Short Story/Poetry: Writing School Dean by Karol Nielsen

Time, Work, Clock, Coffee, Planning

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Writing School Dean

I interviewed for a job as a writing teacher while I was still working as a journalist. My eye watered all during the interview. It had started to water after I got a bad sty in South America and the tear duct scarred over when it healed. The dean who interviewed me said that Catherine Hepburn had a watery eye that she developed during filming of the African Queen. He asked me why I wanted to teach and I said, “I need the money.” My freelance magazine job owed me thousands and I was desperate for a steady paycheck. He chuckled and hired me. The school had a holiday party at the end of my first term and I wore a hot pink angora sweater while most of the staff wore beatnik black. The dean talked to me all night and asked me out. He wrote young adult mystery novels but he was shot down when he proposed young adult spy novels. He also wrote plays and worked odd jobs to support his writing like bail bondsman and building manager. His old girlfriend left a message on his answering machine on New Year’s Eve while I was in his apartment. “I love you,” she said. He used to work straight through the weekends and weeks would go by before I saw him. I grew tired of waiting and got back online to find someone new. When I wrote a play about internet dating, I had a reading at a bar on the Lower East Side. I invited the dean and he asked, “Am I in it.” “No,” I said.

A Fevers of the Mind Quick-9 Interview with Karol Nielsen

Bio: Karol Nielsen is the author of the memoirs Black Elephants (Bison Books, 2011) and Walking A&P (Mascot Books, 2018) and the chapbooks This Woman I Thought I’d Be (Finishing Line Press, 2012) and Vietnam Made Me Who I Am (Finishing Line Press, 2020). Her first memoir was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing in nonfiction in 2012. Excerpts were honored as notable essays in The Best American Essays in 2010 and 2005. Her full poetry collection was longlisted for the Terry J. Cox Poetry Award in 2021 and was a finalist for the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 2007. One poem was a finalist for the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize in 2021. Her work has appeared in Epiphany, Guernica, Lumina, North Dakota Quarterly, Permafrost, RiverSedge, and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction and memoir writing with New York Writers Workshop.

A Fevers of the Mind Quick-9 Interview with Karol Nielsen

with Karol Nielsen:

Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?

Karol: I started writing my first memoir—about my marriage to an Israeli man and the trauma of the Gulf War—in the 1990s. I kept a journal to process intense feelings and poems came out of that. My first influences were Shakespeare and Hemingway.

Q2: Who are your biggest influences today?

Karol: Billy Collins’ short, humorous poetry has had a big impact on me. I initially wrote long, anguished poems, but as my work evolved I began to write shorter, lighter poems.

Q3: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing? Have any travels away from home influence your work?

Karol: I grew up in the Connecticut suburbs and I dreamed of big adventure. Then I traveled through Europe, South America, Australia, Israel, and Vietnam. I wrote memoirs about living through Scud missile attacks in Israel and traveling to Vietnam with my father, a Vietnam War veteran.

Q4: What do you consider your most meaningful work you’ve done creatively so far?

Karol: My first memoir, Black Elephants, was a challenge to write and publish, but once it was out it was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing in nonfiction.


Q5: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?

Karol: In the tenth grade, my English teacher had us keep a journal. We were reading Emerson and I wrote in my journal that I wanted to become a writer like him.

Q6: Favorite activities to relax?

Karol: I used to do marathons and triathlons, including the Ironman race, but now I find inspiration in taking long walks.

Q7: Any recent or forthcoming projects you’d like to promote?

Karol: I have a poetry chapbook coming out next year about random, often humorous encounters in New York City before the pandemic and my small life in quarantine.

Q8: What is a favorite line/stanza from a poem of yours or others?

Karol: I have a long poem about a teenager who was stabbed in a gang attack in the Bronx. I covered the story as a stringer for The New York Times, which didn’t publish the story because he survived. The last line of the poem goes: “And he lived.”

Q9: Who has helped you most with writing?

Karol: I took a handful of creative writing courses with Adam Sexton at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in the 1990s. I learned the craft of writing from him and now I use that knowledge in my lectures as a creative nonfiction and memoir writing instructor with New York Writers Workshop.