One Writer's Journey: Nikki Dolson
Spark Interview: Writer's Journey Series, #1
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Nikki Dolson is reading to me from her phone. She reels off titles for stories she might write one day, snippets and notes on stories in progress, character names. She reads off the number of stories she’s finished (52) gotten published (30) and the ones which will never see the light of day (20). There is a record of every rejection she has ever received (130 -- 30 of them for one story alone) although she doesn’t trust it: she believes the number of rejections is higher.
This is the phone of a woman who understands tools, a writer who likes to play with ideas before making them real too soon. It is the gateway to Nikki Dolson’s personal life, her day job as a designer for a Las Vegas engineering firm, and her writing life: all three coexist there and vie for her attention as they do every day of her life outside the phone.
In the three weeks since our chat via Zoom, that coexistence has included the unexpected terror that accompanies a serious medical issue with one of her children and the unexpected joy of being selected as one of the authors whose stories will appear in a major national anthology: The Best Mystery and Suspense 2021published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Here’s a glimpse into Nikki Dolson’s journey as a writer so far, how she began, what pulls her forward, what it costs her, how her own life furnishes material for her stories, what she’s learned about herself, writing, and life by following this path. And why she loves those retro dresses and gorgeous prints she models on Instagram.
First, the official stuff
Nikki Dolson is the author of the novel All Things Violent and the story collection Love and Other Criminal Behavior. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Vautrin, TriQuarterly, Tough, and other publications. Her fiction has been nominated for a Derringer and noted as Distinguished in The Best American Short Stories 2016. Her short story, Neighbors, originally published in Vautrin will appear in The Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.). She is represented by Nat Sobel of Sobel Weber Associates, Inc. Her day job: designer at a Las Vegas engineering firm. She has three children.
Here are her books:
Now let’s dive in.
The Beginning: A Hole in the Wall and One Good Sentence
Betsy: How did it all begin for you?
Nikki: “It was 2006. My youngest was three, I was thirty-two, and I was really blocked. I had a strong desire for some kind of creative output. I used to love to write, so I said, let's go try that. There was a class, so I figured I'd sign up for that. Which mostly made me cry that first week, because they said “you need a story next week” and I hadn’t written anything that I wasn't assigned since high school.
But I came up with one. I used to walk in my neighborhood. Here in Vegas, you know, there are all these subdivisions with six-foot high walls around them. I don’t know if it only happens in Vegas, but on every corner, there'd be walls pushed in because somebody ran into it. I walked by one day and looked through it and that became the story I wrote: what happened when somebody looked through that hole in the wall? What did they see?
“My teacher looked at it. It needed lots of work. He said I think you need to do this and that. But then he goes, “this sentence right here, this is a sentence I wish I had written.” And that, to this day, is a thing that I hold close. I don't have a degree and don't have an MFA. I spent all of my twenties, you know, having kids and working. And so there's a certain part of me that feels like I'm behind, and to have someone I respected whose work that I read, say, ‘this is a great sentence.’ It validated me as a writer, and spurred me on.”
Then: lurking, learning, writing, and writing some more
Betsy: You’ve mentioned you don’t have an MFA. How have you gone about developing as a writer? What makes you more confident?
Nikki: The first story I ever sent anywhere was published. I was like, yes. Then everything after that for years, I couldn’t get published. When I got laid off in 2008, I had the opportunity to attend Columbia College in Chicago for a while. It was clear I needed to learn something. So I took different classes. I learned stuff in those classes but the most important thing is that I kept writing. You begin to see things like how the structure of a paragraph can change the way a story ends. You absorb lessons that filter into your subconscious and comes out in the story. Just taking that step back to, to learn something made me feel better about what I was producing.
Then, too, it is important to find a place to exist in the writing world. I learned a lot from lurking around other writers of crime fiction like Sisters in Crime, Crime Writers of Color, and other groups where I was a huge lurker. I’ve hung out in these groups for a decade and a half and I’ve never said anything. But I’ve learned because I read a lot. I saw people asking questions that I had too and the answers helped me be a better writer. Staying connected with these groups is also a way of getting support. From them, I get what I need to actually keep writing. [ NOTE: Ongoing learning and interaction with other writers is key for Nikki. We met at the Writing By Writers workshop in 2016; when we spoke a few weeks ago, she was in the middle of an eight-week, online workshop that included instructors such as Lauren Groff].
