Nathaniel Tower is a prolific writer, established editor, and athlete. He writes stories that stay in your head for all the good reasons. His prose style and matter-of-fact tone convince you that what you just read is completely plausible, at least within the elaborate world Tower creates. He gets away with this because his prose is clear and authoritative. If you choose to follow the words on the page, a satisfying finale will be your reward.
Nathaniel lives in the Twin Cities area with his wife and daughter. After teaching high school English in Missouri for nine years, he decided to pursue writing and marketing. His fiction has appeared in over two hundred online and print journals. Nathaniel is the founding and managing editor of Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine and Press. When he’s not doing writerly things, he likes to joggle (juggle and run simultaneously). He is the former world record holder for running a mile backwards while juggling. He is working on getting his record back.
Find out more about Nathaniel at nathanieltower.wordpress.com.
What’s the most absurd or surreal event you remember from your childhood (or teen) years?
I think everyone’s childhood seems filled with surreal and absurd experiences, but once we share them, we realize they really aren’t that absurd. Inevitably, someone else will say, “Yeah, that happened to me too.” But, since I attended a small K through 8 Catholic grade school, I might have a few extra tricks in my bag. So here are two that still “haunt” me today:
In 5th grade, we used to write petitions every week in religion class. The teacher would send the petitions off to some nuns who would burn them, the smoke casting up to the heavens while they prayed for the requests to come true. Now, I was a good little Catholic boy, and probably the “best” altar boy in the class (luckily, I don’t have any surreal stories about that). But even I thought the burning of petitions was stupid, so my friends and I came up with the idea to write really offensive things instead. We filled our weekly petitions with profanity and horrible requests. We did this for weeks without anyone the wiser (except maybe God, who we knew was omniscient, and maybe those nuns who possibly were filtering out our nasty petitions–after all, none of the vulgarities seemed to come true). Then, one unfortunate week, a girl in our class caught us snickering over our petitions and ratted us out. We were sent to the office where the principal placed our three latest vulgar creations in front of us and asked us to choose which one we each wrote. We stared at them for a while and denied it, even though it was pretty obvious we were the perpetrators behind the blasphemy. Since I knew we were destined to get in trouble, I selected mine first, but I chose the one I thought was the least offensive (mine was decidedly the most profane with a string of about one hundred f-bombs). My friends immediately followed suit and claimed the other two. Little did I know, the petition I chose was actually the most vulgar–I just didn’t understand all the terminology. Whereas mine had just listed vulgar words, this one actually meant something and had some very explicit connotations (at least it did for a 5th grader). When I got home, I pretended like nothing had happened, under the naïve hope that my parents wouldn’t be notified. I was outside playing baseball when my mom called me in. She was holding “my” petition and very disappointed, both that I would write such smut and that I knew what such smut meant (even though I didn’t). Blaming it all on my friends did little to ease my punishment. Luckily, since I was in 5th grade, there wasn’t anything significant that I was being punished from, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. As part of my punishment, I had to say extra prayers. Any guess what I prayed for?
When I was in 7th grade, I stole a book of matches from someone’s science presentation. After school, I convinced a few of my friends to join me in the bathroom for some fun. We lit the matches and tossed them in the sink and trash can. As you can imagine, there was a bit of fire, but we were smart enough not to let it get out of control. Of course, just when we were finished putting it out, someone came into the bathroom and caught us. The little punk ratted us out to the principal. As punishment, we had to miss recess every day for a week while we worked on a rap song that we would sing in front of the entire school. The refrain was “learn not to burn” and involved us doing a good little dance. Naturally, the performance made us into badasses and not fools. Unfortunately, the only girls who really thought it was cool were in 4th grade, and luckily that is where the absurdity of this ends.
Before we talk about your latest book, Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands (Martian Lit: 2014), I wanted to ask you about your previous publications: your first novel, A Reason to Kill, and your follow-up, the novella, Hallways and Handguns, both published by MuseItUp Publishing in 2011. I’m curious about the progression from big form (novel) to small form (your latest book is a collection of short stories). Did you work on these projects concurrently or was there a lag between them? How hard or easy was it to find publishers for these earlier projects versus your newer book?
A Reason to Kill and Hallways and Handguns were very different projects than Nagging Wives, and not just in length. I think they are both good examples of a writer just writing not a writer really writing with purpose. Nagging Wives is much more purposeful, but I can’t say I set out for it to be that way. It’s just how it worked out. Maybe it’s because A Reason to Kill was more something I didn’t know about (detectives, murders, etc.). Not that I really know about “nagging wives” and wildebeests, but those aren’t necessarily things meant to be taken literally.
With A Reason to Kill, I was writing because I wanted to write, but I don’t think I really knew what I wanted to write or how I wanted to write it. With the Nagging Wives stories, I knew. I had direction. I was finding my voice as a writer. I didn’t intend to create the collection until almost all the stories were written. The collection almost created itself, or it was the subconscious working of my mind. The shift from novels to stories wasn’t necessarily a case of moving into the shorter pieces to find my comfort zone, although I do think I am a better story writer than I am a novelist. I do have another novel in the works though. I’ve sat on a full draft for over a year. It is much more absurdist than either of my first two longer works.
