Sigrid Nunez: 2019 National Book Festival

Sigrid Nunez: 2019 National Book Festival


>>: Well, our next
writer is Sigrid Nunez here and we have Elizabeth Blair
from National Public Radio who will be doing the
conversation and I want to welcome you both
to our Fiction Stage.>>Elizabeth Blair: It’s an
honor to be here and thank you for coming, and also thank
you to the Library of Congress for putting on this
spectacular festival, and to the James Madison Council
for sponsoring this stage. Sigrid Nunez has published seven
novels including “A Feather on the Breath of God”, “The Last of Her Kind”, and
“Salvation City”. She has received numerous honors
including the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Berlin Prize, and
the Rome Prize in Literature. Her most recent novel,
“The Friend”, won the 2018 National
Book Award. When NPR’s Scott Simon
interviewed Sigrid, he said this, ” ‘The Friend’
is a taut, lyric little novel on the enormous questions
of love, loss, and art, and even the question of
how to love an enormous dog. So Sigrid and I will
chat for about 30 minutes and then we’ll open it up
for questions so feel free to be thinking now what
you might like to ask her. So I read that you said you
do not do outlines before you start. Is that true?>>Sigrid Nunez: Oh,
yeah, absolutely. I’ve never, I’ve always
worked on my books in exactly the same way. I start with some kind of
idea, or image, or character. I start at the beginning. I do not make any
kind of outline and I’m not tempted
to make an outline. And then I just start writing without really knowing
what’s going to come next. And I try to get a section as
good as I can before moving on. So I kind of grope my way
forward intuitively and try not to become too attached
to ideas I might have for the far future of the book. So that by the time I finish
it, I don’t really need to do extensive revisions. I just have to do
polishing and fixing things, fixing errors I might have
made because it’s finished when I’ve come to the
end of that process. And I rarely know what’s going
to happen at the very end of the book until
I’m actually there.>>Elizabeth Blair: It’s
sort of hard to believe. But incredible and
I’m wildly impressed. What was the starting
point for “The Friend”?>>Sigrid Nunez: Well, with
“The Friend” it was interesting because what happened was
that the time had come for the BU faculty reading and
because there are several of us, they only wanted us to read
for a maximum of ten minutes. And I wanted to write
something new. So, of course, I
realized it didn’t have to be something finished. I would just kind
of present is as, “This is excerpt
from a longer work”. And so I sat down and wrote what
are basically the first five pages or so of the book. And some of the things that
had been on my mind was that I had discovered in
the past several years that I knew several
people who had the idea of suicide on their minds. They weren’t threatening it. They weren’t planning it. They weren’t screaming for help. It wasn’t that. But it was like part of
their way of thinking. It had become an
idea, you know, “Yeah, that might well be the
way my story ends”. And, in fact, I had actually
finished the book when one of those people did
take his life. So that was very
much on my mind. And then I also, I was also
interested, I’ve always, I have a passion for
animals and I’d always wanted to write something
that had an animal, particularly a dog
at the heart of it. And then all these years
now that I’ve been, what have I been doing? I’ve been writing, thinking
about writing, reading, reading, reading, and teaching
writing, and I started to see the possibility
of being able to use that material in this same book. And then I had — I’m a
little bit ahead of myself because I want to say
that at the same time, around the same time that I was
doing the BU faculty reading I was asked to read at the
University of Maryland and they wanted 25
minutes so — . [ Laughter ] I kept on to that and by the
time those pages were done I knew that I was launched on
something that could be a novel. And then I just pulled
all these things that I’d been thinking about, I saw how I could braid
all those things together. So an outline would
have not have done, it would have been a
whole other project.>>Elizabeth Blair:
That’s right. You’re responding to the client. “Five minutes? Okay. Now 25 minutes. Okay”. I mean suicide it is
such a difficult and hard topic. And I am curious kind of what
you learned as you were reading about it and what your own
personal feelings were about it. It’s — .>>Sigrid Nunez: Well,
it’s hard to say but I hope that that is all in
