2010 National Book Award Finalist,
W.W. Norton & Co.
by Bret Anthony
Bret Anthony Johnston: Congratulations on Great House being named a Finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. This is your third book. How did the writing of this novel compare to the work you’d done previously?
Nicole Krauss: It’s important to me to feel I’m always changing as a writer, for each book to move beyond the last, take different risks, be propelled by a different set of ambitions. And Great House does feel, on every level, like a departure from everything I’ve written before. But at the same time, of course one has certain preoccupations that accompany one, evolving from book to book, and I’m aware of having carried some of these with me from The History of Love, and Man Walks Into a Room before that. There are threads that stitch all three novels together: the question of how we respond to great loss, an interest in the re-imagining or recreation of self in the wake of it; the struggle to be known, to transcend solitude. I’m also often told that my novels are about memory—though I do I find myself wondering what novel isn’t, in some vague way, about memory? Memory, which is a creative and on some level willful act, is our primary means of creating a coherent self, and any exploration of the inner life, of what makes a character who he or she is, will have to confront the complexity of what James Wood once called “the remembering mind.” It’s certainly of great interest to me, and probably always will be.
BAJ: A similarity among the fiction Finalists
this year is the use of an alternating narrative point
of view. You grant readers access to different characters’
consciousnesses throughout the novel. While this isn’t
a necessarily new narrative technique, I wonder if its
current prevalence isn’t indicative of something
in our culture. What led to your decision to employ
different points of view?
NK: When I think about structure, which to me depends so much on rhythm, I always imagine it in either architectural or musical terms. Baroque music—I’m thinking especially of Bach—often combined three or even four distinct voices into a whole without dissolving each. I like to disorient myself in my work, to become lost, in order to arrive at the unexpected or unknown. I find that it’s harder to do this in a more individualist form—a single story line based on progression, climax, and reconciliation. In general I find that sort of structure more restrictive, less flexible and open.
The narration of Great House develops in four voices, each a kind of confession, and there are further voices and stories pocketed in those main voices. But the voices reflect, echo, dovetail, refract, and form symmetries with each other, creating a large interlocking structure with, I hope, many dimensions. I was interested in sustaining the separation between the voices, but at the same time my sense of the wholeness of the novel, its coherence as a unified story, however complex, was always the overwhelming force in writing it. Perhaps a way to think of it is as a large house where one dwells in many rooms, enters through many doors, follows voices down corridors, looks out through windows, before one is allowed, in the end, to see the house from the outside. That, anyway, was my experience in writing it.
BAJ: How much of the story do you know before you start?
Is your imagination liberated by parameters—such
as writing toward a specific ending or knowing you’re
exploring a particular theme—or is it fueled by
a lack of structure and the act of discovery? These
aren’t mutually exclusive positions, but I wonder
if you find yourself on one side more often than the
NK:I’ve never written my books with any sort of plan or blueprint in mind, preferring to pursue accidents and intuitions. The eventual structure always rises out of the words and narratives as they unfold, and for much of the writing I am lost and uncertain, with only a mood and enduring preoccupations to guide me. The more experienced a writer I become, the more I’ve come to depend on this uncertainty, the deeper I’ve dropped myself in the woods each time, the farther apart I’ve plotted the starting points of paths that will eventually have to converge, or at the very least sum to something.
In Great House my
uncertainty was more acute than ever. The starting points
I chose were almost impossibly remote from one another.
From out of all the early writing, four voices emerged,
each with its own story. I had four different paths,
and all I knew was that 1) I wanted to understand who
these people were and what had made them that way, and
2) woven together, their stories could make a solid
and intricate whole, that their juxtaposition would
reveal patterns, and form a complete architecture—even,
or especially, if I couldn’t anticipate that architecture.
Working this way, sooner or later I find myself thrown
off balance, trying to find my way in unfamiliar territory;
only then do I feel that the real work has begun.
BAJ: In the fiction category this year, each of the novels seems heavily researched. What role does research play in your writing process?
NK: Almost none. The main places where I set Great House are cities I’ve lived in and known all my life, and my memories of these places are more or less precise. After I finished the novel, I wrote to various friends to ask if you do indeed, pass the trenches Ypres on the way to Brussels if you’re coming from Calais (yes), or whether there were commercials for whores on German television in the Seventies (no), or whether the ticket hall at the West Finchley Tube station was above ground, as I remembered, or below, and so on— but these questions mostly involved details that had no real bearing on the stories themselves.
There was historical information that mattered to me as I wrote. For example, the fate of those kidnapped and disappeared under Pinochet’s regime in Chile, or the fact that Pinochet’s coup in 1973 and Israel’s Yom Kippur War took place three weeks apart, or that Freud fled Vienna in 1938 and his wife and daughter reassembled his study almost exactly, down to the last detail, in the house he moved into in North London, etc. But I was very familiar with these histories before I began writing. Somehow they found their way into the novel, but in most cases they eventually sunk to the bottom of the stories, became submerged, and appear on the surface only fleetingly.
Almost the whole novel is completely invented, imagined through and through. I can’t stress enough the importance to me of not being bound to reality, of feeling that I am completely free artistically. As for the true stories and historical facts that occasionally guided me, the question, for me, was why I was drawn to these particular things. Why had they gotten under my skin? Writing novels has always been a way for me to shine a light on, and give form to, certain enduring preoccupations, often ones that have been with me for many years.
BAJ: The novel is set in America, London, and Jerusalem. What role does setting play in your writing?
NK: Yes, parts of Great House are set in New York, others in London, Jerusalem, Budapest, the countryside outside Brussels, Frankfurt; the shadow of Chile falls over the book as well. Much of this geography is very personal to me, critical to the story of my own life. On some level, writing for me is an effort to create a home, something that, for various reasons, has been an elusive idea in my life, and stitching together the many places my family comes from is part of that effort. My mother is from London, as a child I spent a lot of time in my grandparents’ house there, and then later I myself lived between London and Oxford for some years. My father grew up in Israel, my parents met and married there, as did one set of grandparents; the other lived there for a quarter of a century and died there. England and Israel are among the places of my life, and as such I imagine I will always return to them in my work.
BAJ: In some ways, one of the most significant characters in Great House is the Chilean poet’s desk. In The History of Love, one could argue the book was something of a main character. The artifacts cycle through the novels, accruing a deep and complex emotional resonance. Was such evolution your intention or were you surprised when the desk became such an active part of the novel?
NK: It was just an instinct to begin to pass the desk from one character to another. I still don’t think of the desk as central to the novel—in fact, as I wrote it, I thought of it as a book without a center, made instead of many moving parts held together by shared emotional and intellectual forces. The desk is a vessel for some of those forces.
I was, however, aware of trying to write frankly about what it means to be a writer, the difficulties involved, and also the enormous potential. Almost all of my characters are engaged with the struggle to overcome their isolation, to be seen and known in the fullest possible sense. It’s no accident that writing is the means many of them turn to, and that a book first, and now a desk, should have taken on critical roles in my novels. I’ve staked my life, as both a reader and a writer, on the belief that literature offers a unique chance—unparalleled—really, to step directly and vividly, without any mediation, into another’s life, to feel what it is to occupy the conditions of another’s existence.
Anthony Johnston is the author of the internationally
acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of
Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative
Writer. He is director of creative writing at Harvard.
For more information, visit: www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.