Birnbaum V.

Nicole Krauss

A chat between our man in Boston and the writer Nicole Krauss about her latest book, in which her latest book is barely discussed.

Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

Nicole Krauss is the author of three well received novels, Man Walks into A Room, The History of Love, and Great House. She has been included (for what they are worth) on various lists of best young/up-and-coming authors. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.

In the chat that follows, which we conducted in November 2010, Ms. Krauss elaborates on her writing, some influences, her hopes for her children, and the reconstruction of Francis Bacon’s studio.


Robert Birnbaum: Do you think Henry Kissinger is a war criminal?

Nicole Krauss: Is that what you want to ask in this interview?

RB: I read that you were very interested in Chile—

NK: Finding out about that period of history in Chile, and reading about the crimes of the Pinochet regime, and then going further and reading about the American role—our government’s role in not just that coup but so many coups in South America—

RB: And around the world.

NK:—and the terrible military regimes that followed, is, to say the least, chilling.

RB: Yeah, pretty awful. Why did you write that Huffington Post piece on why you wrote Great House?

NK: The early draft of that piece was a set of notes to myself. I’ve found that a strange thing happens when the book goes out into the world and I have to answer questions about it to journalists and so on: I discover that I am increasingly on the outside of the book. I lose access to the feeling of what it was to be inside the book, to be holding every last part of it in my head, to know it so intimately and to not have to have black and white reasons for my choices. To allow the subtleties to exist without badgering them with endless questions of why. All of that begins to slowly blur and recede in an effort to give authentic answers. And so I wanted to simply capture for myself a couple of original impulses and simply trace how they transformed to become underground forces in the writing.

RB: The piece was quite compelling, but what I didn’t get was how you felt. I understood the metaphysical relationship between you and this thing that you had created. Did you feel a sense of loss? Feel bad that you were now exterior to the book?

NK: At that time I was just turning the manuscript in to the copyeditor. So it hadn’t yet been published. Later, when I gave it to The Huffington Post I edited it somewhat. But when I wrote those notes I hadn’t totally exited the book yet. I hadn’t yet locked the door behind me, or lost the keys. If you want you know how that feels I can tell you—that’s a different question.

RB: Sure.

NK: It’s complicated. It’s a strange and an increasingly uncanny feeling to publish a novel for me. I would have thought starting out that it would have become easier after each book as you got used to it. But that has not been the case. And I find that, perhaps due to the increasingly personal nature of the novels, there is a more profound strangeness about having the work reflected back to me through other people’s perceptions. And I can’t help but feel somehow, that no matter how warm the reception—and the reception to Great House has been really warm, I’ve been delighted by it—no matter how warm and positive, I still can’t escape the feeling of some deep misunderstanding.

RB: (laughs) Have you asked other writers if they get that feeling?

NK: I’ve talked about it with other writers—lightly in a superficial kind of way. But I would be curious to hear more.

RB: I recall a writer who told me that when he gets reviews and letters, even if they are positive, he gets angry if they are not “right.”

NK: I do think there is a lot to be said for what the reader brings to the book, how the reader uncovers or shines a light on some of the writer’s intentions that she may not have been conscious of while writing. So it’s not that I reject the critic or the reader’s response as somehow uninformed. What I hope for—the ideal reader or reading of one’s work I occasionally allow myself to imagine—is difficult to describe. From time to time I receive letters that come from readers that do somehow get at something deep that I wanted to be gotten at.

I’ve occasionally heard people refer to Great House as linked short stories, which makes me want to break out in hives.

RB: Your novel presented me with a problem I have occasionally, and it’s an issue I had with Cynthia Ozick’s latest opus, Foreign Bodies. Her novel’s dust jacket alluded to it being an homage to Henry James’s The Ambassadors. I feel like I have been put at some kind of disadvantage, not having read the James. What’s your responsibility to the reader? And what’s my responsibility as the reader? Or does responsibility even enter into this sphere?

NK: I am not sure that responsibility figures in to the relationship between writer and reader. If I feel any responsibility as a writer, it’s to my own instincts, my own art, however it may evolve. I do my best to pursue that without being disturbed by outside noise; so far, for better or worse, that insistence has led me to write these books. As for the reader, he will read and follow the books and authors that speak to him, and rest he won’t. I am very aware that Great House is a demanding book. I was aware of that in The History of Love too, frankly. Although to my great surprise, many readers were willing to meet those demands, and to persevere with the book and its polyphonic switching back and forth. In Great House the stories are more remote from one another, their connections are more subtle; I was more interested in the tension of holding the stories apart for a longer period of time. Not in forcing or encouraging easy connections. But my main concern continued to be in creating a whole out of many parts. I’ve occasionally heard people refer to Great House as linked short stories, which makes me want to break out in hives. The driving force behind writing Great House was the strong sense of a whole in which the individual parts are held together by emotional and intellectual forces: echoes, symmetries, allusions, patterns. Ultimately, I arrived at a whole that felt to me inevitable. The stories the characters tell, and the themes and moods they evoke, interlock like inlaid wood. I’ve had many readers say that after they finished they immediately began reading the book again. It’s a book that is working on different levels, and not all of them may be instantly apparent. On the narrative level, the intricacies of how the plot connects were less important for me than for the reader to experience the emotional lives of these characters, to fully embody them and to see how their lives inform and amplify one another emotionally and philosophically. But, all the same, the plot connections are very carefully worked out, so if the reader cares to find them they are all there.

