Interview With Valerie Nieman

Mar 25th, 2015 | By | Category: Feature

Writer Valerie Nieman will be teaching a fiction workshop at UNCG on April 18th as part of the North Carolina Writer’s Network’s Spring conference. With a new collection of poetry out (Hotel Worthy), we thought it was the perfect time to speak to her.

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1. Can you tell us a little about yourself both in terms of your writing as a career and yourself in general?

I grew up in New York State, in the western hill-region called the Allegheny Plateau. Our farmhouse had no insulation but it did have a treasure – shelves filled with narrow books of Poe and Tennyson, volumes of Twain, Stevenson, Emerson, Hardy, Shakespeare. During the summers I ran happily wild on our seven acres, but in the winter I read the classics. Later, SF and fantasy brought new landscapes – Ray Bradbury’s tragic Mars, the jungle world of Rima in Green Mansions, Tolkein’s Middle-Earth, Ursula K. LeGuin’s harsh Winter. My first homeplace was a home of the imagination, where the familiar and comforting were permeated by the strange and troubling – swamp, stream, hillside dump, a plot of dark woods that may have been virgin timber. Among the working farms were the remains of farms, where people had worked and then disappeared. There was sense of loss, of things that have gone away.

I completed a journalism degree at West Virginia University and became a small-town journalist. With my then-husband, we homesteaded a small farm in northern West Virginia, another place of quiet and layered imagination – we built on the site of a former pig farm, which had been a place of early settlement, and before that the hunting grounds of Indian tribes. Those images appear in a poem series called “Losing Ground” in Hotel Worthy. Even earlier, those abandoned farm roads and mine cracks opening into the deep underground appeared in my first novel, Neena Gathering, recently reissued as a classic post-apocalyptic novel after 25 years out of print. In the West Virginia years, I also published two chapbooks of poetry and began a career as a literary magazine editor, helping launch a lovely journal called Kestrel, which is now in its third decade.

I came to North Carolina in 1997, and the Tar Heel State has been both welcoming and inspirational. A novel about the losses of a family and community in the early 70s, Survivors, came out in 2000. Fidelities, a collection of short stories, arrived in 2004, the same year I earned my MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. A wonderful small press out of Winston-Salem, Press 53, brought out my first full-length collection of poetry, Wake Wake Wake, and then my third novel, Blood Clay. Press 53 is also publishing my new poetry collection, Hotel Worthy.

2. You will be teaching an upcoming fiction workshop for the NCWN’s Spring Conference Can you tell us a bit about how this workshop works and what benefits it brings?

I will be teaching “A Matter of Interpretation.” I’ve described it as follows: Characters are presented through their appearance, actions, and words – yet what is evident to other characters within the story may not be accurate, and the reader likewise must often ferret out the truth behind the surface. We’ll explore how a story may hinge on the difference between a character’s apparent reality and the hidden truth, and how the counterpoint between differing elements of a character’s depiction can power the story.

Character is story. Without interesting characters, a story or novel is just a series of plot points, and in the end, no one cares whether the hero wins or the villain. I teach weekend and week-long fiction seminars at John C. Campbell entirely devoted to character development. We dig into their pasts and put them under moral pressure and do role-playing, all sorts of exercises that release the character from the subconscious. It doesn’t matter what kind of fiction you are writing, it’s the characters who will stay in memory. We carry these (fictional but real) people around in our heads.

3. Who is the typical audience for one of these workshops?

The great thing about the NC Writers Network is that it works for writers at all stages, all levels, all types, all ages. It’s a great democracy of letters. The sessions are set up so that everyone can learn something they need through the classes and readings. They also get to network with other writers, which is essential.

4. Do you think it’s necessary, or even desirable, to have a proper writing background or English degree if you want to become a professional writer?

Storytellers come from all backgrounds – you must first have the desire to tell, to shape the experience of your life through words. Training can come from many sources – the reading room at the library, books devoured while making long sea voyages, time alone in a fire tower, and yes, an MFA program.

5. I know that you were formerly a newspaper report and editor. How did that experience transform your writing? Have you ever struggled with writing fact vs. fiction?

I am a strong believer that journalism is a great training ground for fiction writing. (Poetry, too, for some of the same reasons of observation and compression.) My years as a newspaper reporter taught me to write, and not become obsessed with writer’s block. I learned that I could “produce copy,” even if I had to start in the middle and work both ways. And I got used to working in bits and pieces on various projects, which continues as I tend to have two or three things going at the same time. Right now, I am working on a three-book historical fantasy, a novel-in-verse, and a travelogue/poetry collection. If the novel is just not working, I can set it aside and turn to poems. It’s a blessing and a curse – I don’t finish projects as quickly, but don’t get frustrated or blocked. I am also somewhat antsy – I have a hard time keeping my behind in the chair for long stretches, but pop up to wander when I’m thinking. Pull weeds, wash dishes, sit and watch the leaves moving in the tops of the trees.

