Talking with Sigrid Nunez and more…
Heller McAlpine, in her smart take* on Sigrid Nunez’s new novel, The Friend,echoes my exact experience with Nunez , albeit with an earlier novel, The Last of Her Kind.
“One of the great joys of reading is discovering a new writer whose work speaks to you — whether an unknown debut novelist or a seasoned author whose many books you’ve somehow missed. Case in point: Sigrid Nunez. I was drawn to her sixth novel as a fresh addition to the literature of grief, but within pages realized The Friend has as much to say about literature as about grief, and was wondering how she’d slipped below my radar.”
The Friend is a rich, layered narrative that with uncanny fluidity covers suicide, the joys and perils of writing (and is laden with thought provoking aphorisms**) and very significantly the nature of a human/canine relationship. Having a canine companion I feel obliged to point out that Apollo the Great Dane that the protagonist adopts is aging with his health on downward trajectory. As the passing of one’s pooch is possibly the worst day in your life, this part of the book may weigh heavily…
The novel begins brilliantly:
During the 1980s, in California, a large number of Cambodian women went to their doctors with the same complaint: they could not see. The women were all war refugees. Before fleeing their homeland, they had witnessed the atrocities for which the Khmer Rouge, which had been in power from 1975 to 1979, was well known. Many of the women had been raped or tortured or otherwise brutalized. Most had seen family members murdered in front of them. One woman, who never again saw her husband and three children after soldiers came and took them away,said that she had lost her sight after having cried every day for four years. She was not the only one who appeared to have cried herself blind. Others suffered from blurred or partial vision,their eyes troubled by shadows and pains
The doctors who examined the women—about a hundred and fifty in all—found that their eyes were normal. Further tests showed that their brains were normal as well. If the women were telling the truth—and there were some who doubted this, who thought the women might be malingering because they wanted attention or were hoping to collect disability—the only explanation was psychosomatic blindness.
In other words, the women’s minds, forced to take in so much horror and unable to take more, had managed to turn out the lights.
This was the last thing you and I talked about while you were still alive. After, only your email with a list of books you thought might be helpful to me in my research. And, because it was the season, best wishes for the new year.
Sigrid Nunez photograph by Marian Ettlinger
I have spoken with Sigrid a time or two — the first time follows below:
Sigrid Nunez wanted to be a dancer, and lucky for her readers, that didn’t work out as planned. Nevertheless capable of some deft footwork, she explains to our man in Boston how the two pastimes are similar.
Somewhere in the conversation that follows, novelist Sigrid Nunez opines that great writing seems effortless. She might have been making reference to herself: When I finally picked up a Nunez novel, I was both surprised and pleased at the ease with which I was able to enter and quickly engage with this unlikely story of two college roommates in the volatile and hyper-exciting early 1970s. Apparently the odd gaggle of readers who make up the American literary classes concurred, pouring accolades and smart discussions on The Last of Her Kind. By the year’s end, it had made countless “best books of the year” lists.
Sigrid Nunez has published five novels: A Feather on the Breath of God, Naked Sleeper, For Rouenna, The Last of Her Kind, and the recently reissued Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury.
As befits her serious commitment to the writing life, her work is regularly published in leading periodicals as well as being anthologized. She has won numerous awards and has taught at Amherst College, Smith College, Columbia University, and the New School, and has been a visiting writer at Sarah Lawrence College and Washington University. She has also been on the faculty of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and the RopeWalk Writers Retreat. Sigrid Nunez lives in New York City.
Claire Messud, an able novelist in her own right, perceptively writes: Sigrid Nunez is a memoirist of considerable gifts, which is worth remarking only because she is the author of novels rather than of memoirs. Using an intercutting of meditation and careful reconstruction, she has written an impassioned and complicated recollection transformed, by the author’s skill, into a work of fiction rather than of history.Sigrid, who by the way is the child of a Chinese Panamanian father and a German mother, and I discuss her failure as a dancer, writing sequels (or not), what interests her, Susan Sontag and some of the usual things.