RB: This is a novel, a piece of fiction, and some of it has historical references. Although you didn’t mention it in the book you did mention it in the Huffington Post piece about Francis Bacon’s room being reconstructed in a Dublin Museum. I believe Freud’s Vienna room was reconstructed in London but it struck me as wrong about Bacon’s room. It seems incredible to me.

NK: It’s an amazing story. There’s a whole book about it.

RB: I’m saying it stretched my credibility.

NK: I know, life can do that. Just as fiction can. But in the former case there is the authority of reality. There are pictures of Bacon’s studio and a book documenting the move and reconstruction. But it’s amazing to consider. Mostly what’s amazing is, not what a feat it was but why anyone felt it was necessary: why this need to so religiously preserve that space?

RB: What was Bacon’s intention? Is it a monument?

NK: It’s an interesting question. In his own life, the study became talismanic. He beat paths through it—it was filled with garbage and other various forms of junk, and he tread paths to reach the canvases. The nature of that working space was obviously significant to him. But I don’t know how he would have felt about it being preserved.

RB: The story about Bacon is the kind of thing that moves you in some unconscious way, triggers something—when you are asked where do the ideas come from, would you point to that?

NK: No, because I never have a single answer to that question. There are so many ideas: the early guiding ideas, the ideas that very soon develop in the writing, and the ideas that only come at the end. They all come from different places. I never know what’s going to strike me. But then something does. It might be the idea of Bacon’s room, for example. I find myself drawn to it, and then my mind wants to add to it somehow, to explore it and see the other facets, but also to understand what it is about it that grabs me. From Bacon’s room, I moved to Freud’s study, a place where I spent quite a lot of time.

I have been to Freud’s apartment in Vienna. Nothing is left there but empty rooms. The only exception is the entry room where a couple of his hats and walking sticks are hanging.

RB: Why did you spend a lot of time there?

NK: I lived near there, like the character in the book.

RB: You gravitated to his—

NK: I don’t know who wouldn’t: it’s an amazing place. I lived very close. I used to walk a lot, and my walks would often take me past there—it was very easy to simply walk in. It was just a strange time in my life, during which I felt quite alone. There was something inviting about his house, especially his study. One feels as if Freud has just walked out. And in fact, in a way, he just has: everything is exactly as he left it when he died. His glasses are on the table where he last took them off, and so on. It’s filled with all of the statuettes of ancient figures that he incorporated into his work. There is the couch, of course. I liked to go there because somehow I felt at home there.

RB: Where do you live now, Brooklyn?

NK: I do.

RB: Is there a place in Brooklyn that you find similar to the Freud Museum?

NK: No (sighs).

RB: Is it the case that a plaque on the Freud memorial in Vienna has the epigram—something like, “The voice of reason is small but persistent.”

NK: I don’t know. But I have been to Freud’s apartment in Vienna. Nothing is left there but empty rooms. The only exception is the entry room where a couple of his hats and walking sticks are hanging. Otherwise, the house is completely empty. So you have this emptied out ‘mind’ versus the very inhabited ‘mind’ in London.

RB: Is his house in Vienna a memorial site?

NK: There are two separate museums—one is the house in Vienna he abandoned when he fled the Nazis. The other one is the house in Northwest London where he lived for the last year of his life, 1938-9, and later his daughter Anna Freud, who is also well known in the field of psychiatry, though she specialized in children. After she died the house was tuned into this museum.

RB: Is there a statue or plinth in Vienna apart from the house that memorializes Freud?

NK: There must be, but I don’t know.

RB: I wonder where this plaque would reside?

NK: I don’t know. 

RB: What is it like to spend x amount of years creating something—let me ask this in another way. These days there is a huge interest in discussing the future of publishing or the fate of publishing and its relationship to electronic media. I have a feeling something important is being ignored. Do you feel like something isn’t being addressed that should be?

