An Interview with Sigrid Nunez
Sigrid Nunezís fiction frequently transforms sweeping, tumultuous eras and events in history into smaller, poignant moments of reflection. The Last of Her Kind follows the friendship and fallout between two college roommates through the '60s and '70s; For Rouenna reveals a new face of the Vietnam War, a lonely military nurse nostalgic for battle; and Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury re-imagines the lives of Virginia and Leonard Woolf through the eyes of an exotic pet while allowing readers a glimpse into the darker days of the coming Nazi occupation in Europe.
Always one to explore the unexpected underbelly of human experience, Nunezís fifth novel, Salvation City, looks to the near future rather than the present or recent past. The coming-of-age tale follows Cole, a 13-year-old orphan, after a flu pandemic has struck civilization, leaving cities piled with corpses and born-again Christians eagerly awaiting the end of times in the country. Soon after the death of his liberal, atheist parents and fresh from recovering from the flu himself, Cole is sent to live with evangelical Christians in Salvation City. Encompassing ideas as diverse as first love, the bonds of blood and friendship, and the higher power of belief, Nunez extracts hope from a difficult reality.
Late last summer Nunez and I sat down in a New York coffee shop while the heat wave raged on outside to talk about her new novel, the healing power of art, and Susan Sontag.
Salvation City and The Last of Her Kind seem to hover briefly over a point in time after which the world is unrecognizable to the main character. The Last of Her Kind was based on a very specific, highly documented era, while Salvation City is different in that way. You reference the 1918 flu epidemic in the book, but the landscape is very much one of the 21st century that doesnít fully yet exist. Where did you begin when creating your not-so-distant future?
Actually, I didnít start with the idea of an epidemic but with an idea for a character. In my other books, the main character has always been female, and I knew even before I started this book that I wanted the main character to be male, not for any other reason except that this was something I hadnít done before. And once I had invented the character of young Cole, of course I had to invent a story for him, and a world for him to live in. I thought also it might be interesting to set the story in the near future, something else I hadnít done before. This was a couple of years before the 2009 swine flu outbreak, but it had been on my mind for some time that another pandemic like the Great Flu of 1918 was something scientists were calling very likely, though no one could predict when it might actually strike. And I knew that during the Great Flu many children had been orphaned -- the writer Mary McCarthy was one of them. And so a story began taking shape. Because the time is the immediate rather than the far future, except of course for the havoc wrought by the pandemic the world isnít radically different from our world today. I didnít set out to write a sci-fi book or a traditional dystopian novel. And itís not a post-apocalyptic novel, either, because although the pandemic inflicts extreme damage on the world it does not destroy it.
The decision to switch from featuring an adult female as the main character, as you do in most of your past novels, to a young boy in Salvation City was really interesting. Did you feel any hesitation about taking on a new voice that may not have been as familiar because of his age or gender?
No, I didnít feel any hesitation. I didnít think it would be any more difficult to imagine myself into the mind of a 13-year-old boy than it has been to imagine myself into the minds of other characters. If youíre a writer, youíre always observing other people, all kinds of people, trying to understand how they think and feel.†
I really appreciated your ability to tell the larger story of a pandemic from the viewpoint of a child in Salvation City. Part of the reason it felt so authentic was that he seemed so detached from it all. Heís dealing with the deaths of his parents, trying to fit in with a new foster family who is the exact opposite from what heís known, and heís recovering from sickness himself. But I felt like Cole responded the way any adolescent boy would to the situation, by exploring first crushes and drawing comics, for example. How did you maintain the balance of allowing Cole to remain a child throughout the story while also creating a rich landscape and plot that went beyond his experiences?
Well, in fact, Cole changes pretty dramatically in the course of the novel, during which he goes from age 13 to 14 -- a critical year in most any life. And given all that happens to him, heís forced to grow up fast. But an important decision I made early on was not to have Cole be the bookís narrator. He is the dominant consciousness, of course, and for much of the book the reader sees things though Coleís eyes, but as you say, at the same time thereís a larger, non-subjective view, enabled by the third-person narrator. One of the reasons it appealed to me to put a young person at the heart of the story was that I wanted to write about someone not yet set in his beliefs. I see the novel as being largely preoccupied with belief -- belief in self, religious belief, belief in love and family. For much of the story we see Cole confused and troubled by the conflicting beliefs of various adults. The process of him sorting out the truth for himself was, for me, particularly interesting to explore.
