116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Here’s something I can’t say about too many authors: I remember where I was the first time I read a short story by Thisbe Nissen.
And I remember how quickly I sought out the original University of Iowa Press version of her debut collection, “Out of the Girls’ Room and Into the Night,” because the edition published by Anchor and sent to me for review had fewer stories in it. In the 22 years since that collection was published as the winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, I have recommended it and given it as a gift perhaps more than any other book (only one other book comes to mind as a likely competitor) — and certainly more than any other short story collection.
So I was thoroughly delighted when I learned her second collection, “How Other People Make Love,” was coming out this year. I’m a fan of all of Nissen’s work — which includes three novel’s (“The Good People of New York,” “Osprey Island,” and 2018’s “Our Lady of the Prairie”) and a quirky co-authored and collaged delight called “The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook”) — but as I told her when we spoke by phone, I adore her short stories.
And that adoration extends to include the nine stories collected in “How Other People Make Love.”
Nissen, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, lives in rural Michigan and teaches fiction writing at Western Michigan University. She and her husband and fellow writer, Jay Baron Nicorvo (“The Standard Grand,” his first novel, is truly excellent), also teach for Cornell College’s new low residency MFA program.
I spoke with Nissen by phone on the very day she had started thinking seriously about her next projects (which also happened to be the day before her birthday). But before we talked about new projects, we talked about the short story collection and its long road to publication. We had had conversations before about her agent’s hope to package the collection with “Our Lady of the Prairie.” But the novel took longer to write and to sell — the book came out 14 years after Osprey Island — and the hoped for two-book deal didn’t materialize.
“It didn’t all follow in the way my agent had hoped,” Nissen said. “The idea was that we would sell the novel and kind of piggyback the short stories along with it. By the time Our Lady of the Prairie actually did sell, I was profoundly grateful that someone was publishing it, and I was not in a position to piggyback anything. Short stories are so hard anyway to sell … And so for a long time, I had been feeling like I didn’t really ever see a major publisher actually putting out these stories.”
But one summer at the Bear River Writers’ Conference, hosted each year by the University of Michigan, she had made a connection with a representative from Wayne State University Press.
“And I remember talking to her and being like, ‘I have this story collection and there’s this part of me that thinks it should go to a university press. It should be like my first collection, but I’ll have to see how it falls out with that.’ And then ultimately, you know, it was in the end Wayne State and this wonderful woman there, Annie Martin, who I had been corresponding with for a while. They had used a story — the story that’s actually part of ’Our Lady of the Prairie,’ ’The Church of the Fellowship of Something,’ otherwise known as the tornado story — they had included that in an anthology they had put together of stories by Michigan writers.
“So I had been in touch with Annie since then, and when it all sort of shook out in the big New York publishing world that nobody wanted my short stories, I went to Annie and said, ‘Would you guys be interested?’ And they have been so wonderful. It’s been like working with University of Iowa Press, which is my best publication experience. It’s super hands-on and just very personal.”
An example of that personal touch: The cover of “How Other People Make Love” features a photo of author Laurel Snyder, a dear friend of Nissen’s dating back to when the two attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1990s. The photo was taken by another friend, Sonya Naumann, as part of her Thousand Dollar Dress project, which features different people (including Nissen) wearing Naumann’s wedding dress.
“It just had that feeling of this is how it’s supposed to be,” Nissen said. “My friend is on the cover.”
That feeling that things turned out the way they were supposed to extends to the content of the collection as well.
“In terms of the book that it wound up being, I feel it is everything I could have wanted it to be. It’s feeling to me the way Out of the Girls’ Room feels, which is like these stories are close to my heart. They’re, you know, part of my growing up — a different phase of growing up. They really are all of the traditional, semi-traditional-length stories I’ve written since ”Out of the Girls’ Room“ 22 years ago.”
Given that the stories were penned over a fairly long period of time, I asked Nissen about the book’s connective theme, which the back cover describes as: “ … Nissen chronicles the lives and choices of people questioning the heteronormative institution of marriage.” It might have been simpler to say these are stories about love, and so I wondered if she had been consciously writing stories centered on love so that they could come together in a themed collection.
“No, but you’ve read everything I’ve written now,” she said with a laugh. “Do I ever write about anything else other than my mother? I think it is probably clear that if one looks at my work to date that I have quite an interest in intimate human relationships — and things that spring from them or lead to them. You know, in some ways it’s where everything comes back to for me in some sense.”
