By Andrew Pearson
The harsh, white lights suddenly dim, and a soft incandescence rose from behind the beveled shades that circle the Hatfield Room. Professor Danielle Deulen stepped up and introduced Scott Nadelson: discussing his awards (Oregon Book Award, Great Lakes Colleges New Writers Award and Reform Judaism Fiction Prize), praising his “original, vividly imagined characters” and their “complex inner lives” and reading a haiku she composed for the missing Nadelson while he was on sabbatical: “Your door is closed still /windy March blows through the hall /I wait for autumn.”
Then Nadelson takes the podium and introduces his “odd hybrid of a book.” In “The Fourth Corner of the World,” published on Feb 27 this year, he said that “half the stories are historical…[and] several of the stories are deeply autobiographical, just sort of embellished personal essays.”
At first he could not find a link between the stories, even as he planned to put them in the same book, but Nadelson said he eventually realized, “what was connecting them…[was that they] were about exile.”
He begins to elaborate on this by reading the title story, a fictional account of the Jewish colony of New Odessa. The utopian colony, located in Southern Oregon in the 1880s, was part of “pre-Zionist attempts to find a Jewish homeland and escape the pogroms,” and while it was poorly managed and filed for bankruptcy after seven years, it was an important precursor to both Zionism and the “back-to-the-land movement colonies” that grew up in Oregon in the 1960s. The story excerpt that Nadelson read was short and followed the nighttime journey of a young man named Jankel who discovers what Nadelson calls a “nineteenth-century threesome” in the woods.
After “The Fourth Corner of the World,” Nadelson read from a second, more autobiographical story. “A Warm Breath” began with the author grieving the death of his friend, whom he called R., whose death coincided with the birth of Nadelson’s young daughter and left him unable to enjoy the pleasures of home life.
From there, Nadelson went on tangents about a Russian cab driver, an aggressive lawyer friend, a synopsis of the Chekhov story “Grief,” his junior-year English professor and the terrible hilarious sex scenes that he and his classmates wrote into their creative-writing pieces. Ultimately, it returned to the original subjects, grief and his baby daughter: “But before long I’d hear in her barks the cadence of the Russian cab driver in Soho, and then, within in moments without any conscious decision, but also without resistance, my thoughts would have left my daughter altogether and found their way to Chekhov, and to grief.”
Nadelson described his methods in the Q&A period. “I’ll write into something as far as I can…I sprint till I run out of breath, then I go back and I give myself a running start again.”
He also advised writers in the audience to “think of yourself as a badger, you’re sniffing along and [looking for] what’s out there, just like what’s right here…in front of yourself: the next detail, the next thought, the next action and let that lead you to where it’s gonna go.”
Nadelson’s working style is unconventional, but he is optimistic about the potential of the unplanned story, and notes that even the book’s unifying theme, exile, did not come to him until it was almost finished.
I walked away from Professor Nadelson’s reading certain that he possesses a strong work ethic and has a lot to teach his students. He explains us that his next planned book, “One of Us,” will be about tribes and the rupturing of communities.
His young daughter, who sat patiently in the front row throughout the whole performance, finally spoke up at the end: “The one about the people in the old house when they find an opossum skeleton.” The professor smiles. “She was reading over my shoulder the other day.”