Interview with Author N.N. Nelson

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we interviewed author N. N. Nelson, about her writing and her debut book, Corpse Beneath the Crocus, a collection of raw ruminations that delve into her heartbreaking and profound journey of grief after she lost her husband unexpectedly in 2018. (Read the review here.)

N.N. Nelson is a widow and a single mother living in New Mexico. Her husband was diagnosed with leukemia in March of 2018 and he died in April of 2019 after a year of battling the disease. 

The loss was devastating and the effects of grief wide-reaching. N.N. Nelson quit her job at a local dental office a few months later to spend more time with her children and help them regain a sense of stability amidst the day-to-day struggles. She turned to journaling and writing during this period as a way to process her thoughts and feelings, often in the form of letters to her deceased husband. Three years and several notebooks later, her first collection of poetry was born. 

Grief can be a very solitary and isolating journey and poetry became the preferred outlet for N.N. Nelson to connect and re-enter the world. It is her hope that in sharing her feelings and experiences in a raw and vulnerable way, she can help others who have lost a loved one realize they are not alone. It’s perfectly okay to be a mess of churning chaos on a daily basis and it’s possible to grow love and acceptance from the roots of pain.

Corpse Beneath the Crocus takes the reader through the journey and process of grief. Was this a book you started intentionally, or did the poems only start to coalesce into a collection after you started writing them? Can you tell us about the process of putting the collection together?

When my husband was ill and in the hospital I spent a lot of time at his bedside. I would bring black composition notebooks and write down in blue pen all the things I wished I could say to him but couldn’t because he was in a medicated coma. I wrote a lot about how I felt, the fear of losing him, the helplessness at not being able to do anything but watch him suffer and the uncertainty that clouded our future in a dense fog. After he passed, this trend of using writing to process my own thoughts and feelings continued. It was a way for me to dig out all these big heavy emotions that seemed to stick to my insides like glue. Writing lessened the weight and helped me to stay at least partly sane.

Most of what I wrote in my notebooks was in the form of letters to my husband. Nothing neat or organized, just a spewing of grief, rage and frustration. It made me feel less alone to write to him, as if somehow, a small part of him was still somewhere close listening in. He wasn’t really gone, just outside of the scope of my physical senses.

I didn’t start out with the clear plan in mind that anything I wrote in those notebooks would see the light of day, let alone publication. Filling them was just a necessary process. Slowly, over time, the writing style shifted and it became more and more poetic. Instead of journal entries or letters it was a rhythmic pattern of speech. I could hear the tempo clearly in my head and no matter what I wanted to say it came out in this very specific pattern and tempo. It was like flying down railroad tracks with no idea where I was going or if I could ever pull the brakes. I would try to write something else but it was like my brain had become fixated and so I just shrugged my shoulders, embraced it, and let it be what it was.

Eventually my writing shifted again, the tempo slowed and the rhythms mellowed and it felt more like meandering along a dirt path through the woods. There was still a specific shape the words wanted to take but it was less of a structured pattern and more of an emotional flow.

After about three years I started to wonder if what I had written for myself and my own healing process might have meaning to others. I typed up the favorite bits of what I had written and sent it to my publisher for review. His response was a rejection, but a gentle one. He told me there was a lot of potential in it but it still had a ways to go before it was ready for publication. So I took what he said to heart and read it through and worked on solidifying specific themes for each poem, listening to the story each poem was trying to tell and exactly what form it should take. I spent weeks poring over them and editing them. They evolved and bloomed in their refined space and when I resubmitted the collection about three weeks later, it was approved.

And that is how the collection Corpse Beneath the Crocus was born.

Corpse Beneath the Crocus is your first foray into poetry. What led you to the genre?

I have always had an inherent fascination with poetry, specifically poetry filled with passion and intensity. Edgar Allen Poe, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickenson and Walt Whitman are some of my personal favorites. Poetry is like reading an emotional roadmap and following it to the destination an author intended. It finds you at a time when you need it, need how you feel to be acknowledged and offers you communion. The words appear on a page, expressing an internal struggle you had been stuck in while weaving a spell, turning a dark or even painful challenge into something mysterious and beautiful. It is transformative. Poetry is a seed an author throws at the world, readers devour it and under the right conditions it sprouts in their bones and grows in their soul. It becomes a part of them. I wanted to experience that kind of connected transformation.

