Miami-born, Brooklyn-based writer and artist Arielle Angel recently spoke to best-selling novelist Nicole Krauss, who will do a reading at the Miami Book Fair on Friday, Nov. 18.
Nicole Krauss’s third novel, Great House, is populated by private and solitary people: a pair of siblings who increasingly become shut-ins, a son who sends pieces of his manuscript home from the army in over-zealously sealed boxes marked “private,” and two female writers, one in America and one in Britain, who forgo motherhood and withhold from their partners to focus on their work.
So when I asked Krauss if she belonged to a writing group or ever shares her work-in-progress, her response wasn’t surprising.
“I’m a pretty solitary person and a pretty private person, especially when it comes to my writing. The idea of belonging to a group of anything makes my skin prickle,” she said. “Some joy and excitement about this thing that only I am working on gets deflated if I show it too early.”
While the Great House cast of characters includes the pair of female writers, Krauss said fiction gives her an opportunity to transcend her own biography.
“I’m often not interested in writing exactly in my line of experience,” she said. “I’m interested in the other path, the one that I can imagine, but that isn’t my own.”
Indeed, unlike the women writers in her book, Krauss has a family. She is married to Jonathan Safran Foer, an acclaimed novelist himself, and has two children.
“My first child was a year-and-a-half or so when I started writing Great House,” she said. “It was sort of fascinating to occupy that position [of the childless woman], to find common ground, while being in this completely other extreme.”
Krauss and I managed to have a conversation when we spoke last week by phone, despite my star-struck stammering and the occasional interruption by her plumber, who was searching for a mysterious leak in her Brooklyn home. I found her both gracious and friendly, quick to apologize profusely for interruptions and to thank me as vigorously at the end of the interview. And, yet, there was a vague sense of distance throughout our conversation. Her answers to my questions were long and sprawling and often sounded like responses to other questions. It was as if she sought to steer the interview, with a gentle touch, so as to make sure she was only revealing what she has allowed herself to reveal in the past.
At one point she hinted that she didn’t exactly relish the mandates of book promotion.
“Part of what happens between books is that a writer has to become a kind of traveling salesperson for the last book,” she said. “You have to go to all kinds of cities, representing this book that you’ve finished long ago and no longer feel is an accurate representation of you. But, yet, you know, you wrote it.”
It’s a paradox of any successful writing career: the process of selling books demands that a writer be a public figure, while the process of writing books requires, as Krauss puts it, “unself-consciousness and total freedom.” With a writer as sought-after and private as Krauss, the paradox seems even more pronounced. Krauss’s second book, The History of Love, was an international bestseller, translated into 35 languages, and Great House was a finalist for The National Book Award.
Much has been made of the difference between Great House, with its “difficult” and largely humorless characters, and The History of Love, whose touchstone is the cranky but lovable Leo Gursky. Part of this comes from what Krauss feels is the necessity for an author to change between books in order to facilitate the emergence of something new.
“If the books are really going to matter there has to be some urgency,” she said. “You just can’t go from emptying yourself out to then writing a new book. Something has to gather up.”
Having allowed time for things to “gather up”, Krauss deliberately moved away from the lovable characters of The History of Love in Great House, exploring characters, particularly female ones, who were “unlikable.”
“It’s very difficult to write an unlikable female character, in that it doesn’t appeal to readers,” she said. “Compare that to a character like [Saul Bellow’s] Herzog. Herzog is totally lovable but he’s also … complicated, difficult, too much, all over the place, full of vitriol. There’s a way in which it’s very easy to do that with male characters.”
Nadia, the reclusive American novelist in Great House, is a character who may challenge readers looking for a fast friend.
“[With Nadia] I was interested in writing a female character who is strong and potentially difficult and potentially even unlikable by the reader to begin with,” Krauss said, “and so I chose someone who is not easy to live with, who’s hard on herself, but who’s also hard on others, who seems to be selfish in some fundamental ways but who is also an extremely sensitive person.”
