a conversation with Thisbe Nissen      
Thisbe Nissen


You thanked your parents for allowing their courtship and marriage to become part of the story. You grew up in New York. You have a Shakespearean name. How autobiographical is The Good People of New York?

The Good People of New York began as two short stories, "The Rather Unlikely Courtship of Edwin Anderson and Roz Rosenzweig" and "Think About if You Want" which became, respectively, chapters 1 and 20. When I wrote "The Rather Unlikely Courtship..." I was definitely trying to imagine in fiction the story I'd heard so many times of my parents meeting outside a friend's apartment, scrounging around on the ground to find the key she'd tossed out the window to them. When I wrote "Think About..." (originally published in The North American Review as "A Brownstone, Park Slope") the mother's name was Sheila and the daughter's name was Miranda. It was some time later when I thought: you know, I think maybe Sheila is actually Roz later in life. And then I went about filling in what had happened in between. I started chronicling Roz and Edwin's early marriage using other anecdotes I'd grown up hearing from my folks. But somewhere along the way Roz and Edwin stopped being my parents, who are still married to each other and have led very different lives from Roz and Edwin.

Miranda, on the other hand, really isn't me at all (though I did do a lot of theater in high school). I think Miranda's maybe the person I wished I was in high school, since I was somewhat of a basket case myself back then. Miranda's name I chose randomly when writing that early story about the brownstone in Park Slope, but then when she was becoming a main character in the novel I decided I couldn't name a character Miranda without having read The Tempest, so I made myself read it and was smitten with so many things about the play that I worked it into the fiber of the story. Though I have to say my parents did discover my name when they went to see A Midsummer Night's Dream and couldn't agree on anything else. I went to camp in the Adirondacks, but I didn't sleep with anyone in high school, let alone my English teacher. I never moved to Brooklyn. So there's my answer: somewhat autobiographical and also not autobiographical at all.

You captured the little quirks and foibles of New York so well. I particularly loved that hilarious moment when Manhattanite Miranda freaks out about moving to Brooklyn--this being the eighties, before Park Slope got hot. While you grew up in New York, you went to school in Ohio and now live in Iowa. Do you feel that leaving New York allowed you to get a better or perhaps more objective sense of the place?

Definitely. I had a writing teacher in college who said it takes a number of years to get enough perspective on your own life to make good fiction out of it, so it makes sense that I spent my mid-twenties working on a book set in the place I'd lived until I was 18. I think it took leaving New York for me to become a sane enough person to write about anything at all.

A friend recently pointed out that very few New Yorkers are actually native; most were born and raised elsewhere before relocating. While the book is about "the good people of New York," only two of the major players actually come from there and it's those who don't--Edwin of Nebraska, Darrin of Colorado, and Wing of Oregon--who have the most polarizing effect on the protagonists. Is the story of Roz and Miranda a particularly New York one?

I'd like to think that it's first and foremost a mother/daughter story, which just happens to be set in New York. I hope what Chris Offutt said about the book is true, and that "the good people of New York could be the good people of anywhere."

I read that you have an "unnatural fondness" for baby name books. Names play a significant part in the novel: the Anderson clan's peculiar yet funny naming tradition, the psychic's "SS" prediction, and, of course, Miranda's name creates opportunities and experiences for her. You seem to have put a lot of thought and time into picking character names; every person has exactly the right name.

You know, I think when you go through life having to explain to everyone you meet that your name is Thisbe, names begin to take on a certain significance. I've definitely been shaped by being a Thisbe, and I find myself shaping characters around their names. I think sometimes I create characters just because I get obsessed with the idea of naming someone Fran Kornblauser or because I once knew a girl named Darrin and I thought she was the coolest person in the world. Sometimes I get afraid that I'm going to start having children just so I can name them.

You've been writing for a long time, having graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Did you always know you wanted to write? Have you refined your writing process to a science?

A science, god no! If writing felt like science I'd probably never be able to make myself do it again. I did always know that I wanted to be a writer; it was really the only thing I could ever picture myself doing. I sometimes wish I could be one of those people who says "I sit down everyday for five hours and do nothing but write," but I'm just not. I write mostly on a pleasure/inspiration principle. Some days I don't write at all: there are gardens to be planted and cats to be taken to the vet and brunches to be eaten and gossiping to be done. Some days I sequester myself away and do nothing but scrawl. I really do figure that if I'm not enjoying writing it, probably no one's going to enjoy reading it, so I don't force myself into anything. I've often thought of it the way horseback riders talk about "giving a horse its head." If given my head, I tend to write, so I try to keep the reins pretty loose and let myself go where I need to go.

Shakespeare's The Tempest makes cameo appearances throughout the novel, directing the action at certain points. Is he a particular literary influence of yours? Who influences your writing?

I think I've actually always had an aversion to Shakespeare since pretty much the first thing I learned to say when asked where I'd gotten my name was: "Shakespeare. Midsummer Night's Dream. Pyramus and Thisbe." I think I was called "Frisbee" too many times to have much appreciation for the guy who'd inspired my parents to give me a name like Thisbe. So I steered clear of Shakespeare for the most part, and honestly felt like I just wasn't smart enough to really understand the plays we had to read in high school. Until Macbeth, when I really got into the witches. But then when I decided I had to either make myself read The Tempest or change Miranda's name, I found that I loved it. I made it through college without taking a Shakespeare class, but I'm tempted now to enroll myself in one at the University here some semester. I think I might finally be ready and able to appreciate him.

My real influences are contemporary; I read contemporary women writers for the most part. Laurie Colwin, Abby Frucht, Lorrie Moore, Elizabeth McCracken, Ann Beattie, Elizabeth Tallent, Deborah Eisenberg. Also Charles Baxter, Scott Spencer, Stuart Dybek... I do read men too sometimes.

Are you working on anything now?

A big novel! Tentatively called Osprey Island. I've got this huge cast of characters, and I'm modeling my point of view on what John Irving seems to have done in The Cider House Rules: an omniscient narrator who is able to swoop in close and then pull back away from many different characters. This Osprey Island thing has much more of a real plot than I've ever had in mind before, so it feels different, and challenging, which I think is good for me. And I'm also writing stories, because it feels good to be able to actually call something done once in a while.

I'm a non-native New Yorker myself and I always get asked if I intend to go back to California eventually. So, I'll ask: do you plan on returning to New York at some point?

To visit, sure, I'm back a few times a year to see my folks and my die-hard New Yorker friends. To live: never. I don't do so well in New York myself. The pace, the style, the anonymity: they kill me. I set one foot in that city and suddenly my brain leaves me entirely and the only thing in my head is: "I'm fat and ugly and have all the wrong clothes." Back in Iowa I feel like I spend my time thinking about real things that are important and more than superficially significant. New York makes me lose all perspective. I become that miserable person I was in high school. I'm much happier out here in Iowa where I can wear my overalls everyday, the postman knows my name, and people smile when they pass each other on the street.

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    Photo credit: Erin Ergenbright