Karol Nielsen is an adventurer, a daughter of a Vietnam veteran, and an accomplished journalist. She has covered news in Latin America, the Middle East, and New York City, and her reporting has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, New York Newsday, Jane’s Intelligence Review, and the Stamford Advocate. In addition to being a journalist, Nielsen is a prolific writer of nonfiction and poetry. She is the nonfiction editor for renowned literary magazine, Epiphany , and an adjunct professor in the Department of Writing and Speech at New York University. She also has taught memoir and nonfiction writing at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop of New York City. Recently, she sat down with BR!NK for her first interview regarding her upcoming book, Black Elephants: A Memoir, set to be released in Fall 2011. Black Elephants is Nielsen’s first book.
If you had to describe Black Elephants in one sentence, what would it be?
It’s a story about travel, adventure, love, war, and dreams.
What does your memoir detail?
I think that, without giving the book away, it’s about the dream of peace, both the concept of peace between countries, within countries, and also internal peace. I went out after college on a big adventure inspired by my grandfather who was a World War II pilot. He flew over the Himalayas from India to China and he made it all sound extremely glamorous. He said very little about what war really was and then I had this alternate reality from my own father who was a combat soldier in Vietnam. He never shied away from telling us that war made no sense. So I knew both truths about war but because I had these two influences, I just had this dying curiosity to see the world — all the places I read about in French class.
And did you see the world?
I went for a big trip and I met an Israeli reserve soldier and we just stayed together and traveled all through the beautiful, green fairyland of Machu Picchu and fell in love. And that’s the beginning of the book. I ended up in the Middle East during the first Gulf War, writing about the air raids and the actual sounds of bombs going off. My memoir is really about what happens to this couple when they live through something so traumatic and each of them changes as they go through this experience. We were both really young. Too young. We were both in our early 20s. We were from different countries, different religions. He was fresh out of the Israeli army and I was an Ivy League graduate but there was a kinship there.
Much of this memoir was drawn from your own experience as a journalist abroad, correct?
Yes. During college, I made friends with some students from Argentina and I ended up going to Buenos Aires on my big adventure to work for a newspaper, The Buenos Aires Herald, writing about hyperinflation and how the government was maybe going to be overthrown. It was a very turbulent time when I was there. I started writing op-eds for a Times-Mirror paper in Connecticut where I grew up. I wrote travel essays that were based on my adventures.
How did you go about crafting the memoir? Did you keep a diary while you were abroad? Did you write letters to anyone?
When I was there in Israel with the Israeli reserve soldier I had a Sierra Club calendar which had room for diary entries every day. I still have it. I wrote everyday exactly what we did, how many bombs fell, how many Scud missiles the Patriot missiles allegedly intercepted. I also kept a separate journal of everything he and I did during that time. This journal however disappeared at some point about a couple years after the war. I have no idea what happened to it but, to be honest, that journal was just rambling emotional reactions to very confusing situations. So I have concluded that even if I had the journal it wouldn’t have been much help. The third thing that I had is that I did write articles about the first intifada and the Gulf War so I had my own reporting in my bibliography which I gave to my publisher. The memoir came out of the fact that I was writing about what it was like to live through an air raid for Israelis. I was living through it, too.
What’s it like to be a woman publishing a travel memoir in a post-Elizabeth Gilbert world?
Every story has been told and it’s a boy meets girl story. But I think war is a pretty significant twist on that story. Black Elephants has war, told from not only a woman’s point of view, but a civilian’s point of view.
How do you feel about women’s personal writing as a genre? Do you feel that it’s becoming more reputable in literary circles?
When I started writing this memoir, nobody wrote a memoir unless they were a very famous person or some type of already award-winning writer, like Tobias Wolff. Memoir is now, I believe, a respected literary form. For women’s voices though, this is a whole separate issue that I think really spans both fiction and memoir. There is this perception in publishing that chick lit sells well. I think that that’s very limiting for women who are writing hybrids that don’t fit into a marketing category, who are writing serious literature whether it’s true or partly true or whether it’s totally made up. I think we have to take a risk on women who are breaking the mold. We have to consider that these voices could sell.
How can BR!NK readers contribute to you and your upcoming book?
If you’re interested in writing a book review, I can send you an advance copy. Follow me on Twitter. Join my Facebook fan page. Buy the book.