there in the book. But I never felt at any point
that I was going to be able to come up with any kind
of satisfying answers. You know, as people say,
somebody who attends the funeral of a suicide in my book
says, “Well, I came. I was hoping for closure”. And somebody says, “Well,
when, if there even is such a thing ever as closure in these dramatically
emotional situations. But when the person
commits suicide, then there really is
no hope for closure”. But I did, you know, my narrator
does a certain amount of reading and discovers, about
suicide, discovers all kinds of interesting things, for
example, quite shockingly, since the book is in the
first person, she discovers that writing in the first
person is a known suicide risk. [ Inaudible ] . [ Laughter ] And, but in the end, you
know she says that nothing that anyone said to her or that
she read about was really all that helpful but the thing
really remained a mystery because it’s just so,
you know, self-homicide, it’s so against the normal way
of things that it, you know. And, of course, there are
different reasons why people commit suicide. But, you know, I just, I
wanted to talk about it. I wanted to reflect on it. But I never thought
that it would ever come to anything truly
satisfying where I would say, “Well, now I understand”. No, I don’t understand.>>Elizabeth Blair: Something
I love about the beginning of the book is that right away
we understand how connected the narrator is to the man
who committed suicide. He was a mentor,
briefly a lover. He has a great sense of humor. He’s a real character. And I was wondering
if he’s modeled on anyone you know or knew?>>Sigrid Nunez: Certainly
no one in particular. I never had that
person in my own life. I’ve had mentors. My important mentors
have all been women. But he’s a very recognizable
type, particularly from his era, this sort of womanizing
professor with lots of good things about him
but also kind of clueless about how things have
changed over the decades. And, for example, his
complete, throwing a fit because with complete
politeness the women in his classes had said, “Could
you please not call us ‘dear’?” And his view was, “I’ve been
calling them ‘dear’ for decades and no one ever complained
and now every single one of those women has signed
this letter asking”. I mean, that sort of thing. And I also was, as I say in the
book, I was very much thinking of a fictional character when
I was writing about this man which is the David
Lurie, the protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s novel,
“Disgrace” which is one of, a book that I greatly admire,
one of my favorite books. And, you know, and I use
that in the book to talk about my own character. They have the same,
they have many of the same characteristics, the
same proclivities, et cetera. So, yeah. But there was, definitely not based
on anyone I knew, no.>>Elizabeth Blair: Although
reading it, I thought, “Ah, this is ripped from
the headlines”. And I certainly work with men
of a certain age who, you know, say ‘dear’ and they mean
nothing by it, or ‘honey’, or ‘darling’ [laughs].>>Sigrid Nunez: Well, in this
particular instance what the problem was that they
were his students. You know, they tried to make
him understand that he was — . And it made them uncomfortable
which he didn’t understand. And part of me refused
to understand. And part of the story there is
that when, because the narrator and the mentor are close in age. He was her professor
but he was very, very, very young when he
was her professor. And now they’ve remained
friends over all these decades. And when she tries to take
the side of the students, he turns on her and he says,
“You’re such a hypocrite. You loved it when I
called you “dear”.>>Elizabeth Blair: Right. [ Laughter ] And there is quite a bit
of that in the novel, the sort of not hypocrisy,
but it’s — .>>Sigrid Nunez: Nuance, nuance.>>Elizabeth Blair:
Nuance, yes, nuance. [ Laughter ] Right. And I was wondering is
in, you know, with relationships between writing students
and teachers who are almost always
writers themselves, it probably lends itself
even more to these kinds of complexities around
sex, around inspiration. And I’m just, did you want
to get at that at all?>>Sigrid Nunez: Well, I
mean things have changed, thank goodness, but I mean I can
remember being a student myself and, or even there’s nothing
to do with my being a student, but back in a certain time
I’ve known of many marriages that began because the woman was
the student of the professor. And those marriages, and there
was no rule in the university against that and
— at that time. And when those marriages
