An Ovunque Siamo interview with T. Nicole Cirone, author of Nine Nails: A Novel in Essays
MR:Let’s start at the end! What is the aftermath, emotionally, like after having written and published this novel in essays?
The aftermath: I feel like it’s still sinking in. For so long, I was in the process of writing a book, and now it’s this beautiful, real thing that lives in the world and that people are reading. Writing a book is the one thing that I’ve always wanted to do, ever since I was a child, and now this dream has been actualized. It’s an accomplishment I’ve been training for—practicing and learning this process of writing and creating for years. I cried when I received the proof copy in the mail and actually held it in my hands. My mother said, “It’s a real book!” She carries it everywhere she goes—I call her my “Momager” and keep telling her I’m going to buy her one of those bumper stickers like the moms around here have to brag about their kids’ activities (“Swim Mom,” “Dance Mom,” etc.)—hers will read “Writer Mom.” I think it’s been a big thing for both of my parents to see me actually create this beautiful piece of art, since it’s been a lifelong dream of mine. I love that my daughter is proud of my work—she’s been giving copies to her friends, and we’ve had great conversations about the book. She’s an artist, too, so I think it’s nice for her to see what it’s really like to make art—it takes time and work and is not always glamorous (as I sit in pjs with a pot of coffee, trying to finish that last paragraph at an ungodly hour!). But to hold my own book in my hands—that is a feeling unlike any other.
MR:The novel tells a harrowing personal series of events. I had a very, very visceral reaction to the book. But even though the essays are harrowing, they have an undercurrent of hope. Tell me about that.
Thank you. I really appreciate your response to the book and the conversation we had about it. A lot of people have reached out to me to share their reaction to the story or to tell me their own stories, and it really showed me the power of sharing your story; we are less alone in this life by experiencing that human connection through story and shared experience. As for the hope, I’ve always tried to see the good in people and situations, so I think some of the hope that runs through the book—even at the lowest points—is that quality showing through. Sometimes, I did lose hope, but I just kept trying to see a reason for going on, going through what I was going through, even when it made no sense. And my mother is my constant cheerleader, so it’s hard to be completely hopeless for too long with her as a mother.
MR:Were you able to write at all while you were actually going through all of this or was this return afterward? If so, did you find it therapeutic?
Thank you! For better or worse, I have always written close to the bone. I think for me, writing authentically, means writing about what’s real—life in all of its truth, including the messiness—and making something beautiful out of these experiences. Not everyone is comfortable with the things I write and the way I write them, because we don’t always talk about these things, out of shame or fear of being judged by others. And I get that. But I feel like that writing the way I do is how I am destined to use my voice in this life. Maybe I can articulate something someone else might be too afraid to say out loud, and it might help them validate their own story, or start the conversation for them.
Throughout the story, there’s this belief in love and desire for things to work out. A belief that somehow, with enough work, or love, things will always be ok. The story captures the strong pull towards wanting a family and a partner, and this feeling that it was always within reach, even in the darkest moments of that marriage. I think sometimes in relationships, even ones that are not good for us, we tend to see the good times as touchstones—and that the bad times are just challenges that need to be fixed in order to get us back to the good times, and that once they are solved, you can get back to the good. Of course, that isn’t necessarily healthy, and sometimes we stay when we should not. And in this particular story, there’s also that middle-aged fear of being alone, which complicates things and adds another layer of what kind of amounts to a false hope throughout. But I’m a hopeless (or hopeful!) romantic—I believe in love. Even now. Sometimes it’s not a two-way street, and that’s when we get our hearts broken, of course, and not everything we think is love initially turns out to be real love. But even though I’m a little more realistic about relationships now—and I’m more careful about creating healthy boundaries—I’m still that romantic at heart.
MR:How did you decide on the form? I love the idea of a novel in essays!
The novel in essays form is something that I fell in love with when I read my beloved teacher and friend Thomas E. Kennedy’s book Last Night My Bed a Boat of Whiskey Going Down. Each chapter tells a story about love and loss, from childhood to post-middle age. There is a movement from innocence to experience throughout the book, and the essay form works beautifully to tell the story.
I loved the way Tom structured Last Night—how each chapter was a story but written like an essay, and how they all came together to tell one story. When I saw my book taking shape, I wanted to write in that format because I knew it would work for the story I wanted to tell. And the fictive elements allowed me to create a vivid overarching narrative. I stayed very close to what is true but, with writing the story as a novel, I was also able to account for the small inaccuracies of memory when it came to timing and dialogue. The greater narrative determined the placement of certain details, for example. It’s not journalism, and it’s not an autobiography, where fact-checking can dominate the purpose. Writing in the form I love while creating this novel, with a narrative thread, was a perfect solution. It is a really neat hybrid form. And I first learned of it from Tom Kennedy and his brilliant book.