She took a few moments to puzzle through the various ideas, themes, and interests that underpin her work.
“So often I am writing from a desire to, or a need to, write myself back into a place or a time. To evoke some feeling. But it’s not like I’m evoking the feeling of romance. That’s not where it starts. It doesn’t start with, like, let me necessarily explore that relationship particularly.”
“I don’t know, maybe it’s just that my whole life, it’s just all about love. I don’t (know) what it is,” she said. “I seem to enjoy the stories of how people come together and come apart and come together and come apart, and I don’t seem to ever tire of those stories, I guess. Yeah. Maybe.”
As for what’s next. She had been considering that very morning.
“There are two projects. There’s one, I have all of these flash pieces that I have been writing over the years. The early ones were in ’Out of the Girls’ Room’ where I was dealing with my father’s Parkinson’s that really affected him more like Alzheimer’s. And it was really early. He died at 68 but he’d been pretty incapacitated for quite some time by then. So I’ve written a bunch of little pieces around that and then I started doing similar stuff with my mom (Nissen’s mother, who suffered from dementia, died in September of 2020). And then I also have been taking photographs. That’s sort of been a big thing in the last six years. I took a lot of photographs of my mom. I’m sorting through things to see if there might be some kind of book or chapbook or I don’t even know what but of these short piece maybe combined with photos and maybe some artifacts from all the stuff of hers that I’m going through. So I’m getting my head around that as sort of one project.
“The other project is actually a writing and quilting project. Quilting has also become sort of this major thing in my world. The processes of writing and quilting just are so similar to me and I am using metaphors throughout each of them to fuel each of those projects … I started wondering if one could make, say, a story, or even a novel, out of fabric scraps, the way one makes a quilt out of such things. It is the fabric scrap novel that I started really actually thinking about this morning and envisioning it as maybe something that I do this summer as a scrap a day. Like, I’m maybe making the quilt alongside writing it — adding a piece of material each day and kind of writing the origin story of that material.”
She unspooled the idea quite a bit further, exploring different options and ideas with a combination of enthusiasm and doubt about how it might turn out. She wrapped up by saying she needs to find the perfect piece of fabric — perhaps some cheesy 1970s sofa cushion fabric.
“I want that to be the center medallion of the quilt and the story. And it’s from the couch that (the narrator) is dying on.”
At that point, Nissen had a question for me:
“Do I sound like an absolute lunatic?”
But these ideas strike me as of a piece with her longstanding interest in collage — which is on display in “The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook” and in much of her prose.
“I would say that most of these stories are collaged together. They are bits and pieces taken from lots of different weddings and recombined in ways that make them say different things. I definitely feel that that’s my process when putting stories together.”
Of course the challenge is in publishing a quilt.
“My faith keeps coming back to the small presses,” she said. “That’s always been where my heart has been. That’s where they’re getting to pick up the books that are weird and interesting and maybe aren’t going to sell a million copies … I’m not so interested in what’s coming out mainstream anymore … I like what the weird little presses are putting out a lot more. And that’s where my students are finding publication for their story collections, because none of the main presses are doing them anymore.”
As our conversation neared its end, I asked Nissen which story in the collection is her favorite. While most authors dodge that question, she did not.
“I have a real weird soft spot for the last story in the book, ‘And The Night Goes Off Like a Gun in a Car.’ I also have a real soft spot for ‘You Were My Favorite Scarecrow.’ And now that I’m saying that, I also have quite a soft spot for the opening story, ‘Alone and Clapping.’ I think partly because those are attached to people in some way.
“‘Alone and Clapping,’ a part of it, was based on a crazy, madcap night at a dyke bar in Seattle with my dear friend and her wife who was dying of cancer. There’s so much in there that just triggers a lot of love and a lot of emotion for me. And the same with ‘You Are My Favorite Scarecrow.’ I wrote it soon after I’d spent a week staying with my dad in New York while my mom went on vacation, and he was really pretty incapacitated. I think I wrote that to make sense of that week. So those are ones that have a lot of emotional resonance with me.”
For my part, I have never read a Thisbe Nissen short story that didn’t resonate with me. She is a master of the form. My suggestion? Find a copy of “Out of the Girls’ Room and Into the Night ” (remember: you want the UI Press edition), buy a copy of “How Other People Make Love,” and read your way through these amazing stories.