happened, they’ve been as successful and happy
as other marriages. But I guess there’s
something about — . I mean that is sort of
what I wanted to talk about was what happens
to somebody when they don’t understand what
changes are happening and why. I mean it contributes
to his depression and in that sense it contributes
to his own destruction.>>Elizabeth Blair: Mm-hmm. I saw a video that you gave
when, it was at Baruch, you had been a teacher
at Baruch. And you were talking
about your own teachers and how the blunt talk of
the teachers that you had and how things have
really changed. And I was thinking of
Elizabeth Hardwick. And I’m just wondering if you
can share some of the things that she would say to
you or to other students.>>Sigrid Nunez: Well,
talk about things changing. I mean just the way,
you know, you can’t be that womanizing professor
anymore and feel that you have a right. There are things that no writing
teacher, I would imagine, would say to their
students about their work. I mean, let me just say
the kinds of things — . Elizabeth Hardwick somebody I
took two [inaudible] workshops with at Barnard. And it was quite overwhelming. And she would say
the harshest things, things that I can’t imagine
ever saying to a student. And one of them was, “I
tried to read your story. I did. I really did. But I just couldn’t. It was just so boring”. [ Laughter ] And then another student, she
had said to him about his piece, “I’d rather shoot myself
than read that again”. [ Laughter ] And it was, and this
was, you know, it was just a regular thing. And, you know, she
was very funny but she was absolutely serious. She had no patience. She had no tolerance
for bad work. But the problem was, I mean
I was an undergraduate, okay, not quite, I was
between graduate and undergraduate and graduate. And I brought her a story. I mean she was at Barnard, then
I was at Columbia so I went to her office to give
her a story I’d written after I had graduated. And she read it and she
said, she was so angry. I have to say, first of all,
she was so angry with the story, with me for writing it. And she said, “Do you know
what I see in your work? I see the mark of the
amateur on every page”. [ Laughter ] And the, you know, I was an
amateur, but it was like, you know, I was a student. So, yeah, yeah, exactly. So we need to certainly
do [inaudible]. [ Inaudible ] But as I say, it’s
like I just, of course, I would never say
anything like that to any of my students no matter
how much I might feel that everything is wrong. And, yeah, sometimes
everything is wrong. [ Laughter ]>>Elizabeth Blair: I
once had an editor say, “Well, it’s serviceable. That piece was serviceable,
but [inaudible]”. I love your Kentucky
accent, by the way.>>Sigrid Nunez:
Oh, yeah [laughs].>>Elizabeth Blair:
And I wanted to ask you about your upbringing. You grew up on Staten Island?>>Sigrid Nunez: I did.>>Elizabeth Blair:
And your parents, just to recite, your
parents and — .>>Sigrid Nunez: Yeah. Immigrant parents. My father was half
Chinese, half Panamanian. And my mother was German. And my father was — . My mother grew up in Germany and was there during the
Nazi regime and the war. And my father was an illegal
resident of Chinatown because, I mean, he was half Panamanian
but he was Chinese identified. That was his language. That was his community. He worked in Chinatown
in a restaurant. And when the war broke out, the
U.S. Army came for him and said, “We need you to go to
war and, by the way, we’re going to make you a
citizen at the same time”. And they did and so then he
was with the occupying forces in southern Germany which
is where he met my mother. And they ended up coming here, first to the Fort Greene housing
project, and then when I was about two, they moved to the
housing project on Staten Island which is where I grew up
until I went to Barnard and started boring the hell
out of Elizabeth Hardwick. [ Laughter ]>>Elizabeth Blair:
Were they big readers?>>Sigrid Nunez: Were they what?>>Elizabeth Blair: Were they
avid readers the way you are, your parents?>>Sigrid Nunez: Avid readers? No. No. No. We didn’t have — . Well, no, that’s not fair. There were not a lot of books
in the house where I grew up. And my father certainly
did not read. My father’s English
was never very good. My mother, although she always
had a very heavy accent, her English was good. And, yes, she actually was, I
would call her an avid reader. She didn’t have the time,
but she did love to read. Yeah.>>Elizabeth Blair: And what
did they think when you said, “I’m going to be a writer”?>>Sigrid Nunez: You know,
I was an English major. I don’t — . Did I — ? I mean I don’t even think I said