MR:You suffered some very serious health scares along the way and I was fascinated by your faith and reliance on St. Rita. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Regarding my devotion to St. Rita, I taught at an Augustinian school for over a decade, and she is an Augustinian saint. On our campus, we had a beautiful grotto dedicated to her, with a beautiful statue of St. Rita in the alcove and angel statues next to benches, with rose bushes planted on either side, as the rose is a sacred flower to her. Two students had renovated the grotto for their Eagle Scout project, and they really created this beautiful, sacred place. I used to eat lunch on one of the benches, or grade papers there during my prep period. It was maybe a strange way to pray, but I felt the place was holy, and the time I spent there sacred, a moment of interiority in my day. I had conversations with St. Rita as I sat there—sometimes, I would visit the chapel instead in the cold or rainy weather– and these prayer-conversations over time became a daily ritual. I had always appreciated her story, but then when things started to become difficult—even seemingly impossible– in my marriage, I found myself really drawn to her, and I developed a special devotion to her. She is a saint of impossible causes and difficult marriages. I wear a St. Rita medal around my neck, and I never take it off. I feel she is protecting me, and it’s a reminder for me to stay true to my own faith, as she did, no matter what happens.
The health scare—yes. That really came out of nowhere, and it happened at a point in my life when I was already very low. I had done a lot of reading about how stress and sadness can manifest physically as tumors in the body, so that’s why I called it my “little ball of grief”—and that’s how the chapter got its name. I felt like being sick and facing this uncertain outcome caused me to really think about my life, and it also taught me that I did not have control over everything. My faith was definitely tested– and strengthened–at that time. I had no choice but to trust in God and modern medicine, and that was a scary thing for me to realize. No matter what I did, this thing was still happening to me, and I didn’t understand why, and I had to trust that there were realties with outcomes that were uncertain, things I could not understand. Things I couldn’t personally fix. And my health and my marriage at the time taught me that lesson. I also learned a lot about the people around me. And when I received good news after the surgery and my husband came back, I felt like there was hope that everything would be ok. I really wanted it to be.
MR:How did the title come about?
The title Nine Nails came from the charm in my “St. Rita” piece. I had the idea to write a book centered around nine different aspects of the story—each one to represent one nail–with the tenth being a metaphor for the charm itself, and the book representing the removal of the curse. With the intention of ending up with 10, I wrote 15 different pieces, and then I had to cut back from there to make the book, deciding which pieces best told the story, which ones talked well to each other. And then, the concept of the novel in essays came about—I’ll talk about that later—and so each of the pieces, which had previously stood alone and lived somewhat chronologically side by side in this sort of kaleidoscopic story suddenly had to talk to each other and create this overarching narrative. So, the project shifted a bit from a collection of essays to a novel in essays, with the essay form being the scaffolding for each chapter and the overarching story tying all of the chapters together, while they talked to one another. That was the hard part—keeping the essay form and giving each chapter a stand-alone quality while still creating this sense of cohesion and continuity of story. Some of the stories, especially the early ones, went through a lot of revision, because I had gained a new perspective after a year—or longer. For example, “Dual Diagnosis” had gone through about 10 revisions and at least three titles over four years before I felt like I had gotten it right. And others just told themselves to me. “Little Ball of Grief” I wrote as it was happening, which is probably why, even after revising and polishing it, I feel it has retained an emotionally raw feeling. The dialogue in that was honest and immediate, and I was in a lot of physical and emotional pain as I wrote that piece. I wanted to keep that, even as I revised it, so that piece is a little messy hearted in places, but I think that’s effective in conveying an authentic sense of emotional and physical upheaval, as well as uncertainty through the narrative voice. I had originally published “St. Rita and the Magical Lemon”and “Patagonia” as stand-alone CNF pieces, but they both needed to be revised from their original forms and made into stories for the book. But most of the pieces, I just wrote as things happened. I think writing is as much about paying attention and being able to capture what is happening around you as it is to create something new. And I have never been afraid to face and write sincerely about things that scare me.
MR:Reconcile these two statements:
“But I love my husband. It feels so perfect to have him here on the couch we bought together,”
“It happened over and over again. It was a toxic cycle that we couldn’t break. Each meltdown frightened us both.”
The trouble is, both of these statements are true.
And that makes establishing boundaries a tricky thing because there is a lot of gray area; the lines are always moving!
I feel like it’s possible to truly love someone even when there’s an obstacle to a healthy relationship. Addiction, for example, can be difficult, because maybe you see the person for who they truly are, underneath the mask the addiction creates. A therapist of mine once talked about distinguishing the symptoms of the illness or addiction from the person you know and love. That is not always easy—of course; it’s easy to get upset or angry when someone is being awful to you, even though you know they might not, in the moment, have a grip on how they are acting or what they are saying. When it happens to someone you really love, it can be extremely difficult because when they are not symptomatic, they are once again the person you know and love. It’s why people stay so long in marriages in which their partner suffers from a personality or mind-affecting affliction. You can love the person and hate the symptoms of whatever they are struggling with. And when you’re dealing with mental illness, it can be really complicated because it is a diagnosed illness, even though the behavior of someone exhibiting symptoms can feel like abuse. One therapist said to me, “You wouldn’t leave someone who had cancer, right?” When someone is sick, you just want them to get well. When you add addiction on top of mental illness, things are very difficult
MR:What kind of reaction have you gotten from the book? I can tell you , personally, that your novel has validated my own experience and has made me feel like I wasn’t the only person in the whole wide world going through something so similar!
