photo of Kent Nelson
taken by Julio Mulero on
Attu Island, Alaska, the last Aleutian
Kent Nelson and his stories are all over the map, and I mean that in a good way.
His recent short story collection, The Spirit Bird: Stories (winner of the 2014 Drue Heinz Literature Prize) covers a lot of territory, and the author does some shape-shifting to become many different people to tell the characters’ stories.
And as you’ll discover, Kent himself has really been around and done a lot of things—he has been an algebra tutor, doorman, city judge, dishwasher, ad salesman, ranch hand, professional tennis player and inn keeper, and a college professor (part-time), just to name a few. He has run mountains, died, and chased birds.
Kent on birding…
Birding is the perfect passion for a writer. (I chase rare birds, but I appreciate local birds, too.)
Birding requires travel to remote places – for me, Alaska, Newfoundland, Costa Rica, Bhutan, as well as to outlying areas of Arizona, California, Texas, and Florida. From every trip I come back with locations, that is, backgrounds for stories. A bird person pays attention to habitat, weather, terrain, but with training, he or she sees much more about the elements in landscapes that affect the people living there.
Kent on The Spirit Bird…
The Spirit Bird is my new book of short stories (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014), and students thinking of signing up for my workshops at the Wyoming Writers Conference in June might find it helpful to read a few of these pieces.
The stories are a pretty wild mix, with backgrounds in the west and south, and one in Costa Rica. One story is set in Cheyenne. The narrators are of both genders, and stories are told from both the third-person and first. Most of the stories are serious, but some are meant to be funny or to have an edge to them.
There’s also a range of uses of personal experience and invention. “Race,” for example, is based on my falling over dead in a half-marathon (August 29, 2009), but “Alba,” is about a nineteen-year-old Mexican kid who lives in Hatch, New Mexico. “My Crazy Father” is loosely narrated (and made up) by one of my daughters. “Who is Danny Pendergast?” is about a man who turns into a donkey. The title story is a first-person account of a woman’s experience birding in Gambell, Alaska.
The first lesson I learned…
The first exciting lesson I learned in a class of fiction writing – we had to write a 300-word story every day for eight weeks – was to pay attention to everything around. The corollary epiphany came later in the semester: you can spend your whole life being curious about everything in the world. That idea affected me. Everything that happened to me (or that I made happen) could be put into some aspect of a story. Life as part of work – what could be better than that?
Writing is a combination of work and magic…
I understand the struggle to write and write better. I work at it every day in a six-by-twelve shed, or in my girlfriend’s four-by-foot basement storage area. I am still curious, still eager to make something of nothing – writing is a combination of persistence and magic – and it requires a daily ritual. I still love getting up in the morning and meeting the people in my stories.
Back to Lynn…
We get to meet and learn from Kent at the 2015 Wyoming Writers, Inc. conference in Cheyenne this coming June 5 – 7. Click here to register for the conference.
Kent will present three workshops, one on
CRAFT: Thirty neglected craft issues that will make your writing better;
and two on
GETTING INTO THE STORY: An examination of strategies to get the reader involved right away.
A bonus that you’ll want to know about is that in the Getting into the Story workshop, Kent will read, critique and discuss a selection from the first 20 story openings (100 words max) submitted by participants.
Your story opening can be among them! Send the submission to Kent at firstname.lastname@example.org by May 15th.
Learn more… Here’s a link to some information about Kent and The Spirit Bird on Colorado Public Radio. Take some time to listen to the audio interview—definitely worth it!