Interview: Nathaniel Bellows

I first found Nathaniel’s work in Narrative Magazine. His piece Liars tells of Nan, a displaced, intelligent girl who goes to work for the collegiate magazine. The story struck me as incredibly lively; anyone who’s been in a workshop will find something to laugh about––others will enjoy the drama.

Nathaniel’s artistic verve applies to more than just prose: He’s an acclaimed poet, an accomplished essayist, a fine artist, and a musician. An aware reader will notice notes of his multidisciplinary talent throughout his writing––both in mellifluous content and structure.

Below, I’ve posted some of his drawings which correspond with plot points from his debut novel On This Day. He refers to them as a set of “training wheels” which provided him essential support in the initial stages of writing. Check more out here. It’s fantastic to see artistry unbound––exploring visual, auditory, and prosaic limits, testing and experimenting.

Nathaniel’s been published in The Paris Review, The Best American Short Stories, Narrative Magazine, and various other publications. His novel, On This Day, and poetry collection, Why Speak?, have been very well received.

Check out some of his “Nan stories” (of which Liars is one) here. Find his poetry: Elegy, Harm’s Woods, Work

Interview Follows


Though practical, does the e-reader dilute the “artfulness” of print works? E.G. does the sparse presentation influence the content?


I see the benefits of digital readers—storing many books in one compact device, downloading a book almost instantly, ease of traveling/organization, etc—but, even though the presentation can look great and be immediate, whenever I’ve read a book in this form, I just end up missing the actual body of the book.

And by that I mean the design of the jacket and the layout; the texture and feel of the paper; the size and shape and weight of it in my hands. When I read, I often fold down corners of the pages or I make notes where I want to remember certain things, and sometimes those folds and notes become a narrative of their own—the story of a tactile, personal interaction with an object.

I’m a big fan of technology and innovation, but I guess I’m a more a traditionalist when it comes to reading.


Do you feel that the growing abundance of self-publishing companies (Amazon, Lulu, Smashwords) hurts ‘real’ literature?


I’m not sure what characterizes ‘real’ literature these days, but I do know that it’s extremely difficult to write a book, and the publishing industry can be a very discouraging and defeating place. Because of this, I think it’s great there are ways for a writer to get their work out into the world if the traditional, established channels aren’t welcoming.

My brother and I started a small publishing house in 2006, Harmon Blunt Publishers. The initial idea was to re-release my novel, On This Day, when my publisher took it out of print. Since then we’ve released two additional titles by other authors, and I’ve learned a lot about book publishing and production along the way—in particular that, as a self-published author, it’s a challenge to compete in the broad, heavily-populated marketplace, but you also have a lot more control over how your work is presented and distributed, and you get a more hands-on role in its development and possible success.

Self-publishing doesn’t necessarily guarantee a boost in your sales or visibility, but it certainly can boost your spirit and sense of autonomy, which counts for a lot.


I know you’ve been asked this before, but it deserves attention: It’s well known that you work in a lot of mediums; you’re a writer, a musician, and an artist. I found the sketches you did for On This Day, which suggest a real connection between your drawing and prose. How has your broad creative attention helped your writing? Have you ever considered making a hybrid piece?


I’ve been working in these three mediums since I was very young—and by “working” I only mean that they’ve always been a part of the way I’ve expressed myself, and, over the years, I’ve actively tried to develop and refine my skills in each realm. Overall, I’d say the combination of the three disciplines has honed my sensory relationship with the world around me, and helped me further define my own point of view and voice.

As for hybrid pieces—yes, I think about it all the time. The videos I make often include my own artwork, but I’ve always wanted to write/draw a graphic novel, or a picture book with little or no text. Creating the drawings for On This Day really got me into that mindset. I had a teacher in graduate school (in the art department) who was instrumental in introducing me to many contemporary artists working in the field of graphic novels.

I’ve always been intrigued by the various ways word and image can be combined, and I’d like to explore it more.