It also brought up ideas about parenting and the effort of trying to instill values in children. But, ultimately kids are going to make their own decisions. And in his case his parents are gone.
His parents are dead -- but are they really truly gone? Thatís one of the big questions Cole is grappling with. Are his parents still his parents even though theyíre no longer there? And if they are still his parents, why would he need any others to adopt him? And if he canít bring himself to believe what his foster parents believe and want him to believe -- that his parents are damned eternally because they did not accept Jesus -- is it still possible for him to belong to their church?
I thought it was interesting that he used his art to try to fit into this situation. For example, heíd hear stories from the Bible for the first time and try to create comics out of them.
Right. Once he learns about Bible heroes he decides to create comics about them, though needless to say comic books about Bible heroes already exist. Cole has a young boyís obsession with heroes, and heís clearly more taken with the fantasy of being a hero than he is with being a good Christian. But the novel is also partly a portrait of the artist as a young boy. Itís easy to imagine Cole as the kind of kid who grows up to write graphic novels. Itís when heís in an orphanage that he discovers what a great distraction and consolation drawing comics can be. In Salvation City, he keeps being told that the thing to do when you need comfort is to pray, but this doesnít work for him. He does find comfort through drawing, though. And itís also his way of escaping from reality. When heís been drawing for a while and itís going well, he stops missing his parents and stops agonizing over whether they really have been doomed to hell as heís been told.
It was difficult for me as a reader to watch as Cole slowly lost parts of himself as he became more attached to his reality. I was wondering, was this something that you were hoping to show, Cole giving up pieces of himself in order to survive in this new place?
I donít think he loses or gives up pieces of himself. I donít see him as wanting to fit perfectly into the evangelical community so much as wanting to fit in as best he can. For better or worse, Salvation City is his home now, and heís not unhappy to be there. This has everything to do with his relationship with his foster father, Pastor Wyatt, for whom he feels genuine gratitude and affection -- and for good reason. But he never forgets or totally rejects his parents. In fact, as he says, he doesnít want to be adopted by anyone. The longer he lives with PW and his wife, the closer he feels toward them, and this is only natural. And his parents, being dead, are beginning to feel more and more distant, and this is also natural. But I donít see him as the kind of character who does whatever he has to do to survive. If anything, I see him as an outsider, both before Salvation City and after, maybe something of an eccentric. Not a nerd, but a loner. I also see him as a little bit like Holden Caulfield, though Cole is three years younger than Holden, and heís not as knowing as Holden is. Cole does, however, share Holdenís idea that everything is a lie and that adults are dreadful, even toxic beings.
He seems to begin to accept Pastor Wyatt as being less of a toxic adult, though.
I think he gets PW right. He can see that PWís got some wonderful qualities, that heís basically a decent, loving, well-meaning man. But heís also got a history of troubles, chief among them being alcoholism, and Cole isnít blind to any of this. In fact, he even begins to see that he might end up having to take care of PW. This is part of the dilemma heís presented with when he starts thinking about his own future and what kind of life he wants to have.
And as a reader, youíre left with the feeling that heís going to figure it out.
Yes, the book ends on a hopeful note. I do think that, in the end, Cole has already figured quite a few things out and that he sees that sometimes the most heroic thing a person can do, rather than just accept what other people want you to believe, is figure out what to believe for yourself. And among other things this might mean understanding that, in various ways, for various reasons, people have lied to you.
I think that makes him a mature character, too, because many 13-year-olds donít seem to figure it out as quickly.
But I think a lot of the time kids are well aware that much of what grown-ups tell them isnít truthful. And of course many people who accept certain beliefs as kids, including religious beliefs, end up rejecting those beliefs once theyíre old enough to make up their own minds. On the other hand, Iím always amazed at how many people there are who have very strong, very definite religious beliefs whoíve never felt the need to think deeply -- if at all -- about those beliefs. Iíve never quite understood the idea that belief is something that simply gets handed to you by your parents or your church, a tradition you just swallow without doing any thinking for yourself. Whenever Cole starts asking questions about God or whatís in the Bible, heís told that heís ďoverthinking.Ē But how can you believe seriously in anything without thinking hard about it? Obviously, though, a lot of believers donít have a problem with this. Religion is a given.
Itís a shield, so they donít have to think. I come from an area of the country where that is very prevalent.
Western Pennsylvania. Born-again Christians were able to change my high school curriculum. I think thatís part of the reason that I really felt terror as I watched Cole move into that world. I felt like I knew who these people were going to turn out to be.
