h.l. nelson has only been on the literary scene for little over a year, but in that time she’s managed to find a home for over thirty of her stories. Thirty. All of this while raising two children and working through the slush pile of her own literary website, Cease, Cows—which just launched this spring, but has already gathered a devoted following and a reputation for publishing challenging, edgy work.
How does she manage it all? Well, witchcraft, clearly. But even a short conversation with her reveals the real reason—unbridled energy matched with natural talent and charm. Matthew Guerruckey chatted with Nelson about growing up in Texas, running her own litmag, and how motherhood has affected her life and her writing.
Drunk Monkeys: Where did you grow up?
h. l. nelson: I’m from a podunk rural area outside of Midland, Texas. It’s called Greenwood. There’s nothing green and no wood (besides horny farmboys’) to be found. Only mesquite and tumbleweeds. You know, I think I just stole that from Stephen Graham Jones (not the horny farmboy bit), who’s also from there. He was a few years ahead of me, we went to the same little 3-A school. But I never knew that until last year when I chatted him up on Facebook. Cool dude.
DM: That’s an interesting coincidence. Is there any shared worldview in your works that you can attribute to growing up in Greenwood?
HN: It’s entirely possible. I believe he wrote about soccer moms kicking ass, and I’m writing a Fight Club-esque soccer mom novel. We both love horror, apparently. I mean, there’s not much to do in a rural area except go outside during the day and watch movies/read/write/sneak out at night. Oh, and he wrote Growing Up Dead in Texas, which is set in Greenwood. I’ve still only read about half of it. I have too much to do! When someone makes a (removable) implant that allows us to upload thousands of books into our brains, I’ll be the first in line.
And, speaking of Stephen Graham Jones, he just agreed to be Guest Judge for Cease, Cows’ very first contest! Details forthcoming, but the contest will end and be announced in October, so there will definitely be a connection to Halloween.
DM: How did growing up there shape you as a person and as a writer?
HN: I was outside a lot, in that hot, sandy, desolate environment. And I was an only child. My parents worked long hours, so I had to fend for and entertain myself. I’ve written quite a few pieces that feature a desert-ish landscape. Almost everything I write about includes an element of emotional desolation. As I’ve aged, I’ve realized only strong things can survive a desert, be it geographical or emotional.
DM: What moments in your life did that toughness help you through?
HN: My dad was an abusive, bipolar alcoholic, therefore much of my childhood was spent walking on eggshells around him. My stepmom was a mere shadow to his overwhelming personality. It was like she wasn’t there. Even when not drinking, though, dad was quite the personality to deal with. But, it was way worse with the alcohol. Luckily, after I left home at age 16 to live with my biological mom, he quit drinking. He’s still the most book-learned person I’ve ever met, though he only took one semester of community college. We used to read encyclopedias for fun together. Things weren’t all bad.
DM: Are you close with your father now?
HN: We’re not close, but I see him every few years-ish. You can love people, but still not want or need them in your everyday life. He’s mellowed a lot, but I’m always glad to leave their house and head home.
DM: How do you think that chaotic early childhood shaped you?
HN: Well, it’s definitely taken me many years to move past most of my issues, and in some ways I still have a lot to overcome. I don’t like terms like “survivor,” because I think it gives too much power to those things in the past. For the last several years, I’ve preferred to look at my dad in a more empathetic manner. He didn’t have the easiest childhood, either. And he’s my dad, so I will always love him. Despite the bad bits, he taught me the value of books, writing (I found a leather-bound journal full of his poems when I was in middle school), hard work, and questioning authority.
DM: When did you start writing?
HN: It was 5th grade and I was in Mrs. McCandless’s homeroom. She was great. She had us write in a journal, and she would answer our questions and respond to our thoughts. That was awesome, to get one-on-one writing attention from a super caring teacher. Also, same year, my English teacher had us write weekly fiction stories, then she read the best ones. She read mine at least a few times. It was exciting to have my stories picked, to get approval for them. The year after, I penned a poem that won a class contest. Early approval and acknowledgement. It’ll do it every time!
DM: When were you first published?
HN: Besides high school and college lit mags, it was Black Heart Magazine, last July (or August). Laura Roberts gave me a shot with this silly story about a hick in a pie-eating contest. Someone mentioned a Stephen King story that it reminded them of, and I remembered reading or seeing a version of it when I was a kid. Maybe it was bouncing around my subconscious when I wrote that story. But yeah, I’ve only been publishing since last year, and I’ve managed to rack up 30+, somehow. My guess is that the editors who’ve published me are blind, randomly clicking on accept and decline, and I’ve somehow gotten a fair amount of blind-accepts.
DM: What was the story or moment when you knew that writing was what you were meant to do?
