Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Nicotine, the author’s third novel in as many years, dives into the world of East Coast anarchists.
Nell Zink’s first novel, The Wallcreeper, was published in 2014 by Dorothy, a small feminist press in St. Louis. The book was a revelation: a (relatively) traditional story about a disintegrating marriage told in a voice that was mature, highly literate, and very, very funny. You never knew from one clause to the next where it would go. An early scene of very bad sex set the tone. “He knelt across my chest and eventually sort of fucked my mouth. He was uninhibited, as in inconsiderate. I felt like the Empress Theodora. Can I get more orifices? I thought. Is that what she meant in the Historia Arcana—not that three isn’t enough, but that the three on offer aren’t enough to sustain a marriage?” The book was a smash hit for Dorothy, and the New Yorker published a lengthy profile of Zink in advance of her next novel,Mislaid. The weirdness of this editorial decision can best be summed up by counting the other novelists profiled that year by the venerable magazine. There weren’t any. As an encore, Zink has produced Nicotine, her third novel in as many years, a fast-paced book about a group of young anarchists living in a Jersey City squat.
Keith Gessen Tell me where you are again?
Nell Zink I’m at home in Bad Belzig. B-A-D B-E-L-Z-I-G—about an hour south of Berlin.
KG How did you come to be in this faraway place?
NZ It’s a long story. There are about four different true versions of it, as there are with most good stories. In the year 2000, I was living in Tel Aviv, and I had decided to leave the software company where I was working. I did this in my usual stylish way. They were scheduled to pay a big bonus on the fifteenth of May, and I knew they wouldn’t pay it. We had been acquired, and I knew these guys. So I quit, effective on May 8. And they really didn’t pay it. I took this huge bet just to show off—I think I have the supernatural power of knowing what corporations are going to do. And then I got on a plane and went to Germany because a friend of mine had a nice little apartment—no, a room in an apartment, and not even a very nice room, a very dark, small, and overpriced room. (laughter) I moved into this dark room and never looked back. Except to move to Germany about three years ago, not far from Berlin.
KG How did you come to be in Tel Aviv?
NZ Well, I published a zine, Animal Review, for about five years in the ’90s, first in Hoboken, then in Jersey City, and then in Philadelphia. It was about harsh lo-fi indie rock, combined with cute animals that I thought were nice, and I would review the animals as if they were 7-inch singles. I tended to take sort of an ethical view of bands and their songs, but nobody wants to hear that, so I thought I could analyze and assess animals based on their ethical qualities. So a baby lamb would get a way better review than, say, a warthog.
KG Because they’re ugly or because they’re mean?
NZ Because warthogs are just not polite. They kick other animals out of their burrows and move in.
NZ You asked why I moved to Tel Aviv. The answer is I was putting out my zine and someone at the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote an article about it which happened to include my email address, so I got a lot of emails in the days following its appearance. A scholar visiting from Israel named Zohar Eitan saw the article and wrote to me. His emails really stood out because he’s quite an accomplished poet. Usually, when you are spontaneously charmed by a person’s writing, it turns out that they work in advertising. But this guy was an actual honest-to-goodness poet. So we ended up making a date. He was in Israel at the time—he had already gone back for winter break. But when he returned in February, our first date was a drive from Philly to San Diego and back. And he kept telling me he thought it would be like a cross between the Sophie Calle film No Sex Last Night and Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance. Luckily, I knew neither of those works, and I agreed to go with him.
KG What happens in those works? Something bad?
NZ In No Sex Last Night, Calle decides that she’s going to drive across the United States with this random guy, a photographer, who she thinks is hot. She’s French, of course, and he’s American and lives in New York. He’s one of those ’80s art-world people, really weedy and self-obsessed, and has a drug problem or something—it doesn’t go well. She keeps this video diary the whole time, and every day begins the same way. She says: “No sex last night.” And you just keep thinking, Why on earth does she expect any sex from this guy? And why would she want it? It’s a very mysterious film. In The Music of Chance, these two friends go somewhere out in the country and they get enslaved by this crazed upper-class farmer. He chains them up or something and makes them work on his farm. These are the predictions that were made for our first date. But it turned out better than that. I ended up moving to Tel Aviv.
