Meet the authors: Kent Nelson
The 2004 Festival of Words is fast approaching with the festivities kicking off on Friday, April 16. The Booklovers’ Wellness Weekend offers participants the chance to meet nationally recognized authors and hear their stories.
In order for participants to get to know the authors before the event, the Vail Daily is featuring an interview with each author every Friday in the weeks leading up to the Festival.
Meet Kent Nelson
Over the past two decades, Colorado-based writer Kent Nelson has published four collections of stories and three novels, including “Language in the Blood,” which won the Edward Abbey Prize for Eco-Fiction. His latest novel, “Land that Moves, Land that Stands Still” released last July, has garnered rave reviews and has been compared to the works of Kent Haruf, Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane. In addition to writing, Kent has also worked as a tennis pro, city judge, ranch hand and university professor. As an avid bird watcher, he has searched out and identified more than 700 species of North American birds. He resides in Salida, Col.
1. How did you start writing?
I started writing in the second grade, a novel about an evil man’s shooting of an egret – symbolism even then. As I progressed through school, though, I wasn’t particularly an academic. Sports were my main focus, and when I went to Yale on a full scholarship (I have to say that because too many people get the impression that you had to have money to go to such a school), I only took two English classes. One was a freshman literature course, and the other was a course called Daily Themes, in which we were required to write a 30-word story every day for eight weeks. Forty stories. After a couple of weeks, I had nothing to write about. I spent eight hours a day (I was a political science honors major and had only to write a thesis) trying to come up with a story. I read newspapers, talked to people, eavesdropped in restaurants. Late at night I turned out 300 terrible words and had to do it all again the next day. Gradually it dawned on me what the course was about: It was teaching what writing was like. One had to pay attention to everything that happened, learn what people were like, how to ferret out drama from any sort of circumstance. This epiphany didn’t help me write the stories any better, but it made me excited to think one could ask questions 24 hours a day as a life’s work. (I did well in the class and that, too, encouraged me.)
2. Is there any particular author, past or present, who has influenced your writing?
Like many would-be writers in those days I admired Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but as the years have passed, I’ve come more to admire James Joyce’s lyrical sentences. But I’ve felt I was more influenced by music than by other writers. This has happened in two ways – one is of course that language can be musical. Sentences have rhythms; so do paragraphs; so do scenes. Music was also alienating in the sense of its being personal. I listened alone, often imagining themes or emotions, or, if it were folk music, internalizing lyrics, especially of solitary people. To write you have to like being alone.
3. How do you spend your time when you’re not writing?
In the recent past I’ve spend a lot of time beyond writing looking for rare birds and running in the mountains. Birding has been a major thread in my life for many years and has contributed directly and indirectly to stories and novels. Mattie Remmel, the main character in “Land That Moves, Land That Stands Still,” has a working knowledge of birds; the protagonist in “Language in the Blood” is a bird guide and teacher, and many stories, whether or not they have birds in them, have landscapes that have derived directly from birding trips.
Physical exercise has always been for me an important element of life (and again, of stories). I played varsity tennis and ice hockey in college, was nationally ranked in squash, have run the Pikes Peak Marathon twice and the Imogene Pass Run between Ouray and Telluride three times, and now my girlfriend has me on skis.
4. What is your best personality quality?
I suppose my two best personal qualities are conscientiousness and persistence. In most tasks, I do more than I need to. As a runner, and as a writer, I may not be fast, but I’m persistent.
5. What is your most aggravating habit?
My most aggravating habit is competitiveness in games, though, strangely, I don’t think of writing as at all competitive.
6. If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
I’d probably be a lawyer, since I went to law school. (My original goal in life was to be governor of Colorado).
7. What is the worst job you have ever had?
If you mean employment, I suppose I’d say teaching tennis lessons, though the people I taught were usually fine. And it was outdoors. But when you teach 50 hours a week, you’re fried. The worst (small) job was digging out under the ranch house in South Dakota to find out where the drain pipe went to the septic tank.
8. If you won the lotto, what would you do?
If I won the lotto I’d give money to liberal causes and help the Democrats defeat George Bush.