In terms of finding publishers, that’s never an easy thing. All three works were rejected. Nagging Wives actually received a “unacceptance” at one point, but it found a home quicker than A Reason to Kill (and received a lot fewer rejections). I think I only had to send out Nagging Wives four times before Martian Lit accepted it, where A Reason to Kill faced the rejection slip well over a dozen times. Rightfully so. Nagging Wives is a much stronger work, at least about how satisfied I am looking back on the finished product.
The stories in your latest book, Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands (available on Amazon), rely on the line, hook, and sinker approach, meaning as readers we have to accept the characters wholesale and not question the impossibility of their situations. In order to pull stories like these off, the writer has to set clear rules within the story structure, while delivering a literary payoff for the reader, a reward for believing in the story. Can you tell us about your “rules” and why you set out to write these stories?
For me, the most important rule in writing the surreal into a story is not to try to “prove” the situation is possible. Instead, it has to feel completely natural. I think the key to making it believable is to give the reader no other choice but to believe it. One of the most crucial mistakes I’ve seen writers make in these types of stories is to try to explain how it’s possible. The absurd situation needs to be treated like any other situation or detail. If the sky is blue in a story, a writer need not explain why that’s the case. It just is. Look at Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and imagine how believable the story would be if he spent pages trying to explain how Gregor Samsa became a giant insect. The story would immediately lose its appeal and its meaning. The “explanation” for the implausible situation is delivered in the context of how the characters react. The ultimate secret is to throw the reader into the situation the same way the characters in the story are. Pace the story so there’s little time to question the absurdity. Take “Laundry Day,” for example. There’s a wildebeest in the laundry room and he’s washing sweaters. The wildebeest is introduced into the story the same way a washing machine would. Yes, the character does have moments where he questions how this could happen, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story. The story would be ruined by over-explanation. Instead, of focusing on why the conflict exists, the writer must focus on how the characters are going to resolve the conflict.
I prefer writing stories with these surreal situations because, for me, writing gives me the ability to expound on the surrealism of life. There’s no logical explanation for the human condition. I think these stories make just as much sense as any other story. When I sit down to write a story about what happens when a man encounters a wildebeest in the laundry room, it’s really not much different to me than a story about a man who runs out of laundry detergent and now has to go to the store, but when he gets in the car he’s out of gas. Either way, he can’t get the laundry done. My version is just a lot more fun. So many of the things we encounter on a daily basis are surreal or absurd, but we accept them as part of life because they seem so commonplace. Writing allows me to inject even more absurdity into life in an attempt to further explore why we behave the way we do.
As I read the stories in Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands, I thought about a particular quote by Donald Barthelme, “… everybody’s a realist offering true accounts of the activity of mind. There are only realists.” Even though your stories offer a diverse array of extraordinary characters and situations, there’s a larger truth revealed in each narrative. Which, in turn, made me wonder is there anything you want to write about, but haven’t yet?
I’m a huge fan of Barthelme, and I find so much truth in that quote. Everything we write, whether we consciously know it or not, has to be grounded in realism or it fails. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with my students a few years ago about the real meaning behind a work of fiction. They were struggling to figure out whatever story we were reading, so I brought up Finding Nemo, which they were all familiar with (and just the mere mention made them far more excited than the story we were reading had). I pressed them to tell me what Finding Nemo was about. They babbled on and on about a fish getting lost and giant sea turtles and sharks and talking aquatic life, and I just kept shaking my head and telling them they were wrong. When they were finished recounting the “facts” of the story, I smiled and said, “So what is Finding Nemo about?” At that point it hit them. It’s not about all those fantasies they had discussed. It’s about growing up, facing fears. loyalty, and so on. It’s grounded in reality, which is the only reason the story works at all.
So what haven’t I written that I want to write about? Truthfully, I don’t think I ever know what I want to write about until I start writing it. I don’t often know what a story is about when I begin, and I don’t often think to myself, “I want to write a story about love today.” There are a great number of topics I haven’t explored, and I think that’s because the characters and situations I’ve created haven’t taken me there yet. The times when I have sat down with the purpose of writing about something, I’ve typically ended up with an abandoned manuscript. My writing almost always starts with an idea than a subject. The best example I can think of is the origin of my story “The Oaten Hands.” I was eating a granola bar on a walk, and a piece of granola got stuck to my finger. Suddenly, I had the idea to write a story about a man whose hands were made of oats. Of course, that’s not what the story is about at all. But if I had set out to write a story about overcoming perceived handicaps, then I don’t think I would have created anything worth reading. I think it’s similar to life. If you wake up with the notion that you are going to fall in love, then you might go out and look for the opportunity to love, but you probably won’t find actually it.
Is there a new book (or books) in the works? Are there any other publications of yours we should be on the lookout for?
Writers always have something in the works, right? I have a few projects going now. I’ve been working on a novel called The Funeral Attendee for about five years. It’s in the editing phase, which could end up lasting a pretty long time. I’d love to finish it this year, but the year seems to be ticking by pretty quickly. I have another short story collection coming out later this year. It’s tentatively titled Nuclear Mouth and will be published by Drunk Monkeys. The stories in here are edgier and even more surreal than Nagging Wives. I also have a large collection of crazy tales from the classroom that I’d love to put together into some type of cohesive work. For those looking for something a little more immediate, my serial adventure porn novel Misty Me and Me is still running at JukePop Serials. There are 39 chapters up now, and the thing should be wrapped up by the end of this year, which means it will probably be finished by the middle of 2015. Isn’t that how things tend to go?
Thanks for having me, Gessy. It’s been great chatting with you!
Thank you, Nathaniel!