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Off the Page: Thisbe Nissen

With Thisbe Nissen
Novelist, Short Story Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2004; 1:00 PM

Thisbe Nissen, whose book of short stories won a prestigious award from the University of Iowa Press, is publishing her second novel, Osprey Island.

I was first introduced to Nissen's work when I read her short story collection, Out of the Girls' Room and Into the Night. Lively, funny and often beautiful, Nissen's stories of adolescence on New York's Upper East Side transcend their time and place and become heart-breaking.

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Osprey Island is set on a beach that could be the vacation spot for the characters in her first two books: a resort off the tip of Long Island. But it is the year-rounders, not the summer visitors, whom Nissen explores.

The setting might also be down the coast from the beach in The Great Gatsby. Yet her outsiders are insiders, people who don't quite fit in the world into which they were born. This tug-and-pull of home is one of the themes of Osprey Island.

She was online Thursday, Aug. 5 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her work. A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Carole Burns: Hello, and welcome to "Off the Page." We are pleased to have Thisbe Nissen, fresh from a party thrown by Vogue magazine in Manhattan last night, calling in from New York to discuss her new novel, Osprey Island. Thisbe will tell us about the party later on. But first, her novel is set on a beach resort on Long Island. We'd like to invite readers to write in and tell us their favorite book set on or around the water: Moby Dick, for example. Mine is Spartina by John Casey, an amazing, complex novel about a struggling seaman in Rhode Island on a mission to build his own fishing boat?which is like saying Moby Dick is about a man hunting a whale. Thisbe, what's yours? Did you have any books in mind when you wrote Osprey Island?


Thisbe Nissen: I don't think I was thinking of a beach book at all. I was probably mostly doing what I often do when I'm writing, which is write myself back into a place that I used to know or want to revisit in myself. If I had to say a book that I had in mind, I spent a lot of time in the beginning thinking about John Irving's CIDER HOUSE RULES, which fascinated me because of its point of view, which was in a lot of ways what I was really wanting to tackle in this novel. Irving has an amazing ability, a real dexterity, in that novel in particular, where he is able to create a narrative voice that is a very omniscient third person who hovers above the world and can see with enormous scope, while at the same time is able to swoop down almost into the minds of major and minor characters alike, and then swoop back up. And I never tried something like that. And point of view has always been my obsession and my albatross, I think. I read CIDER HOUSE RULES, and thought, How does he do that? I want to figure out how to do that! In the end, I ended up doing nothing close to what he did, but it led me on my own path.


Carole Burns: I actually find the settings of your book and CIDER HOUSE RULES similar, the small town-ness of it. What do you think? Do you suppose that influenced you as well.

Thisbe Nissen: I don't know, and in fact, at this point, it's been so many years since I read CIDER HOUSE RULES that it's all sort of a fuzz in my head. I suppose the intertwined lives, sort of with pasts that gradually come out, maybe--I'm sure that's there in some regard. I think the small town-ness of OSPREY ISLAND was almost inbred into what that island is to me. Someone when I was workshopping a very early draft of this, someone called the island, a perfect petry dish. The small community of this island is the perfect place for things to germinate and grow. The closeness of it all was sort of exciting to me, and that's what drove it.


Lyme, Conn.: Living near the Long Island Sound, I am curious about your choice of location for your book. Have you spent time in one of the beach communities and/or islands off of Long Island? What inspired you to pick a beach location and to write about characters in a community with year rounders and summer residents?

Thisbe Nissen: Yes, OSPREY ISLAND is definitely influenced and shaped by summers and weekends spent on Shelter Island, way on the tip of Long Island, between the North and South Forks. And I think my draw toward that setting is there because I have such a visceral memory of that place and the time I spent there as a kid. The quality of air and light is unique. And I don't live in a place like that at all now. And I really do think I write in some cases to evoke those feeling in myself to awaken that visceral sense of a place. It's like going on a little private vacation.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Do you prefer writing short stories? I know some writers who like being able to tackle more subjects, and exploring more topics over shorter periods of time writing appeals more to them than writing at length about one topic in a novel. What appeals to you as a writer?

Thisbe Nissen: I think both serve really different drives in me. I really like getting wrapped up on a novel, and the particular kinds of challenges and problems that you have to solve working on a novel, and the research one has to do working on a novel. I love doing that. And the latitude to follow whims and funny trails and see where they lead you I feel is a lot greater in a novel. On the other hand, I really enjoy the economy of short stories and the way it makes my brain have to work to hone ideas into that economized framework. So they really do serve different drives in me.