that I was going to be a writer. I think I was writing, you
know, the way people do. You know, I remember there
was a creative writing program in my junior high
school, in high school, and then, of course, Barnard. So I was always involved in
some kind of creative writing. And it always went well. There was always encouragement. But my father died before
I ever published a book. So, you know — . But, yeah, I mean there
was certainly, you know, I certainly didn’t, you know,
I didn’t have the kind of thing that you sometimes have. Some of my students, you know,
who say to me as one did, you know, she was
Chinese-American, she said, “Well, you know, when
you’re Chinese-American, you tell your Chinese
parents that you’re going to be an English
major, they cry. [ Laughter ] They cry. It’s hard. It’s hard. It’ really, you know,
that kind of resistance which I think is changing. But I didn’t encounter
anything like that.>>Elizabeth Blair: So in “The
Friend” there is this Great Dane who is a character, we
could say, in the book. Did you have pets growing up?>>Sigrid Nunez: I, you
know, I did grow up somewhere where no dogs were allowed. No pets were allowed in that
project where I grew up. But when I was already
out of the house, my family did get a Great
Dane, very large one, Taurus his name was
appropriately. And so I had some time with him
but he was certainly not my dog. And by that time I had
become a cat person. And I did have roommates,
friends, boyfriends, et cetera, with whom I shared
space with their dogs. But I really do think
of, and I love dogs, but I never had an Apollo. I never had a dog like
this that was my dog.>>Elizabeth Blair: So what
was the inspiration for Apollo? Was it the Great Dane
that you’d had before or did you see a Great
Dane walking down — ?>>Sigrid Nunez: That’s
interesting because, as I say, that’s what I mean. This book is, I mean you’re
30 pages into the book, and remember, I write it
like that, groping along, not knowing what comes next. And I have the idea that after
the suicide wife three says, “I want to talk to you about
something,” and they meet. That’s when the dog came in. The dog was not there before
page 30 or whatever it is. I can’t — . Like I thought — it
was exactly like that. “Oh, I know what could happen”. [ Laughter ] What if — ? [ Laughter ] Will that work? So, yeah. So I can’t,
you know, but then long after I finished the book, I
did remember that there used to be this gallery space
that had become a cafe on Green Street in Manhattan. And I used to walk down
there from the Village where I was living because you
could sit there forever working with a cup of coffee. And very often I saw a woman. She came in with this
huge harlequin Dane and a much smaller dog. And she was so kind. She understood. She would find herself a place and then the dogs
would settle down. And once the Dane was there I
would get up from where I was and go be with the
Dane for a while. I didn’t even ask her. I mean if she didn’t like
it, she would say something. But she didn’t. She just, “There’s
that lady again”. [ Laughter ] And so I would, and I hadn’t
thought about that dog in years because this was
really a long time ago. But surely, surely that dog
was, that was one of the reasons because it was a
regular thing that I did.>>Elizabeth Blair: Yeah.>>Sigrid Nunez:
I loved that dog. [ Laughter ]>>Elizabeth Blair: And
there’s a lot in the book, you seem to have done
a lot of research about what other writers
have said about dogs, what sort of animal science
has said about the relationship between humans and animals. What were some of the
things that learned that surprised you
or that you were — ?>>Sigrid Nunez: I
didn’t, you know, I didn’t actually do research. I guess the truth is I’ve always
been interested in animals and animal-human relations, and particularly
canine-human relations, even without being
a big dog person. So anything that I would
have learned in the course of my life, my reading,
I would remember it. You know, and then
I would think, “Oh, isn’t there that interesting
fact about so-and-so?” And then I would look it up. So I can’t think of
anything right now that — . Yeah, I didn’t know,
oh, this is interesting. I named the dog Apollo and
after I named the dog Apollo I discovered that the Great Dane
is known as the Apollo of dogs, that kind of coincidence
which often happens when you’re writing,
like writing in first person is a
known suicide risk. That was a complete coincidence. So, yeah, so that kind of thing. But I, you know, a lot
of it, like the things that Rilke had said about
dogs, I’ve always known that.>>Elizabeth Blair: Share