I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me and say something similar—people of all ages, too, even my daughter’s friends in high school who have read it have said they can relate to certain aspects of the story. As Minna Proctor says in her blurb, “it’s almost impossible to tremble with resonance and empathy—who hasn’t, somehow, loved badly, too.” I think being able to share your story can help others who may not have the words at the moment feel like their own experiences are valid—and I hope my book encourages others to tell their own stories. My high school French teacher, a Mercy sister, gave card at the end of my senior year, and in the card was a slip of paper with an Emily Dickinson quote on it: “If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain.” I carried the paper in my wallet for years. I feel like somehow it was connected to my destiny, and it became a kind of mantra for me. I think if there’s a goal in my writing beyond creating something beautiful, it might be that.
A lot of people want me to write more about my dad—he’s a favorite character in the story. And he’s definitely a character in real life—he really talks like that, and he really gives life advice in football plays. He’s also the person who stressed the importance of my being independent and able to care for myself. So, he’s got this kind of tough football coach/old school Italian dad quality, but when the shit hits the fan, he’s always in my corner.
Also, a lot of people have remarked at how good the book feels in their hands—there’s a softness to the cover. Walter and Serving House did a beautiful job putting the book together.
The scenes you describe are often raw and close to the bone. There is no artifice here whatsoever, which is what makes the novel so amazing. How do you blend the real into something so artful?
I wrote really bad first drafts sometimes, just to get the ideas down, and then I went back and revised them with a clear head. I had set a deadline for finishing my book, and I was determined to stick to my schedule. And then even when the manuscript was accepted by Walter Cummins and Serving House Books, there was still a lot of editing work that had to be done to create a book from a manuscript. That was actually the really fun part—taking that fine little paring knife to the text, again and again. Walter was incredibly helpful, as were my writing group friends, my mom, and Renee Ashley, who had some very good suggestions for me in the editing process.
I did have a hard time writing anything formal the summer my friends died, and my husband left (2017). I just felt like I had no words anymore. I couldn’t describe the grief and heartache I felt—I couldn’t even wrap my head around what had happened. I did a lot of walking that summer– I walked a few miles a day just around my neighborhood. I felt very lost. I practiced yoga every day, which helped. And then, when I was ready, I started to write again—probably around September—and I didn’t stop until the book was finished.
In response to blending the real into something artful, that’s where craft comes in, and I am grateful to have had some incredible writing teachers and mentors who have instilled in me the importance of learning the craft of writing and storytelling—taking something raw and working it into a piece of art. But it does take practice. Many of my rough drafts truly start as diary entries, scrawled in my terrible handwriting.
MR:Who is Nicole the person and Nicole the writer:
There’s always a lot going on in my head. I’m constantly (over)analyzing things and trying to make connections or understand how things and people fit together in this world. I believe in signs and magic and messages from the divine. My family and cultural background are very important to me, and my daughter is the most important person in my life. My yoga practice informs my writing, too. I’m naturally curious and I love to learn and travel, and I love to hear people’s stories—what life has been like for them. Friendship is very important to me, and I value the amazing people I have in my life.
Even though I have always been outgoing, I have a lot of introvert qualities. I enjoy being with others and like go dancing and be out on the town, but I feel I am my most authentic self in those quiet moments at home with my cats. I love to daydream—just sit by my front window and let my mind wander. I have always had a kind of romantic outlook on life. I love fashion–my outfits almost always tell a story. And I try to find humor in things. Humor is one way I deal with difficulty.
I think all of this informs my writing.
I am sometimes self-conscious of my speaking voice, and I have always expressed myself best in writing—my daughter agrees with this!
Also, I really love 80s alternative music!
MR:What’s next for you?
Right now—I’m thinking about my next book, which might be a collection of essays. I just finished an essay about what it’s been like for me working five part-time jobs, trying to make ends meet and being a single mom of an older teen. Life isn’t particularly easy for me right now, but I’m finding that to be true for a lot of people my age. We’re living in uncertain and unsettling times. So, I am trying to make some kind of sense of it, as I like to do, through my writing.
MR:We certainly are living in unsettling times, so can Art save us?
Art can save us: art serves to make sense of the human experience in a way that elevates the everyday while still capturing what it means to be human and going through life on this planet.
In creating art, we are in some small way acting on the divine spark in each of us—and when something is truly beautiful, I believe our soul recognizes there exists something greater than ourselves and becomes in tune with all of creation. We get a brief glimpse into the mystery of the divine. In this way, art touches our spirit with its beauty and also connects us to every other human being who lives–and to those who have ever lived. It reminds us that we are meant for more than simply surviving in this life. That can be scary, and you have to take a deep breath and see what is actually in front of you in order to take the raw material and transform it into something beautiful. But the creative process makes us step outside our comfort zone and teaches us to be brave. In that way, I believe it saves us.
MR:Thank you so much, Nicole! The best of luck to you!