Award-winning author Sigrid Nunez charms at La Grua reading
In the northern regions of Norway and Finland, a single evening can last six months. Theoretically, then, it could take someone half a year to qualify as an "overnight sensation."
New York City author Sigrid Nunez has that beat by a few decades. Sort of. When Nunez won the National Book Award last year for her novel "The Friend" and suddenly attained star status beyond the tight circles of literary Manhattan, the New York Times' tongue-in-cheek headline claimed she'd become "an overnight sensation, 23 years and eight books later."
Indeed, Nunez, the current writer-in-residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington Borough, is the author of seven novels that also include "A Feather on the Breath of God," "The Last of Her Kind," "Salvation City" as well as "Sempre Susan," a memoir about her friend Susan Sontag. A native of Staten Island with degrees from Barnard College and Columbia, she's also received the Whiting Writers' Award, the Rome Prize in Literature and a Berlin Prize Fellowship, and if there's a respected literary magazine, chances are good her short fiction has appeared therein.
In person, Nunez certainly has the warm charm and comfortable presence of an accomplished veteran. On Saturday before a full house in Stonington's La Grua Center, the 67-year-old writer read a poignant, multifaceted and revelatory passage from "The Friend." The novel is about an unnamed and lonely author grieving the loss of a much-loved colleague and mentor who commits suicide. After agreeing without enthusiasm to adopt the late writer's Great Dane, the narrator discovers unexpected solace and wisdom in her relationship with the dog, and the story becomes a poetic, wistful and sometimes awed reflection on mortality and suicide, friendship and sorrow — as well as a darkly funny commentary about the life of a professional writer within the oft-shallow and cutthroat culture of the New York literary scene.
Finally, "The Friend" is also a treatise on the craft of writing, the art form's solitudinous nature and, in its fashion, a series of subtle tributes to authors Nunez — through the veil of her narrator — admires and feels indebted to in one fashion or another.
The excerpt Nunez chose to read concerned the narrator's gradual appreciation and understanding of the dog — named Apollo — when he begins to react in certain consistent ways as Rainer Maria Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet" are read aloud. On the surface, there's a connection between Rilke's definition of love and the narrator's amazement as she begins to believe dogs are innately empathetic and therapeutic just by BEING. At the same time, a number of memories, anecdotes and aphorisms are integrated into the narrative that capture the frailty and wonder of life in spectacular and almost frightening ways.
After reading, Nunez answered several questions from the audience ranging from advice on craft and her own process to the future of the publishing business and novels in an era of shortened attention spans. Frequently, she responded with self-deprecating comments and the sort of bubbly, infectious laughter that triggers shared amusement in a way that indicates a stranger's instinctual confidence in her sense of humor. But she was always wise and thoughtful.
In response to a compliment about her cadence and narrative voice and a following question about how a similar flow can be achieved by the novice, Nunez suggested, "Try to get students to read more poetry; to focus on economy and images." She also recommended writers read their dialogue aloud to determine whether it's realistic.
Talking about how she structures her novels, Nunez says she never follows an outline and prefers to let the voice and form find itself as she writes. "I have no idea what will happen (in a novel) till it happens," she said. "That can be a big risk for a writer, but it's the only interesting way for me to do it."
On whether the novel as an art form might be an endangered species, she said, "It's a big concern because things are changing so fast. The way people look at writing in a whiplash culture is in fact a lot of what 'The Friend' is about. I'm nostalgic because I think the things I care about are passing out of the world. But things change. Books will always have worth and I can see novels go as long as people are still writing."
In an email interview Friday, Nunez responded to a few questions about her experiences as a Merrill writer. Her residency started in December and runs through January.
"I first heard about the Merrill Writer-in-Residence program from other writers who've been guests, and it always sounded wonderful to me," Nunez said. It seemed "the perfect place to work while enjoying a singularly beautiful space in a famously lovely town. I particularly liked the idea of being here off season."
It's the first time Nunez has spent any time in southeastern Connecticut, though she said, "I have often admired it by train traveling between New York and Boston. Being able to enjoy it for an entire month with my two feet on the ground has been a delight."
Highlights so far, Nunez said, include a historic walking tour of the borough conducted by Stonington Historical Society curator Beth Moore and a trip through the organization's current exhibition on former resident and world-renowned photographer Rollie McKenna at the Woolworth Library. "We finished with a walk through the beautiful grounds of Stonington Cemetery to see, among other notable gravesites, the place where the great James Merrill rests in peace," she said.
In terms of her actual work from within Merrill's gorgeously eccentric (and some say haunted) residence, Nunez said it's been a remarkably productive period. "Thanks to the James Merrill House Committee, everything has been arranged to make a writer's life equally productive and pleasurable," she said. "I've gotten more good writing done here in a month than I did in the six months before I arrived."
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