Interviewing David Erik Nelson
(left: Gabie - Tea End Blog | right: David Erik Nelson)
David Erik Nelson, an essayist, freelance writer, and award-winning science fiction author whose stories have appeared in Asimov’s and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, also so happens to be the author of a Summer Reading Series hosted by Arbor Teas. “Expiration Date” is a science fiction “till death do we part” love story which follows a couple in a relationship on fast-forward.
In the Interview below, you will discover Nelson’s inspiration, how he creatively merges science fiction and love, inspiration behind his D.I.Y books, and his secret to completing a work of fiction.
- bio derived from David Erik Nelson Amazon Author Page
Gabie: First and foremost, isn’t Arbor Teas just great for providing another opportunity for tea sipping bookworms to indulge in a great story? How excited were you to be the featured author for Arbor Teas’ Summer Reading Series 2017?
David Erik Nelson: Indeed! I’ve known Jeremy and Aubrey for a long time—heck, Jer has been spending some holidays with my family every year for almost 25 years now—and we’ve often bounced ideas off of each other.
When Jeremy first told me about the Summer Reading Series a year or two back, I got so excited about the idea that I immediately started rattling off authors I knew who might be a good fit. Jeremy had to actually stop me and explain that he wasn’t just bouncing the idea off of me, but asking me to consider participating. Of course, I was totally on-board in a heartbeat.
Gabie: How cool! It’s nice that you have a personal relationship with the founders of Arbor Teas. Never hurts to have friends in the tea business (smiling). You can imagine that there may be quite a few school-aged individuals reading “Expiration Date” this summer. However, writing for younger ones is second nature to you, isn’t it? Can you tell us a little about your previous work, such as “Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred”, and can you also reveal the inspiration for your work?
David Erik Nelson: "Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred" and "Junkyard Jam Band" are both DIY books (I often describe them as “geeky craft books”— Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred is subtitled “Seriously Geeky Stuff to Make with Your Kids,” and that pretty much sums it up). I used to teach at an alternative K thru 12. The projects in "Snip, Burn..." were all based on the sorts of things I used to do with my students. About half of "Snip, Burn..." ended up being music-related—I was never a very musical person, but my students were, and I learned a lot from spending time with them—and so my second DIY book, "Junkyard Jam Band", is entirely dedicated to “making the Good Noise.”
I’ve also done a turn writing/editing textbooks (about a dozen of those, I think) and articles for reference books (probably hundreds of those), business columns, op-ed columns, straight reporting, marketing copy. And, of course, I’ve been writing and publishing fiction for about 20 years, give or take.
Gabie: (smiling) Wow, I am completely blown away with how much you have written over time and I am also impressed on the different genres in which you’ve written. A “How-To” and a short story, such as “Expiration Date”, are very different in nature. How would you describe your writing style and are there characteristics in your writing style that transcend genre?
Oh! We would also still like to know what inspired your previous literary works, if you would be so kind...
David Erik Nelson: The thing I liked about teaching—the thing that ended up driving the writing of "Snip, Burn..." and "Junkyard Jam Band"—wasn’t the transmission-of-facts/skills stuff that most of us think of when we think of “teaching.” I mean, it’s really gratifying to show people something new—how to use a tool, or build a project, or a really wonderful film or interesting historical event—and know that learning that thing has enriched their life. But that wasn’t really what kept me coming back to teaching—a job that was really, really difficult for me, and for which I was almost perfectly ill-equipped, psychologically. What I liked about teaching was that you could show something to someone, and then that something was theirs, and it started doing new things inside of them, firing off these ideas, and then they act on the ideas. In the end, the idea is changed as much as the person you gave the idea to.
If you show a kid how to make and throw a cross-stick boomerang—which is the kind that looks like a helicopter rotor, with four blades—the first thing they do, once they get that down, is say “What if we do it with six wings? Or eight? What if we make it smaller, lighter, bigger, faster, sharper, on fire!”—or whatever. Then they go out and spread that new boomerang—boomerangs, as a whole, evolve. I like that movement and growth.