But from the beginning Cole isnít the kind of kid who just accepts whatever heís taught. Quite the opposite. With his parents, he tends to be against everything that they feel strongly about. For example, for a long time he refuses to accept their warning that if he doesnít read books he canít expect to succeed in life.
How close do you think we are to the world youíve created in your book?
Actually, except of course for the panflu, the world of my novel isnít all that different from our world today. Most of the problems I write about -- extreme weather patterns, a dysfunctional economy, Rapture nuts, escalating culture wars -- are already more than familiar to us. I do believe that a flu pandemic like the one that struck in 1918 would be catastrophic, and that, although scientists have long been warning that itís not a question of ďifĒ but ďwhen,Ē we arenít well prepared to deal even with a less serious one. And judging by recent incidents like Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, we clearly donít seem to be very good at handling emergencies. With the health care system as broken as it is, and with the kind of intense mistrust of government we see in America today, and the tendency of people in power to put financial gain ahead of the pubic good, itís pretty scary to think just how bad things could get.
I studied ballet for a long time and I know that you studied dance as well. Iíve been thinking a lot lately about how studying dance and writing are similar in some ways. The discipline that goes along with each can feel almost masochistic at times, but thereís also this idea that when youíre not studying or practicing or producing it almost feels like lost time. Do you feel that way at all?
I donít feel the kind of discipline youíre talking about is masochistic. In fact, I think the kind of discipline you have to develop in order to pursue something as difficult as ballet is in many ways its own reward. Among people I know, itís the ones who donít work hard, who donít have any discipline or work ethic, who tend to be the most depressed. In my first book [A Feather on the Breath of God], the narrator discovers that one of the many wonderful things about studying ballet is that it allows her to be a part of the world and removed from the world at the same time. And in my new book, Cole makes the same discovery about drawing. As for this question of ďlost time,Ē or how it feels when youíre not working, I think Margaret Atwood got it just right when she said, When youíre writing youíre not living, and when youíre living youíre not writing, and there is always that tension.
Can we talk for a minute about your forthcoming memoir about Susan Sontag [Sempre Susan]? I was wondering if you could talk a little about how she influenced your life as a writer and why you decided to write the memoir now.
I was asked to contribute an essay to an anthology called Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives. In college, I had studied with Elizabeth Hardwick and at first I thought Iíd write about her, but then it turned out that two other contributors were writing about Hardwick. So I decided to write about Susan Sontag, who was never a teacher of mine but who was in fact a bigger influence than Hardwick. I met Susan when I was just out of grad school and working as an editorial assistant at The New York Review of Books, for which she wrote often. Through her I met her son, David, who was living with her at the time. He and I then became a couple, and I moved into their Manhattan apartment with them. Anyway, as anyone who knew her could tell you, Susan was a natural mentor. She had a very strong didactic streak and a passion for sharing her enthusiasms, which were many. In fact, a person -- especially a young person -- could not spend any significant time with Susan without being mentored by her. Even someone who met her only once was likely to go home with a reading list. So many writers and artists who would become important to me I learned about first from her. And her attitude toward writing -- how you must think of it as a vocation rather than as a career, how there was no point in writing at all if you werenít going to take it utterly seriously, every word, every comma -- this was very inspiring to me.
My essay was published first in Tin House, where James Atlas read it and asked me if Iíd be interested in expanding it into a short memoir to be published by his house, Atlas and Co. So thatís how that book happened. Itís coming out next spring. After six novels, it was very interesting to write something that was not fiction.
I wanted to ask how the process felt different to you.
I have to say, I found it quite a relief not having to invent anything and not having to deal with the anxiety of where the story was going and how it was going to end. I say this because I donít plan my novels out ahead of time and so I have to maintain a certain amount of blind faith that, somehow, though Iím making it up as I go along, by the time I finish it will all come together into a coherent and satisfying whole. But with the memoir, of course, I didnít have to make anything up. And also, the memoir didnít require research the way much of my fiction has. But writing is writing, of course, and putting thoughts into sentences is always a lot of hard work, always so much more work than you think itís going to be when you start out. It was also very interesting for me to be looking back to a time when I was young, knowing I wanted to be a writer but before I had published anything. The book isnít about me, though, itís about her, or at least about how I remember her. She was an important influence on so many other people besides myself, and as a mentor -- as in many other ways -- she was somewhat larger than life.