KG So you were saved by your ignorance?
NZ If you can call moving to Tel Aviv being saved.
KG It was not a good experience?
NZ No, it was wonderful. Have you been to Israel? It’s quite a fascinating place. It’s just awfully hot in the summer, so I couldn’t stay there.
KG In total, you’ve been out of the US for more than twenty years?
NZ Almost. Nineteen years.
KG What’s that been like?
NZ Well, there are strange things about it. One thing is that I notice the changes in American culture. The dynamism is very evident when you’re coming back every six or ten months. It really strikes you in a way that it doesn’t strike people to whom it’s just a gradual process. To me, everything in the United States has been turned on its head in the last twenty years. The combination of ghettoization and paranoia after 9/11 is striking. I was in Germany when it happened, and it was an odd place to have been for an American.
NZ Just because it has been a very significant chapter in our nation’s history, and the mentality of our country, what it means to be American, has really been thrown for a loop. When I was a kid, it was the Cold War, and we were this world power. Everybody thought it didn’t get any better and safer than the US of A, and there was no reason to think of the country as being run by fuck-ups. Maybe they were evil imperialist bastards, but they weren’t helpless. And that’s what came later.
KG I know you have very strong feelings about American literary culture.
NZ Do I?
KG I feel like you do. What does it look like from afar?
NZ Well it’s afar, so I really don’t know what I’m missing. I’m stuck comparing it to German literary culture, where everything just happens twenty years later, if at all. You still have a lot of publishers in Germany, and a lot of independent publishers. Just about nobody has an agent. Advances are very low, but people still work full-time as writers because there’s state support for artists. Different world. So I look over at the US and see a situation that I know you’re very familiar with because you’ve written about the divide between the culture of the MFA programs and the New York writing world, where people are writing commercial, relatively simple novels that read to me like young-adult fiction. Either that or it’s some impenetrable prose poem full of modernist experiments I can’t make head or tail of, which I’m expected to like and be interested in because I’m arty. That’s a stressful situation for me. I usually plead the fifth, and I’m sort of glad that I don’t cry wolf, because when I do like something, I can completely commit myself to liking it and telling everybody about it. I don’t have to lie or waffle, which is good because I’m really bad at that.
KG And yet, observing this sort of corrupt and debased literary culture, you’re still—
NZ It’s not corrupt and debased! It’s a stylish, cute literary culture. People write sweet little books, and it’s frustrating. I mean, I read a book today about the war in Croatia, and a large part of it is from the point of view of a ten-year-old. This is a very common motif in American literature. We have to have the naïve point of view of a child so that no one can call us on our lack of depth and subtlety. I give a lot of credit to people who try to write grown-up books for grown ups, but I think that because the books that are YA-like are more popular, those are the ones about which people tell me, “Oh my God, you’ve got to read this book.” And then I read one, and I’m like, Okay, I feel like I’m gnawing on the rind of contemporary American literature and I haven’t found the actual fruit.
KG Yet it was a literary culture that you nonetheless agreed to join.
NZ Well, because it’s debased and corrupt, it was very important to me that I get in there and take part in the spoils of decadence.
KG (laughter) It must be said, you’ve had one of the most interesting literary careers in recent memory. I feel like there are people who start publishing late, but they’re often editors or lawyers or something, and they’re in New York; and then there are people who start from afar, but they start early. Whereas you are both late and afar, and the way in which you’ve been immediately—and rightly, in my opinion—embraced is extraordinary. Do you agree?
NZ I really have no idea who the competition might be in that race. I’m glad to be interesting because it’s my job to sell some books. Being interesting is one of the ways I can do that because other avenues, such as extreme beauty, are closed to me. (laughter) I have to hit them with something else. So I’m trying for interesting.
KG Have you ever seen The Natural, starring Robert Redford?
NZ No. It’s a baseball film, right?
KG Yes. And you haven’t read the book either?
KG Me neither. But I was thinking about your career in terms of The Natural. It starts with a very young Robert Redford getting off a train, in the early twentieth century, or maybe somebody else getting off near a train, and Redford’s pitching. I guess they used to get off the train and have a quick baseball game or something.
