Nicole Krauss, TO BE A MAN

Nicole Krauss, TO BE A MAN

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nicole. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Nicole Krauss: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I’m so excited to discuss To Be a Man, your collection of stories. I just took this off of my shelf behind me where I knew exactly where it was on eye level. I pass it every day, The History of Love, just FYI in case you were wondering. For readers who don’t know anything yet about To Be a Man, can you tell us what this collection of stories is essentially about and what inspired you to write all of them or to make a whole new collection of stories?

Nicole: It’s always hard to say what any book is about, per se, even a novel, but it’s especially hard when it’s a collection of short stories. If pressed, I would say that it’s a collection of stories that’s largely about relationships, about what it is to be a woman and what it is to be a man, about the tension between freedom and relationship, the requirements and limitation of relationship, and the difficulties of freedom. It’s a lot about the paradoxes of people. There are a lot of men in these stories, a lot of women looking at men and experiencing men. The men, just like the women, are full of contradictions. They’re not contradictions that I want to solve as an author, but I want to hold and to look at. Maybe that gives you a taste.

Zibby: I’m glad I pressed. Your pressed answer, that was a perfect, beautiful, articulate answer to that question, par for the course with your writing. Let me talk about just a few of the stories with you. The first story, for instance, “Switzerland,” with Suraiya — at first, I didn’t even realize if it was a girl or a boy. As the story unfolds, you kind of realize what’s going on and that there are three girls in this intermediate boarding house-ish type place. One girl gets ensnared in a perhaps not-so-great relationship with a, presumably, much older man. What happens to her along the way? We can only imagine as the story unfolds. In this story, I felt like the girls were so — with so few words, you created these entire characters. You enabled me to feel fear and worry for a character that had just appeared in my imagination. I’m always intrigued by how an author can do that because a minute ago I hadn’t even met this character. Next thing you know, I’m like, oh, no, don’t go to the hotel! What do you think it is? What do you think helps you create that intimacy and ability to get the reader right in to get to know a character like that?

Nicole: I think it begins with the writer’s own relationship to the characters. I tend to choose characters that I feel an enormous amount of compassion for. I don’t think that’s unusual, but I don’t think it’s always the case. I think there are writers who do very well choosing characters that they hold in ironic distance from themselves. For me, I get so close to my characters that I am them. I’m inside of them or I’m pulling out pieces of myself in order to make them or pulling out pieces of intimate experience. In this case, the narrator is thirteen. Those older girls, Suraiya and Maria, are eighteen. I had the structure or the setting or maybe the circumstance of the story came from my own experience of being thirteen in a boarding house in Geneva at boarding school. It’s a time, at a certain moment in life, I found myself going back to in my memory and thinking about that time. The story kind of came out of that. The other two girls that the narrator are describing, I just think she feels, and so I as narrator felt, such enormous affinity for them or connection to them. They were these older girls who cut this pathway into this more mature life that as a thirteen-year-old she knew was on the horizon but she hadn’t reached yet. They were teaching her something about it in their way. I think there’s a kind of strange gratitude in that. Maybe that’s part of what allows the reader, if the reader likes the story, to feel like a quick connection to them as well.

Zibby: Then in other stories about the character who goes to, I think it was Tel Aviv and inherits her father’s apartment and starts following the strange man who comes in and starts cooking her dinner — I’m blanking on the name of this story, but I can look it up really fast.

Nicole: That story’s called “I Am Asleep, but My Heart is Awake,” which is a from Song of Songs.

Zibby: That story was fantastic, but almost harder to imagine, a little bit on the outer reaches of the suspension of disbelief. Would she really have followed him this far? How would she have gotten back? I feel like at times you play with our imagination a little and push the envelope.

Nicole: That one story in particular because that story is predicated on this idea that a man can arrive inexplicably into one’s apartment and then have an ability to sleep, and sleep like the dead in some sense. There’s the question, of course, of whether that story is real in the way that we think of realism or whether it’s real on a more soul level. It’s a story about the question of the existence of the soul and what happens to the soul after death. There, I hoped that the reader would suspend their disbelief a little bit in order to go to where the story emotionally wanted to go. A lot of the other stories are more realistic, but there are a couple that are like that. “The Husband” is also another one of those kind of stories that asks the reader to leap off into something perhaps more imaginary.

