The Neurons of Novels
Updated: Feb 19, 2021
A Conversation with Nicole Krauss.
By Sophie Poole.
It was a Thursday morning in September and, like any self-respecting undergraduate woefully majoring in English, I opened The New Yorker app on my phone before getting out of bed, scrolling to the newest issue to read a short story. The photograph, taken by Farah Al Qasimi for Nicole Krauss’s “Switzerland,” showed a young woman applying eyeliner. Her lips were a little too pink, a smattering of hair resting above them. The story’s narrator, a mother reflecting on her early adolescence, shares her experience living in a boarding house in Switzerland. As a thirteen-year-old, she watched Soraya and Marie—more mature boarders closer to the threshold of womanhood than girlhood—smoke cigarettes and sketch their sexual encounters. Soraya, especially, tests the limits of her power; the narrator observes Soraya’s vibrancy slowly dim as she becomes involved in a violent affair with an older, married man.
From the first paragraphs of the story, I felt a personal connection to the narrator. Her precarious relationship with religion, her explorative walks through Geneva, and her nascent realization of the “terrifying vulnerability” that comes from femininity all resonated. I felt so moved that, still wiping sleep from my eyes, I wrote to Krauss and thanked her for writing the story. Coincidentally, her website revealed that she is the current Writer-in-Residence at the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia. Seeing her affiliation with Columbia, I decided to reach out for an interview, hoping to hear more about the story and the Institute.
“Switzerland” is the first short story in Krauss’s newest collection, To Be a Man, out November 3. Many of the other stories unearthed my old memories, long forgotten or tucked away.
In conversation recently, Krauss and I spoke about the formative power of coincidence, the complex and mysterious alchemy of writing, the habitation of male voices, the novel’s formal potential, and her career-long fascination with memory, especially as it relates to her residency at the Institute. Our condensed discussion is below.
The Blue & White: Tell me about your time as the Writer-in-Residence at the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Institute this year. What have you learned?
Nicole Krauss: Too much to give you a summation of in a brief interview. But suffice to say that my time there began with monthly, sometimes bi-monthly, sort of initial meetings with the scientists there, where I would just go into the Institute and have maybe three conversations in a row with three different scientists about their work. And sometimes they had questions about my work. It was just this initial period of really learning about what people do there and sort of deepening my own knowledge about the brain, of which I had some going in but now I have much, much more. And then the pandemic came along. And so, for a while, sort of nothing was happening, and then I started to have those meetings over Zoom, which has been one of the great gifts for me during this pandemic of just having that incredible connection with so many interesting minds who are working at the Institute. And so sometimes, depending on what the scientist specializes in, the conversation might be very, very abstract. It might be about computational neuroscience, which I will be struggling to keep up with and understand. Or it might be about somebody’s work on the hippocampus…and memory in birds and etcetera, etcetera. So it’s been an absolutely massive range of subjects, as you can imagine, because there are many scientists there working.
The other portion of my work there has been bringing what I do as best I can to the scientists. In the beginning, when we were still in person, it started off with a kind of onstage conversation with my really dear friend and colleague there, Daphna Shohamy, and she interviewed me about my work, and then I went on to doing a book club with scientists that were interested there. And so we started off reading a book by Rachel Cusk together called Outline. And then they wanted me to do a book club on my own book, so we read and discussed Forest Dark, which is my last novel. And now we are doing something really interesting to me, which is an idea that was spearheaded by two of the trainees, the post-docs there, and they wanted to get interested scientists there trying to write creatively about science or about their own science, thinking about what they do in science and the lab through the lens of fictional writing. And so we have about twenty people in the group, and it started off last week, last Friday, with everyone bringing in their own prompt. And then kind of talking about what’s possible in fiction that’s not possible in their science and how they might use this. And they’ve all gone off now to write these fictional pieces. So it’s really a wonderful exchange, I think, for everyone. And I certainly am benefitting massively from being there. I don’t know exactly yet how what I’m learning will play out in my books.