Robert Birnbaum: When I was thinking about what we might talk about, I was distracted by my recent acquisition of another iPod—watch me try to connect this [to something that makes sense]. And my big iPod has about 3,000 songs on it and my new one has a 400-song capacity. So I’m thinking about what happens when you try to narrow down your world to what you call your favorites. Though 400 favorites seems a bit much. But how is it as one gets older, that all the information and things that you have liked and that have filtered down, the songs, the literature, the poems, the life experiences? I wonder if they reduce down to just a few cherished things? Are you following me?
Sigrid Nunez: Yes you’re reminding me of one of my favorite quotes from Rilke, who said something like, “When a man is young he needs many, many books and when he is old he needs only a few books.” We all know what he meant, whether you agree with him or not. But at the time he said that life was very different. The universal library was a lot smaller, for one thing. And so the problem is you have to also take into account that now there is an overwhelming amount, an overwhelming number of books and songs and so on, we have access to. I am one of those people who is overwhelmed by all the choices.
RB: So what is your response to that?
SN: Well, to be overwhelmed, for one thing.
RB: [laughs] It stops there? You go, “Oh, I’m overwhelmed.”
SN: [laughs] My first response is to be overwhelmed; my second is to envy people like Susan Sontag, who had this enormous capacity to take it all in and who never narrowed her interests as she grew older, the way other people do, who was always open to everything, who spent all day and evening seeing everything and listening to everything, and reading everything. And for whom it was never enough. She was always interested and curious, always ready to look at the next thing. So, there’s envy of that. And then really just trying to keep up. If you are a novelist you need to pay attention to the culture. So it’s part of your job to take in as much as you can. And it’s a challenge, it really is. There are probably 400 favorites—there are so many great songs—
RB: I was looking for a reasonable number that didn’t trivialize the word “favorite.” Also, in regard to this particular appliance, I can keep changing my favorites. On my desktop I have 7,500 sound files. Which reduces to about a third of that on my mp3 player and additionally I got my son—he’s nine—a Shuffle that stores 250 files. So far he’s only identified 100 songs that he wants access to. What I want to get to in addition to being in touch with the culture, so you can grasp context and background—as you repeat in Naked Sleeper, “Background is everything.”
SN: As a novelist, you do want to keep track of everything that’s going on.If you are a novelist you need to pay attention to the culture. So it’s part of your job to take in as much as you can. And it’s a challenge, it really is.
RB: In the case of your five novels—do you remember them?
SN: I’m often surprised in what I have forgotten in them. For example, I have been trying to improve my German—so I said, “I know what I will do, I’ll read my own books in German. I will know a certain amount, which will help me, and my mind prints are all in them, which will help me to understand them and it’ll help my vocabulary and help get a sense of the structure of the language.” So I’ve been reading Naked Sleeper in German and I am surprised in what I have forgotten. The book came out in 1996. I remember a great deal, of course, but I have forgotten quite a bit. Which is actually all right with me except for the fear of repeating—which is bound to happen. I’m not going to read my own books to make sure—
RB: What might you repeat, situations, a character?
SN: No. A remark, an observation, maybe a name. Above all an observation of some kind, something I might have a character think or say that was already said by a character in an earlier book. That’s my fear. And you’d look foolish if you did that but—
RB: Maybe not, some things are worth repeating. [laughs]
SN: That might be, but I think you would look foolish if you inadvertently used something you’d already used in another book. But being a writer you have to accept that you are going to look foolish now and then.
RB: As opposed to other occupations that guard you from looking foolish.
SN: I mean in print.
RB: Speaking of the 10-year-old Naked Sleeper, do you have any interest in seeing where the characters went, what happened to them or the children in the story?
SN: That’s a very interesting question. The truth is, I have never cared what happens to my characters after I finish the book.
RB: I’m surprised—I assume that the writer invests so much in the characters, making them alive and vivid, that they care about them—
RB: So it seems odd that once the book ends you no longer care.
