The Thisbe Nissen Interview

February 7, 2003

Today is the day to mess with someone.

I have a new story today about teeth on a new site called Parenthetical Note. It is nonfiction, so enjoy a voyeuristic glance inside my life, you weirdos.

I'm extremely happy to present today's interview. Thisbe Nissen is an extremely talented and prolific young author, who has published a novel, a book of short stories and a cookbook, been featured in Pindeldyboz Volume 1, as well as published here and there on this here internet. A graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, she resides in Iowa City, which is a lot cooler than you'd probably think. Also, she's very good at the game Catchphrase. Read on!

The Thisbe Nissen Interview: Just About Twenty Questions

Thisbe's an unusual name. How did your parents choose it? Do people ever think that it's a pen name, and your name is actually something more like Mary Smith?
See The Good People of New York, chapt. 21., p. 223-4 in the paperback, substitute "Thisbe" for "Miranda" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for "The Tempest" and that's more or less the story of my name. Sometimes I think I should have taken Mary Smith as a pen name.

You're a native New Yorker with an obvious love for your town, and you're living in the Midwest-Midwest (as opposed to a bustling Midwest metropolis, like Chicago.) How are you finding it? Are you finding any of the clichés about Midwesterners true?
I adore the midwest BECAUSE all of the cliches are true.

You're a graduate from the famed Iowa Writers Workshop. What advice would you offer to a person thinking of applying? Is it helpful? Difficult? Pretentious? A Top-Ten Party Writers School?
Iowa's an intense place. I've seen people have great experiences here and I've seen people crushed by it. Though I'm told things are mellowing these days... who knows? Application advice? Send your stuff, realize the crapshoot that it is, don't be crushed if you don't get in, and don't think you've got it made if you do. People find literary success through all sorts of avenues, and people fail from the most auspicious starts. Iowa's one route to those and many other futures, nothing more.

A lot of people promise themselves that they will be published authors while at a young age, but you've finally done it. Is it as dizzying as we'd imagine, or are there any downsides? Now that you've published a novel, a book of short stories and a cookbook, what else are you planning on?
Dizzying, yes. And I don't much like being dizzy, so I'd call that a downside unto itself. On the upside, I'm able to make a living doing what I want to do. I plan to keep on trying to keep on doing that. I have no other marketable skills.

In your novel The Good People of New York, you create some colorful metaphors. What inspired the phrases "Savvy as a tulip" and "Suspicious as a ballpoint pen"?
Thanks. It's funny though, when I was on book tour I read that first chapter a lot, and I started cutting out the ballpoint pen line. It started to feel overly cute to me and too self-consciously writerly. Lord knows where they came from. I probably thought "What's something that could be decidedly un-savvy? Decidedly incapable of suspicion?"

What is the most common comment you get about each of the books you've written?
Out of the Girls' Room...: "Were you an anorexic teenage lesbian deadhead?"
TGPONY: "How autobiographical is this?"
The Ex-boyfriend Cookbook: "Have you really had this many boyfriends?"

What's the hardest part about writing a novel?
Putting it out into the world and waiting for people (ie reviewers) to either pat you on the head ("Good author, good good author!") or punch you in the stomach ("How could anyone be so stupid and talentless as to write such a book? I am offended that it exists and resentful that I've been forced to read it.")

What’s the difference between an idea that ends up a short story and one that ends up a full-length novel?
The amount of time it takes before it's done.

Your newest book, "the Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook," comes upon the fabulous idea of compiling the stories and recipes left behind by various ex-boyfriends. What's your favorite recipe in it?
Ah, so many favorites, as most of them actually come from my mother. Her Gazpacho (attributed to a mythical "Lucas Amaratti") is divine.

How did the ex-boyfriends react when you told them you were putting it out? Were any of them angry?
Honestly, the stuff in the jacket-flap copy is pretty much true: people wanted to be our boyfriends just to get their recipes in the cookbook. An old friend said to me: "I only wish I'd seduced you so my pear mint gorgonzola salad could be known to the world!"

There are a lot of recipes in there! Did you really date that many guys, or did you cheat a little and throw in guy friends and acquaintances?
See copyright page: "this is a work of fiction..."