Zibby: The line that stuck with me the most, or the thought I should say, is that the apartment that this woman inherits of her father’s, she realizes, oh, is this who he really was, and where we had been living all this time, because the mother had passed away, had that just sort of been a front? Yet that was her entire life. Here she was in this other place which seemed so fundamental to who he was as a person. Yet she was just meeting it after he passed away.

Nicole: This is something that a lot of us, even if we don’t have a parent who comes from one country and raises us in another country and then we go back to that origin country and understand, this is the place that made my parents, and it gives all this new access to them, I think even when we don’t have that experience, all of us at some point or other come to understand that our parents are adults with their own secret, private lives that, as children, we didn’t know about or didn’t want to know about or they didn’t tell us about. I think that coming to terms with one’s parents’ other life not as a parent is really an interesting thing. It happens in stages. It happens first probably when we’re teenagers. Then it happens throughout life. As we go through the things we watched them do, like have our children, we understand, oh, my god, this is what they must have been thinking or feeling. Then of course, I think as they get older or pass away and we go through their things, we find out all these other — I know so many incredible stories of people finding out whole other lives of what their parents lived that they didn’t know about. All of that was on my mind in that story, what happens after a parent dies, what is left, and what you can go on discovering about them.

Zibby: Has that happened to you?

Nicole: No. Thanks goodness, my parents are both alive. Thank you for asking. They are still well.

Zibby: Good. It seems like you have a close connection with Israel. It makes appearance in most of your work. What is that about?

Nicole: It’s just a place that — it’s kind of another — I wanted to say another version of home, but I always have trouble with the notion of home is place because my family comes from so many places. Growing up, we never were encouraged to commit to any one place as an idea of home. America was where we were being raised, but we were from Europe. Israel was the place where everyone in the family met, fell in love, got married, etc. It’s just a place that I’ve been going to all my life. It’s become another alternative as a place to draw on as a writer. I feel such a connection to it. I know it so well. As a writer, it provides me something different than, let’s say, New York, which is my other local geography. New York has wonderful things and people and strange contradictions in its life. Israel has a totally different set of those. The whole system of values in the society is completely different. The levels of intensity are different. I find that those things, to go back and forth between the hot and cold of those environments, in some ways just gives me a lot. I wouldn’t want to give up either one. Of course, I’ve set novels and stories in a lot of places, London. England was a big part of Great House. There are stories here set in Switzerland, as you mentioned, and Japan and South America. I’m certainly a person drawn to geography as a way to reach ideas or feeling in fictional narratives.

Zibby: Interesting. I didn’t mean to suggest that you were a one-location pony, if you will.

Nicole: No. You’re right to point out that that’s a place that is paramount in my work. Certainly in the last novel and in these stories, absolutely.

Zibby: Do you find, is it more place specific, or do you also feel like the religion is a key factor?

Nicole: I’m not a religious person. I think it has more to do with three thousand-plus years of history. America’s such a new place. Israel, every stone in the ground sings with history. The complexity of that combined with a state that’s very, very new and people trying to invent themselves, I think all that is very, very rich material. There’s so many things that pull me there. It’s one of those places where it’s so intense as a writer. You can go and gather forty stories, but you’re exhausted afterwards. New York, I find, is much better to actually work, to get work done. I almost never get work done in Tel Aviv. I do the abstract work of gathering lots of stories and experience. New York is a place where, of course, everyone is working all the time, and so you don’t feel like you’re missing the beach and the restaurants and the life and friendship that seems to be everywhere in Tel Aviv.

Zibby: I feel like the whole culture here, I’m also in New York, is if you’re walking around the park all day, people are thinking, what is she doing? Whereas, you are working. You can be thinking and brainstorming and creating and doing all this essential work that you need to do before you sit down and put stuff on paper. It’s sort of a culture of, why are you not running somewhere else faster at times?

Nicole: Work as a religion is a very American ideal. In New York, it’s just only exaggerated. It is remarkable when you grow up with that and you go elsewhere, to the Mediterranean or to India or wherever, Morocco, and you just realize this is not the values of everyone else in the world. Everyone wants to live and to get by and survive, but work as a definition of self is a peculiarly American thing. I think it takes work to distance oneself from that idea.

