Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction
New York Times Editors’ Choice
University of Massachusetts Press
Cover artwork by Celeste Nelmes.
Growing up outside the small dairy town of Melrose, Minnesota, Nona helped her uncle feed and milk cows, wash udders, drive the tractor, bale hay and pick the endless rocks that rose from the soil. She saw how dairy farmers were chained to milking chores morning and evening, the labor that knew no weekends or holidays, and her father’s nervous breakdown due to overwork.
She also found kids like herself, preteens whose growing awareness of the world wasn’t reciprocated by the larger society. Who cared about farmers or country kids? Could they ever be integral to the world? Even if they could, they remained largely unseen.
The love Nona feels for these people and her perception of their relentless, unrecognized labor fueled a collection of short stories titled Heavier than Air. The grown adult characters become class shifters, morphing from their blue-collar and farmland roots to the socioeconomic stratospheres afforded by college degrees and cities. Always the stories return to the push-pull of practicality and desire, passion and expectation.
The collection she’s currently writing focuses that same compassionate attention on city life. The Alley Stories, or This Isn’t What I Came to Say follows the evolution of a woman’s grief after her lover dies. From high in her apartment building, she looks down into an alley where people live and shoot drugs and drink and die. The narrative’s hyperrealism turns surreal as the woman has odd and lovely encounters with the people in the streets. She has the shadow of a dog for company and once, snow falls inside her apartment.
Nona has finished A Little Book of Days and the title is in production by Spuyten Doyvil. Each of a hundred days is represented by a prose poem, a snippet of information about an animal the narrator encounters, or a vignette. The book opens when the speaker has just left a relationship and ends with her beginning a new one. Set in the Mission District of San Francisco, the playful language brings new insight into one woman’s loves, her life, and her surroundings.
Nona received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 2008. Heavier than Air was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice in 2007 and won the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction the year before. Her individual stories have won other awards, including the Iowa Review Fiction Award in 2002, the Missouri Review Editor’s Prize finalist in two separate years, the Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Grant and Award, and a nomination for the 1990 LAMBDA award.
Currently Nona teaches writing seminars at San Francisco State University. She is available to teach workshops for conferences and as a keynote speaker. Prior engagements include the Museum Education Conference, Santa Clara University, British International School in Prague, The Santa Clara Review, Association of Writers and Writing Programs, Sonoma County Book Festival, and others. She has also been interviewed on arts-related radio programs.
During every presentation, the same warmth and humor that thread through Nona’s stories engage her audiences. Even when discussing the beginning of her writing career, she maintains a wry perspective.
“When I was about ten,” she says, “my father asked if I wanted to learn his cow insemination trade or become a nun. My mother didn’t think I was nun material…so what choice did that leave me but to move to San Francisco and become a writer?”
Nona lives in San Francisco with her partner of nine years. When she’s not sitting in a sunny spot in her office writing, she enjoys the slow movement of a life well-attended: taking walks, gardening, and waiting for some nuance to spark another story.