Early in Sigrid Nunez’s novel, “The Friend,” a group of writers gather at a memorial for a well-known novelist who has committed suicide. Most have come not to grieve or pay their respects, but to network and gossip about literary prizes and money and to dissect the latest review of a certain widely detested author.
“If reading really does increase empathy, as we are constantly being told that it does,” the novel’s narrator, an unnamed novelist, observes, “it appears that writing also takes some away.”
It’s quite an admission to make about one’s chosen vocation, but it’s far from the most cutting observation Nunez makes in “The Friend,” which takes frequent, unflinching aim at the backstabbing, status-obsessed literary world. “Writers really are like vampires,” a character declares. Another author compares the publishing industry to “a sinking raft that too many people are trying to get onto.” In one display of collective self-flagellation, Nunez lists some of the insults that authors have lobbed at their own kind: writers are “monsters” (Henry de Montherlant), “aggressive, hostile” bullies (Joan Didion) and “morally indefensible” (Janet Malcolm).
Then there’s the memorable moment when the narrator opens an email advertisement for a literary wall calendar featuring 12 authors posing nude — a detail that Nunez insists isn’t that far-fetched.
“I can imagine it — well, I did imagine it,” Nunez said in a recent interview of the (still, thankfully, fictional) naked author calendar. “Maybe we’ll see it.”
And yet despite her acid critique of writers and their discontents, or perhaps because of her dead-on depiction, Nunez has won over the literary world with “The Friend.” The novel, an acerbic but often poignant exploration of love, friendship, death, grief, art and literature, received this year’s National Book Award for fiction and drew euphoric reviews from critics, who hailed it as a subtle, unassuming masterpiece. (Writing in The Times, Dwight Garner called Nunez “a crisply philosophical and undervalued novelist.”)
The rapturous reception has stunned Nunez, 67, who has been quietly writing and publishing books for the past 23 years.
She’s the kind of writer the heroine of “The Friend” laments doesn’t exist anymore — one who views writing as a sacred calling rather than an exercise in self-promotion and branding. So Nunez was a bit surprised to be cast into the spotlight, embraced as a breakout literary star and titanic talent, more than two decades after she published her debut novel.CreditAlessandra Montalto/The New York Times
“I became a writer because it was something I could do alone and hidden in my room,” Nunez said, perched on a stool at the counter of a coffee shop near the High Line on a gray November morning.
That’s more or less what she’s been doing for the last three decades. Ever since she was young, she’s never wanted to do anything else: “I just wanted to do one thing well, and that was the thing.”
A Deliberate Distance From the Literary Scene
Growing up in the housing projects of Staten Island in the 1950s, the daughter of a German mother and a Panamanian-Chinese father, Nunez was an imaginative child who turned to books for solace and escape. Her father worked seven days a week, as a kitchen worker in a hospital and weekends as a waiter in various Chinese restaurants, and her mother took care of the household. She studied English at Barnard College and later got her Masters in Fine Arts from Columbia University. After graduating, she worked at The New York Review of Books as an editorial assistant to the editor, Robert B. Silvers. Through her work at the Review, she got to know Susan Sontag, and became close to her later when she began dating her son. That friendship gave Nunez an up-close glimpse of the life of a professional writer, and she realized that Sontag’s fame, and the attention and obligations that came with it, held no appeal for her.
“It was very clear to me that even if I wanted something like that, I could never handle it,” she said. “I wanted quiet.”
Nunez has hardly been laboring in obscurity — she’s published eight books, and she won several literary awards before the receiving the National Book Award, including the Whiting Award and Rome Prize. Her work is beloved by fellow novelists (more than a decade ago, Gary Shteyngart called her “one of the most dizzyingly accomplished of our writers”). But she’s kept a deliberate distance from the literary scene, which gives her “a certain amount of freedom and outsiderness,” she said. In an era when publishers expect writers to constantly market themselves and court fans on Twitter or Instagram, she maintains a sort of stoic silence online, and has no social media accounts.
For better or worse, it’s also kept her work somewhat under the radar, while many of her peers have ascended to prominence.