that with [inaudible].>>Sigrid Nunez: Well,
there was, he loved dogs. And so they appear
a lot in his work. And it was just one
very beautiful anecdote. It’s in a letter that he wrote
to someone where he was sitting in a cafe in Spain somewhere and
there was this stray, very ugly, unwanted dog that was very, very heavily pregnant,
obviously homeless. And he gave the dog the
sugar lump from his coffee and he said it was like
taking mass together. It was just so memorable
and so Rilke. And whenever I read
that, which was, would have been a very long
time ago, I never forgot it. And then when I was
writing the book, as I say, I like that freedom
just kind of sitting with the book thinking
my thoughts as I write, and then remembering
things and pulling them — . It’s that kind of book. It’s a meditative book so
you mean you couldn’t do this with another type of story. But that’s how those
things would come to me. I didn’t sort of
sit down and say, “Now I should research
Great Danes”. And I did know quite a bit
about Great Danes anyway. Yeah.>>Elizabeth Blair: Well, as
a dog owner, there’s a scene in the book that I loved
which is you’re talking about how dogs are more loyal
to their human than they are to other dogs, like — .>>Sigrid Nunez: Oh, definitely.>>Elizabeth Blair: Right.>>Sigrid Nunez:
They hate other dogs. Often they hate, they’re so,
they can be so unfairly hostile to other dogs as we know.>>Elizabeth Blair:
That’s the scene, when you’re walking your dog and you see someone
else walking their dog. And the dog looks like, well,
in the book the dog in question, you imagine the dog
spewing all kinds of obscenities to the other dog. And it’s like that is exactly
what happens when I walk my dog. I see another dog and
it looks like it’s going to snap off its leash.>>Sigrid Nunez: Right. I mean they don’t always do it. But they do, they sort of
lunge and they’re strangling to death just get
that other dog. And it’s like they’re
saying, “I hate you”. [ Laughter ] “It’s a good thing
I’m on this leash. If I wasn’t on this leash,
I would rip your balls off”. [ Laughter ]>>Elizabeth Blair:
That’s the G-rated version. In the book it’s way filthier. It’s great. It’s a beautiful moment. And I have to — . [ Laughter ]>>Sigrid Nunez: It is fun. It’s very funny.>>Elizabeth Blair:
It’s very funny. And just for the record,
our dog is not like that. [ Laughter ]>>Sigrid Nunez: And
Apollo is not like that which is why she brings it up.>>Elizabeth Blair:
That’s right. [ Inaudible ] In this book, as I think
other books, you write a lot about the writing life which
is solitary and, you know, you don’t have to deal with people except
for your characters. And you really like
that I think. You like that, not
just your narrator.>>Sigrid Nunez: I like, you
mean I like writing [inaudible].>>Elizabeth Blair: Just the
privacy, the, you’ve talked about being a private person
and I think it was in “Rouenna”? “Rouenna”? Forgive me. I don’t pronounce the book.>>Sigrid Nunez:
“Rouenna”, yeah.>>Elizabeth Blair: “Rouenna”. You describe [inaudible]
where, you know, I’m sitting. It’s winter. I’m looking out of the window. I have my cat on my lap. I’m writing. This is just where I want to be.>>Sigrid Nunez: Yeah. I just want to say I’m actually
recovering from bronchitis so I’m sorry about the
coughing but I am going to have to cough a little
bit here [inaudible]. Mic’d cough.>>Elizabeth Blair: She told
me ahead of time not to take that personally if she did that. [ Inaudible ]>>Sigrid Nunez: Well, yeah. I mean, my feeling was always
that I actually became a writer, you know, partly
because for the solitude. The idea was that it was
something that I could do by myself, you know, in a room. I wasn’t one of those people
who wanted to become a writer or do whatever they
were doing, you know, to be part of a community. But then what I discovered was
that writing, like other arts, is an ideal way to
be [inaudible]. I’m sorry. You know, to have
solitude and be part of a community at the same time.>>Elizabeth Blair: Mm-hmm. Yeah. [ Inaudible ] You don’t romanticize
the writing life at all in this book. You talk about, you know,
writers who’ve said, “Writers are monsters,” and
what’s the Joan Didion quote? “Writers are always
selling somebody out”.>>Sigrid Nunez: Yeah. I did find, I did find
that I had a, you know, quite a collection of these
incredibly negative things that people have
said about writers. I mean even as like
John Updike saying, I mean they were
just in my head. John Updike saying, “Yeah, a nice person just
wouldn’t become a writer”. [ Inaudible ] Yeah. And then there
