How to Be Inappropriate, Soft Skull Press, 2009.
Daniel Nester’s writing has appeared in Best Creative Nonfiction, Open City, Nerve, Daily Beast, Best American Poetry, Time Out New York, The Morning News, Bloomsbury Review, Poets & Writers, and Bookslut.
It appears that this book–about comic and provocative situations that border on the vulgar and offensive–has been writing itself throughout your life. At what point did you decide this material would work its way into a collection? And how did that moment shape the way you conceptualized the book, what you included and what you left out?
I guess two or three years ago. In those initial stages, I thought of this book in a grand way: The Selected Essays of Moi. The Belles-Lettres Route, if you will. I know I’m no Susan Sontag, but a boy can dream. I had put all the essays and memoir pieces I had been writing over the years into one Word document, and it added up to about 120,000 words or so. Although it was nice to see all the nonfiction in one place, it wasn’t a cohesive collection.
The question then was: Are there themes that connect some of these pieces? There were several, and one was my attraction to writing about the wrong, out-of-place, crude and, like you say, vulgar and offensive. I bounced ideas off writer-friends, then emailed my editor, Richard Nash, with the title I came up with: How to Be Inappropriate. It implies an over-arching theme I like, and tips an aspirational hat to Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone.
Only two or three pieces from that big-ass document made it into the collection. But as I think about it, it was a crucial stage.
I noticed the variations in form–the essays range from conventional linear narratives to journal entries, an interview, a worksheet, analysis charts, transcripts, footnotes, etc. Why did you feel comfortable with this level of shape-shifting? Did it help ground or reign the subject matter, which could easily spin out of control?
I guess the simple answer is I love form. Not to the exclusion of content, of course, but I love the way the essay is so accommodating to all kinds of subjects and speakers, how it truly tries to reflect a “self thinking” like Alfred Kazin writes. I like to quote Montaigne: “Pay no attention to the matter at hand, but to the shape I give it.” I believe an essay’s different shapes and forms can reflect its content.
I also like how form competes with content. I include a sentence-combining exercise that deals with my discomfort at my job, as well as demons that possess me to say the wrong thing. The numbered essays I wrote about mooning, the talk box guitar effect, and an old girlfriend who let a guy lick her feet for money—those use the same numeral-proof methods everyone from 19th Century German philosophers and Alain de Botton use. I suppose shifting shapes in essays helps organize my thoughts, but then the method of the organization becomes part of the essay, too.
The autobiographical voice of this book is honest to a fault–no embarrassing moment or intimate detail is too personal to leave out. Yet How to be Inappropriate is both a log of highlights from forty years of inappropriate acts and the story of a journey toward a rather comfortable or traditional adult role (father, husband, professional). The dedication page promises “I’ll behave myself from now on,” but this long history of inappropriateness belies that expectation. Is it going to be easy to behave or has it become easier to become more imaginative or inventive as you continue to mature as a writer and observer in the world we live in now?
I don’t think it’s a fault to be too honest in one’s work, but I see what you mean. I would suggest that what we’re talking about here is the artifice, the intended effect of the writing, of being honest to a fault. But I should point out that of course there are things I didn’t include in the book, things I think are too personal or too hurtful and can’t be transformed into something on the page. I’m not interested in being vulgar for the sake of it. I think there’s a liberation and power of confessing one’s sins and foibles in a public way; the key is to make it interesting and artful. The timeline you talk about of my 40-odd years of inappropriate acts is a direct descendant of a part of Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, itself an extremely artful and confessional book, which I love. As I keep writing, I think about all the obsessions I want to address, all the stories I want to tell, and I do think it’s become easier for me to misbehave. And it’s a superb feeling.
You also write poetry. In fact, you have three collections out, and two are poetic tributes to the British band Queen. You tap into these other interests with a few of the selections in How to be Inappropriate: the account of a short-lived stint with a rock band and the re-imagined radio interview with Gene Simmons of KISS speak to your love of music; and essays like the cultural history of “Mooning” benefit from poet’s skill of identifying and ordering imagery and language. Does this work the other way around? Do “inappropriate acts” take themselves into your poetry? What are you exploring in your next collection of poetry?
I’ve written mad-crazy inappropriate poems, and some turned out OK. It’s not fashionable nowadays, but I’ve always been inspired by the poets of candor, confession, narrative, the first-person lyrical “I” poets. Everyone from Whitman, Pessoa, William Carlos Williams, Keats, Allen Ginsberg, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath, C.K. Williams, Rilke, Philip Levine. These are poets who, to me, inspire readers to think about themselves, not just the “I” in the poem. As Emerson writes, “there is no history, only biography.” To address the world is to address the self. And all that jazz.
I had to step away from poetry a couple years ago, and I’ll see when and if I return to writing poems. Right now it’s all coming out in fragments, and I’m not sure if they’re even poems. That said, some parts of the book were published in small poetry journals like Coconut and Taint, so maybe I’ve been writing poems all along.
Although it sounds as if you have a very understanding and supportive spouse (she would have to be with the kinds if revelations you make about your efforts in conceiving a child!), what has been the response from other members of your immediate community (say, your colleagues, students, friends) to this book and its piquant cover? I must confess I got more than a few double-takes when I was seen reading this book in the NYC subway…
On the subway? Really? Was it, like, the U train, standing for Uptight? Everybody’s been really cool about the book. They sell the book at my college’s bookstore, put it out on the window display. Students I don’t even know pick it up and read it. My colleagues are the same way. I do think my friends take sadistic pleasure at readings, when I rattle off many of the inappropriate acts I’ve committed, often in their company. My wife? She’s always been super-supportive of my projects. She is the one who persuaded me to include our account of fertility clinics and in vitro. Neither of us thinks it’s a shameful subject, and to the contrary should probably be discussed more. It reflects a whole other side of my life, our lives—a big part of it now. I type this with my two-year-old climbing over my laptop. I’m sticking my tongue out her and making fart sounds, which she thoroughly enjoys.