularly the European writers– Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Franz Kafka, Margaret Duras, Virginia Woolf, Herman Hesse, and Rainer Rilke. On this side of the Herring pond, I’d say Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, James Baldwin, Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Lethem, Ron Carleson, and Antonya Nelson. My favorite living writer is probably Haruki Murakami.
N.S. You are already very accomplished, but what do you think about as your ideal life as a writer? Your hopes and dreams?
Nathan: I always wanted to be a writer, but was too intimidated. In college, I took one creative writing class, but I stopped because my writing was full of technical flaws, as well as other issues. Then someone told me that if you write seriously for ten years, you’ll start publishing. You mean it’s only a matter of trying for a long time? I thought. It was a relief. And so I wrote, while doing other things, and eventually got into an MFA, and started getting published. I kept writing and published, but I’m a slow writer. Perhaps that’s why flash is good for me as well. Anyhow, now I have enough material for a collection of stories, a collection of flash, and a collection of essays. My goal is to get at least one of these books out in the world. I’m more interested in a good-natured press than a big named one. And the one thing I have is patience.
N.S. What’s in the works now?
Nathan: Just working on fine tuning those three collections, really. That, and raising my story children.
N.S. CR Stories is so thrilled to have your talent. Strong prose with layers of flavored truth, like a great Pinot is my experience of your work. But why CR? And, what about the theme: Paper, drew you in?
Nathan: I always look over a journal before submitting. I really loved the layout and the range of writers, old and new, and the attention you gave to each—allowing us to experience two pieces, to read their bio, and then to learn more with the interviews. It was also a plus that CR accepted previously published stories, which few journals do.
I’m always fascinated by paper, the way it waits patient and still for words to come to it (not like a curser and a bright computer screen), the way it can hold secrets, the way it can be crumpled or burnt. I was talking to some young writing students the other day about postal mail, trying to convince them of how lovely it is to get a real letter, to hold it, to look at the stamp and the handwriting, and then open it. Even the act of deciphering someone’s handwriting adds to the slow pleasure of reading a postal letter, as does holding a piece of paper that was once in the author’s hands, esp if they are far across the world, or no longer living. Paper holds all that in a way an email or text can’t. I think that’s why many readers appreciate signed copies of books: the maker of the book actually touched the copy you own.
N.S. Thank you for the interview Nathan. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Nathan: Thank you for such generous question ! Nothing more to say; I’ve probably said too much already.
N.S. Nah, never!