B&W: Who was one of your favorite scientists you spoke to? Did you have an interaction that sticks out to you as being profound or meaningful to you in some way?
NK: Many. I mean, you know, the one that sort of shines above the rest is a friendship that goes on outside of the Institute. I mean, it’s how I ended up at the Institute. And that’s with the neuroscientist I mentioned, Daphna Shohamy. She’s really one of my very dearest friends. We met because the Rubin Museum, downtown, they have a really extraordinary series that brings neuroscientists in conversation onstage with artists. We met there. And it’s such a great and ironic story because each of us had been invited in years previous to participate, and each of us had declined. And I think the neuroscientist is invited to the series, and they choose the artist that they want to talk to. I guess someone in the past had asked to speak with me, and I remember at the time I just sort of, for whatever reason, I declined. Maybe I just wasn’t up for a conversation with a neuroscientist at that point. Maybe I had young kids—I just can’t remember why I said no. And I suspect there was some sort of wariness about how prepared I would need to be for a conversation. And Daphna, for her own reasons, said no. And then she said yeah the second time around—I’ll do it if I can speak with Nicole—and she hadn’t yet read my most recent novel at that time, Forest Dark. We set the date with the museum, and then she read the novel on a plane ride to Israel—the novel is set largely in Israel—and there were so many incredibly crazy coincidences and things in common with what she had been thinking about in her life up until then and what was in the book. And so she sort of arrived onstage kind of in shock, like: Oh my god, we have much more to talk about than I even thought. And very, very quickly, there was such a deep friendship there that is both, obviously, emotional but deeply intellectual. I mean still not a day goes by that she and I don’t talk about ideas and come at them from our different angles, but, you know, constantly meet in the middle. The great timing of that friendship is that the Artist-in-Residency idea had just begun at the Zuckerman Institute. I think Eric Kandel had brought in Jeff Koons the year before to try out this idea. And then the idea got off the ground to bring a jazz musician and a visual artist. And then Daphna spoke to me about being the inaugural Writer-in-Residence. Had it not been for that friendship and the intellectual sparks that flew right away there, I know I wouldn’t have found myself at the Institute. So, that’s one, but I can give you many other conversations.
B&W: It’s so interesting that you speak about Daphna experiencing coincidences while reading your work, because I had a similar experience. I know you saw my note to you about “Switzerland.” I read it in the morning, and I read it so quickly, and it was immersive to me, and felt deeply personal, I just felt very connected to it. And as I got to read To Be a Man, I grew up Jewish and there were so many things you were talking about in the stories that were unearthing so many memories.
NK: I think that happens kind of all the time as a writer, in the best possible way, which is that you write things and don’t necessarily know the way that they will reverberate with readers. And sometimes, of course, they don’t reverberate at all, but then other times they reverberate in such profound and strange and unexpected ways in other people’s lives. And actually, I’ve now been writing for so many years that I can look at a lot of the relationships in my life, the circumstances of my life, and I can trace them back to those crazy coincidences that happen because somebody read something I wrote and a friendship was born, a relationship was born, or I found myself invited somewhere that then led to something that then led to another book. So that the work begins to inform and shape the deepest aspects of one’s life and vice versa.
B&W: Why now did you want to publish a collection of short stories?
