Writing to Live: A Q&A with Maggie Nelson

Article by annalia

by Annalia Linnan

Maggie Nelson is what you would call a “writer’s writer”—an albeit ambiguous condition, but the symptoms are easy to spot. Let’s start with BLUETS: half-poetry, half-memoir, dense and cerebral, it’s not one of those books that often pops up on the shelves on non-writers. However, ask any writer who has read it or is familiar with Nelson and her work, and there is almost a hallowed silence that precedes the inevitable praise. Last summer, Houston writer Lacy M. Johnson listed BLUETS as one of the books that inspired her second memoir THE OTHER SIDE even though it had been years and years since she read it the first time. Johnson gave Nelson the ultimate compliment: BLUETS is a book that, upon reading it, made a home inside her.

Though BLUETS is arguably her most popular book to date, Nelson has written many other books since, including a memoir called THE RED PARTS. What makes THE ARGONAUTS, published earlier this month, feel different is that it was immediately considered a darling. Booksellers and other “book people” have been buzzing about it for months. On its actual pub day, our friend and partner Lit Hub featured not one but two Nelson interviews and declared May 5 “Maggie Nelson Day in the USA.”

Even after reading THE ARGONAUTS, it’s hard to say what it’s about exactly. Part poetry, part thesis, part memoir, part love letter to her partner, Harry, it touches on “visibility, representations, and intersubjectivity,” but there are also mundane (beautiful) moments such as Nelson taking a page to describe a game she plays with her son. It’s not really a book you can summarize, yet for its raw emotion, profound vulnerability, and vigilant investigation about what it means to be a person (and all the complications that come with it), there was no way THE ARGONAUTS wouldn’t be #BrazosBest.


Brazos Bookstore: Where does research belong in your list of writing “priorities,” if anywhere? Are you naturally inquisitive?

Maggie Nelson: Research is very important to me, albeit quite broadly defined. Whatever inquisitiveness I have, my books perform.

BB: In BLUETS, the “you” throughout the narrative, the object of affection, does not have a voice apart from the speaker. But THE ARGONAUTS—to Harry, largely about Harry—is one you wrote together, in certain respects (e.g., draft sharing, editing, etc). What are the pros and cons for each process?

MN: I don’t see them as pros or cons per se—they’re just different projects. And I wouldn’t say Harry and I wrote this book together—it’s most definitely my project; sharing drafts of a book with a person who will appear by name, with whom one lives, and whose intimate details are at stake, is just part of the nonfiction drill. What’s distinct here is that I chose to make that aspect of the writing/publishing process visible, which I did because visibility, representation, and intersubjectivity are principal subjects of the book itself.

BB: When you become adrift, how do you return to yourself, a Maggie you recognize?

MN: I think there is probably more to be gained by being adrift than by shoring up a recognizable self, so my efforts would go in the former direction.

BB: What is a question you always hope someone asks you but they never do? Answer it.

MN: Lake Lola Montez.

BB: You have no idea who we’ll talk to for the next Brazos Q&A, but never mind that: What should we ask him, her, or them?

MN: What do you not have that you need, and what do you already have that you want to keep (cf. The Undercommons, by Fred Moten/ Stefano Harney.)

BB: Speaking of, Ryan Gattis wants to know: What do you fear most when writing?

MN: I’m never afraid when I’m writing. I’m afraid when I’m not writing.

BB: Similarly, Paul Otremba asks: What is a sentence or phrase you read or revisited recently that captured you?

MN: James Baldwin: “Furthermore, I have met only a very few people—and most of these were not Americans—who had any real desire to be free. Freedom is hard to bear. It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation.”

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The Argonauts Cover Image
ISBN: 9781555977078
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Graywolf Press - May 5th, 2015

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Bluets Cover Image
ISBN: 9781933517407
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Wave Books - October 1st, 2009

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