Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - December 3, 2010

About the author: Ross Peter Nelson

As a fiction writer, Ross Peter Nelson was a late bloomer.

When the 53-year-old Montana native moved to Silicon Valley in 1979 to work as a software engineer, he never thought about writing. He got his start as a scribe a decade later while reviewing a technical book he thought was not well written. When the publisher asked Nelson if he knew anyone who could write a better book, he responded, "I can."

So write he did, although his early efforts were strictly technical in genre. He authored two programming books in the early 1990s, as well as some articles for technical magazines, but eventually found such writing limiting.

In the early 2000s, Nelson wrote for Playground, a San Francisco-based incubator for dramatists, and in 2006 he won their "Emerging Playwright Award" for his piece on the mating habits of elephant seals, called "Sexual Perversity in Aņo Nuevo."

In writing this year's winning short story "The Harrow," Nelson crafted a historical vignette with a dialogue-driven encounter between a former Guantanamo prison guard and the son of a former Guantanamo inmate.

He wrote the story after reading a 2005 Seton Hall University of Law study on Guantanamo detainees, which found less than half of Guantanamo detainees have connections to military activity, and only 10 percent of such detainees have been involved in combat.

By having his protagonist prison guard meet the son of one of his former detainees and discover the man's innocence, Nelson encourages his audience to question the appropriateness and efficacy of Guantanamo's purpose.

"It's about getting people to understand that justice isn't being served. It can haunt us, because it's what our country was built on," he said.

The former prison guard turned to heroin to cope with his guilt, Nelson said.

"There are a lot of people who wouldn't feel guilt, because they see the world in black and white. Which makes them less interesting."

In the future, Nelson intends to seek an MFA in playwriting.

"I really enjoy writing, but feel I don't yet have the background."

— Georgia Wells

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