NK: Just to give you a little bit of history, I had wanted to be a poet from the age of 15 until I sat down to write my first novel when I was 25. And I hadn’t really written any fiction before I wrote that novel, which is called Man Walks Into a Room. So suddenly, here I was. I had discovered this new form—not just fiction, but the novel. And it was so exciting because it seemed so wild and open and flexible. It seemed to to fit me much better than what I had been trying to do before. For some long years, I was just really fascinated by this crazy, ultimately undefinable form that we refer to as the novel. And I still am. And I still sort of think of myself as somebody who, in life, that’s the form that I’m wrestling with, that gives me my greatest opportunities as a writer. But along the way, there were all these thoughts, ideas, beginnings of things that I was writing that didn’t become a novel or weren’t going to become a novel, and yet they were alive enough that I didn’t want to abandon them and sometimes couldn’t abandon them. And so there are beginnings of stories in this book, like the beginning of “Switzerland,” for example, and the beginning of “Seeing Ershadi,” which is another example, that were with me for years. So they were just files on a computer and I would return to them sometimes, and sometimes not. And so the voices of them, or the conditions of the story, were there. And then I’d write all these other things. And sometimes I’d start them on one side of writing Forest Dark and finish them on the other side of it. But what I found is that in the stories there’s a kind of playfulness. I don’t know if you’re aware of it as a reader, if a reader is aware of it on the page, but I certainly felt it as the writer. Because, for me, a novel is such a massive, massive emotional and intellectual investment. Particularly my novels, because they’re structurally really, really complex, and I only figure out the structure as I’m writing them. So, it’s kind of like a mental marathon to keep them aloft while I’m writing them and to make the structure finally work and come together, and they have many parts. They’re kind of exhausting in some ways. And a story in which one has many fewer structural choices along with many fewer general choices—it’s this chance to be playful. And if I started it and didn’t finish it, no big deal, right? And so maybe there were things that I could pursue or voices I could pursue that I wouldn’t want to pursue if I had to sustain them over the course of a whole novel. For example, the voice in “The Garden” was such a distinct voice in my head and on the page early on, but I really don’t think I could have or wanted to write a whole novel about that character or that circumstance. But the intensity of it wouldn’t let go of me, and so it became a story. A lot of short fiction writers start with short stories and they kind of mature out of them into novels. I think that happens a lot because people take writing workshops and then MFAs. I didn’t do either of those, and I came to fiction writing so strangely in my own odd way. I just did it backwards.
B&W: You wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times called “Do Women Get to Write with Authority?” and then you’re talking about writing from the perspective of a man and how that lent you a seriousness that maybe wasn’t afforded if you were writing from the perspective of a woman. What do you think about that now? And then, in relation to the idea of the short stories and getting to inhabit a narrator ever so briefly, not living with them like in a novel, how do you think that relates to To Be a Man, as well?
NK: To widen the scope of the New York Times op-ed, I really did choose to inhabit male voices early on. The first novel, it’s a third person voice almost entirely, except for the prologue and epilogue, but it’s a third person from the perspective of this man, Samson Greene, who loses his memory. But thereafter, I guess it’s worth pointing out that all of the novels are pretty equally divided between male and female first-person voices. So, History of Love has Leo Gursky, and then it has this young woman, Alma Singer. And then Great House has two men and two women. And Forest Dark is split in half with this male and female. So I think I’ve always known that I wanted to inhabit both. But there is something about knowing early on that to only–this was completely instinctive, not unconscious exactly, but certainly not well thought out, it was just an instinct that I had–that if I were to entirely inhabit womanhood or girlhood in my fiction that that wasn’t the easiest path to be taken seriously. And I also want to point out that this was in 2002 my first novel was published, so I was starting to write it in 2000. Things have really changed radically in these last twenty years. The measure of that is evident in how many young female writers are celebrated and read. I think a lot of critics would very quickly point out that much of the most interesting, most groundbreaking contemporary fiction is being written by women. Though that could have been the case twenty years ago, that wasn’t the language in the culture and among critics. And just to give you a footnote to that, just to give you some sense, at that time, the word most bandied around when it came to fiction by women was “chick lit.” Do you remember that? I don’t know. You were probably very young. That was the normal term. “Chick lit” was a normal term and constantly used. In retrospect, it seems so outrageous. But I think it was in my deep willful sense that I would be taken seriously, but that I needed to really argue to be taken seriously. And of course—and I think I mentioned this in the op-ed—of course I was surrounded by young men friends and so forth who were writing. It was clear that they didn’t have the same battle.
B&W: They were already an “author.”
NK. Yeah, exactly. I think it’s obviously very different now for both reasons. Times have changed and we’ve progressed—never enough, but we’ve progressed a lot in this regard. But also, I’m much further in my career, and I no longer have to worry about being taken seriously the way that I did when I was twenty-five years old and setting off to write my first novel.
