When I asked novelist Sigrid Nuñez about the inspiration behind her latest book, “The Friend,” her answer was both surprising and not surprising.
“A few years ago,” she said, “I realized that I had several friends who had started thinking about suicide. Not necessarily that it was something they were going to do, or that they were threatening, or that they were in immediate danger — but it had started becoming part of the way they thought, a stronger and stronger possibility that (suicide) was something that very likely might happen to them sometime in the future.”
On Sept. 27, Nuñez and poet Aracelis Girmay spoke at UMMA as part of the Zell Visiting Writers Series. Nuñez read from her 2017 novel “The Friend,” which is longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award in Fiction.
A pattern of philosophical repositioning among Nuñez’s friends may seem like unlikely source material for a novel, but Nuñez, a prolific and uniquely talented writer, mines inspiration from all parts of her life. She is emphatically unafraid to draft responses to the questions and curiosities of the human experience. “The Friend” is the most recent result of this eager attentiveness to the world.
On “The Friend”
At turns heartbreaking and delightful, “The Friend” traces the interior life of a writer whose mentor has committed suicide. While taking care of her mentor’s aging Great Dane, the writer expounds on the nature of companionship, aging, love and the act of writing. “The Friend” is a joy to read, for both its language and the urgent necessity of its content.
There are two central relationships guiding the narrative of “The Friend” — one between the writer and her mentor, and one between the writer and the dog. Nuñez leaves it ambiguous which partnership the title refers to; perhaps it is about both. Nuñez’s frank empathy for humans and animals structures the novel’s dense interiority and grounds its frequent digressions into history, literature and culture.
“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 explained.
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.”
Suicide, a dog and literature are an uncommon trifecta of ingredients, but Nuñez manages to combine them exceedingly well.
“I felt I had a story that could bring these three things together,” she explained. The elements converge organically, which says as much about the material as it does about Nuñez’s writing style and methodology.
On the writing process
Nuñez’s writing materializes spontaneously.
“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.”
While writing, Nuñez uses both a computer and handwritten notes.
“I’ll use the computer as a word processor — as a typewriter, basically. I’ll type something out and then make some changes and then print it out and work on the printout by hand. But most of it, really, at this point, is done on the computer,” she said.
“It probably has changed things,” Nuñez said of her use of technology as a tool for writing. “But it’s too hard for me to see how, because other things — such as time and life and experience and practice and age and all those things — have also changed, so it’s hard for me know, actually, what has changed, going from somebody who did write in longhand a long, long time ago.”
Still, Nuñez emphasizes the importance of incorporating handwritten notes into her editing practice.
“There always has to be a hardcopy and a pencil in my hand for the final draft,” she explained.
In both form and content, Nuñez’s work pushes its reader to think more deeply about the world and its inhabitants. In regard to her intended audience, Nuñez does not write with one in mind.
“I don’t really think about the audience of my work. I guess I just have in my mind some kind of ideal reader, and that would just be a person who likes to read, who likes to read fiction and who is interested in the same things that I’m interested in.”
On becoming a writer
Becoming a writer was not a difficult choice for Nuñez, and books have been an important part of her life since childhood.
“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.”
Rather than pursue dance, though, Nuñez committed herself to the world of reading and writing.
“There was always creative writing,” she said of her of childhood and adolescence. “Then, when I got to college, there were creative writing workshops. It was always there; it was always encouraged.”
Nuñez’s natural tendency toward keen observation helped her coalesce her childhood interests in literature and writing into a career.
“I think it was Henry James who said that a writer is somebody who has to notice everything, who can’t miss anything,” Nuñez explained.
Nuñez certainly does not miss anything, and she fills her books with the kinds of details that only a writer would think to articulate. It is this earnest perceptiveness that bridges the divide between fiction and reality, interior reflection and outward-facing analysis.
“You can almost tell who is a writer or who could be a writer,” Nuñez began, “by the fact that they are always noticing things.”