I like that first moment, but I like the next part even more, the part where the idea you've shared with them starts sparking off the ideas that are already inside them...
...and that’s what transcends the genre, for me: The brain chemistry, providing novel fuel for the fire in other people’s heads. That’s the thing I’m always after.
Gabie: Yes, that is a diametrically different way to perceive teaching but I love your way of viewing it, I’m sure you were a wonderful teacher!
“Expiration Date” is described as a science fiction “till death do we part” love story which follows a young couple in a relationship on fast-forward. I love science fiction and who doesn’t appreciate a good love story? At the same time, science fiction and love can seem drastically opposing. Was it hard to merge the two?
"...what transcends the genre, for me: The brain chemistry, providing novel fuel for the fire in other people's heads."
- David Erik Nelson
David Erik Nelson: I sort of lucked out on this one. Most of the fiction I write comes out of a collision: I’ll stumble across some interesting fact or idea or snatch of plot or dialogue, but won’t really have any use for it, and so it just sorta bobs around in my head. Sooner or later, as other shiny ideas catch my notice and get tossed into the cranial junk drawer, several will bang together and stick in some interesting way. I notice that interesting idea-conglomerate, and Pop!, a story starts happening.
So, with “Expiration Date", it started with hearing this podcast about a year ago, and trying to think up a believable way someone could calculate a person’s “expiration date”. That part wasn’t hard—viable science fiction explanations are pretty easy. I didn’t have a story then, just that idea. I couldn’t do anything with it, so I left it in the junk drawer. Around that time I read Dexter Palmer’s absolutely excellent Version Control (really an amazing, amazing novel, both as a science-fiction story and as a relationship story)...
Gabie: (smiling) Oh really? I'll have to check it out and perhaps pick up a copy...
David Erik Nelson: Somewhere in there a side character, a security guard, is criticizing his co-worker’s taste for old science fiction novels, and says “Time travel is something only a white man would think is a good idea.” That notion stuck in my head (and eventually got put in Chet’s mouth, in the opening scene of “Expiration Date”)...
Gabie: (laughing) Yes, that was such an interesting concept! Excuse me, continue please...
David Erik Nelson: ...Later that summer I was on a road-trip with my wife and kids and we got this road-trip game, which is just a deck of cards with conversation-starter questions on them (things of the “If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?” variety—it’s the same game Chet busts out when he and Bram and Lizzie are driving to the family reunion). The game wasn’t that interesting, but as I drove, I started thinking about how many couples really get to know each other on long, boring car trips. (When my wife and I were first dating, we drove from Michigan to Key West, Florida, in a single go. I think it was a 26 hour drive or something like that.)
I remembered being young and driving and talking like that—and realized that I couldn’t really remember the substance of any of those hours-upon-hours long conversations. Which is funny, right? It’s almost certain that the things my future wife and I said to each other on that drive played a huge role in bringing us together. I started to wonder how big of an impact forgotten little intangibles like that—ephemera—have on the biggest relationships in our lives. I imagined a young couple in that same situation—who ended up being Bram and Lizzie—and all of these pieces collided: How seemingly neutral technologies (like a time machine, or a faster computer, or a gun) end up having very unequal impacts in the real world, depending on who is stuck using them; how we get to know each other through these what-if conversations; how relationships are pressured and molded be these totally outside, uncontrollable circumstances—and there it was, the story had already started writing itself. I just had to start writing it down.
The love story was baked in the cake, because it was one of the key ingredients from the start.
Gabie: I so agree with “What-If” questions and conversations being the means to get to know a person. Most usually instigated by myself, my best friend and I played “What-If” games all the time, and now we’re married! (laughing)
I love that Sci-Fi can take us into imaginary worlds that open the eyes to unfamiliar but fascinating surreal existences. Can you describe the dystopian world that the love interests in “Expiration Date” live in and the most fascinating aspects of this world?
