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Peeling Away the Layers

In Scott Nadelson's fiction writing class, he urges students to stop being ... well, students. He tells them to put away their academic voice and look for their natural voice.

Those voices often take them on similar journeys. "Many students are in the process of separating from their family," the English professor says, "and they write about generation gaps, about children and parents trying to understand each other. Romance is also a huge preoccupation. There's a dance that goes on between people who want intimacy and connection but aren't ready for commitment."

In recent years student writing has taken on more political and environmental overtones, Nadelson says. "It shows up in science fiction, with stories about government having more power than it should, and in apocalyptic stories about the aftermath of global warming or genetic experiments gone awry. There's a different backdrop than even five years ago. The writing is not necessarily more dark, but there is definitely a changed world view."

Nadelson is hoping to give his students the aha! moment a high school teacher gave him. He was a quiet kid who avoided reading and kept his head on his desk, but he had started listening to the lyrics in his dad's collection of Bob Dylan records. "I was sitting in my high school English class when she read T.S. Eliot's 'The Hollow Men,' and I suddenly heard the beauty of language, the rhythm and emotion. I felt as if I had been asleep for 16 years. The words lit a fire under me."

Nadelson began to copy poems in his notebook, and in his first year of college he began to write stories. His first published collection, Saving Stanley: The Brickman Stories, won several awards, including the 2004 Oregon Book Award for short fiction. A second collection, The Cantor's Daughter, won an award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. The Austin Chronicle called Nadelson is "a gifted storyteller" who is "adept at peeling away the superfluous layers."

It's the peeling away that fascinates Nadelson. The mundane New Jersey suburbs of his childhood provide the backdrop for most of his stories, but under the surface, he says,
"Nothing was as ordinary as it seemed.

"In my Jewish community it was difficult to maintain a sense of self. We were partly inside, with one foot in the dominant culture, wanting to be like everyone else, and partly outside, intent on maintaining our 'otherness' and separated by accent, looks, faith, holidays, even food. That cultural limbo created a tension."

Nadelson's character-driven fiction also portrays people struggling at the intersection of desire and fear. "That place feels like a bottomless well," he says. "People desire intimacy, but what they most want they are often most afraid of, and they sabotage their lives. Caution prevents people from fully immersing themselves in their own lives." Publishers Weekly wrote that Nadelson's fiction "depicts lonely people yearning to connect while their relationships stall on resentment and self-doubt."

As Nadelson follows each character into the story, they often surprise him. "Sometimes they lead you to places that scare you or make you uncomfortable, but I actually feel great joy when characters get themselves into deep moral or psychological trouble. Even if the place they end up is not a happy place, I like going there. I'm rooting for the character to do well, but I know it's not honest if they always do. I don't enjoy the nice characters as much. It's too easy to like them."

And following the stories to dark ends allows authors to lead lives they may not otherwise want to lead, he says. "As human beings, we're limited to one set of experiences. Stories allow us to step outside of our own lives."

In his fiction, his characters move toward tenuous reconciliation. As The Oregonian wrote, "the characters come to understand that no better place is waiting around the corner, so we must simply live in whatever flawed or circumscribed space we have."

In more philosophical terms, Nadelson says, "The impulse of art is to create order out of chaos."

As for the shy teen of former years, Nadelson says writing was the avenue that helped him open up to others. "Writing helped me connect, and it gave me a deeper understanding of people. But the more I write, the more mysterious people seem. You enter into that mystery of what it means to be a human being."

Nadelson follows the mystery each morning at seven, when he carries his cup of coffee to his laptop in a half dazed state and "disappears." He follows an idea out to a dead end or a story, then writes it again, and then again 30 times until he begins to understand the characters and they have taken on their own life. "I let the stories take me where they want.

"I have to write every day or I go crazy," he says. And he never turns off the author in himself. Every day he observes and eavesdrops. He watches the way people talk -- what they reveal, and what they don't reveal. He blanks out in the middle of conversations to make mental notes. And he fills his notebooks with ideas for future stories.

Nadelson, who once saw himself as one of T.S. Eliot's "empty men," has been filled.


Scott Nadelson wins Reform Judaism Prize for Fiction

  • The Cantor's Daughter was awarded the Foundation for Jewish Culture's
    Samuel Goldberg & Sons Foundation Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging
  • Won the 2007 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction for his collection of stories titled The Cantor's Daughter.
  • The Foundation for Jewish Culture recently announced Scott Nadelson as the
    2007 recipient of the Samuel Goldberg & Sons Foundation Prize for Jewish
    Fiction by Emerging Writers.
  • 2007 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction.