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Seven Questions for Sigrid Nunez

PS Web Editor Theodore Wheeler interviews the accomplished prose stylist about judgmental sisters, the importance of solitude to writers, and other topics.
Sigrid Nunez

Sigrid Nunez is the author of six novels, including The Last of Her Kind and, most recently, Salvation City. She is also the author of Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. Her story “Worried Sisters” appears in the Spring 2012 issue of Prairie Schooner.

You can find more about Sigrid at her web site.

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“Worried Sisters” is so concise in it’s portrayal of a little sister who “has always caused us grief,” as the collective first-person plural of the older sisters narrates. I wonder if the story comes from a larger work, or is something that’s been distilled down. Did you have a familiarity with these characters when you started, or was there more feeling around to the process than that?

The story doesn’t come from a larger work. I set out specifically to write a very short story. Years ago I knew a woman who happened to be a struggling visual artist suffering from depression, and I remembered how she was dating someone who got on her nerves so much that she dropped him. Then, after she was on antidepressants for a while, she got back together with this man, and it turned out she was much more tolerant of his faults, and soon they were married. At the time I wondered what would happen if she stopped taking the medication. Would she go back to feeling about him as she had before? And then what? That’s where I got the idea for the story.

The story also deals with the notion of how being an artist can put emotional distance between siblings. The personal lives of artists is certainly a topic you’ve touched on before. For some reason it brings to mind the importance of mentors for an artist—maybe because the young sister seems to lack them, or because I’m thinking about your recent memoir about Susan Sontag, Sempre Susan. Am I going too far in seeing the young sister as lost and rudderless? Or is it just more of the older sisters’ perspective that sees her this way?

I was thinking partly about how baffling and painful it can be for family members to watch a struggling artist. Often, I think, people can’t help feeling torn. If an artist keeps trying and trying but fails to succeed, those who love that person might well wish he or she would give up and do something else. This is only natural. But to the artist in need of support, it can feel like the worst betrayal. In my story the older sisters are seeing things clearly, I think, but the young sister is an enfant terrible, a sensitive plant, and a serious depressive, and they live in fear of upsetting her.

In “Worried Sisters,” we see the first-person plural narrators dissect the life of their younger sister in a sort of whispering, judgmental way. It quickly becomes apparent the younger, artistic sister is different. In lines like, “She often seemed just one long nose of disapproval,” and “She accused of us of not caring whether she became a famous artist or not.” Yet, at the same time, the collective “we” of the other sisters sets the youngest outside the perspective of their sisterhood. (“We have discussed the matter between ourselves, but never with our sister.”) Not only is she not one of them, she’s voiceless in an important way. Thinking along these lines, then, how important is it to the story that we don’t actually see the sisters in dramatized scenes? We see the characters through voice. They live in voice. Was there ever a concern that, perhaps, too much objectivity would enter the story if it began to move away from the voice of the sisters? Is this something you thought about when writing “Worried Sisters”?

I never had any interest in creating dramatized scenes for this particular story. I always wanted it to be the two older sisters presenting the whole story as one voice. I liked the idea of them laying their case, as it were, before the reader. It’s as if they’re saying, You see our dilemma. And there’s the implied question: What would you do in our place? They may be judgmental toward their sister, but they’re also asking to be judged themselves.

What external environmental factors influence your work and writing process the most? Are you a person who likes to be out in the world while writing? Is writing more of a pure reflective task? Do you find yourself being more productive in one season more than the others?

I’m one of those writers who needs solitude in order to write. The fewer distractions, the better. I hate being very busy because I find it makes it harder not only to sit down and write but also to think about what I’m writing when I’m away from my desk. Any season is fine so long as it gives me lots of time alone and not too many responsibilities other than writing.

What is one book written in the past five years that you wish you had written? Why?

Just one? In five years? But that’s what I say about every book I admire: I wish I had written that! And I read books that I admire all the time. The list for the past five years would go on for pages. So let’s narrow it down to the past year, when I read The Engagement by Georges Simenon. I’ve read a lot of Simenon, who’s a favorite writer of mine. The Engagement is one of the books he called his romans durs (hard novels) to distinguish them from his popular detective novels, like the many he wrote featuring Inspector Maigret. It’s about a lonely, creepy guy wrongly accused of murder. The miracle is that it manages to be superbly entertaining in spite of the grimness of its subject, which is the inability of human society to produce justice and how easy it is for any person’s life to be destroyed. Simenon based part of the story on an episode of mob violence that he witnessed when he was young. He was always terrified of mobs after that.

Who is one young writer that we may not know about yet, but should?

Stephanie Powell Watts. I discovered her book of short stories, We Are Taking Only What We Need, as one of this year’s jurors for the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction. Her book is one of the two finalists. She writes with great insight, compassion, and humor about African-Americans living in rural North Carolina, her home state.

Who is one late-career writer we may have overlooked?

David Markson hasn’t been entirely overlooked, thank God, but by the time he died two years ago he’d become famous for not being famous. “Underappreciated” sticks to his name like a barnacle. I’ll take any opportunity to join admirers like Ann Beattie and David Foster Wallace in praising this daring genius of a writer. A novel like Wittgenstein’s Mistress (rejected by more than 50 publishers!) is as good as any American fiction published during his lifetime. There’s no book of his I’ve read that I haven’t wanted to read at least one more time. Needless to say, I wish I had written them all.