Betsy: When did/does all the writing happen?
Nikki: All day, all day. When the kids were smaller, and I had a different kind of schedule, I would go to work and scribble ideas down on Post-It notes as they occurred to me and maybe write a little at lunch. But then I would leave work and go to my spot, which was at the Borders Cafe or Starbucks and write for an hour before I went home. I walk in the door at home and there's dinner happening. We talk about work, what the kids are doing in school, what have you. And then, you know, everyone would settle down to watch something. Wrestling was big in the house. I will creep off to go sit with my laptop, or write a thing or in my notebook, or read a thing or do something writing-centric, that fit into the time I had. But I always wrote. I wrote constantly, even in the middle of night. When I bought my laptop, I wanted a lighted keyboard so when my husband was asleep next to me, and it was at night, I could see the keys and turn down the brightness on my screen. [Laughs] That’s how serious things got with me.
What keeps her going
Betsy: You mentioned that after that first story, it was a while before you got published again. What made you keep going?
Nikki: Publishing is validation but there were long stretches when that didn’t happen. What made me a writer and kept me going early on was a teacher saying, this is a great thing. When I was in Chicago, a teacher who didn't know me, read the boxing story that is in my book now, said, you, you know, you belong here, right? She told me she was glad I was there, that I belonged. I was very hard on myself then -- I still am. And she’s saying, you belong here. You're good at this. You can do this. I won't ever forget that too. Encountering people like that, who saw something in me, drove me to keep going made a difference. Without it at that time, I might have stopped and tried something else.
Betsy: What is it like to look into your phone and see some of your earlier work that never went anywhere?
Nikki: “There are probably ten stories that will never see the light of day, even though I love them. And even though I pull them out every now again to look at them to see if I can make them work -- I can see they are very much about trying to figure out who I was as a writer, and what I wanted to write. I made forays into literary fiction because I thought that's what I ought to write, that's what's going to get me the things that I thought I wanted. All of those stories are hooked around the idea of what it means to be a literary writer and to have a career, an idea that I’d bought into. What I was missing, in each of those stories was a clear vision of the world I wanted the reader to inhabit. I might have, you know, compelling characters in a story but I was writing about places I didn't know or giving the characters accents that I don't know anything about.
Betsy: And what about now, what keeps you going?
Nikki: There came a point where I understood that writing has to be mostly for me. If I get caught up in the publishing wheel, I'm going to get flung off.
I'm not mainstream. I don't write stories that are ever going to really get that way [ this was before she found out her story, “Neighbors”, would be in the anthology Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021]. And I'm fine with that. Sure, I’d like to make a million dollars selling my books but it's like, you know, betting on the lottery.. So why am I doing it? I like bringing characters to life. I'm still trying to write a certain kind of story at a certain kind of level. There are several by other writers I can think of but one, “Until Gwen” by Dennis Lehane, is always at the top of my list. It’s a killer story, yes. But it is also a story about a father and son, about a man and the woman he loves and death and lies, and what it means to be a person. It does all these amazing things. I was gutted when I read that story for the first time. I want to know how to write like this. I can take it apart. I know how it works. I can see where it works. I can see the shift. I understand why we left this moment here and tiptoed over to the past real quick and came back. I see it all, but still, the alchemy that makes it work is still..there's magic there. I have read the story every year, multiple times a year since I spotted it in like 2010. It is a glorious story. I want to write like that just once.
It’s all material — where her stories come from
“Let it be said that we tried to be happy. On our first anniversary there was torrential rain. My husband drove us out to a project site where we stood and watched the street fill up with water and slowly creep up the sidewalks, crest over the landscape and trickle into the parking lot. He pointed at the rushing water, dirty and swirling, and said, “You’re like the water. Terrible and beautiful and necessary.” If I had ever doubted that I loved him, those doubts were gone in that moment. It’s funny the things you forget.” -- From the story “Georgie Ann” in the collection Love and Other Criminal Behavior by Nikki Dolson
Betsy: You serve up women who are killers, mistresses, divorcees, and always completely human. They are smart, often funny, tough and capable of violence in a way we don’t see often in women characters. Yet, they seem to share a streak of vulnerability and are always a bit outside the fence looking in on a world that seems, at least for a little while, unattainable. Where does the inspiration for your characters and their stories come from?