SN: Well, it’s not really that I don’t care about them but that the story that I set out to tell is over and I don’t find myself thinking about their fates after that last page. I really don’t. I can’t think of any character that I have written about that I later thought about the life of that character after the story I tell. I’m not sure why. It’s interesting—
RB: It’s interesting to me because I recall a number of novels that authors went back to, continued though the writers claim they never intended to carry the story forward. The most prominent of these is Richard Ford and his Frank Bascombe trilogy. Julian Barnes did the same thing with the couple fromTalking It Over, revisiting them some 10 years later in Love, Etc. I’d bet there are other writers who have asked themselves what happened to a character years down the line. I don’t think Fredrick Busch intended to continue the story inGirls.
SN: That’s probably true. In most cases the writer didn’t know. Somehow that character returned and tugged at the writer’s sleeve and said, “Well I’m back. Deal with me.” I have to say I would be totally surprised if I were to return to any of the characters that I have written about.I can’t think of any character that I have written about that I later thought about the life of that character after the story I tell.
RB: Nona and Roy are left in such an interesting pregnant situation.
SN: Right, they are in a completely new life situation and you want to know how she is going to cope, that’s true. And yet when I now—since you have put this before me and I am thinking about them and actually I am seeing them—I have to say that that novel, which would be about their life with these children that they have adopted—
RB: No longer in New York City, to Minnesota?
SN: The idea of writing a novel—when I try to think about how it would be—it would be a novel about their marriage and the children, and I can see it doesn’t interest me.
RB: Because you have said everything that you wanted to say about them?
SN: I’d say because I feel that the issues I deal with have been fully explored by the end of the book. Also, I guess there’s something about the desire to leave some things open at the end, for the reader to imagine. Some people will think, “Well, they may have decided to stay together but I don’t believe they’re going to be happy.” And other people will say, “Well, Nona finally did the right thing and she and Roy are going to be happy.” I would prefer that both possibilities could exist—
RB: That’s not what I think. I wouldn’t presume to take on the novelist’s task and imagine a further story. All the possibilities are there—I wouldn’t speculate this or that. Why would I?
SN: I do think some readers will do that. They’ll make a judgment and the characters will have decided to do something—it will be the end of the book and some character will decide, “Yes, I’m going to do this.” Let’s say—how about Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester—were [laughs] they happy? Brontë has led you to this point where that is absolutely what you are supposed to assume about that story, but we would bring to it all kinds of other things. And we can imagine something. Would you want to read a book, even if it were by Brontë, about how Jane—
RB: Let me put it to you this way—I rarely think a story that I am enjoying is too long.
SN: I agree.
RB: So, in a sense, a sequel is an arbitrary division. It could have just been packed into the one volume. And also, I enjoy someone like William Kennedy or Faulkner, who will create—or Susan Straight—an imagined community. And in a very original way Edward Jones does that. Although not in an obvious way.
SN: Yes, that idea appeals to me more, though. That there would be a community created and then you are dealing with this part of it, this couple, this family of this community and then in an another book you focus on minor or peripheral characters from the first book.
RB: So you could see attending to the [orphaned] children that Roy and Nona adopt [in Naked Sleeper]?
SN: Yes, then you go on and deal with other characters. That would be interesting but isn’t that like Zola—I haven’t read Zola in years— There you are, 17 or 18 years old, and you are going away from home for the first time and there is a lot at stake and you are very sensitive and vulnerable and all these things and there is this total stranger and you are told to live with them in a very intimate situation, that’s like an arranged marriage.
RB: I never have. I am now embarrassed.
SN: He wrote a series of novels that deal with several generations of the same family.
RB: What do you begin with when you write a story? Do you write short stories?