I love writing poetry because it is like taking a snapshot and pulling all the best pieces of how I feel or what I’m thinking and turning them into something complete on a single page. I can start a poem and finish the rough draft in a very short period of time. It is so satisfying. By being able to wrap up my complicated thoughts and feelings in nice little packages with bows, I can let them go. They don’t linger to torment me and I don’t become emotionally exhausted by carrying them around any longer than necessary. I can shift my focus almost immediately to something else and start the process all over again with a different outcome or expression in mind.

I tell people, writing poetry is like taking a knife and slicing open a small cut in your skin. Only instead of blood, ink pours out onto a blank page. It’s messy and sometimes dark or scary, releasing what is inside of us. But it is also potential in chaotic smudges. We have the power to take what hinders us, scares us, breaks us down and transform those experiences into something else. Something visible, beautiful and relatable. I love that.

The poems in Corpse Beneath the Crocus play with different forms and structures. What is your approach to starting a poem, and how do you know what form or structure will work best for what it is you’re trying to say with that poem?

I wish I could say my process was succinct and methodical based on creative writing rules and a strong knowledge of poetic structures and forms, but I can’t. Every poem I write starts with a feeling. I release that feeling in a waterfall of words and then let it sit. When I leave what I have written alone for a while it has a way of growing on its own. That is why I never go back and read what I’ve written right away, it’s too easy to be critical when the feelings are still fresh.

Once I am ready to refine a poem I work on sharpening the images and decluttering the lines to make sure the overall theme is as clear and vibrant as possible. I don’t ever have a clear form I want a poem to take from the start. In my experience having the expectation of what it should look like ahead of time boxes in my creativity and takes the fun out of it. To me, poetry is an adventure, an experience based on discovery and self awareness. If I think too hard about what I want a poem to be, it starts to feel like I am pushing and forcing it into the shape I want rather than listening and allowing it to show me what shape it prefers. Every feeling, every thought has its own sound, its own rhythm. Part of the joy in writing is hearing those sounds and rhythms and following them to wherever they want to take you. It’s exciting not knowing.

When I received my first copy of this collection for review it was almost shocking to read it in print and realize the incredible journey these poems and I took together. It still feels surreal at times.

Are there any poems in the collection that stuck with you longer than the others? Which one(s)?

Yes, absolutely. Some of them are entrenched in my being and will never leave. In particular “Waves”, “Marionette”, “Once There Were Peonies”, “Sad Clown”, “Mosaic” and “Love Letter”, to name a few.

In reality each of the poems I wrote has a very significant meaning to me. But these stood out for specific reasons.

“Waves” was written during a time of extreme overwhelm. I felt death coming in the hospital room. With each passing day, it seemed to get a little closer. I thought just perhaps I could handle it knowing my husband would be out of pain and at peace. But after he died I started to realize just how much effort restoration was going to take after such an immense loss. It was life-altering devastation. This poem brings that feeling to life.

“Marionette” was written when I was feeling very out of place in the world. I would step outside my house and smile and converse with people. The strain of pretended normalcy was so heavy. I felt like a puppet trapped in my life, giving people the face that would incite the fewest questions. I was wooden and paralyzed, knowing my every move was under observation. The outside world watched my performance through the haze of their expectations and it was a lonely and isolating feeling.

“Once There Were Peonies”. Peonies were the flower I chose for our wedding. They are one of my favorites. A couple of years after my husband died I saw a bouquet of peonies in a grocery store and bought them for myself. I put them in a vase and seeing them made me happy. Then as the days passed and they wilted I was struck by the irony. The peonies felt like the creamy, blushing representation of everything hopeful, when life started out as a big dream full of possibilities. And as I watched them slowly die in the vase I realized how much of my own hope had died and how far removed I felt from the person I had started out as on our wedding day.

