Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Nicole Krauss and my inner 13-year-old

Tuesday afternoon, Nicole Krauss due any moment for a Q&A, I was excited and a little nervous. A birthday this week, I had just confessed to Nancy that despite my 51 years, I still feel like the anxious 13-year-old girl I was in 1974. Nicole Krauss. Yikes. Bestselling novels. Young, hip, East Coast Jewish writer. Famous hubby. Rumor had it that she deflects all questions about her personal life, and I wondered if all I would see was Krauss's lovely forehead as she angled her gaze toward the floor to look down at me. Thankfully, as is almost always the case, my inner 13-year-old was wrong. Fantasies of Midwest inferiority notwithstanding, Nicole Krauss was polite and well-spoken.

At the Q&A Krauss spoke about becoming a novelist, saying that by the age of 15 she knew she wanted to become a published writer. "The need to write is a need for freedom," she said. The literary form that first captured her attention was poetry, and she studied with Joseph Brodsky. By the time she turned 25, though, she realized the compact and compressed form of poetry demanded perfection, and diminished her personal space. She felt trapped. She discovered what she was meant to do even as she wrote the first few pages of what would become her first novel, "Man Walks Into a Room." Joking that she is now a failed poet, she explained that within the space of a novel she finds infinite freedom, a way to recreate herself. "Novel writing," said Krauss, "fits the way I think." An ill-defined form, she said, the novel is by nature imperfect. "I've learned to enjoy relaxing into a novel's imperfections. Novels illuminate new aspects of life, she said, and within their pages there is always a conversation between the fictional world and real life.

Krauss told us a bit about her writing process. She begins a novel by using a series of dots -- characters, images or moods that compel her -- that serve as jumping off points. "My work as a writer is to find the coherence. I'm interested in seeing how the parts are juxtaposed," she said. She creates a set of characters, the underlying requirement is that for each she must feel a profound empathy. The quality of this empathy, though, has a different quality in each of her books. "Leo and Alma, from "The History of Love" wear their hearts on their sleeves," said Krauss. On the other hand, the cruel Israeli father from "Great House" had Krauss wondering what the quality of that empathy was. She came to see that, as with many of her characters, he needed to unburden himself.

Krauss said her writing is a process of enormous trial and error, a throwing of herself into the unknown and coming up against parts of herself she didn't know she had. In describing her three novels, she noted that "Man Walks Into a Room" is a linear work, whereas "The History of Love" is polyphonic. "History of Love," she said, is about the power of imagination, about the power we have to reinvent ourselves. "Great Desk" is made up of stories that touch at points, that allow readers to see parts echo within the whole. Referring to "Great House," Krauss described the desk as related to the idea of the burden of inheritance. A huge and bulky hand-me-down, the desk was incredibly flexible as a metaphor, and served as the connective tissue between the stories.

Interestingly, Krauss said she embarks on each new novel without a game plan, without an endpoint. As she works on a novel, the concerns within it need to grow, and as this sense of urgency builds, her characters' paths reveal themselves. Ultimately, for both Krauss and her readers, each novel is a discovery until the very end.

Krauss's masters degree is not in creative writing, but in art history. I asked her how her studies of the visual arts impacted her writing, and she noted that she sees her novels visually. When someone asked to what extent she keeps the reader in mind as she writes, Krauss replied that, in general, she doesn't think a lot about the reader until revision begins.

Writing pal Maria Cook asked Krauss why her writing lens focuses on how characters deal with trauma's after-effects, rather than how they survive the trauma itself. Krauss responded that writing about the traumatic situations theselves simply doesn't provoke her imagination. "What fascinates me is what trauma asks of the survivors, how they are called upon to radically recreate themselves."

Sitting across from Krauss at dinner that night, my inner 13-year-old reappeared. How many people get to say they had dinner with Nicole Krauss? Still, I hoped for a chance to see the author a little less guarded. It was clear Kraus was still on duty, though. She agreeably chatted about literature, but wasn't eager to engage on a personal level. She shared with us her fondness for translations and works by European and Israeli authors. I asked Krauss if she thought of herself as a Jewish writer, and she resisted the label, saying she would like to be able to write about anything that spurs her imagination.

Charming at her evening reading, she apologized to anyone in the audience who might have come to see Nicola Kraus, author of "The Nanny Diaries." She read from "Great House," and answered a few questions. It was while answering one of these questions that Krauss returned to the theme that lies at the foundation of her work: empathy, which she said was, for a writer, one of the most important things. "Literature is one of the few opportunities to stand in another's shoes, to transcend boundaries and experience another's life.

"We'll always need literature as long as empathy matters to us."

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