6. In your career teaching writing at NC A&T University, how have you been able to tap into the creative potential of students who say that they aren’t naturally creative?

I really enjoy working with students who want to explore creative writing but have never had the opportunity. I teach the “Intro” class every semester, and while I sometimes have creative writing majors, often the class is heavily weighted toward other areas. This semester, I have students majoring in agriculture, journalism, visual arts, psychology – everything but English. I have had wonderful writers who were engineers or physicists. My task is to open them to the possibilities and to convey some of my enthusiasm for writing.

7. Who do you consider to be your biggest literary influences?

I’ve ranged pretty widely as a writer, from science fiction to literary fiction to crime fiction, from poetry to short stories to travel writing. I credit Fred Chappell, who’s been a constant mentor and friend, and who advised me it’s just fine to write in various forms and genres. That seems to be much less the case in these days of “author branding.” I mentioned a lot of the early influences already. I am a great admirer of Margaret Atwood, and recently have been reading Jose Saramago.

8. I know that you have an upcoming poetry collection and that you are the editor of a poetry magazine. What is poetry’s role today? I’ve always been a fan but I can honestly say that I know only a handful of people who enjoy it, which is sad. 

Poetry has always been part of people’s lives, still is – they just may not realize it’s so. Popular song descends from ballads, the newspaper of the people. Lyric poetry and song lyrics are not the same, but they do have connections. I think the Internet has helped to bring more poetry before more people – folks who would never come onto a college campus to hear a poetry readings can now read amazing poems at Poets.org, or the Poetry Foundation. The Writer’s Almanac and Verse Daily and American Life in Poetry bring new poems directly to their in-boxes.

9. Who are your favorite NC writers?

Oh, this is a trap, isn’t it!

I am not going to enumerate them all, but list a few authors and books that come quickly to mind. Our Southern Highlanders by Horace Kephart, which I read as a young teen and was fascinated by his depiction of the independent mountain people of the Smokies. Manley Wade Wellman’s “Silver John” tales set in the Appalachians. Wilma Dykeman’s The Tall Woman, read years ago when I lived in West Virginia. Being a tall woman, it had a natural attraction for me.

My first direct contact with a North Carolina author was Fred Chappell, when he came to my then-home state of West Virginia to speak at a writers’ conference. Since I’ve arrived at my “home place,” I’ve come to love the work of John Ehle and Doris Betts as well as those I already knew, Reynolds Price, Thomas Wolfe, Robert Morgan, Kay Gibbons, Lee Smith.

I went to Queens University of Charlotte for my MFA, becoming friends there with faculty such as David Payne and students including Susan Woodring. The North Carolina Writers Network, North Carolina Poetry Society, and North Carolina Writers Conference have brought me into fellowship with contemporaries including Marjorie Hudson, Bland Simpson, Margaret Maron, David Halperin, Philip Gerard, Randall Kenan.

So many poets – again, far too many to mention, except that I have the great good fortune to work closely with Sarah Lindsay and Mark Smith-Soto. I’ve eagerly awaiting Ansel Elkins’ new poetry book.And all the great folks publishing at Press 53!

Of course, the authors are arrayed in their splendor at the UNC Library site.

10. I took my children to see John York read his poetry a few years back and everyone seemed surprised to see children there. Are we doing the future generations a disservice by not taking them to events like poetry and book readings, where there’s a traditionally quiet atmosphere? 

I am no expert on this, but it seems to me that children learn what they are taught – in contemporary America, that too often means loud and fast and violent. The pleasures of the book and of quiet imaginative play are drowned out by television, cellphones, and video games. Everyone must be entertained at all costs – adults as well as children. Yet this is not the case worldwide. I saw 10-year-old boys at the Comedie Francaise, enjoying the broad humor of “Le Bourgeois gentilhomme.” It’s difficult to imagine a similar child in the U.S. taking part in a three-hour production of Shakespeare – so what is different? Something about their education and exposure to culture – or is it our unwillingness to teach children how to behave in settings other than the bounce house and ball pit? I think children should hear the word, at story hour, puppet shows, plays, and at poetry readings – nearly all writers I know will make a few shifts if necessary if the audience includes young listeners.

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