Nikki: My parents got divorced when I was one. I was the kid who went back and forth between them. So I like to say I got raised between Vegas and Chicago. So, for me feeling like I don't belong was a real thing. And wanting something of my own was a real thing. And I think that's what I channel into my stories. Then there is the desire for someone, and maybe finding out that someone is not your someone in the end. That is very much the engine that drives my fiction. I like to think I could obsess over other things. But even when I do, it's still, you know, somebody still got to pay for something and somebody still brokenhearted about something.
I don't have violent people in my life. I do not— that stuff is not born of real-life events. But, God, it's so easy to stretch that far in my imagination. There is that broken heart that just makes you want to stand in the rain and like, look in at the other person, you know, the light in the window. I can understand the need to plot some kind of revenge, because you need somebody else to feel as badly as you. I mean, and maybe on some levels, it's very juvenile. And in some ways, it's very much born of just great emotion. And I like talking about those things. I love reading those things. I am here for the brokenhearted, slow-burn revenge story always. The violence that I perpetrate on the page is never about the violence itself.
“I’m not like I was before. I’m not her anymore.” Denise was more on her own after ten years living in Vegas. She didn’t want a new man to lead her through life again. From “Hello, My Name is Denise” from Love and Other Criminal Behaviors by Nikki Dolson
Betsy: How much do your characters reflect you? Do they represent some part of you that you can identify with, that you've pulled from?
Nikki: Yes. When I start off, maybe they are very much me, but through editing, they become less me and more themselves. I know that the bit of me is still there, though. It's the feeling that I still get when I read it. There’s an emotion I was trying to convey, that I think comes through.
In the Denise story, for example, I could call on that feeling of hanging out at a bar. And listening to someone you care about, ignore you, and then you know, but also just be trapped and to have that feeling of not belonging, even though you're right there sitting in the middle of it. I’ve had situations when I feel taken advantage or taken for granted, all those things. But, you know, at the end of it, just the sense of nobody can take care of you better than you can, or sometimes depending on the wrong people is the problem. You have to take care of yourself. And that's very much what I felt writing in the early drafts when there was a lot more of me in those characters on that page.
With “Lucy Lucy Lucy,” it was very much me and how I saw my daughter, my firstborn, who's biracial, and how she was having trouble fitting into her world remembered and how I didn't feel like I fit in my world and my families and things like that. Then I looked back to the eighties at a particular moment in my high school life when I fought some girl. I mean, like, it's very much me, but also not.
Betsy: What about research? You have written extensively about guns, boxing, all kinds of things that, presumably, you don’t have at the tip of your fingers.
Nikki: I don’t do a lot of deliberate research. Maybe what type of gun for a small hand or how many bullets in a magazine or some such thing. I have subjects that I’m curious about and my reading or TV watching tends to reflect those interests. I love boxing but it’s the training and the mental work that goes into the preparation that intrigues me really. Honestly, anyone at the top of their game (sports, writing, etc.) talking about their process is going to interest me. People’s passions say a lot about them and when they talk about them I think you understand better how people work.
Betsy: What price have you paid for choosing to write?
Nikki: It's made me feel guilty. Writing feels very much like a selfish act. At least for me. It saves me, but also it's a selfish thing. I always took time for my kids. But also, I felt bad about being ambitious about something that wouldn't directly help them. Like it was just, it's really just for me. You know, maybe I'll get it published. Maybe I won't, maybe I'll make money. I probably won't. So why am I spending you know, hundreds of hours doing something with no obvious benefit, purely because it makes me feel better.
“At the funeral, Mom channeled Eartha Kitt and Jackie Kennedy, wearing big sunglasses, a black sheath, and leopard-print high heels. I wore a matching dress but plain-Jane flats that weren’t nearly up to the job of keeping my toes warm. At the gravesite, all of us were swathed in scarves and thick coats to fend off Chicago’s winter cold. I didn’t watch the coffin descend into the ground. I watched my mother’s mouth fold into a small, tight frown that lingered on for months.” - On “Monday Nights We Danced in the Park” from Love and Other Criminal Behaviors by Nikki Dolson
Hearts and arrows: the bruising business of publishing, reviews, family reaction, and social media
Betsy: Once your writing is out in the world, it’s there for everyone to read and judge. How has this gone for you? Have you been surprised by your family’s reactions to your work? And what about reviews or feedback you get from readers and those on Twitter etc.?
