Behind the Books with Sigrid Nunez, Author of Sempre Susan

Sigrid Nunez, NYC native and familiar face on the literary circuit, is the author of six novels, including The Last of Her Kind. Following her BA from Barnard, Nunez worked as an editorial assistant at The New York Review of Books. Since then, she's been on the faculty of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, a teacher at numerous colleges including Amherst and Smith, a recipient of the Whiting Writers' Award, and a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Which is all to say: Nunez takes writing seriously.

Writing a novel and writing a memoir are different animals. Nunez spent fifteen years since the publication of her first book writing fiction. It wasn't until enough memories of the late 1970s began crowding her hippocampus, demanding an out, that Nunez began work on what would become Sempre Susan. Following her MFA from Columbia, through a network formed from her stint at the Review, Nunez met and began working for Susan Sontag. Sontag was fresh out of the hospital, recovering from a mastectomy, and Nunez was there to help her with a pile of unanswered correspondences while she was out of commission.

Sigrid began dating Sontag's son, David Rieff, and the three lived together at 340 Riverside Drive, from 1976 to 1978. Sempre Susan is one of the few books, unique in its memoir/quasi-biography format, that escapes the canonizing or condemning so frequently found in Sontag profiles.

In this installment of Behind the Books, Nunez tells us about her habit of reading poetry before she writes, overrated classics, the synesthesia of the writing process, and a word to the wise for writers interested in honing their craft: "Read as much as possible, especially the work of writers who most deeply affect you. Make those writers your family."

Signature: What’s your writing routine? Where, when, and how does it happen?

Sigrid Nunez: I try to write every day, preferably first thing in the morning. Of course, there are days when something happens to interfere with this ideal schedule. Then I try to find time later in the day. I usually work at home, but sometimes for a change I’ll go to a library or a café. And I like to read poetry before I sit down to write.

SIG: We learn in Sempre Susan just how profound an influence Susan Sontag was on your writing career. What other writers have left an imprint on you?

SG: As an undergraduate, I took two writing workshops taught by Elizabeth Hardwick. She was certainly a major influence, though more as a writer I greatly admired than as a teacher. As for other writers, I think it’s safe to say that my work has been and continues to be influenced to one degree or another by every writer whose work I love and admire. And that’s a long list.

SIG: It’s said that people either read to escape or read to remember. Do you fall into one of these groups?

SG: I think there are other reasons that people read besides these two. Curiosity, for example. And the desire to immerse yourself for a time in someone else’s consciousness. I wouldn’t say I read specifically in order to remember or to escape; I read simply because I enjoy it, and because experience has taught me that reading brings many rewards.

SIG: To what extent does your writing reflect your own life story?

SG: As with most writers, there are elements of autobiography in my work. My most autobiographical work is my first novel, A Feather on the Breath of God, which is really a hybrid work, part memoir, part fiction. In that book I used a lot of material from the lives of my immigrant parents. My other novels are not autobiographical, though they do include some details and experiences taken from my own life—such as growing up on Staten Island, in For Rouenna, and being an undergraduate on the Columbia campus in the sixties, in The Last of Her Kind.

SIG: Read any great biographies or memoirs recently?

SG: Edmund White’s new memoir about his years in Paris, Inside a Pearl. Also, A World Elsewhere by Sigrid MacRae, an extraordinary family memoir that takes place mostly in wartime Germany. And Why This World, a biography of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser, who is now writing the authorized biography of Susan Sontag.

SIG: What classics would you read if you had all the time in the world?

SG: I’m not someone who has a list of great books I would read if I only had the time. If I want to read a particular so-called classic, I go ahead and read it. If I had more time, I would certainly read more, but I’d read the way I always do -- that is, I’d read whatever happened to interest me, not necessarily classics.

SIG: To the aspiring writer, what advice would you give? What advice helped you become the writer you are today?

SG: Read as much as possible, especially the work of writers who most deeply affect you. Make those writers your family. Never wait for inspiration to strike before getting to work; be disciplined and form the habit of writing every day. Understand the limitations of peer workshops, and trust that you’ll learn far more from close reading of masters than from any writing class.

SIG: William Faulkner said a writer needs three things: experience, observation, and imagination. Do you use all three equally or rely on one over another?

SG: I don’t think it’s possible to give a strict measure; it depends on what I’m working on and at what stage in the process I might be. I’m certainly not aware of relying on one of the three over the others. And even when you’re writing, say, from experience, you are also at the same time using observation and imagination.

SIG: What’s next on your reading list?

SG: Just now, I happen to be preparing a course on meditative and reflective narratives and so I’ll be reading works by Javier Marías, Thomas Bernhard, Karl Ove Knausgaard, W. G. Sebald, and V. S. Naipaul, among others.