Writers & Company

In her prizewinning fiction, Sigrid Nunez deals with life — and death — with empathy and wit

The American novelist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about friendship, grief and the enduring power of fairy tales.

Warning: This story and accompanying audio includes discussion of suicide

Sigrid Nunez is an American writer and author of nine books, including the National Book Award–winning novel The Friend. (Riverhead Books, Marion Ettlinger)

Reading Sigrid Nunez is like having an intimate conversation, full of warmth, intelligence and wit. You never know where it will take you, but it's always rewarding.

Each of Nunez's two most recent novels takes a simple premise and spins it into something marvellous. In The Friend, winner of the 2018 U.S. National Book Award, a woman grieving for her close friend and mentor finds unexpected fulfilment in caring for his Great Dane. In her latest book, What Are You Going Through, the narrator agrees to support a terminally ill friend as she ends her own life. Both novels delve into contemporary human dilemmas with grace and insight.

Nunez was born in New York in 1951, to an immigrant Chinese Panamanian father and a German war bride mother. She explored this complicated background in her autobiographical first novel, A Feather on the Breath of God. She's published nine books and her work has been translated into more than twenty languages.

Nunez spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from her home in New York City.

Fond of fairy tales

"From the beginning, I loved fairy tales. My mother would read them to me. Once I learned to read myself, I would read them over and over again. I'd go to the library and come home with The Red Fairy Book, The Blue Fairy Book, The Yellow Fairy Book, etc.

"That was a huge influence on me. The wonderful thing about fairy tales is the way they ring so true — anything can happen, no matter how strange. 

There's a reality in the fairy tales because of the lack of sentimentality.

"I also love the idea of metamorphosis, which is so much a part of fairy tales, that a person could become a tree or a bird. There are always lots of animals in fairy tales.

"There's a reality in the fairy tales because of the lack of sentimentality. Bad things always happen in fairy tales, however they might end; this is presented as the way of the world, without any sentimentality. 

"That, I think, is a very important idea to learn early on."

A conflicted household

"My father was half Panamanian and half Chinese. He identified as Chinese: that was his community and he did not speak Spanish at all. He worked in Chinese restaurants his whole life.

"He was working as an illegal alien in New York's Chinatown when the Second World War broke out. He ended up in the army and with the occupying forces in southern Germany, which is where he met my mother. So my mother was a German war bride.

"He brought her to the States, and they lived in a housing project in Brooklyn. They moved to another housing project on Staten Island when I was about two. There were three daughters and I was the youngest. 

My father was always a mystery to me. That is one of the main reasons why I wanted to write about him.

"My mother's English became quite good, even though she always had this very heavy German accent. My father's English was never good. I was always fascinated by how they met, because when they did, they didn't have a common language — all she had was some school English and his English was quite poor. 

"It was a conflicted household. My mother's idea was that she had these three children, the children were hers and she wanted to raise them as little German children, even though she never taught us the language when we were young. And my father was a very withdrawn person. He worked all the time. He always remained at such a distance from us.

"You could not get him to talk about his past, his life. My father was always a mystery to me. That is one of the main reasons why I wanted to write about him." 

A meditation on loss

"Before I started writing The Friend, I was aware that any number of people that I knew had it in their heads that they might commit suicide. They weren't making a cry for help, or had made an attempt; I'm not talking about that situation. But they had thought that might be how they would leave this life, at some time.

"That struck me as quite remarkable. I was certainly concerned, but I probably wasn't that surprised. I feel like so many people actually do have suicidal thoughts, even if they never actually come close to it. It's not like I've known many, many people who've committed suicide. I had finished the book when one of those people did commit suicide. It's endlessly fascinating because it always remains a mystery. 

I feel like so many people actually do have suicidal thoughts, even if they never actually come close to it.

"I don't think you can ever really understand what somebody is going through when they come to that extreme, except in cases where the person is in fact dying, or something has happened to them and they leave a note and they explain it. 

"But so often, that's not how it happens: the person does not leave a note, or even, according to the people closest to that person, clues that this was going to happen."

Intimate voices

"I was writing The Friend and I knew it was going to be in the first person. I wanted it to have the tone of an intimate voice, the same tone you might have in a love letter, a hushed, intimate voice. 

"I didn't intend to have the entire narrative addressed to the mentor who commits suicide, as in a love letter or any kind of letter. I never thought of it as a letter; it was just the tone I was after. 

"When it was finished, I realized how close it was to my very first novel, A Feather on the Breath of God, which was published in 1995. I realized that it was the same voice, the same sensibility, perhaps the same narrator, older.

The two books seem to be in conversation with each other — and that is absolutely right. It was not planned.

"When I started, What Are You Going Through, I recognized fairly early on that this was the same voice as The Friend — and that it was also the same sensibility. 

"The narrator of What Are You Going Through — the way she thinks, the way she reflects, the way she observes things —  those are all exactly as the narrator of The Friend would also think and reflect and observe. The two books do seem to be in conversation with each other, but it was not planned.

"But I feel that What Are You Going Through came out of The Friend."

Sigrid Nunez's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, here are ways you can get help:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (Phone) | 45645 (Text) | crisisservicescanada.ca (Chat)
  • In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
  • Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca
  • Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a crisis centre

If you feel your mental health or the mental health of a loved one is at risk of an immediate crisis, call 911.


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