Nikki: You know, my mom, my mom for sure reads it up. She told me the other day she was like, I just want to know baby that I have you on my phone. And said, you mean my picture? No, she has all my podcasts from my book tour so she can listen when she drives. My dad listened to one and I got this terse text message: “I'm sorry, you remember it that way.” And I was like, what? What? So we had this long conversation. Now it’s okay. He’s proud of me.
As far as my kids are concerned: my daughter is the only one I know who's ever read my stuff regularly. My boys have not although, you know, they're both of an age now and I’m okay with them reading the stories. The only story my daughter knows for sure that she's in is the Lucy story. The way that character looks was very much her at that age. I guess it's all good things. None of them has really asked me why I kill people in my stories. [Laughs].
Betsy: What about the rest of the reading public?
Nikki: I've learned that I thought I had a thicker skin than I actually have and that’s better not to read reviews, at least the negative ones. When All Things Violent was published, someone posted a page of it on Twitter and said how great it was. Then I got sideswiped by a negative comment on that thread that wasn’t about me but about what I wrote - but they tagged me so I read it, and I was gutted. It was probably a thing that the person didn’t think twice about but I still remember it and it’s been four years. If they hadn’t tagged me, I’d never have seen it, and would gone my way none the wiser. I got a great review from Publishers Weekly on that book but when my collection of stories (Love and Other Criminal Behavior) came out it was disappointing.
Betsy: Clearly this isn’t enough to stop you.
Nikki: I’m not sure where I would be if I stopped writing. Definitely a less happy person. Writing genuinely makes me happy. I’ve wanted to give up on publishing but not writing. [Nikki’s first publisher closed down which means her novel, All Things Violent is no longer easily available. The upside is that she has the rights back and can do with it what she wants. She continues to write stories featuring Laura, the mesmerizing protagonist of All Things Violent.]
Betsy: What, if anything, has writing taught you about yourself? About the world we live in?
Nikki: Writing is my therapy in a way. I definitely work out issues in my life in my writing. Which isn’t to say I have fixed anything in my life but I can sometimes imagine worlds where there are easy answers and that’s a comfort. I’m not sure the act of writing has taught me anything about the world itself but I know now that writing can be a revealing act. If you know how to look, you will see a lot of me. That's surprising and unsettling to me but I can’t seem to stop -- thank goodness.
Five quick things
The books by your bed right now: I have the new collected Patricia Highsmith stories, Under a Dark Angel’s Eye. A couple of craft books, George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain and Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World. 2021 is my year to find my brain. I get in a certain headspace when I am actively trying to get published so it’s necessary to switch focus and look inward for a while. Hopefully better fiction will come of it.
The one book you've re-read so many times you it by heart: Tied for first, Cowboys Are My Weakness (Pam Houston) and The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing (Melissa Bank). I re-read a lot. Often to sort out party scenes and things like that.
If you could pick one author to go out to dinner with, who would it be? Alexander Chee! He is such a beautiful writer. His fiction and his essays bring me such joy and comfort.
Of all the tools you depend on to write, what are the two you could not live without? Right now it’s the Notes app on my phone. It is always with me and I can sync it to my computer at home and email drafts of stories. All of my fiction lives in the Notes app for a time before it graduates to a word doc, usually when it reaches around 2000 words. At that point it is no longer an embryo. I used to have a favorite notebook but I can’t find them anymore. It is always with me and I’ve fallen out of the habit of writing longhand but I have a persistent fantasy that if I could only find this spiral notebook again all my writing woes would disappear.
Describe your idea of the perfect day. A perfect day involves a quiet house with my children engaged in whatever thing makes them happy, warm socks on my feet, a good book nearby and putting some words on the page.
And one more thing…about those dresses
Betsy: Can you share a little about how your love of retro dresses and gorgeous prints has come about?
Nikki: I was frustrated with my life and decided to focus on the one thing I had some control over—my clothes. The prints make me very happy. I’ve found clothes that fit me instead of clothes I can fit into. I’m happier overall and I look cute.
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