Nona Caspers - Heavier Than Air

Click on the links below to read full reviews:

Little Book of Days
Everything Unfinished

Heavier Than Air
New York Times Book Review
San Francisco Chronicle
The Short Review
LAMBDA Book Report
The Short Review - Interview with Nona Caspers

"Set mostly in rural Minnesota, this debut collection's stories are aching, spare studies of survival and desire. Many of the characters are exhausted by farm life's relentless labor. In "Mr. Hellerman's Vacation," a farmer, recovering in the hospital after a breakdown, recounts his "numbers"--42 cows, 25 chickens, 4 fields, 2 sheds, 1 barn, 6 children, 1 wife--and wonders if "the weight of living is unreasonable." Characters speak with astonishing pragmatism: "Stop being so damn self-centered. Shit or get off the pot," says one woman to a girl in a coma in "Vegetative States." Several of the central characters are girls growing up in the 1960s and '70s who struggle with secret longings for other girls, and their passionate awakenings are an undercurrent to the adults' foggy fatigue. In several stories, the simplest acts--even just noticing one's breath--become wondrous moments that push characters past anguish to reclaim their "bright, insistent, blooming" lives. Darkly funny, compassionate, and unsentimental, these quiet stories offer memorable, rarely seen views of midwestern life."
- Gillian Engberg, Booklist, November 15, 2006

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New York Times
"Throughout this collection, which was plucked from a pile of 300 manuscripts and awarded the Grace Paley Prize in short fiction, Caspers details the many ways reality can interfere with our dreams. Not surprisingly, dissatisfaction becomes a dominant theme. One of the best stories, 'Mr. Hellerman's Vacation,' takes place mainly in the occupational and group therapy units of a hospital and features a protagonist who ‘always wanted a set of trained snow dogs and sled; instead he got a series of farm dogs, pleasant rangy mutts that followed him in and out of the barn and got run over in the driveway.' During his recuperation from an exhaustion-induced breakdown, he becomes preoccupied by an existential question: 'Does he own the farm or does the farm own him?' Many of Caspers's stories are set in Minnesota's cattle and dairy country, and all of them traffic in the kind of Midwestern realism that doesn't rely on pyrotechnics to generate dramatic heat. Throughout, Caspers's people—it's difficult to consider some of them mere characters—question the decisions they've made or the ones they refuse to make. There's nothing flashy about Caspers's prose; like the beauty of the prairie itself, its attraction lies in details seen up close."
- The New York Times Book Review, February 18, 2007

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San Francisco Chronicle (Excerpt)
"Revving up Willa Cather's naturalism and lesbian undertones with Denis Johnson's deadpan Plains rowdiness, these are like alt-country songs, tales of wild but not wild-eyed girls and women as likely to be enraptured by the girl next door as by the lay of the land. The prose is exact, unsparing, unsentimental. . . . Caspers' pungent voice, her fairness to city and country mores, and the artful arrangement of her tales reward rereading. Simplicity this precise takes time, talent and considerable cultivation."
San Francisco Chronicle. Click here to read the full article.

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The Short Review
The word I think of when I think of this collection is "cusp". Every character in the eleven stories in this first collection set in rural Minnesota and then ranging over to San Francisco is poised on the cusp of a terrifying or exciting edge, but make no mistake, he or she might fly or fall, but is rendered breathtakingly alive. Young adults on the verge of discovering what lies ahead, ride the cusp of adulthood only to lie on snowy ground surrounded by pecking turkeys and turkey shit and sense that life and what it has to offer can make them flawed and desperately unhappy individuals ( La Maison de Madame Durard ). Lovers ricochet against the limits of love,  a teenager discovers how far she is willing to go as she traverses the line between desire and infatuation towards her cousin ( Country Girls ); a farmer on the brink of mental insanity enumerates his burdens ("42 cows, 3 calves, 25 chickens, 4 fields, 6 children, 1 wife") only to find unexpected solace in nature's offering ( Mr. Hellerman's Vacation ); a middle-aged lesbian circles the rim of heartbreak after her lover leaves, and finds comfort in rediscovering her own mother ("Mother"). One of the most stunning lines comes from this story, its utter debasement and humility laid bare, "This is what she's come to, she thinks: a thirty-three year old woman who lies face down at her mother's feet."

These characters search for meaning, desperately, unremittingly. When they find meaning, it doesn't always come in a palatable form. Take Manny, the sixth-grader in  Wide Like an Eagle's Wings who'd been elected secretary of the JFK campaign at her elementary school. Manny's longing is existential; she craves meaning, to be bigger and more important than the existence she suspects confronts her, growing up on a farm in rural Minnesota. But her longing takes a premonitory, hell-bound nose-dive when later that afternoon, her four-year-old sister drowns in the river and Manny is unable to save her. Manny's existence is forever rendered meaningful, but poignantly and heartbreakingly not what she's envisioned. Or Marc, dying of Aids in  The Fifth Season , and his plangent cry, "I haven't done anything important yet and now I'm going to degrade myself [sic] Oh god, it makes me feel sick - Lorrie, you're not going to write about it, are you?" 

