Nell Zink is one of the most exciting new literary voices. Her debut novel, The Wallcreeper (which will be published in the UK in a double edition with her second novel, Mislaid, later this year), was met with broad acclaim in the US. A passionate environmentalist, Zink lives in Germany and chatted with Thomas Roueché over the phone.
Thomas Roueché Have you always been writing? Because you’ve done lots of different types of jobs and you were publishing a zine. I just wanted to know the genesis of your work.
Nell Zink It’s almost hard for even me to believe, because I’ve come so far from that in the past couple of years. But I was writing very seriously, writing novels, with no intention of publishing them at all. I just didn’t think I had anything to gain. Because, you know, I had friends who wrote novels, and they would go to the trouble of publishing it and sell 200 copies. What’s the point? You might as well just write it and give it to your friends. And if they like it and enjoy it and you can give pleasure to people you know and like, you could skip all that printing and publicising guff. I’ve been writing – wanting to be a writer, and doing it pretty seriously – since I was quite small, but at the same time I had no expectation that I would ever be where I am suddenly finding myself right now for no good reason.
TR Does it feel quite exposing?
NZ Yeah, at first. It’s funny, the first time I wrote really publicly, I know exactly when it was. The first time I wrote something with the expectation that someone who was not my friend was going to read it was right around New Year’s, like a year and three months ago, the end of December 2013.
I had ended up in touch with Keith Gessen from n+1 magazine, because we got him to blurb The Wallcreeper in the US. So he said, “Write something for n+1 online.” I was so sure that everyone in the world would read it and they would all want to kill me. I was scared. I was, like, completely on edge, thinking, “OK, what can I write? Can I say that? No, I can’t say that, that’s too far out. But I can say this, if maybe I mask it with this utterly bewildering locution here, so that only the initiated…” I was like when Jesus explains why all his teachings are in parables. He says, “Those who have ears, let them hear.” And that was my attitude. I’m just going to write in a way that’s just so recondite and abstruse that no one is going to know what the hell I’m talking about, unless they’re my friend. I really liked that kind of style, but at the same time, once you start writing for a larger public, you realise, “Oh, wait a second. If I make this a wee bit simpler, I’m going to reach exponentially more people.” I have some background in journalism. I know what it’s like to write, just writing degree zero, straight-up, let’s get the message out. But that isn’t what you’re trying to do when you’re writing essays for a literary magazine. Writing in public was a huge jolt and I’m getting used to it. Slowly.
TR How does being a writer living in Germany inform your writing about Americans in Europe and Americans in America?
NZ I think America has changed a lot since I left. I left at the end of the 1990s and then September 11 happened. Once every eight or 10 months I would be there for a couple of months, just taking care of my parents and stuff like that. So I was seeing America at irregular intervals, and I think it’s like what people say when a friend of yours is losing weight. You don’t notice it. You never get those compliments you want from your friends for losing weight, because they see you every day, so it’s a very, very gradual process.
So I was noticing changes in America that were probably pretty subtle if you were there all the time. But if you see America once a year, you’d be like, “Whoa, what happened? Why is there suddenly an intellectual guy with glasses like Ludwig Wittgenstein bagging the groceries at this place that is selling individually packed slices of Cheddar cheese behind a deli counter? What came about to make this happen?” Because the mobility in American society in the time that led up to the financial crash in 2008 was so extreme and people were just swimming in money they didn’t know what to do with, and many things that had previously been coded because they were for insiders, suddenly became very explicit, so it was like being in a science-fiction novel by Philip K. Dick where everything is labelled. Like the magazine for rich people was no longer Town & Country. It would be called something like Condé Nast’s New Wealth or Travel Rich. America started looking very different, and the ghettoisation was so extreme.
So when I sat down to write Mislaid, I very consciously chose to work according to my own perceptions and memories of what America is like and what it was like and not do any research, not let myself be influenced by somebody else’s Wikipedia article. There’s so much falsification and things just get copied and repeated and rehearsed and things that were true get forgotten because they just don’t make sense to anyone any more. Young people are so young now. They were born in, like, 1990. And they have no fucking clue of what it was like to grow up under segregation.
TR I mean there’s something so matter-of-fact about the way in which you write about what a certain generation of people would call “alternative lifestyles”.