In some of your interviews, you discussed your rural upbringing and how it affected your work. As someone who’s intimately familiar with rural Virginia–in some considerations, maximum ‘rurality’–this interested me. Care to discuss some themes (pieces, bits, patterns) of rural life which strike you as especially poignant? In your interview at Emprise Review, you stated that, even though you’ve started writing about the urban landscape, you still apply “pastoral sensibilt[ies] to it”. Is it hard to ignore the powerful elements of ‘naturalness’?


The pastoral world has always been a large part of my sensibility and has, in some ways, determined how I position myself within my surroundings: weather, flora/fauna, light, water—basically, the non-human aspects of the world—have a great affect on me.

I think the solitary nature of my early years, coupled with the expansiveness of where I was raised, has directly informed my work, which tends to be reflective and interior, but grounded in the natural world.


Narrative Magazine recently published your story Liars, part of a collection of coming “Nan,” stories about a young woman who leaves rural Vermont for an urban education. When, firstly, is the collection coming out? Will you use an existing college or university for Nan’s adventures? The difficulty of strapping characters down to a too-real world always fascinates me.


I’m not sure when or if the Nan stories are coming out as a collection, but I hope they do at some point. The stories were, in fact, an exercise in locating a character in a specific, identifiable landscape (Nan lives in New York City and is a student at Columbia University).

Up until this point, I’d been very reticent to take this approach—I was more interested in telling a story in a kind of suspended but realistic realm—one that could translate to a wide variety of landscapes and time periods.

I wanted to focus more on the inner lives of the characters rather than the cultural implications of their geography and the period in which the story is set. But, in deliberately mapping out Nan’s existence the way I have in these stories, an interesting contrast has emerged: as she moves throughout the city, and back and forth to Vermont, her path become linear and precise, but her emotional trajectory is much more abstract and amorphous and complex.

I like the layered image that those two forms produce, like a series of clean, crisscrossing vectors, grafted over a cloud.


In Liars, Nan’s workshop professor shows her class a stack of literary journals and says, “These are the essential steps in your development and discovery. Where you publish and where your work appears will determine where next you’ll go.” Though the professor of course is a sort of caricature, do you believe this ‘advice’ holds true, pragmatically? Does a stair-step of publications in respected magazines guarantee anything for a new writer?


It was the advice I picked up (in one form or another) when I was in college and graduate school, and when I worked at a number of literary magazines. When I started sending my work out, I was very dogged and persistent about it. It’s a strategy that was tough to maintain given the disproportionate number of rejections to acceptances I received, but I’m a little bit stubborn when it comes to my work, so I tried to treat each rejection as a form of inspiration, and I just kept at it.

In the end, I credit the resulting publications with helping me find an agent and, later, gaining the notice of editors. Nothing is guaranteed or predictable in publishing, but I do believe that having an acknowledgment page that included known magazines and periodicals definitely helped me get my foot in the door.


What’s your next step? What’ve you been working on?


I have just finished a new novel, The Unwelcome, which is a contemporary ghost story/mystery that takes place on a coastal island in Maine.  I’m also finishing the Nan series—there will be ten stories in total and I’m working on #10; so far seven have been published; I’ve sent out the remaining stories in hopes they’ll get taken.

I’ve also started writing some new poems, after having taken a break from the intensity of poetry for a while. I’d like to start in on that graphic novel idea, and I have an idea for an urban-based novel about an odd job I had after I finished graduate school. Things feel a bit up in the air these days, but I try to just put my head down, keep working, and forge on ahead.


EC. Question(s): Who’ve you been reading recently?


Recent books I’ve recently read (or re-read):

Stoner, John Williams

The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald

A Leg to Stand On, Oliver Sacks

Don’t Look Now: Stories, Daphne du Maurier

Born to Run, Christopher McDougall

I Curse the River of Time, Per Petterson


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