Jessica Hendry Nelson Wants to Eat All the Books

An Interview by Lindsay Gacad

I jumped at the chance to interview Jessica Hendry Nelson, the whirling dervish, who works as an author, professor and editor, and lives in Waterbury, Vermont. As a fan of her non-chronological essay style and focus on creative nonfiction, I looked forward to discussing her award-winning memoir-in-essays If Only You People Could Follow Directions (Counterpoint Press) of which the Kirkus Starred Review said, “It takes a virtuoso writer to make another familial memoir of addiction seem as vital and compelling as this stunning debut does…Unforgettable.”

We sit down in The Moore Room, a small space in the Gary Library which houses just a beige couch and a white armchair by the window facing the green. Its intimate setting provided the privacy I quickly learned we’d need.

Once Jessica Hendry Nelson enters the Vermont College of Fine Arts Gary Library, she is greeted by a bevy of excited students who are giddy to say hello. Her energy is infectious, and what was previously a quiet Monday afternoon turned into a cacophony of laughter and hugs in the library’s foyer. Effortlessly chic, Jessica is donning an olive green felt hat, wide-legged black pants, and a dark denim jacket.


LG: Was it difficult to write your memoir, If Only You People Could Follow Directions? Did it take time to pull together? Because it is so beautiful, I really enjoyed it.

JHN: Thank you. I started writing it when I was really young, right after my Dad died, after college, and that felt like the easy part. Living it is difficult, but writing it is easy to do. I was using the creative part of my brain to make a piece of art out of things that are huge and messy and chaotic. By the time I started writing this material in any direct way, it didn’t feel personal. It felt like writing somebody else’s story. So, I didn’t really struggle with that emotionally, because some things had already been processed.

LG: How was it received by your family? 

JHN: That’s always a big question with creative nonfiction—“how do we broach this?” In fact, I just did an hour-long lecture on this subject, because it’s so charged. People feel a lot of responsibility, guilt, and a lot of fear because you don’t know how people will react. You can only control a few things: the empathy that you bring to the page, committing yourself to writing full, true stories, and the idea that the page is never the place to condemn or to call anyone out, or bring anyone to bear. It is the place to really understand the fullness of a human, or of a story. So, if you can do that, you know that whatever you are ultimately showing them comes from a place of love and empathy and of curiosity and wonder and not from a place of trying to bring someone to task for past sins.

LG: Or judgment.

JHN: Exactly. I think of when I write about my family or loved ones—I’m really trying to write love letters. They might not seem that way on the surface, but I think it is an honor to be seen, and to be seen fully and intimately. I think that that’s an honor. Even if you’re not aggrandizing anyone or making anyone holier than thou, you’re creating true full portraits.

My family knew for a long time that I was writing this material, and they were always really open about it and proud. And they think they’re like rock stars. {Laughs} My brother—this is one of my favorite stories—when my book first came out, he was living in Philly, between halfway houses, and the book was in The Oprah Magazine, and he called. He’s getting on the bus and I just hear him go, “My sister wrote this book and I’m the drug addict in the book!” He was so proud, and I hear the bus go “Yayyyy!” All these people started clapping. So, I think I’m really fortunate. I don’t think everyone’s family is necessarily going to be that open and willing to share their own stories.

And I would say, with CNF/memoir, don’t show them anything till it’s done. You don’t want other people’s voices in your head when you’re writing, and anything that can mess with your own psychic workings-through can be a real roadblock. Until you know it’s going to be published, there’s no reason to necessarily burden a relationship if it feels at all tricky. Give yourself the freedom to go where you need to go, without any sort of anxiety or fear about their reception. You have to separate those two parts of the process as much as you can. Otherwise, you’ll never do it if you’re constantly negotiating the relationships while you’re trying to write honestly.

LG: Did you start writing CNF in undergrad, or at Sarah Lawrence? Did those feel like safe places to experiment with writing?

JHN: Yeah, I did. I ended up working with a poet, Vijay Seshadri. He taught me more about writing than almost anyone. I first started writing CNF in undergrad and didn’t know anything about it. It wasn’t nearly as prevalent as it is today on the market, or at least I wasn’t aware of it as much, so it felt like the wild west. It felt like we could try anything and there was no real rulebook that said you can’t tell a story this way.

Naivety can be a really powerful, creative fuel. Your own ignorance can be a driver because you don’t know any better. I was just trying some shit out, and thank god, because now I could never get back to that place in my writing—before you start taking yourself seriously, where there are no pressures of publication or expectations or anything. That purity of digging in for the first time. That’s such a great place to be.

My brother is in jail right now, and he barely graduated from high school. He just started writing in jail, and he read me some of it over the phone the other day, and it was so beautiful and unhindered. You can tell he has a natural gift and knack, and it’s not at all beaten into place by other voices. It’s in an unfilteredness place that I wish I could get back to.

In school, I was just so hungry and desirous of all of it, and I didn’t feel the same sort of self-awareness that I maybe have now. That can be prohibitive in your work. You don’t want to ever take yourself too seriously.

LG: Right. A lot of how we feel now as grad students is a place of “I don’t know…”

JHN: “I don’t know” is the best place to write from. I tell my students this all the time, never start an essay because you have some lesson to impart, or you have some theme or thesis already devised in your head. Always come to the page from a place of not knowing, and write in order to refine the question, but not to answer the question.

LG: I love that.