KG So young Robert Redford throws a very fast pitch, and some major-league scout notices. At the same time, he’s noticed by an attractive woman, who follows him back on the train. And then she shoots him in the stomach with a silver bullet. For reasons that are mysterious. And he disappears. Nobody hears from him for fifteen years, until one day an older Robert Redford shows up at some baseball team’s headquarters to try out. He makes the team even though he’s much older than all the other players. He has one great season, but the wound from the silver bullet lays him low in the end. I watched this movie many times as a kid, but I’ve only recently realized that it is actually a parable for domesticity.
NZ (laughter) Okay.
KG The book was written by Bernard Malamud, who’s kind of an allegorist, right?
KG It’s about having talent as a young writer and then being sucked into the trap of domesticity, which is like being shot in the stomach. Fifteen years later, which is almost the amount of time it takes for your child to grow up and leave the house, you can re-enter the arena.
NZ Philip K. Dick had five wives and three children, or something. He ignored the kids, divorced the wives, and took speed all the time. He could write a novel in three weeks. There are ways around this trap.
KG (laughter) Well no, I don’t actually believe in the trap. I think it’s a story that men tell themselves. But I think it really exists for women.
NZ It also plays a role in the lives of men who want to be responsible dads and be involved with their kids, and not be Philip K. Dick.
KG You can only be so responsible as a dad.
NZ Are you alluding to the fact that I have no children?
KG No, I was thinking of your books. The first two especially, The Wallcreeper and Mislaid, are about brilliant women who have to liberate themselves from charismatic men in order to accomplish anything. Do you agree?
NZ Yeah, you could say that.
KG So I also thought of Nell Zink as a kind of character. You clearly have always had a lot of talent, but it has taken a bit longer for you than it does for most people to publish it. Like Robert Redford in The Natural.
NZ It’s true. I felt a great deal of hesitation and fear, and I assumed that I would never publish anything—it doesn’t make sense to me now, and, at this point, it’s hard to go back into that kind of mental territory. My life was a struggle. I don’t want to go into detail about what kind of struggle, but, you know, I struggled, and I was always having these little epiphanies where I would think, Oh my God, I’m thirty-one and I’ve finally figured it out. Oh, I’m thirty-six, forty-two, or forty-nine. (laughter) I constantly felt I was always just finally getting life right. I was never out of my mind, or maybe I should say I was out of my mind in a very sane way, where I was just sitting down and thinking hard about everything I could figure out about life and then drawing conclusions. I have these little notebooks with diagrams in them. One of these has three points that are something like vanity, introversion, and real estate. I decided that those were probably the three things that mattered the most to me. (laughter) Or things that had to be taken into account for me to be happy. It was a very cynical observation about my own behavior.
KG But you couldn’t have all three.
NZ Real estate was, for me, actually a question of having a porch or not, of being able to live the way I liked to live when I was young in the South. It was really clear to me that if I wanted to live in these Northeastern and European cities, I was never going to have a porch, and that the sacrifices I would have to make to get a porch, to get the real-estate corner of this triangle, were just going to make the other two, introversion and vanity, impossible.
KG What was vanity?
NZ “Vanity” was my code for writing. Seriously. Because to get the porch, I would have had to go out and work full-time doing something where I would be spending forty hours per week in contact with people who had no interest in me. So at the end of this page with the diagram on it, I relinquished the porch. I just said, “Okay, we’re not going to have a porch.” I’ve never since then given any thought to the quality of my domicile. I just wrote it off. This kind of weird rationality has definitely played a role in my life, and people used to make fun of me for it, especially my big brother. He’d be like, “You’re the only person I know who thinks things through first and then has emotions about the results.” I’ll admit, too, that it’s something people rightfully see in the character of Tiff in The Wallcreeper.
KG So were you writing all this time?
NZ Yeah. I like writing.
KG For thirty years, you were writing without publishing?
NZ At some times more than others. It would depend on how much other work I was doing. When you’re working full-time, it’s really hard to write. When I was working as a secretary in New York, and even when I was doing the zine, I would publish it every three months, after I got fourteen thousand words together, half of which were written by me. They would include one short story, so my fiction output was a short story every three months. A very short short story about, you know, animals. Nothing stunning.
KG Have these survived?