Olney, MD: Just a shout out from a fellow HCHS alum who is psyched for you! I'm sorry to say I haven't paid attention to the AlumNotes in a while, so this caught me by surprise, but now I'm quite intrigued and interested, and I'll definitely seek out your books.

-Max H., Class of '88.

Carole Burns: Thisbe, you must translate--HCHS?

Thisbe Nissen: Hunter College High School. Cool! Are you the musical rep Max? Fiddler? If this is who I think it is, you played the rabbi in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.


Carole Burns: Some of your reviews have talked about how you've moved from the urban settings of Out of the Girls' Room and Into the Night and your first novel, The Good People of New York. But I actually find the Upper East Side settings of those books just as small town as Osprey Island. What do you think?

Thisbe Nissen: Huh. That's very interesting. I haven't thought about that at all. I know that for me, I feel like when I was writing The Girls Room and Good People of New York I was definitely processing through my experiences of having lived for 18 years in an urban center, and now, not to say that I've processed through all of that at all. But now having lived in the Midwest pretty much since I left for college in 1990, the things I'm taking in on a regular basis have much more to do with small towns than big cities. Certainly, in every city and every neighborhood the pockets get smaller and each certainly does have its own tone. But it feels different to me. I wonder if it's just the tenor of it that feels different to me. I really have sort of written it off to making sense of my life in New York, and now the things around me are small town, and it's what I'm taking in and processing through. In a way, while there is the element of my time in New York in OSPREY ISLAND, my interest is very much with the locals. Choosing to set the novel before the summer people showed up was important. I was interested in the people out there who are a lot more like the people around me who are like the people around me now in Iowa City.


Washington, DC: My favorite questions to ask short-story writers about their novels: When/how did you know this was a novel? How long has this been percolating? Was there a single germ of an idea, or a sequence, that led to the novel?

Carole Burns: Hmmm, sounds like a short-story writer turned novelist to me!

Thisbe Nissen: Yes! This is the first thing I've written that germinated as a novel. It did not start as a short story. The idea really came with me fully recognizing it as a novel, as a whole piece. And I really wanted to tackle something big. I think I thought this novel was going to be a lot bigger than it was. Even my page counts were less than I thought. It was like 450 manuscript pages, and I thought it was going to be really huge, and it turned into another 300-page novel just like the last one.

It's been percolating a while--I actually started writing it in the summer of 1998. I had also written the beginnings of what would be THE GOOD PEOPLE OF NEW YORK, including a story that was the first chapter, and I was bouncing between the two ideas. Somehow at that time, GOOD PEOPLE was what I needed to be writing, and so I left the 30, 50 pages or whatever it was I had of OSPREY ISLAND and put it aside, and wrote GOOD PEOPLE OF NEW YORK over the next two years.

It wasn't until October of 2000 at the Vermont Studio Center when I really started working on it again. But I wasn't even able to work on it that much then. My edits to GOOD PEOPLE were coming out, etc. So I didn't really focus on it until GOOD PEOPLE OF NEW YORK was really done and over with, and it wasn't really until the fall of 2001 that I began to work on it in earnest.

It was about the desire to evoke that place and time, and the desire to take on the point of view challenge, that really drove the novel.


Washington, D.C. : I hate to sound uninventive, but Moby Dick it is.

Thisbe Nissen: I read MOBY DICK for the first time in the most wonderful way. Marilynne Robinson, who's a professor at the Writers Workshop at Iowa, whenever she teaches a class at the university, she also teaches it at her church. And a couple of springs ago, she lost her room at the church, so we wound up doing the class in my living room. So every Thursday night, a whole group of people, Marilynne and mostly workshop grads who are still around town and then community members from the church all convened at my house for a MOBY DICK seminar that lasted all semester. How incredibly glorious to have Marilynne and this group of intellectual, curious people come and sit in your living room with your cats climbing all over them and talk about MOBY DICK. My strongest feeling when I finally started reading MOBY DICK, which had always been hanging over me, that I'd never read it, was I came into class the second week and said, Nobody ever told me that MOBY DICK was funny! The absurdity of some things, and he's got such a sly sense of humor. It's marvelous.


Olney, MD: Yes, I didn't think you'd remember that production of Fiddler! Your work sounds really interesting, I'll be looking for it, although the majority of my reading these days is Curious George and Dr. Seuss.

Thisbe Nissen: There's a chapter in THE GOOD PEOPLE OF NEW YORK which will ring many many bells for Hunter theaterites.


