“Subjects We Never Completely Learn”: An Interview with Daniel Nester


Black and white picture of Hamilton Square, NJDaniel Nester’s prose zings back and forth between the heart and the funny bone. His latest book, Shader, is a kaleidoscopic coming-of-age story told in brief chapters called “notes.” It’s like one of those family slideshows that make us laugh, groan, squirm in our chairs, and sometimes cry. His previous books include How to Be Inappropriate, God Save My Queen I and II, and The Incredible Sestina Anthology, which he edited. Daniel teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. We caught up recently via email to talk about Shader, the dangers of memoir writing, and the joys of writing notes.

Matthew Thorburn: Shader is subtitled “99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects.” I’m curious how you came up with the “note” form, and what makes the subjects of these notes “unlearnable.”

Daniel Nester: Part of what “unlearnable” accomplishes, for me, is to challenge an often Pollyanna-ish approach memoirists bring to risk-taking, the “if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing” business. We’re supposed to learn from experience, yes, but the truth is that there are subjects we never completely learn.

The form came out of my practice of note-taking, which goes back to my first books on Queen, where I wrote a note for every song the band recorded. I like to joke that, when I write, I feel as smart as Susan Sontag, whose “Notes on ‘Camp’” is a big inspiration. Then I look at what’s on the page and realize that’s not the case.

MT: Shader is poignant, often hilarious, and throughout feels very candid. Was it difficult to revisit some of these experiences from your past—and write them down for people to read? Did you ever feel the temptation to revise your memories?

DN: I like your slideshow comparison. People who study memory will tell you we’re constantly revising memories from the place and time of our remembering. I started writing Shader before our first daughter was born—I knew my perspective would change. Once I got a memory down, I respected the memory: if I discovered I got a minor detail wrong, I considered keeping it, since that’s how I remembered and re-lived it.

Parts of this book were very difficult to write. The parts about my father were painful, and I wanted to portray Maple Shade as honestly as I could. In personal narrative, there’s the idea that you’re the protagonist of your own story, what Vivian Gornick calls the “unsurrogated” narrator, and so you’re tempted to make yourself look cooler or better. But when you’re rocking a mullet and you’ve got Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died In Your Arms” on your tape deck, where do you start? Even Saint Augustine knew that humility runs the risk of being an “exploit.” Give me raw and candid, even prideful, honesty over twee faux-naïf mumblebrag all day long.

MT: My introduction to your work (quite a few years ago now) was through your poems. Has your poem-writing had an influence on your note-writing, or vice versa?

DN: For years, writing poetry represented complete freedom from worry over what it means to be a writer, to write, what and who writing is for, how it will end up existing in the world, if at all. And I worried a lot. I used to agonize over asking too much of poetry, so much it hurt. I loved poetry that much. Writing prose was a release from much of that; over time, I came to love what Annie Dillard says about essays, that they “can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.” I love how essays circle back on themselves, ask questions and leave them unanswered. I love essaying now as much as I love poem-ing.

Poetry was my first love. Then, at some point, I fell out of love with poetry. Not poems: poetry. I am happy to report that poetry and I are meeting for coffee these days, working out new rules for our relationship, filling some notebooks.

MT: Speaking of which, what are you working on now?

DN: I’ve got a book of aphorisms and fragments, and another book on rock music simulacra. Next up is a collection on literary culture and being a writer. Over the years, I’ve written various essays on truth-telling in memoir, working-class memoir, vaguebooking, sestinas, and about my old teacher, Philip Levine. I thought about calling it Smelling Farts, a reference to W.H. Auden’s aphorism, “Most people enjoy the sight of their own handwriting as they enjoy the smell of their own farts.” But I’ll probably go with something less fart-centric.

MT: What have you read recently that moved you?

DN: Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project astounds. I’m dipping in and out of Renata Adler’s After the Tall Timber with pleasure. Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City is pretty great despite, or maybe because of, its bitterness. And Elvis Costello’s Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink is better than it needs to be.

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