SN: I have written some but not many. I always start with a character. There is an idea about a character or two. It’s less what would I like to write about than who. So my first book, which didn’t start out as a book—the idea was I wanted to write about my father. I wrote about my father in the last line of that chapter or what would turn into a chapter, called “Chang” in Feather on the Breath of God. I wrote, “It would be so much harder to write about my mother.” That’s when I knew I was going to go on. Later that was not the right sentence to end that chapter—I had a better ending to “Chang,” and so that sentence had to go—but as soon as I wrote that sentence I knew what was coming next. So I knew I wanted to write about my mother and father in that first book. In the second book I knew I wanted to write about Nona, and in my third book I knew I wanted to write about Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s marmoset. But the marmoset, Mitz, was an excuse to write about “the Wolves,” as their friends called them. And then I knew absolutely I wanted to write about a woman who had served as an army nurse in Vietnam—I had been interested in that for years.
SN: I came of age during the Vietnam War and knew certain things about it, but not much, it turns out. And then in the ’80s, when people who’d been there started talking and writing about it, there were some women among them. There wasn’t very much about the women, but I happened to read some of it and I thought, “This is something I’d really like to write about. A woman who lived through such an amazing experience, which only a handful of women had experienced.” And no one appeared to be writing any fiction about these women. So that’s how I ended up writing For Rouenna. And with this latest book, The Last of Her Kind, I knew I wanted to write about freshman roommates—that is an experience that we all take for granted, that nevertheless when you examine it is really pretty strange. That there you are, 17 or 18 years old, and you are going away from home for the first time and there is a lot at stake and you are very sensitive and vulnerable and all these things and there is this total stranger and you are told to live with them in a very intimate situation, that’s like an arranged marriage. And so I knew I wanted to write about girls in that situation. But I also wanted to write about that era, the late ’60s. So I decided to put them on the Columbia campus at the same time I was there. So all my ideas for books have started out with characters. And once you decide who you want to write about obviously your character has to have a life, and you have to give them things to do and thoughts to think and relationships to have and so on. And a lot of my work really could be described as fictional biography. I like the idea of covering a large number of years in a character’s life. I am fascinated by the various turns a person’s life can end up taking over a period of time. That’s what I like to write about.
RB: So is that fun?
SN: Much of it is fun and satisfying. And in many ways—if the work is going well or well enough—and I do think, I tell my students this and actually meant it, I do think in many ways it does get easier. Much of it gets easier. When writers say that it doesn’t get easier what they mean is that is that it is always hard. That writing is always hard.
SN: Yes, in the sense that you pick up your mistakes earlier as you are writing. And you are more alert to certain pitfalls.
RB: How about the part where you worry whether your audience will like what you are doing or whether you can deliver on what you began?
SN: Well, that’s not about writing, that’s about publishing.
SN: What I meant was that the writing gets easier; you become more skillful unless something is wrong. And you waste less time. I can remember this and I see it in my students—this idea that I have spent all these hours, days, even weeks, on these pages, on this story, they must be good. Well, the truth is that it is quite possible that they aren’t. It doesn’t matter that you spent all this time on it. It still might not work. And after you have done this for a while, you are much more willing, much smarter, you know, to throw that away. You have to realize that that’s part of the process and not this big waste. You are able to say that won’t work and cut it. Whether it’s a sentence, a paragraph, a page or a whole story or chapter, you learn how to tell sooner when it’s not working. And you begin to feel more confident because you know you’re more skillful as a writer. But when it’s working, when the actual writing is going well and you know you’re doing a good day’s work, that’s enormously satisfying. And in that sense it is fun.
RB: What I hear you saying or that it suggests is that some people can keep those thoughts in the foreground, that is, a focus on the skills that they should have accumulated, so they can accelerate dealing with their mistakes and some people seem to start fresh with every project.
RB: No real explanation for that—just individual character.
SN: But I don’t know if you start fresh again each time—
RB: How to explain writers who say it doesn’t get easier? And that every start is fraught with angst.
SN: When writers say that it doesn’t get easier what they mean is that it is always hard. That writing is always hard. I interviewed Paula Fox at Symphony Space and I quoted something from an interview that I had read of hers with her—she writes children’s fiction, fiction and now these two memoirs—and people want to know what the difference was between the genres? The main thing she said, “It’s all hard.” In that sense it doesn’t get easier—
RB: It can be fun yet still hard?