NZ Yeah, they’re in the collection of the New York Public Library. My husband worked there as a librarian in the general reference division—you know, the branch with the lions on the front steps. He got the library to order it.
KG Wow. Somebody should look that up.
NZ Yes. It’s in a box. Obviously, they didn’t house it in the main reading room with Diderot’s Encyclopedia. They stuffed it in a box and sent it out to a warehouse in New Jersey, but it’s there somewhere, unless somebody’s stolen it already, which is quite likely, given that it’s the New York Public Library.
KG Let’s talk about Nicotine. It’s a very, very funny book.
NZ Thank you.
KG And very up-to-date. What did you want to do with it?
NZ Well, there are a couple of ways of telling that story. I didn’t know I would be writing a novel that quickly after Mislaid, but then my agent sort of dared me. So it’s very much a record of what was going through my mind in March of 2015. I had just been in New York for a couple weeks, meeting and talking to a lot of people. After I got back to Berlin, my agent said something like, “You know, Nell, there’s going to be a brief window of time after the appearance of the New Yorker profile and before the publication of Mislaid—before there are any sales figures for it—when your market value may reach an all-time high. So if you had a manuscript for me in those first few days of May…” I could do that, I thought. I write fast; I’ll write a novel. So I sat down, and because of things that had been on my mind from people I’d been talking to in New York—I’d met up with Jonathan Franzen a couple of times, and he was really obsessed with trying to write for television—the first draft of Nicotine wasn’t even subtitled A Novel. It was Nicotine: A Series, and my idea was to have an adorable cast of characters that viewers can follow from season to season. The book would be the script for the pilot.
KG There are lots of books that run in series.
NZ But TV is what everybody cares about. A friend in Berlin sometimes sits me down in front of the computer and makes me watch Mad Men. He once even made me watch Game of Thrones, which is just really mind-blowingly bad soft-core porn. My agent got me to talk to this author she was working with who had quit the movie business to write novels because there’s no money in movies anymore, and she said I need to be in TV. So when I was drafting the new book initially I set strict rules for myself. It’s just going to be dialogue and visual descriptions of what we see, and I wrote the whole book—except for the ending, which came much later—like a script. I sort of storyboarded it in Microsoft Word and then wrote out what people were seeing.
KG Like a graphic novel without the pictures.
NZ This turned out to be a really efficient method for writing a fast-moving, action-packed work of literature. My agent took it out and sold it. She got serious money for it, and everybody did a happy dance. And then I went back and learned—I learned a lot. It was like a strange little course in novel writing. I made it novelistic. I ended up really respecting people like Franzen, who will have a line of dialogue and then two pages of cogitation, and then have another line of dialogue and two more pages of cogitation. He gets really carried away. But he’s also digging really deep.
KG Are you saying that the decision to set it among young anarchists in Jersey City, as opposed to birders in Germany or Southern misfits or whatever, was for television?
NZ (laughter) Well, you know TV loves anarchism. No, seriously, that was material that was floating around in my head from my life in West Philly. I still have a lot of contacts out there, and I had just seen those people and heard wonderful stories. It’s inspiring to me, the kind of real drama that can happen when you have a close community of people who work with each other and do everything else with each other all the time. It’s like in The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley. The reduction in the cast of characters makes things more dramatic, and that’s what Philly anarchism is like.
KG It’s always very hard to depict people like that, and you pull it off without making fun of them, and also without making them so serious and self-important that they seem ridiculous.
NZ Well, I didn’t write about anyone I know. I let that milieu take shape in my mind and then invented people to put into it, people who were based on characters I’ve known from very different situations. Zohar, the Israeli poet, has a niece named Maayan who’s an unbelievably charming girl, and when I was in New York I spent a day with her walking around in Washington Square Park and visiting Greenwich Village cafés. She blew my mind. She was so wonderful and vulnerable and interesting and smart, and she had these terrible scars from cutting her wrists. She’s probably thirty now, and tiny, and I thought, I’d like to try to put her in a book because somebody should. Maayan should be the one putting herself in a book— she’s a poet—but, of course, she’s trying to make a living. She has to work. I’ve spent so much time since I started making money as a writer yelling at other people to just get to 200 pages. I don’t care what you’re writing. Just make it 200 pages long and call it a novel. Then sell it. They’ll buy it. Anyway, Maayan is a writer and a very fascinating person, and she has nothing whatsoever to do with West Philly anarchism. So there was no way for me to satirize anybody. God knows, I knew plenty of people in West Philly I could satirize the living tar out of, but it wouldn’t be interesting.
