An Interview with Sigrid Nunez

This summer I picked up Sigrid Nunez’s The Last Of Her Kind and began reading it. Published in 2006 by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, it begins with the unforgettable line, “We had been living together for about a week when my roommate told me she had asked specifically to be paired with a girl from a world as different as possible from her own.” What follows is a novel about two Barnard women, Ann and Georgette. Georgette, the narrator, tells the story of her life and of Ann’s: Ann goes on to be the sort of sixties bomb-throwing radical who reappeared amid the other ghosts of the sixties in our most recent presidential campaign. The novel is a profound, intimate take on the cultural events of the time that are still generating our most important political questions in this country, and it does its unwittingly timely work with a masterful authority.

Sigrid Nunez has published five novels: A Feather on the Breath of God, Naked Sleeper, Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, For Rouenna, and The Last of Her Kind. Her work has also appeared in two Pushcart Prize volumes and four anthologies of Asian-American literature. Nunez is the recipient of the Association for Asian American Studies Award for best novel of the year, the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award, and a Whiting Writer’s Award. She was the 2000–2001 Rome Prize Fellow in Literature at the American Academy in Rome, and in 2003, she was elected as a Literature Fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In spring 2005, she was the Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, and she is a 2006 fellow in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Nunez currently lives in New York City.

The day I met Sigrid Nunez, I was at a cocktail party for Picador authors and booksellers at the 2002 Book Expo of America in New York City. I remember standing in a crowded bar somewhere to the left of Hell’s Kitchen, and counting off the literary boldface names: Jamaica Kincaid, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Michael Cunningham, and, as I saw her through the distance, Sigrid Nunez, among others. Sigrid went out of her way to make me feel at ease that day, which made her my hero, and our friendship began then. When I was asked to interview an author for this issue, I thought of her and The Last of Her Kind instantly. The conversations that became this interview took place over e-mail and the telephone this fall.

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This week, I’m thinking a lot about Ezra Pound’s idea of the American intelligence, an intelligence composed of many cultures and resulting in new and unexpected outcomes. It’s something Guy Davenport took up most recently, that I’ve seen, and it did capture my imagination before I knew of his fascist life, when I was in high school and I read the Cantos. His poetry, to my mind, was the first literary cultural artifact to somehow try to represent the way I felt inside, which was made of all of these places people thought were irreconcilable. Did you have moments like this growing up, and how did they affect you as a writer? I ask you this because you seem to have reconciled them powerfully. You strike me as a woman and a writer with a very sure sense of herself.

These are hard questions to answer. I can remember, when I was growing up, having a strong response to any kind of writing I thought was beautiful or meaningful or exciting. I read a lot, I spent a lot of time at the library, and I had a few good, perceptive teachers who encouraged me to read more than what was assigned in class.

I’m not used to thinking of myself as someone who is sure of herself, except perhaps in the sense that I always wanted to be a writer and I did become one. And the older I got, the more time I spent writing and the more ruthless I was about cutting out whatever was not writing or did not feed the writing, meaning, for the most part, reading. I’ve never been the kind of person who wants to do many things; I always wanted to do only one thing. I’m not even capable of doing more than one thing well. Of course this has meant having to give up a lot, and missing out on some of the best things in life. But I grew up believing not only that you can’t have it all but that, in my case, you could not have much.

As you put together your own literary sensibility, looking back, were there writers whose lives spoke to you powerfully, in addition to their work? And how much did you follow their lead, if at all?

I think, to some degree or other, all writers’ lives speak to me. Because of course all writers, big and small, face similar problems and share similar concerns. That’s why I always tell my students they should read as many volumes of writers’ journals, memoirs, letters, autobiographies, and biographies as possible. It is helpful, it is even comforting, to observe a genius like Virginia Woolf confronting every aspect of the literary life from how to solve a particular problem in a novel in progress, to the right attitude towards negative criticism, to her competitive feelings towards a fellow writer like Katherine Mansfield, to how to cope with the dogs next door barking when she was trying to work. I do think Woolf’s life, as revealed in her own life-writing and in various biographies, has had as much influence on me as her fiction. And of course that has everything to do with the fact that she was a woman, and that she concerned herself a great deal with what it meant to be a writer of fiction and a woman.

There was a time in my life when I felt more in common with other people of mixed heritage than I did with people who were white or Korean. I remember concluding that in order to be mixed and to survive you had to be beautiful, or intelligent, or very strong, or some combination thereof, and it made me a little afraid. What was it like for you growing up of mixed parentage? For me, as a kid, I went to science fiction. I made common cause with creatures of magic or accidents of science.