SN: Part of it is—I wanted to be a dancer when I was young. And I failed at that. I have never gotten over that. I’ll never get over that.
RB: Meaning you feel badly about yourself? A failure?
SN: I don’t know how else to put it except to say that I wanted to be a dancer and I failed at that and I’ll never get over that. The thing is, there I am, a young person, a kid, studying ballet, and ballet is extremely difficult. It’s enormously difficult but there isn’t any dancer who wouldn’t say it isn’t fun. It’s more fun than anything could be. So in that sense to me, early on, the idea of something being incredibly difficult and physically painful certainly didn’t mean it couldn’t be the most fun and the most satisfying thing a person could do. I don’t think it’s a terrible thing that I will never get over it. I don’t see why I would get over it. Something that was so important to me I was not able to do, that I lost. It makes all the sense in the world that I would always have that. Say you’re young and you fall in love with someone, and then you lose that person. Though you move on you don’t ever completely get over it. That loss is part of your life and who you are forever.
RB: It is accurate to say writing was a substitute for—
SN: No, I was a writer first. Maybe I feel like [laughs] if only I had been able to dance I would have saved myself from becoming a writer. When I was a kid, like most writers I know, I wanted to write and wrote these stories about animals and children and so on. And when I was a little older I prided myself on my ridiculous sentimental colorful—but then when I was about 12 and I started thinking about ballet and then a little bit later started studying it—I started too late as a ballet dancer. I didn’t actually start until I was in high school though it was in my mind before that. And then I went off to college and went to Barnard—I chose Barnard because it was in Manhattan and I thought, “Well, I don’t want to go to college, no dancer goes to college, this is ridiculous, but I will choose Barnard because I can continue to study on 57th Street,” where I studied. Almost immediately upon arriving at Barnard almost everything seemed to fall apart; not only did I stop taking [ballet] classes, I also didn’t go to my academic classes. I was just a little wreck.
RB: What year was that?
SN: 1968. Eventually I continued to take dance classes at Barnard—it had and has a very good dance department. But the dream of being a dancer was never real. I would have had to have started much earlier. It was something I could do—but that doesn’t mean that I could have had a good career at it.
RB: Does it weigh you down?
RB: So it’s a biographical detail that you keep in mind, but what’s its impact? That you have tasted disappointment?
SN: No, its impact is partly that I was a dancer.
RB: That simple.
SN: I still have that in me. I know I know what it is to dance and to be a dancer. But what I feel is probably close to other kinds of loss. Like say you’re young and you fall in love with someone, and then you lose that person. And you go on and love other people and have a life and so on, but you know that that person was the one you loved the most, and that you’ll never love like that again. And though you move on you don’t ever completely get over it. That loss is part of your life and who you are forever.
RB: Do you go to dance performances?
SN: Not as much as I used to. But yes, I am a huge dance fan. I live in a city where there is a lot of dance.
RB: What does the body of your work mean to you now? Five novels, and I will assume that you are working on one now.
SN: I am—
RB: So do you even think about what you have written before, other than not wanting to repeat?
SN: Not much. I think it’s very interesting how little it actually concerns me. I don’t know how other writers feel. I mean, the books I’ve published, I don’t think about them much. I don’t think that’s uncommon, though. It’s almost as if the only book you really think and care about is the one that you’re working on. People occasionally say your books must be like—
SN: Nothing can be farther from the truth. The idea would be you had five children and only cared about the one you were [laughs] pregnant with. Or that was just born. You could care less about the others. I don’t think it’s like having children at all. By the time I am ready to make progress on a longer work I am already at a point at which I know I am going to stick with it. I have never worked for a year on a novel that I thought I was going to finish and have ended up having to drop it.
RB: There seems always to be a search for the appropriate metaphor for the things that we create. There must be a good reason for the French word oeuvre not being translated into English. It doesn’t strike me that American writers are occupied with the bodies of their works.
SN: Maybe some of them do. I wonder if it’s perhaps different for musicians, for composers. Or for painters. Whether it’s more likely for them to see their work in terms of a body of work. I have no idea.
