A Chat With National Book Award Nominee Nicole Krauss



Based on an informal survey of local booksellers, I predict that Nicole Krauss' third novel, Great House, is a shoo-in to win the National Book Award. Her Friday reading at the Brookline Booksmith will be the last stop on her U.S. tour.  

I finished Great House this weekend while on queasy bus rides to and from New York City. I'll admit, its relentlessly heavy focus on love, death, and alienation didn't make the best bus fare. Few books I've read in recent years have made me feel so terribly lonely.

Great House is about writers and writing, the Jewish diaspora, Pinochet's human rights atrocities, family, and furniture. The novel is brilliant, and its imagery is quite literally haunting -- I've been dreaming about dark woods and black water for days. It's a work befitting some old depressive, but Nicole Krauss is an elegant young beauty (see above) who lives a charmed life with her children and their father, the bestselling author Jonathan Safran Foer. Both were chosen this year as New Yorker twenties under forty.

On Monday morning, I called Krauss at home in Brooklyn. She schooled me on how not to confuse fact with fiction.

EW: The character Nadia complains at length about how journalists mistake her writing for her personal life.

NK: As a writer, you bring your own experiences of the world. You pour them into your narrative, into your characters, but it’s a much more mysterious process, not so black and white as a journalist might want it to be.

EW: Does that desire to conflate the writer with her characters challenge you as a reader?

NK: When I’m on the other side, I don’t think I have that yearning in the same way, maybe because I’ve been on the other side now for a long time.... Of course I think the mind goes there. You think, is this something the writer’s experienced?

And there are also writers who invite that kind of confusing. I’m thinking now of W.G. Sebald, a German writer that I love, or the Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard. He’s one of my favorite writers. I’ve been reading one of his books called Wittgenstein’s Nephew in which the protagonist is named Thomas Bernhard and it’s kind of based on a real relationship. So he’s inviting and playing with that idea and that’s interesting to me.

Of course, in those cases, one does wonder -- because one is invited to wonder -- what role did invention or the imagination play in this. And in a way, it kind of magnifies this whole question. I do think that’s what the writer is constantly doing. We are drawing from life. And there are elements of Great House that are taken almost whole from life. But there’s so much of it, each of the characters themselves are not people I’ve ever observed or known, they’re inventions.

One of the classic questions I often get is “How do you write old men?”  In that case they don’t make the assumption that it’s me. And in that case, I often say, “They’re me.” Obviously there’s an oppositional tendency when it comes to these things. I feel like those characters who don’t look as much like me on the surface, it becomes easy for me to kind of pour very personal feelings -- about life, about the world, about myself -- into them, because that is not the assumption that’s going to be made. So you’re acting behind a scrim, almost.

EW: By having a character make statements that address this confusion directly, right at the start of the book, you’ve invited the reader to wonder about you.

NK: Of course, I think you’re right. They’re taken that way to get [readers] to wonder about those things or question their own inklings, or even to snuff out early on and the assumption that this must be.

You’d be amazed at how people phrase a question. “In the first chapter when you talk about how you...” They assume, somehow, that I’m Nadia because I’m an American novelist, although I’m not 58 and obviously, her life is not the life I chose. I have a family and kids, so clearly there are huge differences.

What was interesting to me were the differences. There are similarities, too. I could easily inhabit her self- doubt as a writer, for example;  it’s my own. It doesn’t come in that exact form, but I think it’s something that a writer struggles with deeply. How do you justify what you do? Are you really chosen for this? Did you choose yourself? Is it an indulgence? At what point do you know this is what you were meant to do? All of those questions are perennial. But her choices about sacrificing everything for art, those are not the choices that I made, but it was interesting to inhabit them.

EW: I didn’t see Nadia’s solitude as a sacrifice. I thought being around other people was a concession for her.

NK: I think for her, it didn’t feel like much of a sacrifice. But I think the other thing about these characters that you have to remember is that you’re always hearing it from them and each of them are giving you or the reader or another person that they’re speaking to a kind of confession. I was drawn to the idea of, what if a confession doesn’t always contain the truth? Even when we mean to be our most truthful we often don’t have ideal perspective on ourselves. As a person who made different decisions, I felt that somehow she had made the sacrifice, but she wouldn’t describe it like that. She couldn’t have survived using that definition, because it would have driven home to much. She said early on that she felt like having children, but it wasn’t something that, from the beginning, she was set against.

EW: It seems like the way your audience is going to perceive you might be a difficult issue for you.

NK: Well I say all of that, but I should also give you a caveat: I don’t actually think about my audience while I’m writing until the very end. When I say all this stuff, it’s often the trick that you have to play yourself, for yourself, in order to write things.

First of all, I’m not thinking in a rational way, “Okay, I’m now going to create an old man in order to be free to write.” Instead, what happens is that I’m drawn to a particular voice and a particular position in life and it happens to be somebody pressed up against death. And they’re of a different gender, that allows me to do certain things that I couldn’t do in a female voice or because I would feel too close to myself. It’s an intuition, basically. And then much, much later, when the book’s nearing the end am I starting to think about the reader and the response and those things, but only as observations, because the writing is already finished.
You just have to put blinders on. I don’t think that I’m ever aware of doing this, but my mind somehow plays these tricks on itself so that I can have a kind of freedom to write.

The story by now that I’ve told so many times and I’m telling you [is] about the desk. [Here, Krauss is referring to her oft-repeated anecdote about her writing desk inspiring her work]  It’s the desk at my house, and I didn’t realize it for the longest time while writing about it. It’s so obvious [now]. How could I not realize it? But I didn’t. The mind allows for these huge black spots so that you can feel [you’re] totally imagining this stuff, and it’s got nothing to do with you, really.

EW: Nadia also complains that she’s sick of people asking her how and where she writes. On this tour, have people asked you how you write anyway?

NK: Yes. Nadia says [the answer to that question] is this secret key just waiting to spring open the safe of the novel that’s housed in it, and it’s just waiting to pop out of each reader. There is the sense behind those questions.

It’s more than that too...I think I see things a lot more sympathetically than Nadia. I think the reader wants somehow for the mystery of what it is to create something to be revealed, and they don’t know what the question is... as if the door could be opened, if you could see the writer at work, [then] somehow you would understand something about how this thing came to be.

EW: Has this tour been any different from others you’ve done?

NK: I haven’t been on tour for four years or five, or something like that...It’s different because I’m at a different stage in life, and I have small children at home. Being away is not what it used to be.
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