B&W: I noticed as I was reading the collection a connection between the narrator in “Switzerland” and the narrator in “To Be a Man,” both thinking about the power dynamics between women and men and the vulnerability and the violence in those connections. Did you think about the interconnectedness of your stories?
NK: Yeah, I thought about it a lot. When I understood that I was going to make it a collection of stories, I think at that time I had only written and published four of them, and I decided I was going to write a novel and then a collection of stories–I sold those to a publisher before they had been written. And so I knew that was the plan. I think at some point, as the stories began to emerge, I had the title even at the beginning. And the title, I came up with it, and it reflects both the idea that I have inhabited men in my writing over and over and over again. So the question of what it is to be a man has been with me throughout. Like in Great House, for example, there’s this really difficult, tyrannical father named Aaron, this Israeli father. To become him and to be him was something else. Again, I drew on all kinds of experiences to be Leo Gursky or to be any number of the men that I’ve written about. It was thinking about what it is to be a man–that’s been a subject for me for a long time. But, then of course, it was also what it is to be a man from the perspective of a woman who has grown up with a father, and a brother, and around men, and have had many, many, many, many relationships with men. And then, finally, what it is to be a mother, as I am of two boys who are becoming young men, and what it is to raise boys in this age with all the complex, problematic, and contradictory ideas of manhood. How to raise them into men? And so all of those ideas were swimming in my head when I came up with the title which I gave to the publisher. And then I started to write these stories and so many of them were, just naturally, from the perspective of women. And so I knew I was going to have this title. You normally don’t name a collection something except after one of the titles of the stories. So I knew I was going to write this story with that title, and I saved it until the very end. I was really kind of moving, rising toward, this story for a long time. I don’t know if I already knew that it was going to be the last story, if I had that structure already. But I certainly understood that those two stories were bookends, in a way, and that they were drawn from a very, very similar source. A question of what is autobiographical I often have very little patience for, although I also understand the question. But I will say that I think both of those stories draw on an enormous, enormous, enormous amount of lived experience and lived observation. I was aware of giving that connection openly to the reader. I think it says in both stories that she grew up on Long Island, or at least an island. There’s just references. There’s references to the father. If you really look, it’s pretty clear, the connections there between those two stories. But at the same time, one story she has two girls and one story she has two boys. You’re never going to really be allowed to get away with assuming too much. But, yeah, in my mind, they definitely reverberate really, really loudly, and I hope richly, off of each other.
B&W: They definitely did for me, I think just because they’re bookends and because I read “Switzerland” first, and then knowing the collection was named after “To Be a Man.” There is a quote from the same op-ed where you said: “To author is indeed to increase, to expand the self until it contains multitudes, and in so doing to expand a small corner of reality.” In reading and researching for this, I came across a lot of interviews where people were asking you about the autobiographical aspects of your fiction. For me, it makes sense–this expanding of the self into multiple realities and into multiple conditions. I really liked that quote. I noticed a fascination in interviews with the autobiographical aspect of your fiction.
NK: One journalist recently asked me, do I think that people tend to assume those things more because I’m a woman? And although I wanted to leap and say yes, I really can’t say that that’s because I’m a woman, because I think about the person who received, in this country, in recent literary memory, the person who received the greatest brunt of that was Phillip Roth. There was nothing he could write that people couldn’t assume was autobiographical. And he did draw heavily from his own life. But he was endlessly and constantly transforming it into art. The fascination is so interesting to me, and I’m not without it. It’s not like I read things and don’t wonder, too. Like, wow, what part of this actually happened. It’s this natural question that we have. It’s part of our deep question of how close we should let this material get to us, how much we should affect it. You know, if something horrible really did happen, then maybe it will affect us more deeply than the representation of that thing or the imagination of that thing. There’s lots of things you could say about why people want to know that. When I go back to my position not as a reader but as a writer, the important thing to constantly point out is that the thing that the writer can do that other people can’t do is transform that stuff, through some alchemy that is so complex and so mysterious, that not even she or he knows how it works. To transform it into something else that is universal and accessible and moving to many. It transcends the specifics of autobiography and becomes something else. And so to kind of go the reverse route and try to bring it back, just seems to defeat the purpose of all that is being offered in whatever that work is. But, you know, the conversation has no end. It will go on always so long as people are writing about life.