David Erik Nelson: Most of my science fiction is of the “day after tomorrow” variety: It’s generally set in a very near future, one where one technology or cultural factor has gotten nudged past the line into Something New and Big. So, the dystopian elements of this story—which sort of revolve around the “fake news” situation from the past year—are a reflection of how I personally experienced the past year, and how I saw those around me experiencing it. I don’t want to get political—because the story really isn’t political in a formal “party politics” way—but the election season was really hard on almost everyone close to me, and everyone close to them, layers and layers out. Then, on election day, it blossomed into this terrible poisoned fruit that brought with it paralyzing paranoia. People around me felt like they couldn’t trust the world at all—a feeling I shared...
Gabie: I see, yes I understand...
David Erik Nelson: ...I saw this happening even with people who were on the “winning” side of the election. Folks who should have been feeling great about the future of the country were delaying business decisions for months and months, because they were just as disoriented as the “losers.” Everyone was spun, because we had suddenly realized we didn’t know how to establish what was real anymore.
But, even behind the more recent dystopic cultural turns, Americans have had this deep, simmering distrust about what really motivates government decision-making for a long, long time: Did we fight in Vietnam to prevent the spread of Communism, or to assure access to tin mines? Did we go to Iraq for liberation or oil? Was Somalia about heading off a genocide or protecting U.S. markets? Is an ID law preventing voter fraud or engineering voter suppression? etc. We’re always looking for a secret history behind the history, and then a secret behind that secret, each more nefarious than the last. I kind presume that the Constitution was signed on a Monday, and by Tuesday afternoon there was already a conspiracy theory floating around that four of the Framers were secretly the same guy, and he was in cahoots with a sinister cabal of letterpress operates in a nefarious plot to eliminate the “u” from “colour”—or what have you. Riddles wrapped in mysteries inside of enigmas, and so on...
Gabie: (hysterically laughing) Yes, I can see your point of view, very serious matters but lending to some comic relief. However, you’re right, these events were very real for Americans and I can see how they would inspire your work.
Speaking of realities, I blog about my love for tea and literature; very real and tangible things (laughing). Yet, to write an entire story about a wonderful love that doesn’t truly exist or an amazing world that is imagined must take skill! Is there any specific method to the greatness? Is there anything you do to prepare yourself to begin and create the story all the way through?
David Erik Nelson: Your readers are going to hate this answer, but here it is: Write Every Day.
I get up every morning at 5:30 so I can do my morning routine (coffee, a little reading, etc.) and get in at least 25 minutes of uninterrupted writing before my wife, kids, dog, and clients wake up. I do this every weekday, I do it summer and winter; on weekends I “sleep in” until 6 am. It’s not that I’m particularly “inspired” at 6 am. Heck, I don’t really feel like writing at all at 6 am. But I never particularly felt like changing a diaper or staying up all night with a puking kid, either; I did it because it needed doing. Same here.
This next part is something that I’ve heard a lot of writers describe differently, but it amounts to the same thing: If you write every day, if you pay the story a little every day, then it leaves you “presents.” An example of a “present”: You sit down to write one morning and all of a sudden discover that you already know how the butler stole the car, or how Guy convinced Camille to step off the ledge and come back inside, or how the plucky teen detective escaped the oubliette, or whatever. It’s like cobbler’s elves or pixies or fairies or feral cats (I personally think of them as “The Guys Downstairs”): You keep them fed with words every day, and they leave you presents when they can.That’s the entire trick to writing.
Gabie: (laughing) That's a really good tip: Pay the story every day. I like that!
As for the romance between the characters of “Expiration Date”, is this inspired also? Did you draw from the experiences of others or your own experience when determining the details of their love story?
