What Good Comes of Staying With the Work
Read Sigrid Nunez’s most recent novel, The Friend, and you’ll know she is an author who values the art of writing, and more than that, she is an author who values literary arts as essential to our culture, and more than even that, she is an author who came of literary age in a world that revered the finest writers as gifted truth-tellers. She is an author who quotes Rilke, who said writing is a religion requiring the devotion of a priest.
Nunez belongs to a kind of late 20th century, early 21st century literary canon of authors because of the seriousness of her work but also, really, simply because her prose is so good. Words come up in reviews and articles all the time trying to pin its quality down—it is lucid, confident, direct; it conveys vivid immediacy, uncompromising honesty. No wonder that she wowed the literary establishment right out of the gate. Her first novel, A Feather on the Breath of God, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction. From there, she went on to write six more novels and a memoir, steadily accumulating a raft of honors from various academies until finally, in 2018, The Friend won the National Book Award.
Nunez taught the 2018 Fall Writers’ Weekend workshop at Manhattanville, where she also joined us for a conversation and a reading. In that conversation, I asked her, among other things, about the fifteen years of uncertainty that preceded her first book sale. Those years, after she had finished graduate school but before her writing began getting noticed, would have challenged the confidence of any writer. Still, Nunez stayed with this one kind of work she knew she wanted to do. With the prestigious National Book Award now assuring her place among our great literary lights, writers can take inspiration not only from her writing but also her determination. Here is a transcript of our October 2018 interview.
Lori Soderlind: I have been thinking about the twenty-
three years of writing that you’ve done since A Feather on the Breath of God came out in 1995. You’ve been publishing steadily since this book came out. Every couple of years there is another book, and for a while there was a book every year. That is a very impressive level of artistic stamina. How are you doing that?
Sigrid Nunez: Well, some of the books are short... But it is what I want to be doing. I knew that I wanted to be doing this from an early age. Once school was finished that was my goal. Any kind of job that I had was not as important, just something to make ends meet and support my writing habit. If it is something that you do all the time, like a book every two years, as long as it is not a seven-hundred page book or a work of non-fiction that requires an extensive amount of research it is really not much, as far as the rate of pages. But the steadiness of it is what kept me going, just because it was what I wanted to do and what I want to do still.
Soderlind: So, you set your mind to doing it and just kept doing it. Now if you didn’t do it what would you do?
Nunez: What would I do? I don’t know. It would be very strange to not be writing after all this time. But it is true also that you write a book because you have an idea for a book or a story that you want to tell. And I have always had something whenever I was finishing, (I was) thinking, “You know what I’d like to do next?” And I would have an idea. But I suppose if that stopped, I would do something else for a while until I had a good idea or inspiration for a story or a book.
Soderlind: Something else in the interim? Work at Starbucks? Dog walker, maybe?
Nunez: Oh, I have no idea what I would do, it would be very strange. I wouldn’t feel like myself.
Soderlind: A Feather on the Breath of God, by the way, is one of my favorite titles for a book—I love that title. It was published in 1995 and you finished your MFA program at Columbia about fifteen years before that. So, I think about that particularly because so many people in our audience are MFA students or alumni. That fifteen-year or so gap, that’s the part where most people give up. Can you tell us what was going on with you at that time?
Nunez: See that’s interesting because you were just talking about being very productive since 1995. During that time after getting the MFA, I was writing, but I wasn’t writing as much as I would later on. I was writing stories, a few of which got published. I started novels and longer works that didn’t carry through, so I kind of think of those fifteen years as a long apprenticeship. I wasn’t so good at it where I was able to work every day. The book that came out in 1995 was actually finished in 1993; that’s how long it took to get it out there. I would try to write certain things like stories and would try to sell them and there were rejections and some acceptances. But I was still the same person and I still had some jobs. I went to the New York Review of Books, I taught ESL and I did a variety of things. But I did not pursue another serious career.
Soderlind: So, you were writing all along?
Nunez: Yes, I was writing all along, just not well, not steadily, not every day and not with very much confidence.
Soderlind: As I say, that is about the time that most people give up. This time passes and it’s not happening in terms of publication or whatever means success to you, and it is very easy at that point to get distracted. If not to give up.
