Nothing Without Us is an own-voices, multi-genre collection of short stories where the protagonists identify as disabled, Deaf, neurodiverse, Spoonie, and/or they manage mental illness.
Co-editor Cait Gordon interviews Nicole Zelniker, author of Dress Rehearsal, which will appear in the Nothing Without Us anthology this fall.
I browsed your website, and wow, you’re doing a lot! Tell us about yourself, your passions, and your writing.
For a writer, I’m pretty terrible at describing myself, but I’ll give it a shot! I graduated from the Columbia Journalism School in May 2018, and I’m currently an editorial researcher at The Conversation US, which is an awesome place to work. My biggest passion is writing about social justice issues, whether that’s fiction, journalism, poetry, etc. Dress Rehearsal specifically came out of my undergraduate creative writing thesis during which I wrote four short stories about rape culture, eating disorders, and relationships between women, among other things. Also, I just published a non-fiction book called Mixed about race and mixed-race families.
What was it about NWU that made you want to submit to this anthology?
I love the idea of lifting up marginalized voices to tell their own stories. I’m hoping to do that in my own work, and I wanted to be a part of it here.
Your story, Dress Rehearsal, features Lizzie, a woman who has the same condition as her dying mother, and is called to visit her mom in the hospital. What inspired you to craft this storyline?
This was the third story I wrote for my undergraduate thesis at Guilford College, inspired by a prompt to write about a character’s biggest fear. After getting diagnosed with Crohn’s disease myself, I learned that many people are actually more afraid of the side effects of the treatment than the actual disease. Lizzie’s story is based on that fear.
One thing I noticed about Lizzie was how she picked up on what everyone is wearing. As someone on the ASD spectrum, it resonated with me as a trait. (I always notice clothes or voices.) Did you intend that, or is it just a quirk?
I’m so glad this resonated with you! I have OCD and anxiety, and sometimes it’s a lot easier to focus on small details than the big picture when something is particularly overwhelming. Especially when obsessive thoughts are ricocheting around in my brain, this can help bring me back down to earth. On the flip side, sometimes I become too obsessed with the details. This back and forth is what I intended for Lizzie, anyway.
How do you think readers will respond to Lizzie’s reluctance to visit her mother, and what is your point of view about it?
Lizzie’s reluctance to visit her mother is so many things. It’s selfish and self-preserving and understandable all at once. Some readers will probably think it’s unforgivable. I’m hoping some will feel empathy. I don’t want to say too much about my point of view, but I do understand why she did what she did.
I really loved what I’m dubbing the “imperfect yet spot-on romantic angle” in Dress Rehearsal. Tell us why you added Matt to the plotline.
I think Matt really brings out a lot in Lizzie. He’s a living embodiment of her worst fears and really makes her confront what it could mean to be in his situation. He’s also a reminder that, no, she’s not in his situation, which is something that, in the face of her fears, she often forgets. He’s a distraction without really being a distraction, if that makes sense. Plus, I really liked taking the “manic pixie dream girl” trope and flipping that on its head.
If you were invited to write another story for an anthology like NWU, what genre and disability/state/condition would you choose?
I’ve really enjoyed writing about mental illness like OCD and anxiety. It’s been really cathartic for me, and hopefully my stories represents some very real sides of an often taboo topic. I have a short story coming out soon in Newtown Literary about a young girl with OCD and both the impact her illness has on her family and how her family trauma affects her illness.
Thank you for being a part of Nothing Without Us! Where can people follow you to see all the amazing Nicole-ness?
You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter at @nicolezelniker, or else check out my website at nicolezelniker.wordpress.com.
Editors: Cait Gordon and Talia C. Johnson
With stories by: Myriad Augustine, Carolyn Charron, Joanna Marsh, Elliott Dunstan, Jennifer Lee Rossman, Raymond Luczak, Nicole Zelniker, Dorothy Ellen Palmer, Jamieson Wolf, J. Ivanel Johnson, Tom Johnson, Tonya Liburd, Shannon Barnsley, Madonna Skaff, Maverick Smith, George Zancola, Diane Koerner, Laurie Stewart, Tasha Fierce, Nathan Caro Frechette, Emily Gillespie, Derek Newman-Stille