A Talk With Author Nicole Krauss
With just three novels and several short stories, Nicole Krauss has captured the attention of the literary world for her rich and intellectually challenging fiction. Her most recent book, Great House: A Novel, was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award. Her fiction has been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire and Granta’s Best American Novelists Under 40. In 2010, she was selected as one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” writers to watch. Her novels have been translated into 35 languages.
Krauss was a student at Stanford University when she met the poet Joseph Brodsky, who worked closely with her on her poetry for three years. Now living in Brooklyn, New York, she is married to the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer; they have two children.
Great House, Krauss’s third novel, concerns doubt, doubt about herself, about the universe, about religion and about God, among other themes. It is told in four voices. It begins with a writer named Nadia telling her story to someone she addresses as “Your honor”; his identity is revealed later. Nadia is explaining herself, and her explanation is focused on her relationship with the desk that was entrusted to her several decades earlier by a young Chilean poet who later disappeared at the hands of Pinochet’s secret police. One day a young woman claiming to be the poet’s daughter arrives to take the desk away, upending the writer’s life.
In another of several major threads to the complex book, a man in London caring for his dying wife, Lotte, discovers a lock of hair that unravels a terrible secret. And in Jerusalem, Dov, an antiques dealer, slowly reassembles his father’s study, which was plundered by the Nazis in Budapest in 1944.
Connecting these stories is a desk of 19 drawers that exerts a power over those who possess it or have given it away. As the stories unfold the desk takes on more and more meaning, and finally comes to stand for all that has been taken from them, and all that binds them to what has disappeared.
Q. You once said that Great House had themes or characters that only emerged after you had written 10 pages.
A. What I said is that for me the themes don’t develop until very late in the work. So 10 pages in I don’t really know anything, no idea who the character is, or his voice. As I’m working I’m beginning to understand my material, which has many different parts, places, characters, stories. And as I’m beginning to handle this material, which comes spewing out, I begin to notice patterns. Those things only really become truly clear after I’m finishing a book or after I’ve finished a book.
I’m interested in the process of discovery. If I already knew what my book was going to be about when I set out, frankly, I would have had no interest in writing it. Why would I write something that was already known to me?
Q. Does the desk, the unifying force of Great House: A Novel, symbolize the fate of the Jews in the Holocaust?
A. No. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know how a piece of furniture could symbolize the death of six million people. One of the interesting things about writing this novel is how this enormous, hulking, overbearing piece of furniture could take on so many different meanings. And how it could actually become a very flexible metaphor. So, in Nadia’s life the desk says to me one thing, in Arthur’s life it can mean something else again. In Lotte’s life it can mean something else again, and Dov is trying to reconstruct his father’s study. So in all these different characters’ lives the desk and its 19 drawers hold all kinds of meanings.
Q. Why do the characters in Great House seem so morbid in tone?
A. Morbid is not the right word. It’s somber. I was in that mood for a long time, and now I’m in a different mood and one can explore that mood. I don’t feel in any way that my novels are there to entertain people. It’s not my job just to make people laugh, to give them a good time. I do think it’s my job to make them think, and to move them, and there are many ways to do that. Humor is one. Telling a good story is another. Making them feel a deep empathy and connection with characters is yet another. You get in art and literature a chance to clear space for the most essential things and for the most existential questions. And they’re not really funny.
Q. You say Great House is a story haunted by questions: What do we pass on to our children and how do they absorb our dreams and losses? How do we respond to disappearance, destruction and change? Do you have any answers?
A. Well, the point to me is not to provide answers. I think it was Chekhov who made a distinction between an active presentation of a problem and a solution to a problem. I think Chekhov felt it was the author’s responsibility to provide the questions. Or I might state the question. So I’m interested in asking the questions.
Q. If you had to do this all over again, would you change any of the characters?
A. No. There’s an interesting thing that happens after a book is finished. I don’t have any desire, I never had any desire, to go back and change anything in my books. Not because I think they are perfect, but to the contrary, I’m the first person who knows best what my own novel shortcomings are. I can live with that. A novel always gives the picture of perfect form but always has shortcomings, failures and a reason to write another book. I also feel loyal to the idea that a book represents who the writer was at the time she wrote it. It’s a kind of photograph in a way or something much more profound even. Great House has a theme on the surface. To me it will always be about a response to all the feelings that came along with my new motherhood. So I couldn’t write that book now. I’m already a good deal older.