RB: I was rereading a piece about science being progressive but the arts are not—meaning that they don’t build on themselves. And she was trying to figure out whether philosophy was progressive. So it’s the case that writing fiction is not progressive.
SN: No, I don’t think of it as progressive. You certainly don’t get better and better in that sense. There are plenty of writers whose early works are stronger than their later ones. Or the later work can still be very good but have more problems and weaknesses than early work. For novelists in particular, it’s not uncommon for success to be followed by failure.
RB: There are glorious or grand failures. Have you started something and not finished or something you finished that was not what you wanted and you put it in a drawer?
SN: I have work that I have tried to do that hasn’t worked out. Not even in a drawer.
RB: Hard drive?
SN: Not even—in the garbage. [laughs] On the other hand I don’t—by the time I am ready to make progress on a longer work I am already at a point at which I know I am going to stick with it. I have never worked for a year on a novel that I thought I was going to finish and have ended up having to drop it.
RB: Is that what it takes, a year? Is there a normal time frame for writing a book?
SN: No, what I meant by a year was that by that time I would be—it takes about two years. I don’t write very, very long novels. The Last of Her Kind was 375 pages, and that’s my longest book. And that took more than two years.
RB: Is that your most well-reviewed, well-attended book?
SN: It was. It received more attention than my first book.
RB: Do you read those reviews? I noticed there was quite a variety of venues—from the women’s magazines to the Wall Street Journal.
SN: I feel very lucky with the reviews that that book got. There were some very good reviews.
RB: I did like Elizabeth Benedict’s in the New York Times. SN: Me, too.
RB: It was well written and hit the right notes.
SN: I was thrilled with it. It was in the daily Times and also, I agree, it was well written and generous. When I was young I remember hearing about writers who said they didn’t read their own reviews. I remember thinking, “I don’t know if I believe that. That seems so strange. How could you not read your reviews?” But when I started publishing I discovered that nothing could be easier than not reading reviews, and that in fact one had to force oneself to read them. Because even the good ones can make you cringe. I do read my reviews, but now I understand perfectly why some people don’t, or don’t want to. And sometimes what I’ll do is put off reading them. I’ll collect them and wait for the right moment and then sit down and read them all, getting it all over with at once.More novelists isn’t exactly what the world needs right now.
RB: Among other things, you have the good fortune to continue to be published, which is one of the fears that writers have about not getting reviewed.
RB: Do you look at what you do as being important?
SN: Not as much as I would wish. In fact, I don’t think it has great importance. I very often wish I were doing work that would give me the sense of doing something more important. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write about the combat nurse, someone whose work was saving lives. I can’t say my writing makes a big difference to the world, to the lives of people beyond myself. And I feel some regret about this, because you only have one life, and I very often wish I were engaged in some enterprise that was more meaningful—
RB: That made the world better?
SN: For example, once when I was at McDowell there was another resident there, a visual artist whose husband was an agricultural scientist, and one night at dinner she told us about his work—he was involved in trying to develop ways to produce hardier crops, which could help reduce famine in certain parts of the world—and as soon as I heard this I said, “How I wish I were doing something like that with my life!” Which did not go over well at that table.
SN: People said things like, Art is just as meaningful, just as important, and so on and on. I’m not saying they were wrong. But I certainly didn’t feel that way.
RB: Could anything be more self-serving than artists saying how important their work is and art is?
SN: They weren’t saying how important their work was.
RB: Yes they were.
SN: [laughs] Well, man doesn’t live by bread alone. Fine, there just seems to be less and less bread. If it were a different world—
RB: If you go by the numbers and you see how few people pay attention to the sum total of all that artists create—
SN: Here’s the main thing: I feel I put my fiction out there, all fine and good. But there’s lots of fiction out there. There are a lot of good books. There are a lot of great stories. There are all these good writers; I know many of them myself. There is all this great literature already on the shelves. So, no, I can’t possibly feel as if I were doing something extraordinarily important. And the more you read the news, the more alarmed you are at what’s happening in the world, and it’s quite hard to be working as an artist and to think of that as being the most valuable contribution to society you could make. More novelists isn’t exactly what the world needs right now.
