Antonya Nelson received her MFA from the University of Arizona in 1986 and is the author of eight short story collections and four novels. Her work has appeared in Colorado Review, the New Yorker, Harper’s, and many other magazines, as well as in anthologies such as Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories. She has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Rea Award for the Short Story. ML Thomas, an intern at Colorado Review, reached out to Nelson to discuss her short story “Funny Once.”
ML Thomas: Your story “Funny Once,” which was featured in the spring 2012 issue of the Colorado Review, deals with a very compressed timeline. The story takes place within a few hours. What draws you to stories with a short span of movement in time?
Antonya Nelson: My rule of thumb when writing stories is to have them take place in the shortest amount of time possible. That said, some stories require weeks or months to unfold; some stories are shaped by “clocks” that are expansive (a season, a journey, a relationship) and some are shaped by a brief exposure—a day, an evening, a dinner party—to a single important moment. “Funny Once” is one of those.
Very brief time signatures allow very small moments to resonate. A small gesture or simple, yet significant, shift in thinking can signal a slightly altered universe. Short stories thrive under the kind of scrutiny a compressed time frame encourages.
MLT: Through most of the story the protagonist, Phoebe, is attempting to navigate the fact that she cannot be happy. She mentally circles around the conversation she had with a therapist that went against the grain of her expectations. What compels her to listen to his advice after he rejects her?
AN: I love the misery of my character Phoebe because she recognizes it as childish and churlish, yet indulges it nevertheless. She also believes she knows her partner so well as to be scornful of his character, to take him for granted. That he reveals something mysteriously dark and unknown about himself surely will change the terms of their relationship. The surprise of that mystery is what shakes her out of whatever stuck place she thought she was in, and probably is sending her somewhere she’s not going to totally enjoy.
MLT: How deeply do you write into the lives of your secondary characters while you are drafting? LL, Ouisie, and the Spankies feel like they are tracing their own trajectory in the story. How did you arrive at the details that set them in motion?
AN: As for secondary characters, they are among my favorite to create. I spend a lot of time hosting my family and friends; there’s something about the clutter and clatter of children and couples and siblings that makes me feel the urge to capture the chaos in fiction. The sense that there is an ongoing story in every family, in every relationship, even if it isn’t the story that’s being told at the moment. I think I have spent most of my writing life exploring the same room full of people, focusing differently each time out.
MLT: There is a very compelling use of contrast in this story. As Phoebe negotiates the differences between how the party would have seemed if she were drunk, and how it actually seems now that she is sober, the reader gets a view of her habitual life as well as the current circumstance. The story left me wondering: Will Ben and Phoebe survive as a couple once sober? Do you want the reader to believe definitely one way or another?
AN: I think if Phoebe hadn’t been sober she wouldn’t have noticed a great deal of what transpired in this evening. I think it’s maybe that these things in combination—sobriety, realization of a darkness in Ben, absence of children or marriage—might simply be the wake-up call of adulthood. Phoebe needs to grow up, and she sort of figures that out on this evening. Once you cross that threshold (knowledge) you can’t go back to your innocent obliviousness. I think of that as coming-of-age, and every story ought to be a coming-of-age story.
MLT: What have you read lately that you find inspiring?
AN: I’m reading a variety of things, mostly books I find at Telluride’s local free box. Two nights ago it was Ken Haruf’s Benediction, a lovely quiet novel about an ordinary man in an eastern Colorado small town. I found it profoundly moving. Last night I started John Banville’s The Untouchable, which is a great historical novel about a Russian spy in the twentieth century, dense with Henry-James-like prose and lots of intrigue. Next in the queue is my former student Ashley Wurzbacher’s collection of stories Happy Like This, which won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award this year. The judge was Carmen Maria Machado. One of the stories (“Ripped”) was in the Colorado Review. It’s a wonderful collection.