David Erik Nelson: I wanna stress that, for me, there’s two kinds of love story here: There’s the romantic relationship between Lizzie and Bram, but just as importantly, there are these threads of family love running between Chet and Lizzie, Lizzie and her Grannie Gin, Bram and his mother, and so on. Not everyone in our families is easy to love. There’s a history of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses in my family (I myself have been diagnosed with major depression and an anxiety disorder). It can be hard to love people who are in the grips of an episode. It can be hard to properly love anyone when you feel like you’re hanging on for dear life just to make it to the morning. I’ve been on all the sides there (especially knowing what it feels like to be that person who it is a challenge to love, but who feels absolutely helpless to make that any easier on anyone). So a lot of that is in the story, and is a reflection of those experiences.
As for the romance: Bram is in a relationship where he is hopelessly outclassed; he’s lucked into meeting and somehow impressing a woman who is strong and smart and competent and brave, and all he feels he has to offer is his capacity to roast a pretty good chicken. This is basically a 100% emotionally autobiographical portrait of my marriage: My wife is amazing, and I just hope that I can keep cooking chickens well enough to distract her from the fact that she can certainly do better.
"If you write every day...then [the story] leaves you presents...You keep them fed with words every day, and they leave you presents when they can."
-David Erik Nelson
Gabie: (smiling) Aw, this makes me so happy to hear that Bram and Lizzie’s relationship is based on you and your wife’s marriage; so cute! I apologize that you suffer from anxiety and depression and thank you for sharing this with us.
I am curious, when do you like to dive into a good read?
David Erik Nelson: Personally, I like to read fiction first thing in the morning, over coffee or tea. It sets a good pace for my day: If something has gone well for the characters, I come into the day with a light heart. If something bad has befallen them, no matter how badly my day goes, I can think “Man, at least I’m not trapped in a submarine with Darlene and D’ante!”
Beyond that, I like to think of fiction as a way of test-driving lives and situations. I’m never going to be a young woman living on the road in a post-apocalyptic Michigan, or an up-and-coming drug dealer in the Jersey projects, or an astronaut locked into a survival situation on Mars—but novels put me there, and let me really work through how I might measure up under such circumstances. In that light, the big question isn’t “What was the author trying to accomplish?” but “What does this life feel like to me?”
Gabie: Ok, perfect! This is advice we can follow! Here at Tea End Blog we focus on tea and literature to sip happily ever after. I like to ask all of our guests two questions, although the latter may be obvious: What are you sipping and reading lately?
David Erik Nelson: I really like simple black teas with some sweetness (Arbor Teas has a black tea with apricot that I drink a lot of), which I take with milk and honey. Jeremy and Aubrey also offer this chili-ginger-rooibos herbal tisane that I drink all winter (with lemon, honey, and cider vinegar—I know that sounds crazy, but it knocks down a fever and sore throat, and I need that for most of the dark season).
As for reading, I just finished Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath (an amazing—and amazingly weird—collection of short stories; the author is Swedish) and then jumped right into Richard Stark’s The Rare Coin Score (a heist novel Donald Westlake wrote pseudonymously in 1967; Westlake’s Stark novels are slim wonders, in terms of how efficient and gripping the storytelling is).
Sip like David Erik Nelson!
Read with David Erik Nelson!
Gabie: A simple black tea with sweet notes is alright with me and your current reads are super exciting!
Can you let all the tea sipping bookworms know where they can find you and your work?
David Erik Nelson:
Twitter: @squidaveo | www.twitter.com/squidaveo
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/David-Erik-Nelson/e/B003W3U5AC/
The time has not yet expired for me to express my thanks to David Erik Nelson for his willingness and enthusiasm for participating in this Blogview for Tea End Blog. I am grateful that you have shared insights about the story that we will spend our summer reading and also about your personal life which endears us to you as an author.
Despite the difficulties that America has been through, I am so proud for moments such as these, when free and willing individuals can come together to create something light, entertaining, inspiring and peaceful.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart and I wish you well on all your literary and tea sipping endeavors.
Are you into crafty science projects?