RB: Why do you think writing programs have exploded so much in the last generation? Why do so many people want to write?
SN: I’m not sure. I think about that all the time. It is certainly not for the money—they must know that writers don’t make a lot of money.
RB: Most don’t make any money.
SN: Right, but of course if you enter these programs there is a fantasy that you will be the big literary star. Sometimes I worry that for certain people this is a culture totally obsessed with fame and for certain people they have this idea that it is the only way they can become famous. They know they are not going to be a supermodel or get up on the stage and sing La Traviata.
RB: There is American Idol.
SN: Right. They are not going to write a great song and they can’t make visual art. But they feel that because everyone writes, and because they like to read, they had some idea that that is something they can do and it will get sold and published and that would make them feel all right. That’s what it is—it’s about the fact that everyone can write and they don’t think of it in the same way as people think about dancing or even sport. With writing they think—
RB: Everyone assumes there is a base level of competence at writing that they can improve—
SN: They do, they do. And that they have a story. I agree with that part: They do have a story. When they read other peoples’ stories, if the writing is good, it strikes them as effortless. And they get the idea that all they have to do is get in touch with their own inner writer and it will all come pouring out. Many people believe that, given enough time and lots of encouragement, they can write a novel, too, and that someone will want to publish it, and that lots of people will want to read it.
RB: Is there a noticeable change in your writing students—do you teach regularly?
SN: I teach fairly often. I don’t have a position. I do adjunct teaching—quite a bit. I taught at Columbia, undergraduate and the MFA program, Amherst, Smith, and the New School, Hofstra, and I’ve been a visiting writer at Washington University, Sarah Lawrence, and then I’ve done some of these conferences. And at the poetry center at the 92nd Street Y. Those are all different kinds of students. Different ages. So what was your question?
RB: Is there something about the students that has changed?
SN: The first time I ever taught was at Hofstra in ’93. People participating workshops are getting better all the time. But all this workshopping and people paying attention to the craft of writing has had an effect.
RB: But there is a backlash that argues that the fiction has become sterile and antiseptic and incestuous, and the stories are written to satisfy a certain benchmark—
SN: Yeah, there is such a thing as a workshop story. And I do see a lot of that. But it also depends whether it’s undergraduates or MFA students or people who take these workshops at the 92nd Street Poetry center—who are of any age. Gary Shteyngart was a student of mine at the poetry center. He was 27 at the time, and he was working on that first novel that became The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
Sigrid Nunez circa 2007 copyright 2018 Robert Birnbaum
RB: We talked before about how you don’t refer back to your work much—and yet here you are, ostensibly on tour for a novel that you must have completed two or three years ago. So what does that feel like?
SN: I don’t know how it feels, exactly. It feels like business. [both laugh] It feels like what happens when a book comes out.
RB: Is it difficult for you to tear yourself away from your current work?
SN: Yes, but on the other hand I wouldn’t really want to talk about that novel, which is just in its earliest stage. And so in a way it’s interesting to talk about The Last of Her Kind at this point, a year after it was published, a year and three months after I handed it in.
RB: When authors go on tour for their books, I think the audience that comes to readings for the most part hasn’t read the book. But going out on tour for the soft cover, there is a good chance some or most of the audience has read the book.
Even if a book were thrilling, I would still rather hear the author talking and answering questions. I can read—I don’t need you to read to me.
SN: It’s true. It’s more interesting. In this bookstore in Kingston, Pa., The Tudor Bookstore, most of the people had read the book and the questions were very interesting. And also now there are book clubs—now I am in touch and talking with book clubs. But yes, it really is more interesting to talk to people who have read the book—the best part of any of these meetings or readings or whatever—it’s never the reading—
RB: For sure.
SN: Authors should read a little bit but talk a little bit more about the book, anticipating some of the questions that people will want to know. For example, “Why did you write this book? What is this book about?”
