Busy Golden Years: Amherst couple Rudy and Shirley Nelson, longtime collaborators in film and writing, pen novel about Guatemalan Civil War

Last modified: Monday, January 13, 2014
Rudy and Shirley Nelson did some of their first creative work together in the late 1940s and early ’50s, getting their feet wet in FM radio programming and later in documentary filmmaking and even some early science-fiction kitsch like “The Blob.”

Some 50-odd years later, they made a documentary film about the role religion has played in trying to overcome poverty and violence in Guatemala.

And now, after more than 60 years together, the Amherst couple are still at it — co-writing a novel set in Guatemala based on their experiences traveling in and learning about the Central American country.

The two writers and former teachers say their secret in working together — and staying married — all these years has been based on trust, love and honesty.

“You have to be able to yell at each other,” Shirley Nelson, 88, said with a laugh. “Sometimes you say things that you might not say otherwise. ... You have to know you can trust the other person and be absolutely honest and open to taking criticism and offering it.”

But, adds Rudy Nelson, who’s 85, the two also learned long ago how to play to their strengths, like they did on “The Risk of Returning,” a novel Rudy first developed over 20 years ago, after which his wife rewrote the narrative, as Rudy’s continued research into Guatemalan history and politics in turn updated the story.

“Shirley tends to approach things more in a fictional way, with imagination,” said Nelson, a retired professor of English and religious studies from the State University of New York at Albany. “My background is more as a non-fiction writer and researcher. ... That turned out to be a good match for this book.”

“The Risk of Returning” is set in Guatemala in 1987, when the country was still in the midst of a bloody civil war that lasted 36 years, from 1960 to 1996, and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Ted Peterson, a 40-year-old adjunct English professor from Boston, has come back to the country for the first time in 33 years; the son of former missionary workers, he had lived in Guatemala as a boy until his mother abruptly returned with him to the United States in 1954. His father disappeared around that time in Guatemala under mysterious circumstances.

Ted’s at loose ends in his own life — recently divorced, discouraged with his job — and he comes back to Guatemala with a vague plan to try and discover what happened to his father. Though at first only loosely aware of Guatemala’s problems, he’s soon caught up in the violence and fear gripping Mayan Indians and Ladino peasants in the more rural parts of the country, where the military is waging a violent campaign of oppression, burning villages suspected of sheltering insurgents and kidnapping (and killing) people off the street.

Before long, Ted must make a decision on how far he’s willing to involve himself with people he meets in Guatemala, including an American woman who helps him relearn Spanish during an intensive language course; she’s become a possible target for reprisal because of her support for the government’s opponents, but Ted is also attracted to her.

“The Risk of Returning” is at once a thriller and an evocative portrait of Guatemala, from its humid mountains and jungles to its crowded cities and barrios. It also raises more universal questions: What do we as individuals do in the face of genocide and violence? How do we conquer our own fear in helping others faced with danger? And for American readers, how do we come to terms with the support our government and military gave to right-wing Central American regimes for a good part of the 20th century?

The novel, which the Nelsons self-published with the assistance of a Troy, N.Y., company, is also an examination of sorts of the lives of “MKs,” or “missionary kids,” and how being the child of missionaries affects that person’s life. The Nelsons, who once both taught at a former Christian liberal arts college in Rhode Island, say they knew a fair number of “MKs” in their day, and both have devoted a lot of time over the years to thinking about religion and its impact on people and culture.

“The actual working title of the book for a long time was ‘MK,’ ” said Shirley Nelson. “That’s a fascinating topic in and of itself. Some of the MKs we’ve known have been really brilliant but also troubled ... it’s really a culture unto itself.”

Worked on ‘The Blob’

Though they had lived in Albany for over 30 years before moving to Amherst in 2004 — to be near their daughter, Kris, who lives with her family in Greenfield — the Nelsons have New England roots. Rudy Nelson grew up in West Hartford, Conn., and Shirley Nelson is from Holliston, southwest of Boston. They met in Rhode Island in the late 1940s as college students.

The two later worked together at a radio station in the state; after they married in 1951, they also worked in Pennsylvania for awhile with members of the radio station staff who had moved there to start a film company. Shirley Nelson jokes that most of the movies the company made, primarily documentaries, “were awful,” but she and Rudy learned much about the business.

Rudy Nelson says he also spent his last summer with the company as they worked on “The Blob,” the 1958 horror/science-fiction film about a giant, amoeba-like creature from outer space that threatens a small Pennsylvania town; the movie starred Steve McQueen in his first leading role.

“I think I was the third assistant director of rewrite,” Nelson said.

The couple later taught for 10 years at Barrington College in Rhode Island (the college closed when it merged in 1985 with Gordon College in Wenham). He taught English and Shirley taught creative writing while also working as a freelance writer.

Both have written their own books, all of them examining religion in some manner, and both say their writing reflects a desire to come to terms with their religious backgrounds.

Rudy Nelson, who grew up in a fundamentalist family, is the author of “The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind,” a portrait of seminary president Edward Carnel, and his wife wrote a novel, “The Last Year of the War,” based on a year she spent in a bible college in Chicago. She also wrote “Fair, Clear and Terrible,” a historical study of an apocalyptic religious community in Shiloh, Maine, in which her parents had grown up.

Though they authored those books separately, husband and wife say both were the first readers and important editors for the other’s work. “That’s always something we’ve done for each other,” Shirley Nelson said.

The real picture

“The Risk of Returning” grew out of a trip Rudy Nelson made to Guatemala in 1987 with a church-sponsored group involved with a peace mission to the country. He says he wanted to see Guatemala with his own eyes — “I don’t think we were getting the real picture from our own media” — and try to learn firsthand from people about the civil war.

He’s since visited the country 10 times, sometimes with his wife, because, he said, “Guatemala really gets under your skin.” That first trip also made him want to write about his experience and about Guatemala’s civil war, but he wanted to try doing that in a novel.

After completing initial drafts of “The Risk of Returning,” he gave the manuscript to Shirley, who further developed the story, changing the narration from third to first person and completing a number of additional drafts. The couple enlisted family and friends as readers to get feedback and did continual research on the civil war, including U.S. support of the Guatemalan military.

They took a hiatus on the book for several years when they made their documentary film, “Precarious Peace: God and Guatemala,” then returned to the manuscript over the last three years. Though their earlier books had been put out by traditional publishers such as Harper and Row, the decided to self-publish their novel with help from Troy Book Makers of New York state, a company owned by independent bookstores.

“I’m really happy we stuck with it,” Shirley Nelson said. “It’s something we both wanted to see happen.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.