Sigrid Nunez has published five novels: A Feather on the Breath of God, Naked Sleeper, Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, For Rouenna, and The Last of Her Kind. Her work has also appeared in several anthologies, including two Pushcart Prize volumes and four anthologies of Asian-American literature. A Feather on the Breath of God was a finalist for both the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction and the Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers Award. Sigrid Nunez has also been both a Rome Prize Fellow and Berlin Prize fellow, the recipient of a Whiting Writer's Award, and is a 2006 fellow in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She has taught at Amherst College, Smith College, Columbia University and the New School, and has been a visiting writer at Sarah Lawrence College and at Washington University. She has also been on the faculty of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and the Rope Walk Writer’s Retreat. She lives in New York City.
Where did the story of this novel start for you?
I’d always been interested in what happens when two kids who are complete strangers to each other go away to school and are expected to live together in the same small room. I wanted to take two girls from completely different worlds and put them into the particular cauldron of a freshman dorm inside the larger cauldron of the politicized late sixties. I thought I could tell a lot about the era and its aftermath by exploring their friendship over the years. Also, I was looking for a story that would allow me to explore two issues that have been important in all my work, race and social class, which is also why I decided to set part of the book in an American prison. And I was intrigued by the idea of writing something about the consequences of the use of the ‘N’ word, and to have that be a key element in a criminal trial.
Your last two novels have featured characters looking back on specific experiences of the late 1960s, one as a nurse in Vietnam and the other as a sort of witness to a counterculture that her friend and sister become more enmeshed in. Did one story lead to the other in any way?
Yes. It was while writing For Rouenna that I started thinking about writing The Last of Her Kind. I realized I still had a lot more I wanted to say about that era.
Did you end up finding anything particularly revealing about the era, and its effects on your characters Georgette and Ann, in terms of class? Do you see Ann's fate (as a radical who is ultimately imprisoned) as, in some way, the result of privilege?
I'd say one of the main things the book is about is how the characters' class backgrounds shape their personalities and influence their entire lives. Ann is an extreme case, of course. But I did want to show how one young person's sincere torment over having been born to white-skin privilege could result in a kind of madness.
Your narrators tend to have a patient style, providing a depth of detail that gives them the gravitas, or authenticity, of non-fiction. Is this purposeful? I know your first novel A Feather on the Breath of God had many autobiographical elements, but as far as I know the others have not.
It’s purposeful in the sense that I want the lives and experiences I’m inventing to seem as authentic as possible. And when you have a first-person narrator looking back on her life, as I do in my last two novels, I guess it’s inevitable that the narrative is going to read partly like a memoir. A Feather on the Breath of God does have many elements taken from my life and from my parents’ lives. For Rouenna and The Last of Her Kind are memoirs in form but not in fact.
You write a particularly evocative scene that takes place at
Altamont, and you've said that though you were at Woodstock, you chose
to write about Altamont which was an event you would have to research
and invent an intimate perspective on. Why did you make this choice?
Was this in part because Altamont is more emblematic of things you
wanted to explore in this book?
Not at all. In my second book, Naked Sleeper, I sent a couple on a second honeymoon. Instead of sending them to Paris or London or Rome, cities I myself had visited, I sent them to Venice, where at the time I'd never been. Writing about Altamont rather than Woodstock came from the same desire: to invent rather than remember. For one thing, it's more interesting--and fun--for me, as a writer, to exercise my imagination, and I have this idea that what I am forced to invent completely will end up being more interesting to the fiction reader as well. I know people think almost everything I write about really happened. In fact, as you see, even if it's a whole lot more trouble, I'd rather make things up. One thing I really enjoyed researching and writing about in The Last of Her Kind was prison life, of which I have no experience myself at all. Of course, when you write about what you don't know you run the risk of getting things wrong. And that risk is part of the fun and the challenge of writing fiction.
Speaking of the perceived power of acid trips, your narrator writes, "Everyone said you would never forget those trips. But everyone I know has forgotten them, even the part about meeting God." Discuss.
The experience of tripping is so totally amazing you can’t believe you’ll ever forget it. You think you’ll be talking about it for the rest of your life. But that’s not what happens. The experience becomes remote rather quickly, and no one talks about their acid trips years after the fact. Most people my age haven’t thought about the acid trips of their youth in decades.
Who are some writers who have most influenced your work?
Philip Roth’s fiction was an influence on both For Rouenna and The Last of Her Kind. The work of W.G. Sebald and V.S. Naipaul influenced For Rouenna. But the writers who have influenced me most are two mentors: Elizabeth Hardwick and Susan Sontag.