NK: A lot of things. It seems to me that we have lost something that used to be considered fundamental in the world of literature, which is the role of the critic. There used to be extraordinary critics. I’m thinking Edmund Wilson, say, or Lionel Trilling. At that time, the role of the critic was to not only know about literature, and to tell us what books were about and why they were interesting or not. Their role—their true role—was to teach us how to read. Ultimately, those critics taught whole generations how to read. The professional literary critic, in that mode, no longer exists in our culture. To begin with, there are no longer places where serious, extensive reviews are published—very, very few are left. So critics can no longer make a living—so unimportant are they to our culture, that we can no longer bother even to pay them.

RB: James Wood teaches at—

NK: James Wood is perhaps the only exception, but he seems rarely to review anymore, either because he is teaching or writing his own books. (He published a novel not so long ago.) From time to time you still see his reviews in the New Yorker, and, yes, he’s a deeply intelligent critic and a superb writer. Even if I disagree with his assessment of a book or writer, I enjoy reading him for the pleasure of his prose. Daniel Mendelsohn is another critic I admire. But without people like that, even if we could fix the ailing aspects of the publishing industry, literature will become increasingly obscure to the culture and to most people.

RB: I think book reviewing has become degraded. I published a review of Cynthia Ozark’s book Foreign Bodies in the San Francisco Chronicle on the same weekend there is a review in the Los Angeles Times and that critic had read James’s The Ambassadors, which had been referred to. But I didn’t learn anything from that review—

NK: I suppose one could applaud the Internet for allowing voices that otherwise wouldn’t have been heard before. It’s true that that is extremely valuable, and of course we’ve seen what can be achieved politically because of it. But by the same token, the sanctification of mass opinion has some pretty disturbing consequences. A crowd of Amazon reviewers with their single stars, or few noisy blogs, may be considered more important, become more influential, than the unique, deeply thoughtful and intelligent—and lone—voice of a Frank Kermode.

RB: A few weeks ago I read a review of Martin Amis’s new book and what stood out was the writer’s familiarity with Amis’s books from the beginning of his writing career. That made it worth reading.

NK: There used to be long relationships between critics and writers—like Wilson and Nabokov—which were like ongoing conversations. So those critics were good and necessary for readers, but for writers, too. That old Rilkean idea in Letters to the Young Poet of the need for having one’s work read back to one, to hear how one sounds. It’s not only young poets who need such a reflection. Authors also yearn for and require a sense of “Ah, so that’s what I sound like.”

RB: It’s hard to find trustworthy and dependable reflections and feedback.

NK: That’s what I was partly alluding to when I spoke of the uncanniness of publishing a book. I have only been publishing books since 2002—not so long—but it does seem to me that even since I was younger as a reader there has been a steep devaluing of the critical voice.

RB: One of the things that contribute to that devaluation—and I am not sure exactly why—the huge amount of inside baseball and gossip about things to do with writers and publishing. Why do readers care about what’s a bestseller or what the top grossing movies are? And then there is this list mania.

I can’t imagine being the type of writer who has a blueprint or a plan in advance that I more or less follow.

NK: There has been a real conflation of commercial success and aesthetic success.

RB: That seems to have, but the burden on young artists of being creative self-promoters—I don’t have a clue on how to my make my wares and skills saleable, but young writers need to have that awareness.

NK: It’s not been one of mine.

RB: Do you have a degree associated with writing?

NK: No.

RB: But you had a long-time interest in being a writer?

NK: I had wanted to be a poet from the time I was 15, so during the 10 years before I started my first novel and 25, poetry is what I busied myself with, along with university and graduate school. If you had told me I was going to be a novelist I would have been shocked, and I’d have thought of it as a fall from grace, as it were. Prose seemed like a lowly ambition beside poetry. But when I was 25, almost by accident, in an effort to let some air back into my work, and find again a sense of freedom, I started a novel. I thought it was an exercise, a temporary vacation from poetry. But instead I realized that the novel fit me much better than poetry ever did.

RB: I just read Samantha Chang‘s book All Is Forgotten—it’s a novel about three poets. It was a terrifically insightful look into what strikes me as a vanishing enterprise.

NK: It’s sad to call it that.

RB: There are probably not many cobblers left in the world either.

NK: But we all wear shoes.

RB: Most are disposable. Unless you spend lots of money on bench-made British or Italian shoes that last forever. You are married to a writer.

I read Philip Roth when I was 12. In that case, mother had actually given me Portnoy’s Complaint. An odd choice for a 12-year-old, but I loved it.

NK: Can we skip that?

RB: I don’t want to ask anything personal to your relationship—is your life a writerly life?

NK: What does that mean?

RB: All your friends are writers—

NK: No.

RB: All you think about is writing?

NK: No, I have two young children.

RB: And a dog.

NK: My kids are young enough that they require all of my time and energy that is not given over to whatever I happen to be writing at the time. And they always come first. The writing comes second. I think of literature as the thing outside my family to which I have dedicated my life.

