Literary Hub

Meet National Book Award Finalist Sigrid Nunez

The 2018 National Book Awards will be held on Wednesday, November 14 at the 69th National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City. In preparation for the ceremony, and to celebrate all of the wonderful books and authors nominated for the awards this year, Literary Hub will be sharing short interviews with each of the finalists in all five categories: Young People’s Literature, Translated Literature, Poetry, Nonfiction, and Fiction.

Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, the story of a woman who inherits a complicated friend’s Great Dane after his death, is a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award in Fiction. Literary Hub asked Nunez a few questions about her book and her writing life.

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What’s the best book you read this year?

I’ve read a lot of equally good books this year, so rather than “best” I’d like to name one book that I was particularly delighted to read for the first time, a novel by the great Hungarian writer Tibor Déry, Niki: The Story of a Dog, published in 1956.

Who was the first person you told about making this list?

My hardworking agent.

How do you tackle writer’s block?

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.”

Which non-literary piece of culture—film, tv show, painting, song—could you not imagine your life without?

I’d have a hard time living without films. I love going to the movies and I do it often. However, I don’t have a Netflix account and I have no desire to stream films to watch at home. I want the full cinematic experience and I’d give anything to go back to the days of the big screen. The steadily shrinking screen for movie-watching is, to my mind, one of the most unfortunate trends of our culture.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Never assume the reader is not as intelligent as you are.

I know you sometimes describe your work as at least partly autobiographical; what are the challenges and rewards of writing in this mode, especially compared to other modes? What do you think has brought about our ongoing literary love of autofiction?

It’s true that most of my work, including The Friend, has some autobiographical elements. 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.

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