THE READING ROOM: Nerissa Nields on Refilling the Well with Books
Nerissa Nields has spent her life devoted to books, reading, writing, songwriting, and playing music. When she was in college, she took courses in English and music, and wound up majoring in English. “My first two loves were music and literature,” she says. “All my life I thought I’d be either a writer or a songwriter, and now look where I am.”
She and sister Katryna have been putting out albums as The Nields since 1991, and released their 20th album, November, in January. The album combines the sisters’ deep commitment to political activism with a passionate engagement with lyrics. One song, “Tyrants Always Fall,” was written the day before the inauguration in 2017. November also includes a new version of “America the Beautiful,” featuring the voices of Dar Williams, Chris Smither, Peter Mulvey, Vance Gilbert, Ben Demerath, and Kalliope Jones (a young band that includes Katryna’s daughter). As Nerissa points out, “Katryna and I were raised on the music of activists and hopeful dreamers of the 1960s. When we decided to make our living as musicians, we knew that we wanted to bring the hope and connection we experienced at Pete Seeger concerts into our shows and our songwriting. I am a big believer in art for art’s sake, but the music that most moves me is the kind that feels like it was written to open the hearts and minds of listeners, to inspire them to join in, sing along, and perhaps begin to live with greater purpose.”
Reading provides the inspiration for Nerissa’s writing, and it creates a diverse community of friends who share their reading with one another. “In our first decade of The Nields we would pass books around in the van. We’d stop at a bookstore in a town where we were playing, and we’d buy books, read them, and say to each other, ‘Oh, you have to read this one.’” Nerissa also did a “ton of writing in the van. I kept a journal, and took notes for a novel that I’m almost finished with.”
In 2002, she published a young adult novel, Plastic Angel (Orchard Books), about a young girl searching to be true to herself, even if it means alienating your friends and family. In 2003, Nerissa started running writing workshops out of her home, encouraging participants to share openly their writings with one another. She now runs two book clubs, mostly aimed at the writers from her workshops, but open to anyone. “The first focuses on fiction and nonfiction by writers of African heritage. The second focuses on nineteen19th-century literature, though we’re bending the rules a little to discuss Camus’ The Plague.”
I caught up by phone with Nerissa recently, and we discussed books, reading, writing, theology, and The Plague.
What books are on your nightstand now?
The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates; Turn of the Screw, Henry James; Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton; Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins. I hope to re-read Love in the Time of Cholera this year.
What’s one book you won’t leave home without?
What is one book you have faked reading?
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.
Do you feel like you always have to finish a book?
Not anymore! I was liberated from that in my early 30s. Life is too short, and there are too many books I want to read.
What are five books with which you’ll never part?
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; my old dog-eared copy of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; the first Beatles biography I got when I was 11 by Hunter Davies; my New Jerusalem Bible; my giant Riverside Shakespeare.
How do you like to read? Print? Electronic?
Print all the way. Except for newspapers. I buy books in paper. I like to have a relationship with a book, and you can’t do that with a screen. I have started listening to books on Audible and like that. I might listen to a chapter of a book during the day and read that chapter at night.
What’s your ideal reading experience?
As my friend Dar Williams says, all I want in life is bolts and bolts of time and space to do what I want to do on my own timeline. I would love a week where I had nothing scheduled and could read and write all day. I would be my peripatetic self, flitting from book to book to newspaper to New Yorker-style magazine, and I would journal and write songs and work on my novel in little bits all day long.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
Avid, but I re-read a lot of the same books. I was always reading, and I loved going to the library and filling my book bag.
What book do you want to read again for the first time?
The Handmaid’s Tale; I was in high school when it came out. Also, Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye. I read it in the early ’90s. The title track of our album Gotta Get over Greta was inspired by that novel.
In what ways does your reading inform your songwriting or your writing?
I can’t imagine being able to write if I weren’t constantly reading. Reading fills the well. My writing is always a conversation with other writers and musicians. “You said this? How interesting! Well, I say this.”
You’re throwing a dinner party, and you can invite five authors, living or dead, to the party? Whom would you invite?
Min Jin Lee, Anne Lamott, Ann Patchett, Zadie Smith, George Saunders.