Great House, evocative in some ways of W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, is a story told in a series of monologues by different characters that are connected sometimes by an imposing desk that is passed between them, and sometimes by more subtle thematic threads.
“What interests me is what happens in a novel when you have many different stories or voices or characters and you begin to juxtapose them,” Krauss said. “The connections at the start are not at all obvious, but as I progress I begin to notice patterns or echoes between them. Symmetries emerge. I’m constantly looking for those, playing with those, sometimes deflecting them, sometimes breaking the pattern, sometimes taking them further.”
It is in this way, largely intuitively, that Krauss creates her complex and web-like structures. She allows herself the freedom to explore the different stories until the underlying meaning and coherence emerge from the process.
“You can think of it as a house, as I often do, with lots of rooms, and all of these things are interrelating and creating a whole out of all these unexpected parts,” she said. “At the end, hopefully, the point is to make that whole feel almost inevitable, necessary.”
New York Times writer Rebecca Newberger Goldstein described Great House as a “high-wire performance,” in which the wire has been replaced by an “exposed nerve.” This seems appropriate given Krauss’s process, a sort of balancing act in which she often doesn’t know what’s going to happen until the very end and is instead guided by a deep self-trust.
The title, which I won’t explain in detail here for fear of spoiling one the most powerful passages in the book, comes from a story about Yochanan ben Zakkai, an ancient Jewish sage at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. Krauss says her interest in Jewish history and its connection to memory has grown over the years, and that it would surprise her younger self to discover that she now so frequently writes about Jewish themes.
“When I wrote my first novel, I made a deliberate choice to make the character half-Jewish, because I couldn’t quite write a non-Jewish character, but I didn’t want to commit fully to the idea of writing Jewish material,” she said. “I’ve found that after you finish a novel, some of why you wrote it, what it’s really about, becomes apparent in a way that it wasn’t during the process.”
Krauss said this happened with her first novel, Man Walks Into a Room (2002), through which she unwittingly and indirectly addressed her family’s experience of dealing with the Holocaust.
“When I finished Man Walks Into a Room, I realized that although I had written this book that on the surface is about this guy who loses his memory, what I really wrote about was somebody who, by necessity, has to start a second life without bringing hardly anything with him,” she said. “That was really in many ways the story of my family, and my grandparents, who all came from Europe and had to create new coherence in their lives and their sense of self after this huge fracturing.”
When I spoke to Krauss, it was the afternoon before the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park was cleared out by police. I couldn’t resist asking her about the movement, similar political actions worldwide, and whether literature has a role to play.
“In a lot of ways, literature writes history much more than history books do,” she said. “We haven’t yet found any better way to capture what an individual existence is like. What it feels like to be in a mind. What an individual life is worth, in a certain way. And I think so long as that’s the case, so long as it’s the most direct or the most visceral way into what it feels like to be another person, it will be political. Because the problem with politics is that it can only work by generalizing, by pushing people into groups and thinking of masses versus other masses. But obviously that is incredibly problematic and it’s only when we have the contrast of an individual experience and what all of those things mean in a personal life that we have some measure of the effect of all those politics.”
She went on to say that she worries less about literature’s continued relevance in our world than about people’s ability to actually read it. Like many other authors, Krauss is sounding the alarm about the onslaught of digital media and its well-documented assault on concentration.
“One of the first things that goes is our ability to read long, complex writing,” she said. “Our brains are just refusing to do more and more. That’s when it becomes frightening, because literature is not defaulting but people are defaulting on it.”
Will literature have to change to keep up?
“People say, ‘Well, maybe we’ll have novels on our iPads with hyperlinks to videos and music.’ That’s interesting,” she said, “but it’s another form. It can’t do what novels have always been able to do. To draw the world together, make sense out of the world, create meaning. Literature has just been so useful to us all these years.”
To learn more about Krauss’s reading on Friday night, visit miamibookfair.com.