Writers' Workshop grad Thisbe Nissen addresses chaos in hefty new book

Thisbe Nissen’s new book, “Our Lady of the Prairie,” is a novel of upheaval — much of which is set in motion by its central character. In this e-interview, Nissen, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, discusses the challenges of writing and editing the novel, particularly in a literary climate that seems to frown on so-called difficult women in leading roles.

She also considers the importance of Iowa in her life and in the book, the role presidential politics plays in the novel, and as a significant dream sequence (a description which underplays the chapter’s power) at the center of the book.

Q: This novel has been a long time coming, and the final version, if I understand correctly, is less than half the length of the longest draft. Tell me about the process of writing the long version and of winnowing it down to the published version. What was most challenging about the writing and the editing?

A: “Our Lady” has been such a long time coming I have to go through my files to even remember! In May 2002 I read at Cedar Rapids’ Mount Mercy College from a new story about a wedding beset by a tornado. Three years later, I was working on what I described in a fellowship application as, “either a novel or two novellas.” A year after that, in 2006, in another application, I wrote: Last fall at MacDowell I finished two novellas, and realized I had two more novellas to write as part of the whole. By the time I had a draft of that “whole,” in 2013, I’d added another three “novellas” — now the seven long chapters that comprise the novel — and it was 823 pages long. I think being a writer is kind of like being a giant lint roller: I spent a decade accruing lint, and another half-decade trimming and sculpting my giant lintball into a novel.

By far, the most challenging aspect of editing was staying true to the book I was trying to write. Early readers balked at its size and heft and tone, telling me I had to slim it down, make it less angry, more appealing and palatable. I watch male authors publish big, thick novels lauded for their ambition and scope, their vast, rangy intellect, but rarely see women publishing big novels, especially if the protagonist is a woman — let alone a middle-aged woman — and the book’s set in “flyover” country, barely viewed as habitable — let alone interesting — by coastal-dwelling Americans. If I’d been willing to rework the novel to make Phillipa “nicer” and more “likable” — to put her story on a diet, educate her in more acceptable social etiquette, and make her pipe down, already — I might’ve had an easier time publishing it. Instead, I did a lot of hard work within myself, both to keep working and to make peace with the fact that the book might not ever be published. I took great heart in outspoken women writers, maybe none more than Claire Messud in a beautifully outraged Publishers Weekly interview. Asked by the interviewer about her prickly protagonist — “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim” — Messud snapped:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in “The Corrections?” Any of the characters in “Infinite Jest?” Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

Ultimately, Our Lady, was given a home at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt by a brilliant editor, Lauren Wein, who understood what I was doing and helped me realize that. The book was ushered into this world by an amazing team of women — a whole flock of Nora Eldridges and Phillipa Maakestads. In the end, we cut it down to 368 pages without losing much content at all. This Isaac Babel quote — Your language becomes clear and strong not when you can no longer add, but when you can no longer take away — guided me in paring back language without sacrificing the book’s scope or, I hope, its soul. Now, as it goes out into the world, I just keep reminding myself of Roxanne Gay’s dedication to “Difficult Women,” “who should be celebrated for their very nature.”

Q: One important thread in the book is the Bush/Kerry presidential race of 2004. As the final text came together, were there particular challenges involved in recreating that political moment in light of all that has come after? The book nods to that future — with then Senator Obama and Donald Trump both making appearances. Did it feel important to incorporate them as a wink to the contemporary reader who knows more than the narrator does about what is to come?

A: I think maybe other liberal progressives who lived through that election in Iowa might understand my need to write an 800-page novel to try to work through my emotions about it! Other people kept telling me that I needed to just get over it, but, like Phillipa, I’m stuck even farther back than that, still waiting for Al Gore to assume his rightful place in the White House. Young Senator Obama was in the book all along — very much an intentional wink — as he was in our hearts all along, a beacon through the awfulness of Bush’s second term. Trump (or, as we say in our household, “He whose name shall not be spoken”) was a post-2016 election addition in the final stages of editing when it felt necessary to make some acknowledgment of the horror that’s since befallen this country and made our fear of Dubya look downright quaint by comparison.

Q: You take a significant narrative risk when Phillipa falls asleep and dreams a history for her husband’s family — creating, in effect, a novella inside the novel. How do you think of this historical passage operating inside the larger novel? What does it reveal about Phillipa?

A: The historical section — which was once the length of a novel itself! — is, to me, the heart of the book. Our Lady’s construction is akin to a medallion quilt: a central panel surrounded by multiple layered borders. For me, the historical section serves as the novel’s central medallion. In the midst of great turmoil, Phillipa descends into an Oz-like fever dream. Contemporary Iowa gets whipped by the twister of her imagination into a hypothetical Nazi-occupied France populated, like Dorothy’s Oz, by characters from Phillipa’s life, in situations recast from her reality. It’s Phillipa trying to make sense of her husband’s family history, and of her own existence. The episode is Phillipa’s attempt to empathize with someone for whom she could find no empathy in real life.

Q: Iowa City appears under an alias in your story. Why did you decide to rename the town?

A: I wanted to write about the place I love so dearly, but without being beholden to exact geographies and details and history. I needed that freedom to create the novel’s world instead of struggling to recreate the real one.

Q: If I remember correctly, there’s a short story collection in the offing now that this novel is out. Will we be seeing that in bookstores soon? What are you working on now/next?

A: “In the offing” would be an optimistic way of putting it — and, on principle, I refuse all optimism when it comes to the publishing world! I’ve been sitting on a story collection for years; I think its fate depends on how things go with this novel. So, we’ll see ... I don’t know what’s next: I’ve got a few novellas underway, and some notes toward a novel about Jewish pirates in Barbados, but who knows? I’ve been taking lots of photographs in recent years, and feel compelled to continue — possibly in conjunction with words, I’m not sure. I’m coming to think of myself less as a writer, per se, and more as a maker. I make stuff — stories, collages, quilts, photographs, novels, lint sculptures — and very much hope to keep finding ways to keep on making.

Q: Your affection for Iowa is palpable in the novel. What makes Iowa so special to you?

A: In many ways this whole novel is a love letter to the place where I was shaped as a writer and as a person. I spent 12 formative years in Iowa, from 1995 to 2007, age 23 to 35. It was the first place I felt able to really make a home for myself in the world. Our Lady is dedicated in part to my husband, but its first dedication is to Iowa “where a piece of my heart will always live.”

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