KG It’s pretty rare in American fiction that someone is sympathetic to anarchists, or leftists in general. I feel like you’re pretty sympathetic.
KG It’s tough to pull off, and not just in American fiction—in the history of literature. You know, in Dostoevsky, in Chekhov—young people with ideas don’t generally come off very well.
NZ I flatter myself that it works for me because I’m bad at talking about my ideas and clearly expressing what I think and believe. But I feel like I’m very good at picking up on people’s speech patterns, which often betray what they believe, and recognizing political stances based on minor differences in word choice. I felt like I could make these people bright and interesting and on the left without—except in very isolated cases—making them say that’s where they are.
KG I wanted to ask you about the men in your books, especially the kind of monstrous ones. InNicotine, Matt is the most obviously monstrous, but the poet Lee Fleming in Mislaid and the husband in The Wallcreeper are also monstrous, though in a quieter way. I feel like you have a certain amount of forgiveness for these guys. You let them eventually redeem themselves.
NZ I was thinking about that the other night and almost feeling guilty, like I had indeed redeemed them. What’s wrong with me? (laughter)
KG Yes, what’s wrong with you?
NZ I don’t know. It seems to me like it’s interesting being a man. A woman can’t have it all, but as a man, you don’t have anything you can point to to explain why you don’t have it all, because, theoretically, you could. I’m relatively tall and I don’t dress in a feminine way, and people think, therefore, that I’m not a wee feminine creature, until they figure out that I’m also a person who has been affected by sexism. I just have. I grew up in the Tidewater region of Virginia, and I wasn’t taken seriously in part because I was a girl. I can say that just from seeing the boys I knew who were taken seriously in college. But I’ve also known and liked so many men. I’m kind of heterosexual in many ways, and I think men are kind of great. They’re often struggling with issues of power and responsibility, and some of them abdicate both. We’re used to women being conciliatory and propitiating men, but it works the other way, too. Wherever there’s power, there’s going to be submission. Look at the men in Franzen’s fiction, they’re constantly propitiating women.
KG Some of them. You told me a few months ago that you had had a different ending to the book and then you changed it. Is that right?
NZ Yeah, it’s true. I don’t want to put in any spoilers, but there’s this certain “one true couple” in the book, and I had them not getting together because it just seemed wrong to reward them. Then it came to my attention that not having them get together felt very tacked-on as an ending, almost like the sort of thing that would have been ordered for a Hollywood movie in the 1930s under the Hays Code or something. It took me five weeks of meditation and working on other things in the novel to finally get my head around the idea that I could write in that direction, and let them get together. Then it turned out to be so much fun and I was so happy. It’s, like, my favorite thing I’ve ever written. But it was slow to come.
KG What are you doing now? What’s next?
NZ There have been a lot of suggestions, not pressure exactly, but people saying, “Come on, write a short story, write a short story.” People with magazines. My agent. And I think I could do that if I tried, maybe. As far as what novel to write next, I’m deliberately hanging back because I feel like I want it to be something ambitious. I have time and money now. I could do some research before I write anything again. I learned so much writing Nicotine that I’m much less afraid of trying to do something long and ambitious.
KG Okay, but don’t take ten years. That’s ridiculous. Take, you know, a year.
NZ No, I’m not going to take ten years, but I’m not going to take one year either. WritingNicotine took me nine months or so. And it’s only—wait, I have it right here. It’s… 288 pages.
NZ It’s the perfect length. But I think if you write one that’s 400 pages, you’re a more serious person. (laughter) Like if you have two settings instead of one. And, of course, you do what all novelists do when they get a big advance—come up with dream destinations you can use as material. Like put the word Orinoco in your book so you can deduct a cruise up the Orinoco.
Keith Gessen is a founding editor of n+1 and the author of All the Sad Young Literary Men (Viking, 2008).
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.