What makes a good writing teacher? And the phrase “Those who can’t, teach”: is there any truth in that, or is it just a snotty saying?
Snotty saying. As for what makes a good writing teacher, I think that might be like trying to say what makes a good person. There's lots of ways to be a good writing teacher. And I don't think it has diddily to do with how well you write.

There is a rumor around that you abuse your cats by carrying them around by the neck. Is there any truth to this?
This is not abuse. This is how a mother cat carries her young. By the scruff of the neck. They love it. I am their mother. They are my babies. Need I say more?

The screenwriter Michael Goldman once described Oberlin College, your alma mater, as "A great school if you don't mind the weather and if you realize that it's' okay to be just a little bit strange." How true is this?

In an interview with the Identity Theory, you talk about how you sometimes 'hate comedy,' and say that sitting down to write a funny novel is a bad approach. What do you think does make funny writing? Are there any authors who make you laugh on a consistent basis?
Lee [Klein] keeps wanting me to watch old Monty Python shows with him, and I cringe at the idea because watching people TRY to be funny makes me physically squirm. I find watching Saturday Night Live to be a painful experience (which made me very uncool in junior high) because watching people try to be funny and fail is excruciating. I can't bear it. The whole idea of doing stand-up is just so painful: just standing there on stage trying to make people laugh. Maybe I just feel the comedian's anxiety too much? Maybe I project? Whatever it is, I hate it. There are some deliberately funny people who are so good so consistently that I come to trust them enough to relax and have faith I'm not going to wind up in painful commiseration at their failed attempts. And if someone seems to just HAPPEN to be funny in the course of what they do, then I'm theirs. Like Lorrie Moore's early stuff in "Self Help" or Anthony Lane's movie reviews in the New Yorker. He slays me. And maybe I'm able to be so slain because ultimately Anthony Lane is reviewing a movie, not just standing there making jokes while I'm holding my breath waiting for him to blow it. Roz Chast is funny. Funny is funny when you don't expect it to be funny. Like Lorrie Moore's "People Like That Are The Only People Here." Things are funny when they crop up unexpectedly, not when someone sits down and says "Now I'm going to be funny." In fact, anytime anyone sits down and says "Now I am going to be _____," chances are they're going to be everything but.

What are you reading right now? Is it any good?
My friend Allison Amend's novel manuscript, Lee's novel manuscript as he churns it out, my own damn novel manuscript, another friend's novel manuscript that I might blurb... Also, I just started taking a class in Moby Dick in order to get myself to read it. I haven't started reading yet, but I hear it's good, something about a whale.

What's the most overrated thing you've read of late?
Overrated by whom? I just read The Corrections and it was certainly overrated, and I thought it was a very good book in many ways. Most books in the world are probably either over or under rated, don't you think? Their "ratedness" becomes sort of irrelevant to the content itself.

Any guilty pleasures or vices of yours that would seem unusual for an intellectual, literary young woman?
Thank you, and no, I don't think so. What would be unusual for a literary type anyway? Aren't we all supposed to be nuts?

You published a diary when you toured for The Good People of New York. Was that hard to keep up?
Very. Especially because I couldn't really write what I was really feeling, which was pretty much like I wanted to crawl into a hole and never write anything or at least never show it to anyone ever again. That was a rough time. I'm very glad it's over. The tour diary on line reflects some aspect of what went on that summer, but neglects to mention how much time I spent curled in fetal position crying self-piteously. That's not the stuff that wins readership, I don't think.

Say, for some reason, I was invited to embark upon a book tour. What would be some practical advice you'd offer?
Expect to be exhausted, whipped, disoriented, and to have to keep smiling through it all. Know that it'll all be over someday and your book will just be another one on the shelf that people can choose to read or not, and that you're not always going to feel like you should either be sainted or executed just for writing it in the first place. There's a lot of comfort in knowing that there will come a time when no one's going to really care that much, or more importantly: when you're not going to care that no one seems to care enough.

And finally, the stupid-yet-somehow-I-keep-asking-this-of-all-my-interviewees question: How does it feel to be the 42nd person interviewed for
Just fine, thanks.