were just a lot of those. And then my narrator who
says, not my narrator, my mentor character who says that every time he writes
something and then gives it up because, and leaves
it aside and thinks, “I’m going to forget that,”
then when he goes back to it, he always, he can’t resist
this awful thought that it’s like a dog returning
to its vomit. [ Laughter ] Yeah, I know. Writers have an incredibly
colorful ways of talking about what a terrible
life it is. I mean George [Inaudible],
for example, who said, “It’s a profession of
unhappiness,” being a writer. And when he was asked, “Why
did you become a writer?” I mean this man who wrote
hundreds and hundreds of books and was for quite a while the
best selling author in the world and was so gifted, why
did you become a writer, what made you be a writer? “Hatred for my mother,” he said. [ Laughter ] Whatever that means.>>Elizabeth Blair: And why
did you become a writer? For the [inaudible]. [ Laughter ]>>Sigrid Nunez: Well, I became
a writer because of reading. I became a writer because
when I was young the thing that was most enchanting to
me was to be read to first, you know, before I could
read, and then to read. And the kinds of things,
you know, children’s books about animals in particular,
fairly tales, mythology, all of this, to me it
was just wonderful. And terrific escape
among other things. I mean when you start reading
something, you’re with, you’re alone but you’re
also with another person. I think that’s very important, not just for children,
that’s for anybody. And you’re like borrowing
somebody else’s consciousness for a while which
is very exciting. And so there I was
and I thought, “Okay. This makes me really happy. And this is what I want
to do when I grow up. I want to do the same, to
write stories like this”. And so for a very
long time I thought that I would write
children’s books because that’s what
I was reading and that’s what made me happy. I mean there are a
few writers, not many, who weren’t big readers
when they were little. But I think most writers
are and it’s that love. It’s hard for me to imagine
what would make you want to be a writer without that. And that is a change that I find
very significant and disturbing. When I was in, let’s say,
the MFA program at Columbia, it would have been unheard
of for someone to say that they didn’t like books,
they didn’t like reading, but they want to be a writer, that’s why they’re
in this MFA program. But I and my colleagues have
all heard at least one student and there seems to be
more as time goes by, it is by no means
unusual anymore to have a graduate
writing student say, “I don’t like to read, in
fact, I dislike reading. I have no interest in reading. I just want to write”. I mean it’s a huge mystery
to me but it’s there. It’s there. And I try to compare
it to, I mean, and there’s a certain
distain for writers that these people have, and
a lot of young writers have, kind of like those dogs
going at each other. You know, it is the same. And I try to imagine, I
mean it would be impossible to imagine a very young dancer
looking at the glorious stars of the New York City
Ballet and having that kind of disdain for them. It’s impossible to imagine
a young athlete watching the Olympics and having disdain
for the gold medalists. It makes no sense. But you do have, among
younger writers you have, it’s not uncommon to have
this disdain for writers, the writing profession,
and for books in general, and to not want to read. It’s quite this serious. It’s odd.>>Elizabeth Blair: Well, fortunately that’s
not this crowd. And let’s open it up
for some questions.>>Sigrid Nunez: Yes.>>Elizabeth Blair:
The microphones there. And I see somebody running. [Laughs].>>Okay. I’m over here.>>Elizabeth Blair: Oh, okay.>>One of the things
that I admired about “The Friend” was the
narrator’s expression of real emotional restraint
in the face of everything that she was describing. And, you know, given what
you’ve told us about the way that you develop your books,
did you intend for her to be what I read as, you know,
emotionally restrained in a way that was sort of
delightfully mysterious. You were never quite sure
whether or not she was trying to consciously hold back or
she was in the face of loss, which the book concatenates
over the course, or whether or not this was just an
expression of her character, that this was her — .>>Sigrid Nunez: Well, for
one thing, I am a writer who admires a certain
restrained style. That’s why J.M. Coetzee is
one of my favorite writers. I think there’s something about
when you’re writing about, particularly when you’re
writing about difficult things or very emotional