I didn’t turn to science fiction as a kid, but I did turn to fiction. I mean, the love of stories and the impulse towards storytelling began very early. And then, when I was a little older, I turned to ballet. But who can say this had anything necessarily to do with being the child of a mixed couple? I don’t think it’s possible to know. But you’re asking such a big question. Is it okay if I answer by mentioning A Feather on the Breath of God? I think I said everything I have to say about growing up the child of a German mother and a Chinese-Panamanian father, both of whom happened also to be American immigrants, in that first book.

A friend of mine and I were discussing how we each overidentified with Obama—I had been talking about how my mom had overidentified with Hillary. When I thought of asking you this question, the interesting thing to me was I had no idea who you might have overidentified with, so to speak.

I was for Hillary, but not because I overidentified with her. I was for Hillary because I thought she was the best-qualified candidate for the job. Among other things, I thought she was the most likely to succeed in reforming our dysfunctional healthcare system. I guess I was one of those people who dreamed of a Hillary presidency followed by an Obama presidency.

People keep talking about “what happened.” What do you think happened? It really does seem like a miracle. And the celebrations around the world were moving, though they also seemed to speak to how the whole world was holding its breath.

That word “miracle”! We keep hearing it, along with “dream come true,” because that’s exactly how it felt. My own first thought was: We have overcome. Speaking of worldwide rejoicing, did you hear that, after the election, Kenya declared a national holiday? Even we didn’t get that! This is the only time in my life I’ve ever spent an election night celebrating. Of course, there was also a tremendous sense of relief. Catastrophe averted! And aside from all the excitement about falling racial barriers, there was that other miracle to savor: this time, the superior candidate won.

This summer, I was reading The Last of Her Kind and as I did, the RNC and the McCain campaign were busy trying to tie Bill Ayers to Obama. I kept feeling like I was reading something just under the surface of the campaign’s noise, and I kept wanting to write to ask you about it. Now that I have the chance, what did you think about all of that?

I thought that was ridiculous. I’ve read Ayers’s memoir, Fugitive Days, which I liked a lot—it’s a fascinating book. I read it as part of my research. His book came out immediately before 9/11, and I think it would have gotten a lot of attention if it had come out at some other time. Anyway, I knew what he’d been doing with his life since his radical days—teaching and working for education reform. But the claim that Obama and Ayers were close associates was never anything more than a scare tactic born of Republican desperation. Nobody besides a handful of right-wingers bought the crazy idea that Obama’s career was launched in Ayers’s living room.

Did it surprise you that nobody bought it?

No, because the tactic was so obvious. There was no story there. They were never good friends and even if they had been, there wouldn’t have been any threat to worry about. As he says himself, Ayers was responsible for some reckless and idiotic behavior in his youth, when Obama was a little boy. But he certainly doesn’t represent any threat to anyone, and in any case he never had the connection to Obama that some shameless people wanted us to believe.

“Idiotic behavior in his youth” brings us, I think, back to the novel. The last time we spoke, we talked about “Mad Men,” the TV show, and I wondered if it felt to you like it was about what happened right before the events in The Last of Her Kind. What is it like for you, seeing that show?

What I like about “Mad Men” is the wonderful way it illuminates the era leading up to the era I was writing about. The early sixties are a lot hazier to me than the late sixties. And of course, because I was a little kid then, I was living in a tiny protected world, and so I had no real knowledge of what making a life for yourself was like. What’s so interesting is watching the characters suffer from the kinds of discrimination and social restrictions that made the huge liberating changes of the sixties inevitable. Watching the series you get a really good idea of how radically different life in the early sixties was from life just a few years later.

So, it’s sort of like the show’s characters are the generation that babysat for the generation that dropped out.

I’ve always thought it must have been hard, around ’68, to be still young but closer to thirty than to twenty. You might have been only twenty-five, say, but you already had a serious job and a family. You couldn’t just let your hair grow and drop out, though of course some older people did do that. And a lot of them looked pretty foolish to younger people, as I recall, because we didn’t think of them as young, and as we said then: Don’t trust anyone over thirty. But I always felt sorry for those people who were only a little older than I was but didn’t get to be part of this very exciting and liberating so-called youth quake. Those of us who were still in our teens got to extend our childhoods and put off all kinds of adult responsibilities for years. I knew a lot of people back then who fell into the category I’m talking about, who felt very frustrated and thwarted about having been “born too late.” And some of the characters in “Mad Men” seem that way to me, too. All these thwarted lives.