NZ In the world I remember growing up in, many things were taken for granted. A male interior decorator, a male librarian, a male hairdresser – these were gay men and you wouldn’t advise them to go to a biker bar in drag, because they might get beat up, but if they decorated your home these could be very prominent, very successful citizens. Guys who ran restaurants in the South, they were pretty gay. It just was the standard. Cooks. Chefs, even. There was a role to take up and there was no reason for a gay guy not to get married and have kids. Everybody knew married couples don’t have sex. How boring is that? You marry somebody and have sex with the same person for 40 years? I mean, only people now come up with ideas that crazy. This is a weird modern perversion!
TR There is something about the way that Mislaid is written, in this incredibly straightforward way, while the ideas are so subversive so that lulls you into that false sense of security and then suddenly, you’re like, “Whoa!”
NZ That’s what I was trying to do, more or less, so I’m happy to hear you say it. I’m always happy, when some bookseller somewhere will send my editor an e-mail saying that he really enjoyed it and you can tell by the words that he uses that this is just a regular guy or someone who’s not making pretentions to be any kind of professional intellectual. And he says, “This book is good and it says something about America.” And I’m like, “Yes. This is what I wanted.” That makes me very happy. And that subversiveness is something I try to cultivate because I really enjoy it, lulling people and trying to tell them something that they don’t want to hear by making them think that I’m telling them something else entirely. Which was the almost jokey project I was doing when I first wrote The Wallcreeper. I said, “Well, I’m going to write an environmental novel that just completely piggybacks on sex. It’s just going to be solid sex, but you can’t have the sex until you learn about the fate of European rivers.”
TR There’s a wonderful didacticism in The Wallcreeper that I think is so fantastic, and there’s something very thrilling about how radical the characters are.
NZ Because of now being a professional novelist, I’m not as involved in the environmental movement as I was even a year ago. I’m busy doing other stuff. I feel guilty about it. But I was so mixed up in trying to get media attention for some environmental issues in Germany, and I had this project going where I was going places and interviewing environmental activists and talking to them about their issues and trying to figure out what stories they could tell me that could work in a mass medium. Because the truth about most environmental issues is that it’s like watching grass grow. Some stories involve big money or weapons or hot women. Those are the stories that you can get on TV, so I was going around to these nerdy, shy nature lovers, trying to find out what stories they had to tell that I could maybe get my journalist friends to write about. And it worked. The issue that I ended up focusing on was bird hunting because it involved guns. People love guns. If you see a lot of media stories about bird hunting, it’s not that bird hunting is the great issue of our time. For ornithologists or people concerned with conservation you can make a case for birds being key indicators of a healthy ecosystem. You could make that case. But bird hunting is prominent in the media and it can become counterproductive because the bird organisations themselves are trying so hard to work with hunters. You know, Ducks Unlimited in the US is one of the most prominent conservation organisations. They want ducks so they can shoot them. It’s not very nice, but it’s the sad truth. The wildlife refuges are game reserves –
TR And it’s called Ducks Unlimited?
NZ Yes! Ducks Unlimited was founded, I believe, in the 1930s under that name. Ducks Unlimited was the idea that, “We are draining wetlands, we’re not going to have ducks to shoot, let’s have Ducks Unlimited.” And they started buying up huge tracts of land and they did a lot of public-private partnerships, so you’ll go to some wonderful public marsh, some great wetlands that have been saved with the help of Ducks Unlimited, and there will be this little sign saying, “Dear Birdwatchers, if it’s winter, please avert your eyes because you’re going to be upset. We’re going to be shooting your birds. Sorry.” But, I mean, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds also works with hunters and they’re not going to come out and say something against hunters. I really hate the fuck out of hunters, man. I think they’re bad. I mean, what kind of crazy person wants to shoot a bird? It’s just over my head.
TR In terms of the stuff that you read, your influences, is there a German element or is that just where you live, and you read very broadly?
NZ My influences? Well, the reason I speak German so well, as well as I do, is because I like German literature so much. I found authors that I enjoyed reading early on. I knew Spanish before I knew German, but I was never reading Spanish books and being blown away by them. I liked them fine but I didn’t really love them. There’s this sort of Central European expressionism that there’s a lot of in German, especially from the 1920s and 1930s.
I really, really like it. I had a Kafka phase maybe 30 years ago, but still I was reading a lot of German. Jonathan Franzen made the joke when The Wallcreeper got such good reviews, “Well, everybody loves European literature if it’s in English and written by an American.” Because he thought it was a very European kind of book, like one of those short French novels with a lot of politics and sex. §