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This blog was featured on 02/15/2019
Sigrid Nuñez on Solitude and Writing Autofiction
Written by
She Writes
February 2019
Written by
She Writes
February 2019

Sigrid Nuñez has led a quiet life of writing – exactly the kind of solitary life she set out to lead back when she first fell in love with reading as a young child. Now, after eight books and nearly three decades of being published, in spite of her resistance to social media and limited appearances, she has become a literary knockout. Her latest novel, The Friend, was awarded the National Book Award for fiction, one of the literary world’s most prestigious prizes. It came out in paperback this month.

In The Friend, the narrator’s close friend, former lover, and once-writing professor and mentor has committed suicide. And in her grief, she reluctantly adopts his dog, a 180-pound Great Dane. The novel explores suicide, but doesn’t stop there. It’s filled with reflections about student-teacher relations, mourning a friend, the relationship between humans and animals, and the cut-throat community among writers.

On Inspiration

There are two central relationships guiding the narrative in The Friend, and Nuñez leaves readers guessing which relationship the title refers to. Her inspiration for the book is heavily drawn from both of these types of relationships in her own life.  

“I’ve always been interested in animals, I’ve always been fascinated by animals and I always wanted to write something that would have an animal that would be a main character,” Nuñez said.

Of the novel’s relationships with other texts, Nuñez explained that her own experiences as a writer, reader and teacher pushed her to write about the role of literature in a writer’s life.  

“I’ve spent my life reading, writing and teaching literature and writing,” she said, “and I’ve been so engaged in that for such a long time that there was a lot I had on my mind about that.”

Nuñez found a way to expertly bring these all together.

“I felt I had a story that could bring these three things together,” she explained. And so she did, with grace and writerly expertise.

This excerpt was originally published in Michigan Daily. Read the full interview here.

On Becoming a Writer

From childhood, Nuñez aspired to become a writer. She confides that it was all she ever set out to do.

“I became a writer because it was something I could do alone and hidden in my room,” she told the New York Times. Ever since she was young, she’s never wanted to do anything else: “I just wanted to do one thing well, and that was the thing.”

“Something that was really important to me when I was a little kid was being read to, before I could read myself, and then reading,” she said. “So I was one of those kids who loved to read, it was a favorite activity. I loved children’s books; I was always trying to get my mother to read to me. And then, you know, that made me want to do that. It was really as simple as that.”

“Books and writing and stories made me happy,” Nuñez explained. Literature is not Nuñez’s only creative pursuit; as a teenager, she became obsessed with ballet. “I did do that very seriously, and I thought, ‘Oh, I want to be a dancer, there’s nothing I want more than to be a dancer and that was closer to a fantasy than a reality.’ But that’s the only other thing, really, that I could say was an idea for a career.”

This excerpt was originally published in Michigan Daily. Read the full interview here.

“I became a writer not because I was seeking community but rather because I thought it was something I could do alone,” she told the New York Times. “How lucky to have discovered that writing books made the miraculous possible, to be removed from the world, and to be a part of the world at the same time.”

On Her Process

Nuñez’s writing process begins with an idea. And when she gets that idea, she writes it down.

“I’ve never worked from an outline for any of my fiction books,” she said. “With the fictional work, I never have an outline — not for short fiction or long. I just start writing. I make a beginning and then I proceed from there.”

She doesn’t rush the writing process, either.

“I work in sections,” she said, “linearly, chronologically, one thing after another, and I don’t move on to the next section until I’m more or less satisfied with what I have. Everything comes out of what was written before.”

This excerpt was originally published in Michigan Daily. Read the full interview here.

On Autofiction

Much of her work has been categorized as autofiction, fictional work sprinkled with autobiographical elements that have clearly marked her writing style. The Friend, however, is not autofiction, she says – contrary to popular belief.

“It’s true that most of my work, including The Friend, has some autobiographical elements,” she says. “I wouldn’t say the challenges and rewards of writing partly autobiographical fiction have been particularly different from writing other kinds of fiction. One uses the same tools, and, factual or not, you still have to create the story and the language out of your imagination. About autofiction, I should say that, although my first novel, A Feather on the Breath of God, was autofiction, my most recent novel, The Friend, is not. And, contrary to how it might sometimes seem, there is nothing new about autofiction and its fans. Before Knausgaard and Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti there was Marguerite Duras and Annie Ernaux and J. M. Coetzee. There was V. S. Naipaul (a major acknowledged influence on Knausgaard) and Christopher Isherwood and Elizabeth Hardwick and Renata Adler. Not to mention earlier writers like Colette, Proust, Rilke. It’s a long list that includes many widely admired and beloved authors.”

This excerpt was originally published on LitHub. Read the full interview here.

On Writer’s Block & Advice

About writer’s block she says:I don’t tackle it. I accept it, reminding myself often of something Norman Mailer said: “There’s a touch of writer’s block in a writer’s work every day,” she told LitHub in an interview.

The best writing advice she’s ever received: “Never assume the reader is not as intelligent as you are.”

Photo Credit: @Marion Ettlinger

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