An Indies Introduce Debut Author Q&A With Jessica Hendry Nelson

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Jessica Hendry Nelson is the author of If Only You People Could Follow Directions (Counterpoint). Nelson was raised in Philadelphia and earned a BA in English from the University of New Hampshire and an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has been published in The Carolina Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, Fringe, and PANK, among others. Nelson lives in Colchester, Vermont, where she teaches writing at Johnson State College.

If Only You People Could Follow Directions is a collection of autobiographical essays about family relationships, addiction, and the chaos they bring. The title piece was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and another, “The Whitest Winter Light,” won first place in Alligator Juniper’s national nonfiction contest and is a Notable essay in Best American Essays 2012. Reviewers have praised Nelson’s debut memoir as hypnotic and wryly funny.

What inspired you to write If Only You People Could Follow Directions?

Jessica Hendry Nelson: Inspired might not be the right word. I am obsessed with people and so I write about them. They baffle and surprise me. I wanted to make something in homage to all of the crazy and hard-loving people I’ve known, but an homage of specificity rather than adulation. I wanted to share people with other people. I’m in love with all sorts of people all the time.

What do you hope readers take away from your debut?

JHN: I don’t write to instruct, but if something stays with readers, I hope it will be some sense of their own magnanimousness shining back at them.

Were books an important part of your childhood? If so, what book had the greatest impact on you?

JHN: Oh, books, of course, books. Lots of books. My father gave me most of the books I read as a kid. I loved Steinbeck most of all — the novellas, especially, like The Pearl. I remember a book I read as a teenager called If Nobody Remembers Beautiful Things by Jon McGregor. I’d never read anything like it before.

A therapist I had as a curmudgeonly adolescent once gave me On Writing by Stephen King. For a while, I thought she was some sort of witch, like she knew something about me that I didn’t. It freaked me out a little.

Can you tell our readers something about the Renegade Writers’ Collective?

JHN: I co-founded the Renegade Writers’ Collective with a friend after too many tipsy nights of daydreaming. It’s our own little hippie utopia here in Burlington, Vermont. We offer one-on-one writing coaching, editing services, classes, events, retreats, and whatever else we feel compelled to do in the moment. Storytelling nights. Erotica variety shows. Open mic nights. Most of our work is helping clients bring a writing project to fruition, which means something different for each client. Some people want direct instruction and take-home assignments. Others just need encouragement, deadlines, and a good editor. It’s a collaborative process. We also have a beautiful office in a building comprised of all sorts of creative types where writers come to work, chat, and get feedback on their writing. I think that therapist may have had something to do with getting me this gig. She’s all right, that one.

And The Fiddleback?

JHN: The Fiddleback was a dreamy, intensive three years — a project started by my lovely friend, the gut-puncher poet Jeff Simpson. We published whatever the hell turned us on. It was great editing experience. We’re on hiatus right now, but we may be back yet.

When you travel, do you stop at bookstores? Any particular indies make a lasting impression?

JHN: Yes! I want to kiss every indie bookseller on the mouth for the work they do. RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is a personal favorite, but the list goes on and on.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

JHN: Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor, Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, and the latest issue of Green Mountains Review. That’s the left side.

If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand? (Besides your own, of course!)

JHN: I am aware that you are asking for one book, and that seems cruel, but I will limit myself to two out of politeness. Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard and The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard.

If you could invite three authors (past or present) to a dinner party, who would they be? What do you think would be the topic of conversation?

JHN: Oscar Wilde (because Oscar Wilde at a dinner party), Annie Dillard, and Raymond Carver. The topic will be Oscar Wilde at a dinner party and it will be glorious.

If Only You People Could Follow Directions, by Jessica Hendry Nelson (Counterpoint LLC, Hardcover, 9781619022331) Publication date: December 31, 2013

Learn more about Jessica Hendry Nelson at

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