Literary Hub

You Can’t Explain Death to An Animal: An Interview with Sigrid Nunez

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend

Sigrid Nunez is the author of seven novels and Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. Her latest is The Friend, a novel in which an unnamed writer mourns her mentor’s suicide and ends up the (at first) unwilling caretaker of his Great Dane, Apollo. What follows is a meditation on the writing life, love and loss, and the stories we tell about those who are no longer with us.

Nunez was my teacher in the MFA program at Brooklyn College, and we reconnected over lunch one afternoon to speak about her lifelong love of animals, and of writers and writing. Then, I walked her to Book Culture where she was to sign copies of The Friend in advance of its launch. Our conversation continued over email throughout the week. 

Monika Zaleska: The Friend is partly written in direct address to a “you” that is sometimes her mentor who passed away, sometimes the dog Apollo, and sometimes perhaps an unidentified someone. How did you arrive at this style—the address of someone no longer there? The novel feels like an epistolary project, or like a diary or journal that’s been tucked away.

Sigrid Nunez: It’s not something I worked at, or thought a lot about. I started the book and then realized that I was addressing this person. But I also knew that I didn’t want that to be consistent; I wanted it to come in and out. There are long sections of the book where the “you” drops out—where I’m not addressing him anymore. I didn’t think of it as a diary, but it’s interesting that you bring up the epistolary form because I did want it to have the feeling of a letter. I wanted that intimate, urgent tone—the idea of speaking to someone in a hushed voice—but not necessarily always to him. Sometimes I’m addressing the dog, and sometimes I’m just addressing the air, but I wanted that tone of a letter, a love letter, not necessarily in content, but with that same intensity and intimacy.

MZ: The narrator is living in the aftermath of her mentor’s suicide—going to his memorial, meeting with his ex-wives, and eventually adopting his dog. You write about how acquaintances and friends rush to define him after he’s gone—to reduce him to his best or worst traits. And it’s such a particular loss when that person has chosen not to be here anymore. People try to make sense out of that decision, or to find a narrative.

SN: I’m sure you’ve noticed that there’s this general thing whenever somebody dies: they’re always above average in everything they did and pretty much always had “a great sense of humor.” There are so many types of people in the world, so why should the public response to dying be so consistent and such a cliché? We make up these narratives about people who have died. You have your idea about them, and another person has their idea about them, in one case you leave out certain things and in the other case the other person leaves out certain things. Who knows who is closer to the truth? Part of that narrative is what would have happened if they hadn’t died—they would have done this, they would have done that, or they would have felt this or that.

“There are so many types of people in the world, so why should the public response to dying be so consistent and such a cliché?”

MZ: And in The Friend it’s not just friends and family who are mourning; there’s also his dog, Apollo, who goes through a long depression, howling for his lost companion. I love the way you write about the dog’s sadness, about how there’s this whole mysterious part of animals you can’t know or understand.

SN: They are mysterious, and that’s part of what I love, the silence and the mystery. It’s the fact that they can’t talk and explain themselves that makes them so poignant.

MZ: That makes me think of the Wisława Szymborska poem, “Cat in an Empty Apartment” about a cat whose left behind after their owner dies, waiting at the door.

SN: You can’t explain death to an animal, so what must they think? The fact that somebody doesn’t come home anymore, that’s just inexplicable. And for a certain kind of dog there’s the added horror of, “Is my owner in trouble? I’m supposed to be there,” but for cats too, it must be so painful.

MZ: Much of The Friend feels like a meditation, on writing, on teaching—but also taking anecdotes of everyday life and reflecting on them, reconsidering their meaning. Like, for example, the narrator thinks about her mentor’s old habit of walking through the city, sometimes for hours, and his insistence that women can’t really be flâneurs the same way men can—because they are objectified in public spaces. Then, she considers how age has rendered her invisible.

SN: As the narrator says, she doesn’t like to draw attention from strangers. That’s her personality. But that doesn’t mean she likes being treated as if she were invisible. Who does? The idea that women after a certain age become invisible is an old one, and it really is true, and it isn’t just about public space. And the mentor is certainly right about how much more difficult it is for women to lose themselves on aimless walks in city streets than it is for men, because women are so often bothered by men, distracted by comments, catcalls, etc. At least young women are. And of course it can be downright dangerous for a woman to let down her guard while wandering city streets. 

MZ: The narrator is a writer, and her story is braided with anecdotes about writers and writing, and often their reverence for dogs, like Rilke who fed sugar cubes to strays. How did you come to interweave her reflections with those of other writers?

SN: Without having planned or expected it, I returned to the style of my earliest work, A Feather on the Breath of God, which also has an unnamed first person narrator. So much of our lives as writers is reading, so if I’m going to write something autobiographical—and both of these books are—that’s what’s going to come to my mind while I’m writing. I’m really interested in the way writers think, in the vision they have of the world. The big influences here are Elizabeth Hardwick and the Rilke book that influenced her, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. In Hardwick’s book, Sleepless Nights, there’s a fair amount of that style. She was my teacher at the time she was writing that book, and it came out right after I graduated. I’ve also taught it, so it’s very present. She died not long ago.

“So much of our lives as writers is reading, so if I’m going to write something autobiographical, that’s what’s going to come to my mind while I’m writing.”

MZ: In our class at Brooklyn College, we talked about a more open, perhaps autobiographical style of fiction that’s become popular in recent years, works like Rachel Cusk’s Outline and Transit or Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which Apollo charmingly mutilates when left at home alone too long. You don’t hesitate to call your work autobiographical, for instance.

SN: For a certain kind of writer, the traditional elements of fiction don’t work anymore—not when they’re writing it. Character development or exposition, these tools become inadequate to the kind of fiction that they want to write, whereas a more hybrid genre offers room for essay writing or meditation within the novel. “Literary thinking” is the phrase that Javier Marías uses, a form that gives them a structure to tell the story they want to tell, even if much of it is still invented.

As for me personally, it depends on the book. For [The Friend], much of it is autobiographical, and I feel there’s not a great amount of distance between the writer and the narrator. But there are a lot of writers who might be using some personal material, but what they’re doing is so far from autobiography that they feel, quite rightly, that when people call it autobiographical they’re reducing the work, that it’s diminished in some way. So that’s why in our course, I only taught work where the writer themselves has said this is autobiographical, because I completely respect that. Otherwise you’re being presumptuous.

MZ: I always think of that Isherwood quote, which you paraphrase in the novel, about a fictional character being a distillation of a few traits of someone you might know—the best or worst things that drew you to them.

SN: And with Isherwood, of course, he’s a highly autobiographical writer. That quote appears in The Paris Review interview, where he describes how you go about making a fictional character out of a real person. It’s like being in love, he says, you take the things that fascinated you about that person to begin with and you exaggerate them and make them more intense. The beloved is never an ordinary person.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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