Zibby: Yes. New York particularly has its clutches in a lot of different things we need to extricate from ourselves to have a healthy life.

Nicole: Every place does these days.

Zibby: That’s true, now in particular. Tell me more about how you got to this place in your career. When did you know you were a writer? How did you really get started? Then how did you not give up along the way?

Nicole: I really started where a lot of writers do, when I was a teenager, fourteen. It’s a very specific moment. I was in ninth grade. I had this older friend who was a senior. He was writing poetry. It sort of became this way of inventing myself, which is what all teenagers are in the process of doing. They’re trying on different selves very, very quickly. The discovery that language was a medium in which that could happen with enormous speed but also breadth, you could become so many things on the page, I think that was very attractive to me. I stayed writing poetry for a long time. I thought that that’s what I wanted to do. It was really much later when I was already finished with college that I started to write fiction. I actually finished with graduate school too. I started my first novel, Man Walks Into a Room, was the first time I really started to write fiction. I was twenty-five when I wrote that. I’ve been going since then. Since I was fifteen, I’ve been at it. In terms of not being discouraged, I’ve been discouraged a million times. At this point, it’s so deeply part of how I process life and relate to the world and relate to other people, how I keep in balance with experience and feeling and communicate, all those things. It’s so much who I am. I can no longer take it out of me or tell you why I do it or why I go on doing it. It’s just like breathing for me.

Zibby: Another writer I interviewed at one point, or author I should say, compared it to dreaming. She’s like, dreams happen. They always come. You always have them.

Nicole: Except that writing doesn’t always come, which is really interesting.

Zibby: That’s true.

Nicole: I think you always need it. I always need it. There’s not always fluency, I find. That’s a whole nother story.

Zibby: Do you write where you are now? Is this your workspace?

Nicole: I was in my workspace until we —

Zibby: — Until I dragged you across the apartment?

Nicole: I’ll often sit here and work because this is actually a rocking chair. I don’t know why I don’t give it away. It’s also where I nursed my kids. I can’t quite give it up. It’s extremely comfortable. I tend to sit in the same couple of chairs to work.

Zibby: I guess the days of the coffee shop writing —

Nicole: — I never was a coffee shop writer. I just find it too distracting. I find other people too fascinating. I just want to look at people and understand what’s going on. I can’t focus on my work. I have to be alone.

Zibby: Do you find that in your own friendships, say, or relationships or if you go to have a dinner with a friend or something like that, that you apply that same sort of analysis, if you will, or observation where you’re trying to figure things out in every situation you’re in? Are you always sort of mining unconsciously for material in a way?

Nicole: Unfortunately, yes, as all of my friends know. My first thought to your question was I think that there’s a psychological machine in some of our brains that is constantly trying to understand people’s motivations and to understand the subtext of what they’re not saying but they’re saying and to try to make sense behind the scenes of what’s visible on the surface of the conversation or the person. Yes, I can’t dismantle that. That’s always at play, and for better or for worse. In terms of material, as I get older this is more and more problematic because more and more interesting things happen to all of us as we get older. All around us fascinating things happen, to everyone it seems like, as we all enter midlife. This question of material and using material has been an interesting one.

There is a story in the book, the title story, “To Be a Man,” that involved a kind of agreement with certain people that I would use certain material with their blessing. There are writers who certainly don’t ask for the blessings of the people whose material that they borrow or steal, but it does matter a lot to me that I don’t betray confidence. On the other hand, again, I hope it comes down to a certain kind of compassion. When you feel compassion for the people you’re writing about, even if you expose a vulnerability or fragility, a mistake, a whatever, at the end, you’re holding them up in the human light. That’s the goal. In the end, there’s the love of attentiveness, what it is to attend to somebody and look at them and try to understand them. My hope is that that is always what comes through. So far, it has. I haven’t offended anyone yet, lost any dear ones. Let’s hope for the best.

