Author. Poet. Musician. Professor. Wild man.
Most of these descriptions still apply to Daniel Nester, an associate professor of English at the College of Saint Rose in Albany.
The 47-year-old Nester has always had cool quirks — such as his obsession with the rock band Queen (he’s written two books about Freddie Mercury and company) and an unconventional teaching style. Now he’s letting people check out his adolescence in a new book, “Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects.”
The book is partly about Dan’s estranged father, Mike Nester, a truck driver who died broke and alone in a small apartment in Tucson, Arizona, in 2013. Mike was a pretty smart guy who once told his son all about conspiracy theories and philosophy books. And the book is all about growing up; a release party will be held Friday at The Low Beat (formerly Valentine’s) in downtown Albany; Nester fans can pick up the writer’s latest pages at www.shaderbook.com.
Nester was happy to talk about growing up in Maple Shade Township, N.J., writing, life on campus and of course, the best rock band in the world.
Q: How did “Shader” come to life?
A: I decided a couple years ago I’d like to write a coming-of-age memoir. I just felt really compelled to tell the story of growing up in South Jersey as a blue collar kid in a blue collar town with a kind of a crazy dad who discovered record stores and figures out what he’s going to do with his life.
I found myself telling the small stories, little stories, writing little “memoirettes” and essays about that time. I guess maybe five or six years ago, they started to look like they made sense all together, so that’s how “Shader” came to be.
I think I figured out a couple of common themes. One is my father, who passed away a couple years ago — that’s sort of a moment when you realize there’s a bit of a bookend to part of your life. Another is becoming a father, another is thinking about growing up in this town Maple Shade.
Q: You were into the punk rock scene in those days?
A: I was a poser, I was a wannabe, I think, growing up in a town like Maple Shade where the posers and punkers were few and far between. I think it was pretty tribal. It was definitely a classic rock kind of town.
Q: What kinds of problems did you have? People chasing you down the street?
A: The book has a couple of fist fights that I got into, things like that, nothing terribly illegal. But yeah, it was a tough town and I was a sensitive kid. But it was also a town that was tight-knit, everybody knew each other.
Q: Did you have the punk rock hair? Black Flag buttons in your lapel?
A: I had like a Duran Duran mullet, with sun-in blond hair. I might have worn a fedora to look like a member of Duran Duran.
Q: C’mon, Duran Duran wasn’t a punk band!
A: Exactly. I was a poser.
Q: What were your favorite punk and new wave bands?
A: I was way into The Jam — they were like my band. But I liked all the usuals, like Elvis Costello and The Clash, the Sex Pistols, right on down to Hüsker Dü and the Replacements. And R.E.M. was a big band for me.
Q: Sounds like there are some sad parts of the book, like the sad ending with your father.
A: We lost touch. I hadn’t seen him in 21 years and we hadn’t talked for 14. I did get to talk to him one last time before he died, but he had his own demons. He was sort of discontented all the time. I think he thought he had bigger things in life in store for him than being a truck driver.
He left our family when I was 17 and my sister was 16 and then he never came back. We visited a couple times, but it was like a hard break. That was pretty heavy.
Q: How about explaining the Queen obsession?
A: Queen is the greatest rock ’n’ roll band of all time (laughs). I think at the time, like in the ’80s, if you were around in North America, they weren’t the biggest band in the world at all, they were sort of on the downturn. So they became at once like my private obsession and also my anthem sound track. Back then, if you were 14 or 15 and you were into rock ’n’ roll music, you sort of picked your favorite band.
Q: Got your three top Queen songs?
A: Oh geez, that’s hard. You have to go with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” right? I think after that you might want to go with “We Will Rock You.” I should probably also go with “The Show Must Go On.” That’s a good trio. I’ll stand by that.
Q: What’s the mood like on college campuses these days?
A: Times are changing. I think people are questioning the value of a liberal arts education. I’m of the mind that’s the only education that’s worth it. I think, rightly so, people are questioning the worth of a college education. For me, a college education was transformative. I was the first in my family to go to college and it just opened up a complete different world to me.
Q: You’ve been described as kind of a hip and happening guy. How do you stay relevant, remain comfortable with your students and make sure they’re comfortable with you?
A: You’ve got to listen. I’m 47 now, I’m too old to try to keep up with all the slang and all the bands and songs and everything. There might have been a time in my 20s and 30s when I was teaching, when I would just naturally be up to date. But now, I have to listen to them and they tell me what’s going on. That’s their job. I don’t want to be the tragically hip professor.
Q: What do you tell young writers who are hoping to start a career and make a living with words?
A: If you can’t stop doing it, you know you’re a writer. It’s not the easiest road in life. I was a temp worker, I was a proofreader for a long time. I think it’s more of a calling than it is a job, but if you approach it like a job and have a good work ethic and be humble about it, something will happen. And don’t turn down many gigs.
Q: How do you actually begin a book? Just sit down at a keyboard and start typing?
A: I think some people do that, especially novelists. They know it’s a long distance thing, but I came up as a poet, so for me, when I write longer things, I have to trick myself that I’m just working on this little part. Afterward, there comes a point where I combine the different pieces and lo and behold, I have a longer work. I trick myself, and I encourage others to do the same.
Q: What’s the state of the state for poetry these days?
A: It’s a great time to be a poet. The Internet has really transformed the way poetry is disseminated and written, so you could be an experimental poet in the middle of Kansas and be completely connected to all the different waves and movements. So it’s a fantastic time. Back when I got out of grad school, you went to a newsstand and looked for print journals and that’s how you found out about things. Now it’s at the click of a mouse so yeah, it’s a great time.
Q: What are you listening to these days?
A: Let me take a look at my Spotify. That’s the biggest thing for me, switching over to streaming. It’s just been the last year I went all in. I’ve got everything from Nick Gilder’s “Hot Child in the City,” Peggy Lee, Joe Jackson because he played here recently, Carly Simon, Television.
Q: No Sinatra?
A: I should, because I just read in Hoboken they’re celebrating the Frank centennial. I’m a big fan of the Jobim album (Brazilian musician Antônio Carlos Jobim recorded with Sinatra in 1967).
Q: Still known as kind of a wild man on campus?
A: You’d have to ask the students that. I think they know I’m an unconventional teacher, but I don’t think I’m that unconventional. Maybe I thought I was the wild man teacher when I got here, but it’s been 10 years.
Q: Wasn’t it nice to have that image though?
A: It was great while it lasted. And then they got their grades back.
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter. blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/wilkin.