Head and shoulders image of Jessica Hendry Nelson, holding her collar.
Jessica Hendry Nelson, an assistant professor in the English department at VCU, believes "we can be more deliberate about how we grieve." (Contributed photo)

In ‘Joy Rides Through the Tunnel of Grief,’ VCU author Jessica Hendry Nelson tackles loss and growth

English professor’s memoir is a series of linked essays that came together over a decade.

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Jessica Hendry Nelson, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently released her third book, “Joy Rides Through the Tunnel of Grief: A Memoir.” This collection of linked essays details her father's death from alcohol use disorder, her brother's substance use disorder and the startling revelation that her partner of 15 years didn’t want children. Unsure of her own feelings about motherhood, Hendry Nelson attempts to make sense of it all while processing her past, present and the future she desires.

“Joy Rides Through the Tunnel of Grief” won the 2023 AWP Sue William Silverman Prize for Creative Nonfiction. Novelist and essayist Leslie Jamison called Hendry Nelson’s memoir a “stunning, hilarious, propulsive book – somehow breathless and thoughtful at once.”

Hendry Nelson teaches in the Department of English at VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences. She recently discussed her memoir with VCU News.

What inspired you to write this book?

This book started about 10 years ago. It grew out of what, in a lot of ways, was a crossroads in my life that generated a big question for me: Could I make art instead of people, and is this something I want to do? My husband disclosed that he did not want to have kids ever – and I didn't know if I wanted to have kids; [at that time] we'd been together for 12 years, and we were about to get married. I started writing essays about my creative imperative as a woman – what that creative imperative looks like, what it feels like, how it manifests.

At the same time, I was asking myself questions about having kids and possibly leaving my husband for the option of having kids. I was dealing with a lot of loss. And the confluence of those two things, questions about life and a lot of death, is what is really at the heart of this book.

My father died of addiction when I was 17. My brother is a heroin addict, and anticipating his death is a big part of how I move through the world. I didn't know how that would impact my ability to be a mother. If you're someone who's always waiting for that phone call, and your body is always in this high-alert state and always grieving, what does that mean about your ability to mother? I was writing about the experience of that, but also finding joy and wonder inside. It was a lot of intense experiences that generated these larger questions.

How did you come up with the title? What was the process like putting the book together?

I still don't know how I feel about the title. It's one of my weaknesses as a writer. I had two very different titles that I loved that my agent did not love. I had to come up with a new title. I was talking about it with my [current] partner. He's the one who actually said, “Joy Rides Through the Tunnel of Grief.” It's great. I thought it was so silly at first. I threw it on the list to the editor just for fun. She wrote back, and out of the list of 30, she was like, “We love this one. This is the title.” Needless to say, he [my partner] was stoked. I still have some ambivalence about it; sometimes, I love it.

Back and front covers of Joy Rides Through the Tunnel of Grief.
Jessica Hendry Nelson's memoir, "Joy Rides Through the Tunnel of Grief," is a “stunning, hilarious, propulsive book – somehow breathless and thoughtful at once,” according to Leslie Jamison.

[Putting the book together] was really hard. I mean, in some ways, that's the fun part of the process for me. I was writing these essays but had no intention of turning them into a book. It wasn't until five years in that I started to see this as a book. And once I did, you know, that's really when the fun began because you start to see the ways that the themes and ideas and questions are in conversation with each other across the essays. I'm meticulous and slow, and I pay attention to every word, so it can be grueling at times, but that’s also my favorite part of the process.

What do you want readers to take away from your book?

I think we can be more deliberate about how we grieve. Sometimes, that might mean letting grief do what it needs to do. But I also think, at times, it can be really powerful to channel that energy into something generative. I think that’s why some people, when they lose someone to something particular like breast cancer or gun violence, often become activists because they need a place to channel their grief so it doesn’t consume them.

I think we could pay attention to that in ourselves, even if there's not an obvious call to action. I hope readers find ways to locate and harness wonder in their own experiences. To hold conflicting truths in the same breath. And be mindful of their grieving practices. I don't think we talk about grief enough.

And different kinds of grieving experiences [exist]. Death is our most obvious, of course, but divorces, in some ways, are just as traumatic; breakups can be just as traumatic. Losing a job, COVID, all sorts of things – we just don't have enough conversations about grief and how to do it in a way that isn't self-destructive. We all have to go through it, some of us more than others. Finding joy in the small things feels really fundamental to that process.

More than anything, though, I want readers to get what they need. That’s the great thing about making something and sending it out into the world. You don’t get to decide what someone gets from it; that’s their journey. They have a role to play in the meaning-making process. That’s why art is a conversation, not a monologue.

One review used very strong words to describe your book, such as an elegy, a song, a cry and a lament. Do any of those resonate with you?

I like the word “a cry.” That was Brian Turner's [review]. It does feel like that. It feels like an elegy or an ode. And I think that language is appropriate. It's emotional language, right? But it's an emotional book. I was very proud to read that. This is a book about crying out, not just in grief but also in love.

Are you working on your next project?

I am working on a novel. I can't say too much about it yet because it's still in that first-draft phase, but there will be more about that soon. I'm excited about it. But I'll always come back to creative nonfiction. That's my first love. But I'm really having fun with fiction right now. It's been a good change of pace.