Zibby: I read this article about you in Elle, not to snoop or anything, but just to find out more. Let me see if I can find the quote. Of course, now I’m not going to be able to find it. You were talking about divorce. I’m particularly interested, as I got divorced about five years ago or so. I’m always reading up on it and all this stuff. You had said something like that you knew something was amiss and yet you didn’t know what to do with that information, similar to knowing that the afterlife might not exist but not knowing how to handle that in the day-to-day life either.

Nicole: That’s a quote from Forest Dark.

Zibby: Oh, sorry. I’m so sorry.

Nicole: No problem. That mistake is often made, the sense that I am continuous with her. That’s my own fault because I gave her my name. I remember writing that line.

Zibby: The question is really, how do you, especially in a life event like this where I at least felt the ground kind of shook under me and everything had to be reimagined, how do you then take that experience and put that into writing without betraying — back to our other question of mining for material. How do you use that and help yourself through whatever experience you’re going through in the best literary way?

Nicole: For that one, for my divorce, I didn’t have a hard time with that because I didn’t write about that. I feel like one of the journalistic or critical mistakes of writing about Forest Dark was the notion that it’s a book about divorce, but it isn’t. Divorce doesn’t happen in the book. It’s about a woman who understands that she’s reached a moment in her life where she can no longer sustain the forms that she’s committed to, one of which is her marriage. The divorce doesn’t actually take place in the book. It’s just her journey into herself, really. Because that book wasn’t about divorce and it wasn’t specifically about what it is to have a husband or any specific husband at all, I felt that I steered clear of there. I do think there are certain areas, the one that jumps most readily to mind is one’s children, there are certain things that you just cannot — there are lines you cannot cross. That, I feel very strongly about. I didn’t have that issue in my work. The kind of things I’m thinking about are friends or lovers or parents or siblings, those kind of things where it’s a slightly different situation.

Zibby: Are you already at work on your next big project, or are you taking a minute?

Nicole: Both. I’m always working. I’m always writing. I’m trying to find my way into a new novel, which is always a long process for me, but a pretty playful one at this point in my life. It wasn’t always. I’m playing with a few ideas and working on things, but I don’t yet feel that I’ve found the vein that I’m going to mine for the novel. Let’s put it that way. I wrote a story during quarantine that’s coming out with Harper’s in their next issue. Then I thought maybe I’ll put aside short stories for now and really try to get into a novel. We’ll see.

Zibby: Is it just when the mood strikes?

Nicole: No, I’m a pretty disciplined worker. I work every day. When I’m in this stage, I’m reading a lot. Normally, I would say I’m living a lot in order to acquire, accumulate experience. Living a lot, I don’t even know what that means in times of COVID. What does it mean to live a lot now? That’s been interesting, particularly because my life has been, in these last however many, seven years, been deliberately designed to allow for maximal experience. How can one do that? Or can one not do that now and just have to burrow in? We’ll see. I feel like a lot’s happened to me. I think I still have a lot of material to draw on in the banks there.

Zibby: Time to open up the vault and go back. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Nicole: The only thing I ever think to say is just it really requires doing it constantly. A lot of times so many people imagine that they have a book in them. I think we all do. The book in all of us is the self. That’s the book we’re all writing. In order to actually translate that or some part of that into a real book, it really requires the doing, the daily doing of that. It seems like obvious advice, but I think very few people actually take it, honestly. I think a lot of people think about writing or imagine writing or want to write or see the value of writing, but don’t go to the hard effort of putting language on a page day in and day out. That’s the only way anything ever gets written.

Zibby: Last question. Just wondering, what are you reading now? What do you like to read?

Nicole: I’m reading this right now, which is beautiful. It’s Landscapes by John Berger. I don’t know if you’ve read John Berger. He’s absolutely one of the most wonderful writers to read. I loved his book Portraits. A lot of his is about portraiture. I just picked this one up. Of course, he’s written novels as well and all kinds of essays. He’s no longer with us. He died a couple of years ago. He really was one of our gems.

Zibby: Awesome. Thanks for chatting with me today. It’s been such an honor to talk to you because I’ve been following you for so long. This has been so nice.

Nicole: I’m so glad. Thank you for making the time for me. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Oh, gosh, it’s my pleasure. Have a great day.

Nicole: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Nicole Krauss, TO BE A MAN