Could you talk about the birth of The Last of Her Kind a bit?

It was 2001 and I was teaching at Smith. I’d just started the book when 9/11 happened. Then, like everyone else, I stared at the wall for quite some time, and then I wrote about sixty pages and got a contract and came back to New York and finished it.

Was there something that happened at Smith that inspired The Last of Her Kind?

Yes. Not exactly something specific that happened, but I’m sure my first two semesters at Smith (I taught there four semesters, with a year-long break in between) got me thinking back to my own undergraduate years. Also, I’d just finished For Rouenna, so I was still steeped in the era of Vietnam and the sixties. Someone at Smith taught a mini-course on the sixties and I sat in on it. It was a large class, and I could tell everything was new to the students, they’d never heard this stuff before, and they were completely transfixed. My own students told me things they remembered their parents saying to them, things I put in my book: “You call Desert Storm a war? We had Vietnam.” Or: “The LSD we took was so much stronger than what’s out there today.” That sort of thing. One student wrote a story in which a character says that at first she was proud her parents were hippies but later she was embarrassed. And another student said, “Oh, I hate hippies,” and I remember thinking: I wonder what she means by “hippies.”

I’d meet some of their parents and wonder how much they told their kids about their own college days. Most of the people I knew back then who ended up having kids didn’t want them to know about all the drugs they’d taken or all the sleeping around that went on, which is of course understandable. But there was so much in that book that I thought everyone knew and that I later discovered many young people didn’t know at all. While I was writing I kept asking myself, how much do I have to explain? Won’t it be a big bore if I explain everything? But it turns out a lot of references I thought everyone would get weren’t exactly common knowledge.

Like what?

Like “Smash Monogamy.”

What is that?

Just what it sounds like. It was an anti-marriage slogan. It went with Free Love. From what I can tell, people my age have forgotten it and younger people have never heard of it. In fact, I hadn’t thought about Smash Monogamy in years, until it occurred to me while I was writing the book. A lot of things like that came back to me, and I thought, were we really like that? Did we really say and think all those silly things? Like our extraordinary hostility to the idea of a wedding. For a while, weddings were completely out. The very idea of anyone wanting to have a big bourgeois wedding, with the white dress and all. Who would do that? Totally uncool. And the idea of an engagement ring, it was just tacky, tacky, tacky. Like drinking martinis.

I don’t remember when that changed, probably sometime in the seventies.

By which you mean forgetting?

I mean starting to have big weddings again.

And martinis.

Yes, weddings and martinis.

I think it’s in Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being where he mentions how it came to be considered uptight and uncool for people to make love in the dark. Supposedly before the sixties people always had sex with the lights out, and supposedly our generation changed that. I do remember people making fun of other people for not leaving the lights on during sex. Or for not undressing completely before having sex.

I’ve heard from people who say they’ve given their kids—their adult kids, I mean—my book—

That’s their way of telling them about the sixties?

Yes. They say it was such a strange, strange time, and it’s so hard to explain, and this is a way for them to let their kids know what it was like.

For example, when I was eighteen my boyfriend and I went to live for a short time on a commune in the Catskills. And one day this guy who also lived there walked in on us when we were in bed. And instead of saying what you might expect, like, Oh, excuse me, I’m sorry, he just stood there with a look of grave disappointment on his face and said, “Oh, wow, man. You guys leave your underwear on?” You have to understand, though, this was not unusual. This guy wasn’t crazy. He was just so sad to catch us doing something uncool and bourgeois. No problem with the lights, at least, because it was the middle of the day. And hey, now that I think of it, how much underwear could it have been, since no one wore a bra in those days? But isn’t that hilarious?

It is, it’s hilarious. I think what comes forward is the way the novel is a kind of, not quite a correction, but an intervention, a way to really look at what happened, before it’s lost to this mix of retrospective embarrassment and the mythmaking of film and television, the way it all gets reduced to this cliché of a girl putting flowers in her hair and having sex with too many people. This novel strips off the kitsch and the faux naiveté in the way people deal with these things. For example, I don’t think the people who say they hate hippies have any idea of what it took to just walk away like that. Or why you would.

One of the reasons I wanted to write about that time was precisely because I’d always found it so difficult to understand. I remembered a lot, but it all seemed increasingly strange and remote and even inexplicable to me. But I had no desire to write about it as autobiography. I knew I could only get at the truth if I wrote about it from the outside, from the perspective of a character—Georgette George, as it turned out—whose experience of that time was very different from mine. People always assume that what you write about is true—

That it is just you, writing down “what happened,” and then changing the names.

