Saturday, March 23, 2013

Q&A with writer Sigrid Nunez

Sigrid Nunez
Sigrid Nunez is the author of six novels, including For Rouenna, The Last of Her Kind, and Salvation City, and a memoir, Sempre Susan. She has taught at a variety of schools, including Amherst College and Columbia University, and she lives in New York City.

Q: Your most recent book, Sempre Susan, is a memoir about your friendship with Susan Sontag. Why did you decide to write about Sontag, and how did the writing of a memoir compare with that of a novel for you?

A: Several years ago I was asked to contribute an essay to an anthology about mentors and I decided to write about Sontag. I had shared a household with her and her son when I was in my twenties, and she turned out to be a profound influence on how I think and write. The essay appeared first in Tin House magazine, where it was read by the publisher James Atlas, who got in touch with me and asked if I’d be interested in expanding the essay into a short book.

Sempre Susan was much easier for me to write than any of my novels. For one thing, it’s quite short. Also, I didn’t have to do all the hard labor of making up characters or an engaging story, and I didn’t have to do any research. Getting the sentences down was challenging, as it always is, but not having to invent anything certainly made the writing easier.

Q: In your most recent novel, Salvation City, your main character is a boy who is orphaned after a flu pandemic. What do you see as the role of religion in this novel?

A: The parents of Cole, the novel’s 13-year-old main character, lived and died as atheists. The couple who take him in are an evangelical pastor and his wife who are preparing for the end times. For the first time in his life, Cole is exposed to the Bible, and he finds a lot there that’s meaningful to him. He also develops great affection and respect for Pastor Wyatt. 

At the same time, he’s confused and troubled by many Christian beliefs, above all the doctrine that says that no matter how good your life might have been, unless you accept Christ as your savior your inescapable fate is consignment to Hell for all eternity. And he’s deeply skeptical about the notion of the Rapture as well.

What I was trying to do in Salvation City was to create a space where a serious exploration of faith and individual moral responsibility could take place. I have a problem with those who respond to the question “Why do you believe what you believe?” with a flat “Because it’s how I was raised.” My novel is about a young person who comes to understand that the answers to the big questions can’t be handed down to you; you have to figure them out for yourself, and the process can be very painful.

Q: One of the main characters in your novel For Rouenna served as a nurse in Vietnam. Why did you focus your novel, at least in part, on the Vietnam War, and how much research did you do on nurses who served in Vietnam?

A: I did a great deal of research about the Vietnam War in general for this novel, including reading literature by and about women who had served as nurses. In fact, it was reading a book of interviews with some former nurses, which I happened to do sometime in the mid-eighties, that made me want to write a novel about one of them. 

It struck me as a truly extraordinary experience for a young woman to have had, and I had a powerful desire to imagine what it must have been like. However, I didn’t start writing For Rouenna until the mid-nineties. So it was an idea that I carried with me for a very long time.

Q: You said in an interview that For Rouenna was your favorite of your books. Why is that?

A: I think mostly because I believe it’s my best book, by which I mean the one that came closest to what I’d hoped to achieve when I set out to write it. Also, nothing has meant more to me than hearing from readers (all men, I have to say) who served in Vietnam and who have been generous in their appreciation of my attempt to understand what their experience was like.

Q: Another of your novels, The Last of Her Kind, also focuses on the Vietnam War period and its aftermath. What about that era interests you?

A: It’s the era in which I came of age. Although The Last of Her Kind is not an autobiographical novel, it begins on the Barnard College campus in the year 1968, which is where and when I began my own college career. It was famously a time of great tumult and radical change, and a very big part of what was happening then was the war in Vietnam. Many of the boys I grew up with ended up in Vietnam. My high school boyfriend, my college boyfriend—both of them fought in the war. So did an uncle of mine, an Army lifer, who married a Vietnamese woman he met during his first tour of duty.

So for me it’s always been something much more than just an interest in the period. I wrote both For Rouenna and The Last of Her Kind partly because I was haunted by the strangeness and the intensity of that time we’ve come to refer to as the Sixties. I wanted to get down what it was like to live through those years, to be young in the midst of the so-called youthquake. 

Also, as a college professor I’d hear students say things like “I hate hippies,” and I had to wonder whether they really knew what a hippie was, or what that period in American history was actually like. My strong impression was that they did not. It also became clear to me that their parents did not talk much about what that time—the era of their own youth—was like, at least not to them.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m in the middle of a seventh novel but I’ve also been working quite a bit on shorter work, including very short fiction, in some cases pieces that are only a paragraph or so long. I’ve published several stories since my last book came out and I’m beginning to think about the possibility of a collection.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. A version of this interview also appears on

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