HN: There was a point in high school when I made it to state in UIL poetry contests that I figured it was probably something I should continue with. But, for most of my 20s, I let the writing languish. And it was a frenetic decade for me, I must say. Mostly not in a good way. I started re-focusing on writing in my early 30s, when my first son was young, and I realized I might actually be an ok fiction writer.
DM: Who are your greatest influences in writing?
HN: Ray (Not “Raymond”, I feel too familiar with him for that) Carver, Palahniuk, xTx (and a whole host of other writers I’ve read online), Pinckney Benedict, Octavia Butler, Tolkien, Toni Morrison, George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Vonnegut. More and more, I find myself drawn to the stranger stories: slipstream, magical realism, dystopian, etc. which is why I started my lit mag, Cease, Cows. I want to devour as many of these types of stories as I possibly can, and help the “weird” writers get those stories out into the online literary consciousness.
DM: When did you start Cease, Cows?
HN: I started it in April of this year, pretty much on a whim. One day, I decided I wanted to create a lit mag. Then within a month, the idea was set, I’d purchased a domain and hosting, my fiancé and I twiddled with the look of it, and I started soliciting writers I know to send me some stuff to put up. It was a pretty quick and organic process, really. I’m not one to fuck around with an idea for a long time. I’m an action-oriented individual. It gets me in trouble a lot.
DM: How does the mag work behind the scenes?
HN: It works like awesomeness. I seriously have a badass team, without whom I would be pulling my hair out daily! I have an Editor-in-Beef (haha), Justis Mills, and a Managing Editor, Alisha Attella, who serve as my buffers with the rest of the staff. I’m not really a great people person, and eventually, most people end up hating me. So, I choose super laidback, competent people to be closest to me because only the laidback ones can put up with my shit.
Honestly, though, everyone we have on staff now is pretty laidback: Guest Poetry Editor Daniel Romo, Associate Fiction Editors James Bojaciuk and Gwen Beatty, and Associate Poetry Editor Nathan Goldman. Yeah, man, real mellow, hard-working peeps. We’re like the A-Team of lit mags. Except, we’d have to add in all the A-Team chicks because I think there were just four dudes…and no one reading this knows what the hell I’m talking about, do they? Besides being really old, I’m really fucking lucky to work with the people I do.
As far as the mag itself, we say on our About page that we want to “feel cultural pulses, expose mental arteries, bathe in both the sanguine and sanguinary” (which is just some crap I wrote real quick to make us sound cool), but the piece of yours that we accepted, “Powers and Principalities,”so closely matched our aims as a lit mag, it was just sick. In a good way. After I read and immediately accepted it, I ran into our bedroom and blathered on about it forever to my fiancé (who was probably trying to do something music-related – Luckily, he’s used to me interrupting him).
DM: What do you enjoy most about running your own litmag?
HN: The words, man. There are always words words words that need eyes to make them the best they can be. And the people. As much as many non-artistic people annoy the crap out of me, the people I work with and the writers I speak with on a daily basis are all badasses.
DM: Your story “The Big and Small of It”, which we’ve featured here, contains a number of vivid surrealist images. When did that become a feature of your work? Are there any writers who inspired it, or did it just come from you organically?
HN: That piece was absolutely inspired by Judy Darley’s “The Bid,” which we published at Cease, Cows and is much better than my own story. The setting is roughly the same, as well as the client-type meeting. But, I wanted to make the “children” older. I took a bit of inspiration from Aimee Bender’s “End of the Line.” Phenomenal story. I just started writing weirder stories. As in, within the last few months. I told you I move fast.
DM: What would you like to be more involved with as you move forward in your career?
HN: Anthologies. I’m putting together a few of my own works, and a women’s anthology featuring Aimee Bender, Susan Perabo, Roxane Gay, xTx, Mary Miller, and a good 15 other solid writers. We had a name and a publisher, but have had to kill both, so I’m keeping my eyes peeled. I have a publisher, Pure Slush, looking at it right now, so we’ll see what happens.
DM: If all goes perfectly, what is your craziest, pie-in-the-sky vision for your life?
HN: Myself, my fiancé, and our kids living in an earthship home that we built ourselves, on our land. I’m a writer/author/professor full-time and my fiancé’s band, Heir to Madness, has made a name for itself in the progressive –melodic-rock musical soundscape. He, of course, has an amazing studio, tons of instruments, etc. due to my book sales. But most of all, we’re just really happy and in love, doing what we love. That’s the best pie-in-the-sky, for me.
DM: Which story, of the ones you’ve written, are you proudest of?
HN: Oh, man. I might have to pick a couple, for different reasons. I’m pretty proud of the forthcoming “The Sea Is Only Meat” for PANK, just because it’s such a solid-feeling dystopic story. But, of course, it’s also about internal tumult in the main character’s relationship. When researching how the hell to get them to accept a piece of mine, I paid close attention to motifs that many PANKsters seem to employ. Apparently, it paid off.