“Sad Clown” was written with quite a bit of anger. I was tired of people thinking they knew what was best for me and trying to define my life based on “what my husband would have thought” or “how he would have felt” about my behaviors or my choices. People always mean well and I knew that then and know it now. But grief of this magnitude was like experiencing a factory reset. It wiped out everything I was, everything I knew or thought I knew. I was starting over from scratch and I wanted room to breathe and rediscover who I was without fear of judgment or external interference. The “flowered dress” the clown is wearing references the one I wore to my husband’s funeral when I just couldn’t bring myself to wear black.

“Mosaic”. Parenting grief-stricken children is the hardest thing I have ever done. And I constantly felt like I was messing up left and right. My children had been traumatized enough and I felt like a failure because I couldn’t meet their every need like I wanted. I was also grief-stricken and traumatized and this poem is about acknowledging I was doing the best I could with the energy and resources I had to give. It is about hope that we could build healthy relationships with each other through our trauma and experience healing together.

“Love Letter” probably seems pretty obvious. After my husband died I had this romantic fantasy that he would haunt me. That we would be like “the Ghost and Mrs. Muir” connected outside of the bound of normal experiences but connected nonetheless. But as the days passed I felt his presence slipping further away from me. I wanted to dream of him and experience some remnant of him on a regular basis and it was devastating to constantly wake up and realize he hadn’t visited my dreams. “Love Letter” was written after the one time I can remember dreaming of him.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

To never stop writing and ignore the desire to be the kind of writer people expect or want. If you write to please others, you lose yourself. And I would tell her how amazing of a person she was so she would stop doubting herself at every turn and know that approval and good grades aren’t everything. A less than stellar grade on a short story in creative writing class in 10th grade doesn’t end a writer’s career before it starts. It’s not an omen or a sign to quit. I would also tell her to pay better attention in English class, take better notes and save all her stories. It is fun to look back from where you are to where you started sometimes.

I would also encourage her to wear earplugs around people who wanted her to abandon her dream of being a published author for more realistic, less risky goals. Dreams are meant to be big and feel impossible. They are supposed to push us to rise to the occasion. I would tell my younger writing self to forge ahead regardless of the risk and pursue every dream she had with voracity and hope in endless supply.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?

Doubting whether I was good enough for publication and getting over the idea that everything I wrote had to be perfect the first go around. I didn’t believe in rough drafts for the longest time and that is why I could never finish anything. I started writing dozens of novels and short stories and never finished any of them because I couldn’t move past my own need to prove myself and meet the impossible standard of perfectionism I had set early on. I wanted to be the next “big name” author and write the next “great work of fiction”, rather than just writing because I wanted to. I had an agenda and it created an unbearable amount of pressure.

Once my husband passed away perfectionism was so far out of reach it became a dead dream, one I was happy to let die. I was an absolute mess and I knew I was a mess. I started writing just for the sake of writing and connecting my feelings and thoughts together. I found the joy and release in it again that I had lost in my drive for excellence and I settled into my own voice and decided it was enough for me.

If you could say one thing to readers who turn to Corpse Beneath the Crocus for comfort, what would it be?

That whatever they feel is okay, it is acceptable, there is space for it and it is worthy of expression.

Grief is one of the loneliest, most isolating feelings I’ve ever felt. It’s hard to have faith that you will survive the darkness, the numbness, the fragility and anger when you are so deeply entrenched that it’s paralyzing. I would want them to know that survival is in the act of waking up, of rolling out of bed, of sitting on the couch hardly moving, staring at nothing. Surviving is simply showing up in all those moments and acknowledging your own efforts in spite of the back-bending weight you are carrying.

Survival isn’t pretty. It’s agony. No one will be able to see the steps you’ve taken just to live with your grief and so they might not understand you. Your choices and behaviors might not make sense to them. They might pass judgment. But in the end it doesn’t matter. You’re still here building yourself from the ground up. That takes guts and it takes heart. You are a powerful combination in perpetual evolution. Healing is possible.

What’s next for you?

More writing. More poetry. I’ve already started another collection. Hopefully some novels. I hope I am one of those writers who grows old in a house filled with notebooks. I want one next to my bed with something interesting scrawled across the page in shaky writing when I die. So when people go through my things they are intrigued by my final thoughts and wonder at what I was just about to say.


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