JHN: You can tell when you pick up an essay and the writer had an agenda—there’s no discovery in that. There’s not ecstatic understanding, so it becomes instead a series of prescribed rhetorical moves that end up feeling really predictable. Whereas essays that start in wonder and end in wonder are the ones that excite me the most.

LG: That’s so true. What kind of things do you do to get yourself out of your head? I know that you love it here in Vermont and nature. 

JHN: You mean besides when I beat my head against the wall repeatedly every morning? {Laughs} That’s number one. Drink a lot of wine, that’s number two. I do think that when writing is going really well, it’s physical. We write from the body, more than we acknowledge. I tend to be a rocker when I write: I have to stand and move. There’s something about the narrative energy—not to sound too woo-woo—I think we have narrative in our DNA. Story is in our cells, our bones, our blood. Why wouldn’t that also be a physical process as well? And walking, that’s every writer’s favorite. And for good reason, because that stimulates and connects body and brain.

My space, where I write, is really important to me. I need a space where I can feel free to just move around and get up and stretch and rock and look really weird.

LG: There are tons of strong settings in your book. For me, it was wonderful how you weaved the story through them; it propelled the story forward along with the story of your family. 

JHN: Good, good. I try to make setting a character. And at the very least we have to remember our stories do not take place out of space and time. My memories taking place in Philadelphia would’ve been very different set in Seattle. Moving to Vermont has made me even more aware of the ways in which the rhythms of the seasons really impact everything. Not just superficially—it changes the way humans move through the world, what we do, how we’re feeling, and then that impacts our relationships, which impact our emotions which impact everything. So, trying to be cognizant of setting and how it impacts story is important to me.

LG: You’re also Managing and Nonfiction Editor at Green Mountains Review. I’m interested in how you balance that and how it helps your writing.

JHN: Six years ago, when I started doing that work, it was really helpful to peek behind the curtain, because it felt like such a mysterious process. It’s made me much more patient with other writers, and with myself.

When you see these submissions pile up, and the work, heart, love, and sweat that goes into each, it feels like a communal, mutual desperation, our hopes, insecurities, and love, where else do you go to work and engage with people’s deepest, most complicated intimacies. And they’re complete strangers. {Exhales} Essay after essay, that is humbling. And feels like a lot of responsibility.

I know how vulnerable that can feel to submit your work into the ether and just wait for someone to come down with a verdict. But it’s doing your part to contribute to this creative community. I believe the best sense of literary citizenship—which is a term I think gets thrown around a lot—is like service learning. I get to be a curator and reach out to people whose work I admire, and have something to offer them.

LG: Do you have a big team there, or is it just you?

JHN: We have just three of us main editors, Elizabeth Powell, Jensen Beach; Deedee Jackson is also a poetry editor. It’s really a three-man brigade. For nonfiction, I do it all.

LG: Who are your people?

JHN: At its best, writing is a collaborative process. Writer’s groups are key; they’re my lifeblood. And if you can find an agent you trust, that’s gold, man.

LG: Here come the standard interview questions: What are you currently reading? What’s on your nightstand?

JHN: I love these questions, they’re my favorite to answer. I just finished Outline by Rachel Cusk. It’s a beautiful novel, comprised of conversations that other people are telling the main character. Black Wave, a novel by Michelle Tea, I read. I love novels that feel essayistic, or that have a nonfiction style of writing that feels more dialectic, not just relying on the same plot structures that we’re so familiar with. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is one of my favorite books in recent years.

But not just CNF. I loved Melissa Febos’ Abandon Me. And there’s a great book called Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor. It was sold as stories, but to me it feels like essays with letters. Anything playing with form in new ways, or that is hybrid in nature, whether in content or form. The Folded Clock, by Heidi Julavitz, you should read that.

LG: I get overwhelmed by how much there is to read, but it’s also a wonderful problem to have.

JHN: I know, I just want to eat all the books and have them inside me already.

LG: And so, what’s next for you? What has you excited?

JHM: I have a lot of projects in the pipeline. I just finished a first draft of my next book, which I think will be a book-length nonfiction narrative. It will probably be sold as memoir, which is kind of a shame because I feel like that word is sort of too vague for some of the kinds of work that other people are doing.

LG: I feel like “memoir” has a sort of negative connotation. Do you?

JHN: We understand what creative nonfiction is in the literary community, but the mainstream sees memoir as audacious, like we think we have some sort of wisdom to impart. That’s a huge misconception. But that is tied to my second project—I’m co-writing an Advanced Creative Nonfiction textbook with Sean Prentiss. Part of that is trying to get people to re-see the possibilities of creative nonfiction, and that means changing the nomenclature a little bit. It’s really exciting and definitely necessary.


Jessica Hendry Nelson’s memoir, If Only You People Could Follow Directions (Counterpoint Press), was selected as a best debut book by the Indies Introduce New Voices program, named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Review, and reviewed nationally in print and on NPR—including twice in O, The Oprah Magazine. It was also a finalist for the Vermont Book Award.

Nelson’s work has appeared in The Threepenny ReviewPrairie SchoonerTin HouseThe Los Angeles Review of BooksThe Rumpus, and elsewhere. She teaches in the MFA Program in Writing and Publishing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, the MFA Program at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, at Champlain College, and she serves as the Managing & Nonfiction Editor of Green Mountains Review.trace affiliate link | Men’s shoes