Nunez: Right, but then people have lives, though. They do pursue other things. They have families, which I didn’t do.
Soderlind: So in that time you were writing short stories and publishing shorter pieces. What are your thoughts on publishing shorter pieces? Now that you write books, do you really just focus on the books?
Nunez: I really just focus on the books, although I have written some stories over these years of writing the novels. But I don’t have a collection. In the stories that I have I don’t see a collection, even though numerically there is enough. I do write stories, but I don’t think of myself as a story writer.
Soderlind: I love writing short essays—I am a nonfiction writer. But it seems to me that the short story and the essay are things that writers write for other writers these days. There was a time when short stories were published in every magazine. It seems to me now short stories are good practice, essays are good practice, but it’s books or nothing.
Nunez: But there are quite a few collections of stories for a couple of years now that have been getting very serious attention. I know that publishers don’t seek them out; but they do publish them and there are some very good ones.
Soderlind: That’s good, and great to hear for our fiction writers that it’s not just practice but its own craft. That it has value and a place in the world. In my introduction to this talk, I was saying that your writing is very literary, which we will talk about more in a minute. But more broadly, your books have this intelligence to them, in that there is always an undercurrent of ideas to the actual stories—at least to me as a reader it seems that way. I teach in the MFA program and I watch writers developing their skills. It seems to me that the ability to accomplish what you do—you’re telling a story, but you’re really trying to give the reader something else—mostly that comes to writers who read well. It seems to me that by reading the right books and learning to read well, that’s how you learn to write. I wonder if you agree with that or not? Or even if you agree with my assessment that your books are always trying to get at something under the story?
Nunez: I do think that you learn to write by reading other writers. That’s just true, I can’t imagine how I would have ever had any ideas if I weren’t a big reader. It is not absolutely true; there is one writer that I can think of, Don de Lillo. You always hear about writers that were writing as kids, you know that it’s something that starts really young.
But Don de Lillo has said that by the time he was in his twenties he had only read comic books. He didn’t read what was assigned in school and he certainly didn’t read novels, but then he became this very serious writer who wrote all of these books, which is pretty rare. Most writers were book lovers when they were little kids although you do have a lot of writers that say they can’t read while they are writing. It seems to me that you end up formed by your reading. What you read ends up being what you think. That’s where a lot of your ideas come from. In my writing, I don’t think about ideas first. I don’t think about writing a book with some abstract idea of human experience or something. It’s a character or a story that I start with, and in the exploration of whatever’s happening with this character, I suppose certain ideas occur to me. Then they make their way into the book, but I don’t plan anything about the meaning or the ideas that people have. It’s always just the story.
Soderlind: So, you think about the story and the characters because the characters are the story. There is no story without the characters, and as you explore what they are experiencing, you discover something underneath the story that they tell you.
Nunez: You tell what is happening to these characters—and then the characters have thoughts, the characters have ideas, and ideas come out of the situation that they’re in. But it’s not like a non-fiction piece where you’re trying to make an argument about, for example, why America should go in this direction or why it should go in the other direction, and you bolster that argument with examples and you really have to figure things out a certain way. I don’t feel that’s what I am writing when I am writing. Even though some of that might end up in the book.
Soderlind: Circling back to my idea before that being a good writer means being a good reader. You teach in excellent programs, including here this weekend. What do you think is the essential reading today for a starting writer?
Nunez: I couldn’t say, because I think that writers have certain people who they think of as “their people.” I sometimes ask my students in their first class “I am not asking you who your favorite writer is, or what was the last book you read.” But we all have our people, those writers who inspired us to want to write ourselves. Or that writer whose every work or novel you have read. That writer where you think, “Yes, I want to get some of that work into my own work.” Now you don’t necessarily have to write like that person—one of my people was Virginia Woolf, but you wouldn’t see that in my writing. My writing is nothing like Virginia Woolf ’s, even though I did write a book about Virginia Woolf. But I am really thinking about the style. I feel like you have to find that yourself. I am not going to tell you that you have to read this writer or that writer or do this specific style because that is something that you need to find on your own. Just read what you want to read.