Yes. People assume a lot of the time you’re just working from memory. But the thing is, I was at Woodstock, but when it came to writing my book I purposely had my characters miss Woodstock. On the other hand, I wasn’t at Altamont, but I have some characters go there and I describe the event in full detail. So that’s the thing. I knew I wanted to include a big rock concert in the story. But instead of writing, from memory, about the one I’d actually experienced, I chose instead to write about one for which I had to do a lot of research and make things up.

Can you say some more about that, push into that idea for a moment? Because I really agree with that.

I think it has everything to do with the desire to be engaged in inventing a story, rather than reporting a story—in other words, with what makes me want to write fiction in the first place. It just would not have been as interesting to me, as a writer, to write about my Woodstock experience. (As part of a novel, I mean; I have written about it as nonfiction, elsewhere.) It wouldn’t have been as interesting and it wouldn’t have been as much fun, and then there’s also the desire to take a risk, the risk of writing about what you don’t know. I think it’s similar to the impulse that makes people want to write historical novels. But of course it doesn’t have to be a story set in Paris in another century. It’s still the same impulse, there’s something that pulls you away from yourself and your own experiences. That delicious pull toward the unknown and the need to give full play to the imagination.

I wanted to ask you about Ann and Georgette, from The Last of Her Kind. About this relationship of theirs, what seemed to me to be the idea of two people who have a seemingly casual relationship and yet have an impact on each other that would last for their whole lives.

I don’t think anything Ann did in her life would have been different if in fact she had never met Georgette. That might be painful for Georgette to think about, but it’s true. She’s not really a significant influence on Ann. Ann’s the same person from the time before she meets Ann to the day she dies. It’s always the same corrosive class guilt, the same tendency to romanticize the poor, the same passionate hatred of social injustice, and the pathetic wish to have been born black. Ann’s an extreme version of a type that was very common back then. When she gets accepted to college, she asks—indirectly—for a poor, black roommate and ends up instead with a poor, white one: Georgette.

After I’d written that part of the book I read a profile of Howard Dean in The New Yorker and learned that when he went to Yale he specifically asked for a black roommate, and I believe he ended up with two. Like Ann, he came from a very privileged background and he wanted to mix with people from a completely different background. And of course, this kind of wish was something quite new then. In the book Georgette makes a joke about imagining someone asking for a roommate who’s white and rich.

Ann loves Georgette in many ways, above all the fact that Georgette comes from a disadvantaged background, but after two years or so she becomes bored with her, and she loses respect for her. In fact, as often happens, the two women outgrow each other. But someone like Ann isn’t likely to stay friends with a totally apolitical woman who loves her job working for a beauty editor at a women’s fashion magazine. And so they end up having a huge fight and going their separate ways.

Given that, why would you choose George to narrate this? What made her the right person for this?

I could never have written this book from Ann’s point of view. As I say, I knew it had to be written from the point of view of an outsider, someone who witnessed but did not fully participate in what we call “the sixties.” George is not a political radical, she’s not a hippie, or a runaway like her kid sister, she’s not a brain like Ann. She’s never at the top or the center of anything. She’s an ordinary person, not brilliant, not even particularly gifted. It’s not like she couldn’t have done more in her life, but she was not particularly ambitious. As she says, against the spirit of the times, all she really wanted with her whole heart was to have kids, and she does do that. She has the kind of life most people have. Most people don’t have spectacular things happen to them.

So why would she be the right person to tell this story? Well, besides being an outsider she’s also haunted by what she’s seen. She’s haunted by memories of the town where she grew up, by memories of her unhappy family, her whole background. And then she’s haunted by her time at Barnard, where she didn’t fit in and where she lost the one thing that had meant the most to her, her sense of herself as a budding poet. And she’s haunted by her complicated friendship with Ann, and how it went wrong, and of course by the terrible turn that Ann’s life ends up taking. And then she’s haunted by thoughts of Ann’s life behind bars. At some point it occurs to George that, though decades have passed, she has never stopped thinking about Ann. And she narrates the book in the tone of someone trying to understand what happened back then, and why it has always continued to haunt her.

And now, of course, the somewhat obvious question: do you have something coming out soon, and if so, what is it?

Not coming out, no. But I’m almost finished with my sixth novel, which should be published sometime in 2010. I know it won’t surprise you to hear that’s all I want to say about it right now.

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