RB: As opposed to “How do you get an agent?” or “Do you use a computer or write longhand?”
SN: Exactly. So you begin by reading a very few pages and then asking for questions. And then it can become quite lively.
RB: It’s surprising that more readings haven’t adopted what is done in Europe—which is to have an interlocutor or interviewer talk to the visiting writer in front of an audience.
SN: We need more variety. For example, last month I did an event with Gary Shteyngart at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum—he’s written about immigrants, and I have written about immigrants. And we each read for five minutes. There was a moderator and we talked and then there were questions and it was terrific and much more interesting than it would have been if I had read for a half-hour and Gary read for a half-hour—Gary is one of the funniest writers around, so it is great fun to hear him read. But it was just much more interesting, and the audience questions and the discussion and getting more than one writer who has a book out at the same time—but just the minimal number of pages just to get a flavor of the book and then the talk—it so much better and interesting. I don’t enjoy going to readings.
RB: Amen. Though occasionally someone will do well, Charles Baxter and Jim Shepard come to mind.
SN: I have heard Charles at Bread Loaf. Colum McCann is very good. When he reads, he has his own special way of doing it.
RB: Those Irish guys have a gift. [laughs]
SN: But even if a book were thrilling, I would still rather hear the author talking and answering questions. I can read—I don’t need you to read to me.
RB: There is something to be said for getting the tone or coloration through an author’s reading.
SN: A bit. The standard thing, the standard book tour reading—it’s often not so conducive to discussion. The audience feels like they’re there to listen to a reading, and they aren’t prepared to ask questions. Whereas if it were more like “I’m here to discuss my book but before I do I will read just a few pages,” that would be different. And as I say, maybe it’s better when it’s more than one writer.
RB: It has gotten mechanical and pro forma. Writers are being thrown out there left and right. I imagine that the skies of America on any given day are full of literary minds. Anyway, is there a movie to be made of The Last of Her Kind?
SN: It’s been optioned.
RB: So is a movie going to be made?
SN: That I don’t know. I hope so. Nothing is in production now.
RB: Was it optioned by someone who read it?
SN: Indeed, and he said, “I will be totally honest with you, it wasn’t a review that made me think of reading this book, I was in a bookstore …and the cover of the book made me interested.” That pleased me because I found that Eggleston photo myself.
RB: The picture of the two girls?
SN: It’s from the ’70s. I forget what stage I was in with the book. I wasn’t finished yet. And there was this photo from Memphis and I clipped it—I had this idea that Farrar Straus could work with it because it seemed right. And then I went off to Berlin in January 2005 and sent it to my editor [Jonathan Galassi] at Farrar Straus and then I didn’t hear anything and time passed and I knew the book was being put together and I inquired and he said they were working with it. And the next thing I got the mockup of the cover, and people have responded well to that image. And they used it on the soft cover because Picador also really liked it. And it’s from the right era, and when you look at it you don’t know who’s who. I just like it. It’s beautiful. When it was published in Italy they said, “We also want to use the cover,” and they rarely use the same image.
RB: Any interest in your earlier novels?
SN: None of them. This was the first time. Who knows? I don’t know how these things work.
RB: People who are supposed to know how they work don’t know how they work.
SN: Yeah, yeah. We’ll see what happens. Many things get optioned and few things get made. Jawal Nga is the producer who got in touch with me and optioned the book. I’ve met with him twice, and I really like the way he talked about the book and his ideas for a film version.
RB: I took the hint that you don’t really want to talk about what you are working on now.
SN: I’ll just say it’s a new novel that I began writing in October. I was away at this wonderful place called Ucross, in Wyoming. It’s the first book of mine in which the main character is not female. And I have a contract now, and it’s due in about two years.
RB: Good, I hope to see you then.
Conversations with Authors: Sigrid Nunez, Boston, 2011
** Opening epigram: “The question any novel is really trying to answer is, Is life worth living?” Nicholson Baker, “The Art of Fiction No. 212,” The Paris Review