RB: Which is real?

NK: Both. And both are in conversation with each other. I dedicated Great House to my children. I don’t imagine I could have written this book had I not become a parent. I think it deepened me as a person, so inevitably that expands the writing.

RB: When you sit at that desk that you have, is there a way in which you take a longer view of your writing endeavors? Do you have ambitions to write some immense work or body of work?

NK: I never think about the long term. I simply think about the next thing I’m going to write. I never think about what will happen to my work later in life, or after I am gone. It doesn’t concern me. Maybe one day it will, but for now the question holds little interest for me.

RB: Do you challenge yourself? For instance, do you set yourself to write about things that you haven’t written before or in a way that you haven’t previously? Ideas first or the process?

NK: For me writing is a long process of wandering and getting lost. I have no sense at all, setting out, what I am going to write. I think that will always, more or less, be the nature of my process. I can’t imagine being the type of writer who has a blueprint or a plan in advance that I more or less follow. Setting out, everything has to be unknown. I find that this allows very interesting and unexpected things to happen. It becomes an intuitive process, discoveries are made. That’s why writing has held my interest all these years, why it remains one of the only things in life that doesn’t finally bore me. If I knew what I was going to make in advance, and was equipped with all of the insight in advance, why would I pursue the project?

RB: This way of looking at things or being seems to be at odds with the planning for and of nurturing of children. Organization and planning are a great part of parenting

NK: Right.

RB: Is writing like bungee-cord jumping for you?

NK: I’m not sure what that means. But planning is certainly part of parenting. But intuitively responding to one’s child as he changes is even more critical. Being open to who he is, what there might be to learn from him, and how it might be possible to help him find the most comfortable way to live in the world as himself.

RB: What I am trying to get at is—I am not well organized, I always forget something—

NK: I understand. Life is filled with so many responsibilities, and limitations to who and what we can be. Unfortunately life is not an endless exercise in self-reinvention. You become who you are. You are formed by forces that bring you up into the world and you change, but not in epic or monumental ways, I don’t think. Or not very often, at least. Writing has always been for me the opposite of that. In my work I can become anyone. Inhabit any character. I can express all kinds of things that I might not otherwise think or be able to express. Everything is possible. That can be terrifying, but ultimately I think it’s thrilling and is the reason I continue to write.

RB: What are your hopes for your children?

NK: When you first become a parent you think that all that matters is that your children will be happy. Then the more that life passes, the more one wonders what happiness is after all. And whether it is a worthy goal. To live in our society sometimes feels like living under the tyranny of Happiness. Much more important, perhaps, to be engaged with life and all that life offers, to be curious about people and experiences. To feel things deeply, and not to be afraid of unhappiness, of feeling the magnitude of life.

RB: How do you do that, put them on that path?

NK: By trying to live that way oneself, to begin with.

RB: Where are you in the publicizing of Great House?

NK: This is the last city on a four-week tour.

RB: Oh my. And you spoke with Cynthia Ozick earlier this week?

NK: The 92st Y does readings, so I read—they asked me to read for a half an hour, which is kind of unheard of—the Y is wonderful in that way. And then she read. And we both took questions.

RB: I imagine it was well attended?

NK: Yeah, it was a nice audience.

RB: What do you think when a book is promoted with a reference point to another work?

NK: I haven’t done anything like that myself so I don’t know.

RB: What were the early books that moved you?

NK: I read very voraciously as a kid but without guidance so I read a lot of strange things. I read Philip Roth when I was 12. In that case, mother had actually given me Portnoy’s Complaint. An odd choice for a 12-year-old, but I loved it.

RB: Funny, I remember exactly where and when I began the Marquez book—which I can’t say about many other books. Anything we haven’t talked about?

NK: Well we haven’t talked about the book much but maybe that’s—

RB: We can talk about it.

NK: No, I am happy not to if that’s OK with you. How do you do this—is this a written interview? I didn’t ask.

RB: I transcribe our conversation with some stage directions—pauses, laughter, facial expressions—to try for some nuance. Like when you gave me a dirty look.

NK: When did I give you a dirty look? 

RB: I don’t know.

NK: See you don’t even remember—so you are going to make it up.

RB: Right. I used to try to get it down exactly like a dialogue verité, but there isn’t such a thing

NK: Right. Don’t make anything too much up. 

RB: Trust me. One of the reasons I don’t focus on the book is for the same reasons, I think, you didn’t talk about it in your Huff Post piece. The book talks— 

NK:—for itself.

RB: There’s a Latin phase for “the thing speaks for itself,” which I can’t remember 

NK: I don’t know but I’d like to know. [Res ipsa loquitur—ed.].

RB: Thanks very much—we’re good.

NK: OK, great.