About Nicole Krauss
An Interview with Nicole Krauss
More About Nicole Krauss
Nicole Krauss was born in New York in 1974. Her first novel Man Walks into a Room was shortlisted for the LA Times Book Award, her second novel is the critically-acclaimed The History of Love. Her fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Esquire, and Best American Short Stories. She lives in Brooklyn.
The voice of Leo Gurksy in Nicole Krauss’ beautiful novel, The History of Love, just came to her one day. Find out more about Leo and the inspiration behind him and his story.
Was there a particular author you read growing up who inspired you to want to become a writer?
I was always reading something or other as a child, even at the dinner table. But I don't think there was a particular author or book that set me on the path to writing; it was more like the slow and steady sum total of everything I read. When you're young, especially if you live out in the country, as I basically did, books offer a form of travel; a breadth of experience that far exceeds what is otherwise available to you. People often describe reading as a means of escape. But for me it was the opposite. What's the opposite of escape? A means of arriving, let's say, at all that I was so eager to see and know.
Mostly I read whatever was around the house, and then when I discovered the local library I started ransacking the shelves. I read a biography of Henry Miller when I was eleven or twelve, before I'd read any of his books. At one stage my mother started reading A Tale of Two Cities aloud to my brother and me in nightly instalments, but that only lasted a few days so we never got very far. The one recommendation I remember her making - it was when I was twelve-- was Portnoy's Complaint. I read it and loved it, although I did wonder whether, when she gave it to me, she had remembered the scene with the Italian whore.
What books are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, which was so pained and beautiful. And now I've started Mr. Sammler's Planet. I've been thinking a lot about Bellow since his death. There's this line that keeps coming back to me from The Dean's December. It’s the part where Dean Corde imagines a dog's howl to be a protest against the narrowness of its understanding, a kind of plea: "For God's sake, open the universe a little more!" It must be one of the most powerful sentences ever written in a novel.
Which literary character would you most like to meet?
I don't think I've ever longed to meet a character beyond the way I've met him or her already in a book. In a way, it's possible to come to know people in a much quicker, more intense, and meaningful way on the page than you usually get to do in life. Real life has a kind of awkwardness that great books don't-- to describe awkwardness in a book often, actually, affects in the reader a kind of comfort, like watching a storm from inside a warm house. My actual exchanges with people, beyond those I'm very close to, tend to always be a little less than I'd hoped they'd be. For example, today an Orthodox Jewish family stopped me in the park to ask me what kind of dog I had. We talked for a bit, they admired my dog, George, and the whole exchange was warm and lovely. And then, as they turned to go, bestowing one last compliment on George, I said, I guess to sweeten the deal, "Good Shabbas. " And then I realized it was only Wednesday.
The voice of Leo Gursky, the old man who is at the centre of The History of Love, is brilliantly conceived. How difficult was it to find his voice?
It was easy in that I just wasn't looking for it, or him. One day I had his voice in my head, and I started writing, and it turned out to be the beginning of the novel. Honestly, he feels like me. It was never a stretch to write in his voice; I never sat around scratching my head, wondering what he'd think or how he'd say something.
I'm a shy person and, to begin with, I don't like the idea of writing a character that looks suspiciously like me. I would feel trapped by the narrowness of veracity, by having to conform to a certain version of reality. What I'm interested in is the sheer joy and freedom of making something new. Of imagining and inventing, while also expressing myself in the strongest way I can. Maybe it's similar to the difference between figurative and abstract painting. In Leo's voice I could write about certain feelings in a way that was both more abstract and more powerful than I could in my own life.
What books did you read while you were writing The History of Love? Some writers don't like to read fiction while they are in the midst of writing a novel, do you find it helps your writing or is it distracting?
Neither, really. I'm always reading something. It took me two years to write The History of Love, and I can't imagine what it would have been like if I didn't, or couldn't, read during that time. My brain would have revolted. Either that or it would have gotten dull. But the specific books I read didn't have much to do directly with my writing.
The structure of the novel is complex. Did you have to plan the novel out quite carefully before you started writing and was it difficult to keep all the elements of the plot in your head as you wrote each part?
When I started, I'd decided to write a book with no plot. Devising plots didn't seem like my strength, which didn't bother me too much, since the books I love generally don't depend on them. For a long time all I had was Leo's voice. Then Alma's. I had these little bits of The History of Love which I didn't know yet were going to become a book within a book--they were just vignettes. I had no idea how all of these elements could possibly fit together. But I also had a sense that they belonged together. It was a struggle to figure out how to connect them to form a constellation. I was always on the edge of failure. I worked myself into so many corners, and dug myself so many holes, and had to try to find intricate, intelligent ways out of them. It was kind of like a game of Twister: how do I get my toe on the red circle all the way over there?
As far as keeping it all in my head, somehow I did. There are lots of things I'm not good at, but I happen to have a very good sense of direction. I'm always the one who reads the maps on trips. If you dropped me in a foreign city and let me walk around, the first thing that would happen is that a bird's eye view of the city, with all the streets, would form in my mind. I think maybe that spatial sense, the habit of drawing mental maps, is my way of holding lots of things in my head. The plot was just a way of giving everything I was thinking about a place: a street, an alley, a square, a boulevard, a bridge.
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