Illustration by Maya Weed
B&W: Considering your work is so much about memory and you’ve been thinking about memory and neuroscience, the way that you figure memory in your writing is interesting. You write in “Switzerland”: If Soraya came to mind at all, flickering past in a mercurial chain of associations, she would recede again just as quickly.” And then in “Zusya On the Roof,” you write about Brodman remembering his obedience to his father in this “chain of relentless begetting.” And then in “To Be a Man,” you talk about “our memories of the past must always adjust to keep our stories coherent.” So, just in these very small fragments that I picked up on, I think it’s so interesting. Now, thinking about these passages and how you’re characterizing memory, has it been influenced by your time at the Institute?
NK: I mean those ideas pre-date my time there. There’s this review I did for The New York Times of Oliver Sacks’s final book of essays, called River of Consciousness. Of course it’s a review of his work, but I think I write somewhat directly about this stuff. My fascination with the idea that the brain will always move to tell a coherent story, rather than give an accurate account of reality. The coherence of a narrative takes precedence over an accurate account of reality. That’s an idea that came from reading him when I was twenty-five and writing my first novel. At the time it was such a radical idea to me. And try to remember, too, at that time this whole notion that is now sort of very common in our culture, common to the point of nausea, for me, it’s a kind of Oprah idea, that we can shape ourselves and change our narrative and you’ve got to frame your narrative. But that idea was not at all spoken about twenty years ago. And when I read Oliver Sacks and sort of understood this really fundamental thing about how our memory works, which is that this narrative of self is so critical that the injured brain— time and time again, which is what he showed in all his case studies—will kind of block out enormous portions of reality in order to keep this consistency, this coherence of self. And if you take that out of the pathological and into the daily ways in which we live, and we all have experienced how differently we all interpret and remember lives and moments. It’s just absolutely fascinating. And I think that that idea has led me to all kinds of other ideas that became fundamental to my books, including in Forest Dark, this notion of the narrative of self and the ways in which we can get locked into it as a form and the possibilities of shattering and remaking that narrative; and why that’s frightening and why that’s an opportunity, asking the reader to inhabit that possibility; and using myself as a guinea pig by writing this character called Nicole and kind of shattering or breaking down her narrative to reinvent. All of that thinking was many, many years in the making from the time I was young. So I think now arriving at the Institute, it comes after many years of thinking and writing about these things, but without as deep a scientific training as I’m now getting and I have the privilege of getting.
B&W: Is it strange to see your thoughts about memory that you’ve been putting in your literature translated into scientific writing?
NK: I think it will be interesting to see how these trainees at the Institute who are doing this workshop with me—whose idea it was to do this workshop—it will be interesting to see how they bridge the gap or make sense of what is possible between the science that they do and how one can think about it and interpret it or reimagine it through a fictional lens. I’m not sure how that works. We’ll see.
B&W: It sounds extremely exciting. I’d be curious to see the results as well. Do you collaborate with the other Artists-in-Residence at all?
NK: I don’t. Partly because we only just began and then we had this pandemic. One of the visual artists, the painter Julie Mehretu—just by chance, she and I have known each other for 14 years because she and I were both fellows at the American Academy in Berlin when our oldest sons were half a year old. So our oldest sons used to play together in the American Academy in Berlin. And then we kept in touch a little bit, and then all these years pass, and we found ourselves as Artists-in-Residence at the Zuckerman Institute, so that’s been actually really lovely. And I was looking forward to more time with Julie, but of course we haven’t been able to really see each other. And then Miguel, who is the jazz musician, I also met I think on two occasions, and was delighted and was looking forward to more, but alas.
