Zale Writer Pieces Together Stories

October 20, 2003

Heather Heilman
Phone: (504) 865-5714

I think of writing as a collecting and collaging of different things, from little pieces of a life to artifacts you find in the street," said Thisbe Nissen, the 19th Zale Writer-in-Residence. In addition to reading from her work and giving a public interview, Nissen will lead a day-long writing workshop at Tulane, in which participants will roam the city looking for interesting objects and pieces of text, then use them as portals into stories. Nissen began experimenting with this technique when teaching a writing workshop for teenagers.

"They found a lot of flyers, parking tickets and notes stuck on cars, but also crazy things like a half-charred fuzzy blue bear costume," Nissen said. "It got them out of their own experience, and enabled them to write in a totally different way and draw on places in their imagination that they might not have gone to."

Nissen loves to teach and believes the best thing she can do for her students is to get them to read and write in ways they might not otherwise think about. She is the author of the short story collection Out of the Girls' Room and Into the Night and the novel The Good People of New York. A new novel, Osprey Island, will be published next summer.

And, like many writers, she has an unpublished first novel that served as her MFA thesis. While she's at peace with the idea that writing that book was mainly just a learning experience, she dreams of someday starting a publishing house to publish her own and all of her friends' first novels. She's a native New Yorker who chose to stay in Iowa City after graduating from the MFA program at the University of Iowa.

"I wasn't cut out for New York," she said. "My temperament is much better suited to the pace of Iowa City."

Yet an affection for the city permeates The Good People of New York, an episodic account of a fractured urban nuclear family. It's also a good example of the way Nissen weaves bits and pieces of her own life into a novel that nevertheless cannot be called autobiographical. A more whimsical hodgepodge of collected fact and fiction is The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook, co-written with Erin Ergenbright and ostensibly a collection of recipes from ex-boyfriends.

The recipes, which mostly actually came from the authors' mothers, are laid out over collages of old photographs and scribbled notes. "We're both the type of people who kept every note passed to us in high-school math class," Nissen said. The boyfriends in the book are fictional, more or less. "Some of them are more true than others. But we haven't gotten any threatening phone calls."

Osprey Island is a bit darker than her readers might expect from her. It's set in and around a summer hotel on a small island off the East Coast and examines the aftermath of a fire that kills one of the hotel's staff members.

"I don't think I was ready to write this five years ago," Nissen said. "It's quite a bit darker than anything else I've done, though ultimately it's still hopeful." Nissen will read from both her published and unpublished work during her visit to Tulane. She'll be on campus from Oct. 20 through 25.

Heather Heilman can be reached at

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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000