things, you know, I just think it’s more effective
to have that restraint. I think you can show
an enormous amount of emotion by being restrained. It’s like Chekhov has said many
wonderful things, you know, that could be called
advice to young writers. And one of the things that he
has said is that the trick is to write perfectly coldly about the hottest thing
there is which is love. And he’s also said,
“When you want to touch the writer’s heart,
try being a little bit colder”. And that, I think, you know, and I mean he didn’t
explain it as far as I know. But I feel like I know
what he meant and I feel like as a reader that
is what moves me most. For me that’s the most
effective way to get at that. I also think that there needs
to be a certain amount of humor as humor is part of every
human experience even really horrifying ones. If you leave the humor
out, you’re leaving out something essential. So again, I get, this
wasn’t anything I planned. I just started writing it in
a certain voice style and tone which came naturally to
me and then I just wanted to keep it consistent. And if there was any time when
I felt it was getting, you know, it was getting too whatever,
I would try, you know, as Chekhov said, to be
a little bit colder. [ Inaudible ]>>Hi. So I’m over here.>>Sigrid Nunez: Over where?>>So I graduated also from
Columbia and I had a lot of friends who went to Barnard
and I was very jealous of them. And you talked often in this
half hour about your experience as a Barnard and the a
Columbia MFA student. And I think if I were a young
lady, I would have loved to go to Barnard as well. But can you talk a little
bit about what stuck with you from that experience because
if you went to Barnard and Columbia, you can kind
of sense that influence in the book, and then you
mentioned it a couple of times. So like what’s the
one thing from going to a small women’s
college like Barnard and as a particular
place that kind of influenced you
and stuck with you?>>Sigrid Nunez: Well,
I was very happy to be at this women’s college. And at that time Columbia
was not admitting women. But it was a little bit — that came a few years
after I graduated. But, you know, the size of
the school was great and the, you know, the intimacy of
actually living in the dorm and in that space,
but in the midst of, you know, this great big city. But I think it’s different from
what the other women’s schools because Columbia didn’t admit
women, but like we were free to take any courses we wanted at
Columbia pretty much and they, of course, could
take our courses. So it was as far as like
maybe the living arrangement. And they were right
across the street. I mean it was all
the same campus. So I think for me it was
like the best of both worlds. I did like being in
that smaller college. I did like the single
sex college aspect of it. But you could also, you
could live it as a co-ed.>>So was there something from
that you took and that you like still keep with you in
your writing today or — ?>>Sigrid Nunez: Well, that, I
mean that is, now I would say, for example, because of studying
with Elizabeth Hardwick, you know, that that was,
I mean that was a place where I became a different
kind of writer in the sense that before that I think I
can safely say it was all fun. I don’t anyone ever
really criticized anything that I wrote in high school. I really don’t, I can’t
remember, and I doubt it because that’s just not
the way writing was taught or the arts were taught. And my feeling is that when I
got to Barnard, and not just with Elizabeth Hardwick, you
know, it was, it was adulthood and that was when it hit me what
Thomas Mann meant when he said, “A writer is somebody for
whom writing is harder than it is for other people”. And that’s when it
struck me, “Oh. It isn’t fun”. [ Laughter ] You know, “What I’ve
gotten myself into. It’s actually something with some incredibly dark,
frightening aspects”. And that’s also when the idea
of, “Oh, success, failure. I never thought of it that way”. I thought it was just success. You wrote — . [ Laughter ] People liked it, you
know, that kind of thing. So, yeah. So that
certainly, I mean, yeah, that’s where I became
a serious writer.>>Thank you.>>Sigrid Nunez: Mm-hmm.>>Elizabeth Blair:
Whoever’s next. You can’t see out there.>>Oh, I’m to your left.>>Elizabeth Blair: Okay.>>Yes, yes. So first of all,
thank you so much. I really loved this book. My book club covered
it most recently. And there’s so many layers to it and so many thoughts
and questions. But one thing in
particular I’d be curious on getting your thoughts