B&W: And then just thinking about the pandemic, how have you been dealing with it through writing, or have you seen your own work impacted by this time?
NK: I had finished the manuscript for To Be a Man, or I thought I had finished it in the fall, and then I wrote this very last story for it—the one that’s called “Amour,” I wrote that in January, and then decided to include it in the book. And then the book had just closed, and then it was February, and then it was the pandemic. Normally after a book is finished, so first of all, you have to do all this work on it, not editing the stories, but you kind of go through the galleys, copy-editing, lots of rounds of that. So I was sort of busy with that. But it’s always this really nice time where suddenly you can play again, particularly after a novel, because a novel is so strenuous, so after stories the playfulness just continued, I guess. I really felt very strongly about—there’s some aspect of wanting to resist every aspect of my life being locked down. So even though physically I was locked down, and even though in some ways attentively I was locked down to the numbers and the news, I kind of wanted imaginatively to resist that and to be free. And so I thought I would write about other things. I was working on other things. And then I ended up, I think in April or May, I wrote very quickly this new story which is coming out in Harper’s—I guess it will be on the stands in November—I ended up writing this story called “Drawing From Life,” and I won’t say exactly what it’s about because it hasn’t come out yet, but it does take place during Covid quarantine. It’s a really distant, invented story. I was surprised that that came as quickly as it did. And then since then, I’ve been writing. I’m working on a new novel. It’s really just the very early, early, early phases, so anything could happen. It’s just a lot of thinking out loud on the page and, as I said, playing. But it’s not been an unproductive time for me. I’ll say that much.
B&W: I was listening to an interview with Miranda July, and she was talking about how writing a novel right now seems so impossible to her. Like if you are writing now, writing short stories feels like the most appropriate thing because it’s a story for people now, about people now. I guess you’re starting a new novel, though, so you’re still setting out on this project even with the question of how to set a novel in this time. Do you relate to that sentiment at all?
NK: I don’t really because there’s nothing more about us than novels. Like there’s nothing I can think of that goes more deeply and overtly into the human condition than a novel, which is not to say that short stories don’t. I understand, I think, what she’s saying, which is maybe about timeliness. I’m not sure that timeliness is really the greatest tool of literature. A lot of things need to sink down through memory before a writer can reassemble them into something that’s really urgent and important to the reader now. So, it’s not that, like, the imaginary writer is just kind of setting a story in timely circumstances that the reader can relate to. The reader relates to the deepest, most essential aspects of what it is to be a person. Which is always, anytime. Catastrophe is ongoing; catastrophe is old. This is not new. And the circumstances of this catastrophe aren’t even new, or these many catastrophes. And I think that responding quickly is the job and work of many other professions—journalism comes quickly to mind, but many others. And I don’t know that that is the work or job or the best skill as the way of the writer. One interesting question is how there are lines in the sand in history. Like after the Holocaust, people didn’t know: How do you write without reckoning with that? How do you write about humanity without reckoning with that? And I think this is very different from the Holocaust, but I think there is a feeling probably among writers that this thing happened. So where do you set a story in time? Is it pre-pandemic or after? Because the very conditions of how we live and how we associate with each other physically and emotionally have changed so dramatically, and we don’t know when that will end. And having changed, you can’t anymore just write about a person casually going into a restaurant. You know, like in “To Be a Man,” where the narrator takes the German back home to her bed. It’s like, ‘Ooh, careful! Covid!’ Like all of us, we started watching movies during the pandemic, you watch and you’re like, ‘Oh god, you’re too close.’ There’s this instinctive sense of the rules of how we relate have changed, and they seem to have changed so profoundly. And even though it was so quickly, we have to somehow reflect them. So I think there is this question of how does one write right now. Do you set everything before? Do you set everything afterwards? And I guess those questions will be worked out. But I have no doubt that the novel is one of the great places to work some of those basic human questions out: Who are we? Where are we going? What’s happened to us? What do we want to be?