Writing about it is the only antidote, it seems. And Nona Caspers does it in quietly unassuming prose and deceptively simple narratives. With her finger firmly fixed on the pulse of each heartbeat in these stories, Caspers is infinitely compassionate and revealing in her details, and the moments of dark comedy captured here leaven what's already a compelling read.
- Reviewed by  Elaine Chiew, The Short Review

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LAMBDA Book Report
"The elegantly crafted short stories . . . quietly buzz with life and secrets, like a hot summer afternoon in Midwestern farm county. There is a thread of longing that moves through the stories, as the characters watch their dreams decompose under reality's harsh glare. . . . Caspers is a careful, unsentimental and highly skilled writer. . . . Like Anne Tyler, another Minnesota-born writer, Grace Paley and to a lesser extent Flannery O'Connor, Nona Caspers digs beneath the surface to examine the small details and then brings them to life in this quiet, but lovely collection of stories."
— LAMBDA Book Report

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The Short Review - Interview with Nona Caspers
The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Nona Caspers: Oh, stories can percolate in my imagination for a long time, I don't even know when some of them started — and then they percolate some more draft by draft. TIME does some of the re-writing for me — time allows retrospect and insight, my subconscious tooling around behind my back. Some of the stories began with snippets, images, a paragraph — Country Girls , for example. I wrote the first paragraph, and then didn't know what happened and was afraid to inhabit the world for a long time, several years. I worked on other stories and projects and then one day pulled that paragraph out and followed Nora's voice and discovered more about Nora's country world and her obsession with Cynthia … then in my notebook a few months later I wrote the chicken scene—I didn't know it belonged to Nora while writing it but one day that became clear. You see the crooked path—I'm not much of a linear thinker—I experience time more physically in layers. The stories, most of them, came out in layers.  Mr. Hellerman and  The Fifth Season may be exceptions--I wrote them from beginning to end during a summer break from teaching a year before the book won the Grace Paley Prize.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
NC: I had nothing in mind at first, except to write the story at hand. Then the collection built itself over time, as I discovered other stories that fit into that geography and tone — each project seems to have a distinct color. When I wrote something that seemed inside that color I added it to the manuscript. I wrote lots of other stories that didn't fit the color of what turned out to be the book — some of them are published and some of them thankfully just sit in a drawer. I read a lot of story collections, I love them, the intensity of the form, the way stories suggest more than they reveal, how in a collection we move from world to world. I love how stories use MA space, MA being a Japanese word for the space between things that seems empty but is actually full and creates harmony. The space between the individual stories also allows for that feeling of MA.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?
NC: The final book order came from a brilliant friend of mine, Maria Healey. She's also a writer. I didn't know how to order the final stories once the book had been accepted for publication, and she read the manuscript and said — here, try this. I think order is partly intuitive and partly world building and juxtaposition of texture and tone. About how I chose what to include, I put things in, I took things out. I got feedback from a writing friend and poet Barbara Tomash ( Flying in Water a great book by the way)—and I could feel when I was in that color, that world, usually while working on the story. I had a few short shorts that I took out because they threw the world off. A few stories were pulled out because they weren't strong enough. The stories that remained were all stories I cared about very much, and they seemed to be in conversation with each other. A conversation between rural and urban perspectives, between longing and memory.
Mother and  The Fifth Season , for example, are set in San Francisco, but the protagonists migrated from rural Minnesota--the rural world bumps up against the urban world and creates tension. Urban people often sweep the whole Midwest and especially rural people into stereotype, and vice verse--and yet rural cultures are so complex. I felt a great loss when I left my rural blue-collar heritage for college and some other world I knew nothing about--and knew I could not return. It's a similar loss to any immigrant, I think. People who grew up in the working class talk about this class shifting. I loved it when the SF Chronicle said the writing was “unstinting about the decency and clear-headedness of farm women.” And I loved it that the Editors' of New York Times Book Review included it in their Editor's Choice, Book of Particular Interest list.

TSR: Do you have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?
NC: Oh, I don't think so. Unless it's god. My best writing comes out of love or grief. I have a terrible time with loss and death, I just can't settle into the idea that we have to die or that people have to leave. I think death is a very bad idea.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?
NC: I'm afraid to ask readers anything—I'm hiding in my apartment most of the time—though I'm so happy to hear positive things! I love those characters and inhabited their worlds as deeply as I could. I think maybe I'll just let readers have their private experiences of them, their own relationships.

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
NC: Oh, I want the stories to be read--I'm grateful—I feel very lucky to be able to sit around in my lovely apartment and write, and to teach creative writing at San Francisco State University—and to have the book in the world. My father worked as a Minnesota cow breeder driving from farm to farm inseminating Holsteins almost every day of his life for 45 years! My mother was pulled out of school in the eighth grade to help run the family farm. I have worked as a tree planter, a nurse's aid, a waitress, a childcare worker. I have lathed tobacco for five bucks an hour and spent part of a summer in a factory crashing defective Planter's Peanuts jars. Now I get to do something I love, teach, and to play with language and my imagination. I am very very lucky.

TSR: What are you working on now?
NC: I just finished  A Little Book of Days which will come out with Spuyten Duyvil Press, NY, sometime in 2008. The book is a novella in moments. The narrator tracks moments in her days after a break-up, quoting snippets she hears on the public radio and spying on her neighbors. It was built from my own days when I lived in the Mission several years ago. It's funny and lively and poetic and strange, or so people tell me.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?
NC:  Alice Munro, Runaway (the goat in the first story broke my heart); Varieties of Disturbance, Lydia Davis; Elbow Room, James Allen McPherson (wildly different from my work). Thank you for these questions and for the Short Review site!

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