Arlington, VA: Thisbe, I have adored your work for years. I picked up a copy of "Out of the Girls' Room" and had it on my shelf for years until I picked it up and started reading it, then have been following your career ever since. I just got my copy of Osprey Island and can't wait to read it!;

You probably get this question all the time, but what's your process? Do you write every day? Mornings? Evenings? Is it hard to get started? Are you still working with the Iowa Book Doctors and, if so, do you have a hard time juggling that and the work of your own writing?

And...what advice do you have for someone about to move to Iowa City?

Thisbe Nissen: I am not a very disciplined writer, I'm somewhat embarrassed to say. But I guess my feeling is that somewhere along the way, I seem to get things done. As long as that keeps working without having to implement a schedule for myself, I'm just going with it. It's possible that I write in some sort of fugue state that I then forget. I have very little memory of sitting down to write--it all just happens along the way. I'm not someone to take as an example in terms of discipline.

Advice for moving to Iowa City--Iowa City has to be one of the easiest places to live in the world. It's a good life. Look forward to it!


Carole Burns: In a previous "Off the Page," A.S. Byatt said that she found it difficult writing novels when she was younger. She said:

"I knew I had chosen a profession for old people. I hated being a novelist when I was 20--I had nothing to write about. So my life now is a kind of small window of having the knowledge and not dying."
(Byatt's April 22 discussion)

Did you find that to be true. Now that you're all of 32, is it any easier, or do you still feel "young" when you embark upon a novel?

Thisbe Nissen: I feel like part of the reason that I love writing is that I'll always feel young when I start something or when I'm in the middle of something or when I finish something. I think there is a point, I recall it very specifically, the point in college when I had been writing pretty seriously and I had this understanding that this was something I would never figure out completely, and thus would always be a challenge and a puzzle. And that really is the way I still feel about it. And I can't imagine that's going to change anytime soon.


Washington, DC: How interesting your novel sounds -- the characters remain stationary as the environment around them is transitory -- their change must be cast against this
changing place. Does this sort of arrangement lend itself better to a novel than short story? Could this setting and story arc work in a short story?

Thisbe Nissen: If you mean that the book's characters are the year-rounders, while the island is a place whose population in terms of the summer people is more transitory, then that was definitely something I was really interested in, in the people whose home is the site of someone else's vacation, and I feel like I have some idea about what the relationship between those two groups of people is like or can be like. And having been for the most part one of the summer people, I was interested in exploring the world of the year-rounders. I think they're more interesting than I am.

I couldn't have conceived of this as a short story. It was too layered and threaded for me to even think about it that way. I was interested in all of these characters. I was barely getting away with having this many characters in the novel, let alone a short story.


Carole Burns: Now, what about that Vogue party?

Thisbe Nissen: It was hysterical. It was a party organized around the New York Public Library's promotion of "Make Noise for the Library." It's combatting the notorious "ssssssh" that you associate with libraries. And so this was through Vogue--the editor in chief is a supporter of libraries--and it was an event where designers were reading from their favorite books. I just got an email that said, They need authors! And you're going to be in town. I've done a few things with Vogue, and they invited me, and they said I could bring my sweetie, and we drove in.

We had come in from Iowa, to stay at Shelter Island, so I asked about the dress code, and I get an email that said, the designer Zac Posen is willing to loan you a dress for the event. So I spent awhile on the phone with the assistant to the designer, and they had a big garment bag of clothes messengered to my parents' apartment, and they had to messenger me up a slip with the one I liked because the dress was too risque! I was trying to be game with the New York fashion world. My friend said, I think I'm seeing right now things you're not supposed to see on someone you don't know. So they messengered me a slip, and we ended up being late to the party, and Oscar de la Renta and Sophie Dahl and Isaac Mizrahi all read from their favorite books, and I was wearing this beautiful pink Zac Posen dress, which was kind of silk, Cinderella, but Cinderella in the rags phase, like a ballet version of Cinderella. It was really beautiful.

So Zac Posen read a Coleridge poem, and Sophie Dahl read a piece that she wrote, which was lovely. Isaac Mizrahi read from a biography of Valentino, I think. Some funny, funny pasages. And the highlights of the evening were seeing two of the guys from Queer Eye For the Straight Guy. I assume people were all big fashion people of New York, but of course, we didn't know anybody. And then we wound up chatting with two women at the end, and one of them worked for Zac Posen, and I asked her roommate what she did, and she said, My dad's running for vice president, and I'm working on his campaign. He's John Edwards.


Carole Burns: Well, on that somewhat literary note, we are out of time. Thanks so much, Thisbe, for joining us today.

Remember, you can get announcements about upcoming authors on "Off the Page" by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.


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