I’m also proud of “Since Beth Left,” though it’s been a year and it’s still unfinished. Pinckney Benedict, one of my favorite writers and professors, edited it for me and didn’t totally hate it. So, that’s a huge plus, for me.
DM: What is “Since Beth Left” about, and why does it have such a personal resonance?
HN: It’s about these two guys, Joe and Bill, and their relationship with each other, their addictions, and women. It’s from Bill’s point of view, and he’s telling the reader an awful lot about Joe’s drama, but he’s really telling the reader a lot about his own drama, in the process. He talks about Joe being an alcoholic, but can’t see that he himself is a sex addict and quite possibly a psychopath. I’m still trying to figure out the culminating scene of the piece.
It’s tricky stuff, due to the point of view. The reader has to be let in on things, through Bill’s voice, but Bill himself can’t know these things. If I pull this one off, I’ll be thrilled and will know that I finally have the chops. The MC, Bill, probably reminds me somewhat of my dad and myself. That’s where the personal resonance comes in.
[Writing the] main character in “Since Beth Left” really messed me up for a while. I was realizing, as the character developed, that this guy had no idea what was wrong with him, that he really didn’t have the knowledge necessary to understand and overcome his issues. And I think this made me profoundly sad. The character is also highly misogynistic, so that was annoying, too. But, I still love the character. Maybe that’s the hardest thing to admit and recover from.
DM: Outside of literature, who have been the greatest influences in your life?
My mom, my fiancé, and my sons. I didn’t know my mom well until I was 16, but since then, she has done nothing but been patient with and unconditionally loved me. Even through my 20s, whew. It’s not something I’d ever experienced before, so, while I’ve taken it for granted sometimes in the last 20 years, it has positively affected who I’ve become.
My fiancé also never gives up on me, always pushes me to be a better version of myself. And, believe me, sticking with me through all of my moody/bitchy moments is really fucking hard. He is the most patient person ever. I’m a serious handful—probably two handfuls.
And my sons. They’re the best. I could say a bunch of clichéd nonsense, but everyone’s heard it all before…and, of course, I can’t keep myself from saying something clichéd: They remind me that life is about the little moments, those tangible daily bondings when you put your ego on a shelf and you simply delight in the little being/s that you love above absolutely everything. Even above writing. That’s some ego-killing stuff, right there.
DM: Do you think motherhood has changed your writing?
HN: Certainly. I’m constantly up and down from my computer taking care of kiddos, so I’ve found myself writing shorter (flash) pieces for the most part. Plus, it feels more comfortable for me to work in under 1500 words. I’m a huge fan of flash. We read Sudden Fiction for school last term, and many of those stories blew my mind. I’m dying to be a Flash Master. Which sounds dirtier than what I mean…or I may mean it dirty. You decide, dear reader.
DM: What is your daily routine like?
HN: Arise like Jesus, take care of kiddos, coffee/water/food myself, check emails/FB/Twitter for 30 minutes or so, then launch into administrative tasks for (usually) a few hours. All the while, bouncing up-down-up to do things for the kids, play with them, sometimes to do laundry, etc. I’m a master multitasker, let me tell you.
Break for lunch, back into it in the afternoon. Usually this is when I do more heavy lifting, like editing and writing. Honestly, besides breaking for dinner, I’m usually working into the evening, too. Unless I go do something fun with the kids. I may be a workaholic. Just maybe.
DM: What is your writing routine like?
HN: I wish I had one. I don’t. I may go a few days to a week without writing anything, just editing various things like old writing, pieces for CC, pieces for the women’s anthology, friends’ pieces, etc. But then, I’ll write 1-10 things in a 24-48 hour period. It’s ridiculous when the flow starts – It’s like the ideas just keep coming and I’m at their mercy until my mind faucet is turned the hell off. I sometimes don’t eat for hours and hours, don’t drink much either. I’ll feed the kids (mostly) on time, but won’t eat myself, I’ll just be at the table, typing and chatting with them. It’s ridiculous. My body hates me at those times.
DM: When your kids are old enough to read it, what do you think they’ll make of your work? What would you like it to say to them about you?
HN: Wow, you know, I hadn’t even thought of this before now. My kids are 3 and 7, so I still have a ways to go. But, I guess mostly I’d like at least a story or two of mine to resonate with them and help them toward their own creative goals. Everyone is creative in some way, even if you aren’t a writer, artist, musician. If my sons deeply thought about a story of mine while working on cars or playing basketball, I’d consider my writing to be a success.
h.l. nelson is the Founding Editor of Cease, Cows. Follow her work at her website.