“The way that she sets herself apart, you might not notice, but that’s what she’s doing,” said the novelist Alexander Chee. “It definitely costs her. It’s not easy to live that way.”
It’s old fashioned and romantic, she knows, but Nunez still views writing the way Edna O’Brien characterized it, as a lifelong vocation akin to being a nun or a priest. Like the narrator of “The Friend,” who’s distressed by the eroding place of literature in society, Nunez worries that we’ve lost that notion of writing as a lofty art worth pursuing for its own sake. “The idea of Flaubert holed up writing his sentences is not part of our culture any more,” she said.
She never married or had children, a choice she said that has allowed her to focus on her writing without having to worry about her financial situation. She’s had the same apartment near Union Square since the 1980s. To supplement her writing income, she teaches — she’s currently teaching writing and literature seminars at Boston University, Brooklyn College and the New School. “I’ve never had a real job, I’ve been living like a grad student forever,” she said.Sigrid Nunez accepting the National Book Award for fiction on Nov. 14.CreditBryan Thomas for The New York Times
‘A Writer of Uncommon Talent’
In her fiction, Nunez has experimented with a dizzying range of genres and themes — she’s written a fictional biography of Virginia Woolf’s pet marmoset (“Mitz”), a novel about a 13-year-old boy who survives a global flu pandemic (“Salvation City”) and a memoir about Sontag (“Sempre Susan”). But most of her books are marked by a spare, intimate, confessional tone. In her 1995 debut novel, “A Feather on the Breath of God,” she wrote about her youth and coming-of-age. (The New York Times anointed her a formidable new voice, calling the book “a forceful novel by a writer of uncommon talent.”) There were also elements of auto-fiction in “The Last of Her Kind,” which features two young women who are roommates at Barnard College in 1968, and “For Rouenna,” which is narrated by an unnamed writer partly modeled on Nunez, who strikes up a friendship with a military nurse who served in Vietnam.
“The Friend” is perhaps her most autobiographical work since her debut novel, though she didn’t set out to write it that way, Nunez said. About a year and a half ago, she decided to write a novel about a woman who is grieving for a friend who killed himself, a subject she was drawn to because so many people she knew seemed to be contemplating or discussing suicide. While she was working on it, one of her friends, a writer, jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge to his death, she said.
She didn’t plan to make her narrator a writer who so closely resembles her, but details from her own life seeped in. “I had no interest in writing about a writer, really, but all these years I’ve spent so much time thinking about writing and the teaching of writing that it came very naturally,” she said.
In the novel, the narrator adopts her dead friend’s 180-pound Great Dane, Apollo, an unlikely companion she grows to love deeply despite the fact that she’s a “cat person” who lives in a tiny New York apartment. Nunez is also a self-declared cat person, (though she has had “stepdogs,” and like the narrator, has had several beloved cats, and a bunny who would lie in front of her speakers when she played classical music). But she always wanted to write a novel with an animal as a central character, and was moved by stories of dogs mourning for their owners.
An Unexpected Breakout, 23 Years Later
When “The Friend” came out in February, Nunez and her publisher, Riverhead, weren’t expecting a best-seller. Riverhead ordered a first printing of 10,500.
Still, Sarah McGrath, Nunez’s editor, hoped the book would resonate with animal lovers and draw a bigger audience than her earlier books.
“She’s writing about grief and loss and death and relationships, these are serious earnest subjects, yet she’s doing it with humor, and that’s such a hard thing to achieve,” she said. “For a book that is so wise and rich with literary allusions, it’s actually very accessible, and I did think this was a book that could help her find her readers.”
In November, after she won the National Book Award for fiction, one of the literary world’s most prestigious prizes, thousands of new readers found her. Riverhead, which had already reprinted the book earlier this year when word of mouth began to build, quickly ordered another 20,000 copies, bringing the total number of copies in circulation to 40,000.
Even as she was on stage accepting her award in front of more than 700 people — a moment that would mark the pinnacle of most authors’ careers — Nunez sounded eager to get back to her writing.
“I became a writer not because I was seeking community but rather because I thought it was something I could do alone,” she told the crowd. “How lucky to have discovered that writing books made the miraculous possible, to be removed from the world, and to be a part of the world at the same time.”