on is — .>>Elizabeth Blair: Sorry. Can you speak up a little bit?>>Okay. So sorry. I’ll get closer. Is that better?>>Elizabeth Blair: Yes.>>Okay. Again, I loved the book and my book club
read it a month ago. And something that while I was
reading it, and I don’t know if you did this intentionally or
if it was part of your process, but not until late in the
story, when you told the story in the story about
characters remaining nameless and then the light bulb went off
that except for Apollo, the dog, everybody was nameless. And I’m wondering if, you
know, I’ve read books before where the first person
narrator never had a name. But I’ve never read a book
where nobody had a name and I certainly didn’t notice
it along the way until you kind of provided that light bulb. And I thought that maybe
it’s a great writing tool in that you’re not
distracted by the names. You’re not sort of
having to code. When you just, when someone has
a name or a label, wife two, wife three, I mean it
can come across as harsh but you don’t have to
remember, “Oh, wait, Lucinda, which one is she?” you know. So I guess
I was just wondering if that was something you
set out to do on purpose or if it just happened
organically.>>Sigrid Nunez: Well, for one
thing I don’t actually think that, you know, when I do my
reading of all different types of books, I don’t think that
it’s distracting to have names. Most books do. I do know that it’s a little bit
more common now for characters and not just narrators
to not be named. You know, you’re
seeing it more and more. What happened with me was I
didn’t, you know, as I say, I never plan anything. I got started. At a certain point people did
have names, not the narrator, but they did have names. Like the mentor is in the
beginning so he had a name. And what happened was something that I’ve heard other
writers say the same thing, when I would try to
write with these names, the story got weighed down. It didn’t feel right. It felt fake. Something about those
names was not working. And the book was telling me that
by making my writing not fluent. And when I took the names
out, the problem was solved. So it was just, you know,
it was just trial and error. I thought, “Well, of
course they have names. I’m not going to
write a whole book without any names
of — ,” you know. Apollo I always knew. But that’s really,
that’s all that happened. It was something that I
discovered in the book. And so for that book
it’s the case. And other books I’ve
written people have had names and the names have actually
been important ones.>>Thank you.>>Elizabeth Blair:
I think we have time for one more question,
would you think? One more question.>>Thank you so much
for being here today. I have a two-part question. One is who are some of
your favorite authors that have inspired you? And what are two to three
books that you’ve read recently that really touched you?>>Sigrid Nunez: Well,
you know, I always, the thing about favorite
writers, I find it very hard to answer because, you know,
there was a period in my life where I had like favorite
writers and it was a period when I was very young when
Dickens was a favorite writer. There was a period
when I was in college where Virginia Woolf was
certainly a favorite writer. But there are so many people
that I read and life is long and I realize that I
actually don’t have favorite writers anymore. I just, you know, I just
have very broad taste and I enjoy different
writers for different reasons. So, you know, and if I were
even to mention somebody, I feel like, “Well, why that
one and not all these others?” But I am happy to actually say,
because, you know, what you, I’m always asking people, “Well, what have you read
lately,” and so on. And so two books that
I’ve read that are current that I’ve been very happy
with, fiction, novels, there’s a brand new book just
out this month right now called “The Grammarians” by
Cathleen Schine which I read in manuscript some time ago which I just thought
was wonderful, funny, and really interesting
in all kinds of ways. And maybe six months ago or
so I read “Trust Exercise” by Susan Choi, a completely
different kind of novel but also I was just
absolutely delighted with it. So those are two people I
can come up with but — .>>Thank you.>>Elizabeth Blair:
I think, okay. So Sigrid will be signing
books at 1:30 in where? Lower level, line three. I’m told it’s all
the way in the back. But thank you, thank
you so much.>>Sigrid Nunez: Thank you.>>Elizabeth Blair:
This has been fantastic.>>Sigrid Nunez: Thank you. What a lovely audience.>>Elizabeth Blair: Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Sigrid Nunez: Thank you. [ Applause ]

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