Q. The book takes its title from a talmudic idea of Jerusalem after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, a “great house” was burned. Why did you wait until the very end of the book to reference the title?
A. It just wasn’t important before. There are so many other meanings of “great house.” [The Temple is] very literal and specific and perhaps the main one. But I also later refer to the Ben Zakai School as “The Great House”; it burned in Jerusalem as [did] the school [the sage] started in Yavneh, where he had to answer the question what is a Jew without Jerusalem, and basically refashion the religion so they could survive in the diaspora.
But there are so many meanings. Long before I even knew I would call the book Great House or that I thought of the “great house” of that story about Jewish history, the chapters were originally called Room 1 or Room 2. I was very aware of rooms, of houses, the idea of building a house, the different houses in the book. The idea that the novel is the writer’s true home, all those ideas were part of thinking about that title. And yet I think there’s that moment of “aha,” which is the most palpable or the least abstract of all those meanings.
Q. You said in Great House, “What is a Jew without Jerusalem? How can you be a Jew without a nation? How can you make a sacrifice to God if you don’t know where to find Him?” Does Jewish loss of identity both in reality and philosophically still resonate with you? Will you come back to that theme again or do you have other things on your agenda?
A. As I said, I don’t know my themes until I’m writing the novel. Jewish loss of identity is obviously a very profound one for me in life, in writing. And I suppose in some way or other I will return to it. As I become more experienced as a writer I know better what draws my imagination. It’s quite mysterious. It’s not always the things one could have imagined when I was younger and someone had told me that I would have been writing novels about these things. It would have surprised me. I didn’t know that they were so profound with me, that there was something that needed to be addressed.
Q. Does that make you more interested intellectually in Jewish life?
A. I’m always more interested intellectually—and emotionally too. I am drawn to the ideas of what it means to be a Jew, I am drawn to rich varieties of Jewish life and a Jewish life is one in which you can make those distinctions. But partly it’s because of what I know. I’m not going to write a novel about WASPs in Boston or about Filipinos. It’s an interesting process, discovering as a writer what your material is. For example, Saul Bellow wrote a couple of novels before he realized that Chicago was his town and he knew Chicago inside out and that was something to be used, to be written about. His earlier books were sort of echoes of more European themes and writers. So I think when you discover your material, you know it, you stretch it, you push it, you argue with it. Why go elsewhere with the material? It moves me so much, it is so rich.
Q. A character in Great Housesays, “Every Jewish soul is built around a memory of it [the diaspora], so vast that we can each one of us only recall the tiniest fragments, but together it can be made whole again, every fragment remembered.” Is this a Hasidic sentiment?
A. It’s a novelistic idea, a literary idea. It’s not something I took from Hasidism, not at all. It was just ripe when I invented things, an idea to somehow invoke this feeling that I think many Jews have. The command to remember, this is so deep, in what it is to be a Jew. To always have to remember.
Also, it’s unclear what it is we’re all remembering, really. For us, it’s palpable to tell the story of the Haggada and of the Exodus every Passover but we don’t always know [the true history] we only feel strong insistence or this nagging feeling of another time, another place or this whole which is now in fragments.
We don’t really know the history. We don’t even know that Jews were actually slaves in Egypt. That’s the story. What has mattered to us all these years is the act of telling and retelling the same story over and over again for generation after generation. There’s almost nothing more Jewish than that.
Q. You talk of being first a reader and then a writer. Where does mother and spouse fit into this?
A. I haven’t found it difficult to fit into my life comfortably all those things—parenthood, family life, friendship and writing. All of that needs its place in life. Yes, they all vie for attention, but actually sometimes, in the best of times, they speak to each other. I think my writing became deeper, I think something changed dramatically when I had children. The book is dedicated to my two boys. Not that it’s about them in any way but I could not have written it if I had not had them because the experience of having them opened something in me that was never there before, that I’m still discovering the dimensions of, what it means to be a parent and what comes along with that.