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Nicole Krauss Will Break Your Heart, One Way or Another: Q&A with "Great House" Author

Nicole Krauss's books will break your heart. Meet her in person Friday night.
Nicole Krauss's books will break your heart. Meet her in person Friday night.

​Nicole Krauss will break your heart. You'll be reading one of her novels and suddenly the pages will be damp. Confused, you'll check the page number -- 12 -- and swear to yourself that you couldn't possibly be weeping before even learning the narrator's name. But you are. Don't worry. It's not your fault. It's hers.

Krauss is hands-down one of the nation's best young writers. We spoke to her ahead of her Book Fair appearance this Friday about writing unlovable characters, confronting catastrophic loss, and her latest novel, Great House.

New Times: Great House has a much different tone to your previous book, The History of Love. One review went so far as to call it your "pure tragic vision." Is that a fair assessment?

Nicole Krauss: That's one way to put it, perhaps not the way that I would put it. Obviously there is a shift in mood, as I think ought to happen with a writer. When one book is finished you transform: life happens, you become someone else. I wrote it at a different moment in my life... There was a gravity that didn't exist that had a lot to do with becoming a parent. I now have two boys [with author and husband Jonathan Safran Foer]: one born right before I started, and another when I was right in the middle of Great House.

Part of the way I'll always think of Great House is as the only mechanism I could have invented to capture all of those feelings that were born in me when my kids were born. It's not a book about motherhood in any obvious way. It's more about emotional inheritance, about what we consciously or unconsciously pass down.

So yeah, it has a different mood. History of Love was filled with characters who charm you from the first moment you meet them: they ask to be loved from the very beginning. That was part of writing that book. I was drawn to that kind of character. When I began writing Great House, I was interested in a different kind of character. I was as interested as I always have been and always will be in empathy... but I was interested in characters who don't ask that of us, who tell us who they are with all of their flaws and shortcomings, and who in the process of hearing from them those who live with them, we come to understand what made them that way. The empathy [in Great House] is, in a certain way, harder won. 

You hope you mature as a writer. I still want to write things that make me laugh, and make other people laugh. But I'm interested in finding other routes to writing what matters to me.

Your books always create a sense of mystery, leaving the characters or plot out of focus -- so to speak -- until the very end. How do you do that as a writer? Do you write separate stories and then weave them together? Or do you write the book exactly as it reads?

Exactly as you read them. I never knew where the stories were going to go and how they were going to come together. Strangely, I don't do a lot of re-writing afterwards... I'm discovering as I write. I can't imagine having a plan, a blueprint, or a clear sense of where I'm going with the book and where it's going to be about. None of that is in any way apparent to me.

So it begins with improvisation and continues for some time that way. I make adjustments as I begin to notice the patterns in the work, the echoes and the allusions that are beginning to create this choral piece. It teases out this coherence that I couldn't have conceived of before. I couldn't have known that I was writing a book of all the things that Great House is about, but I realized that slowly along the way. It's like being the conductor of an orchestra: certain things you ask to be quiet, certain things you raise the volume on, or you understand you need to pick up the tempo on something. You constantly try to keep that music going.

It's a constant dance between control and losing control. If I don't allow myself to lose control particularly in the early year or years of writing the work, I never manage to arrive at that place where real discovery is possible - revelation really.

 

The mental and physical pains of writing are paramount in Great House: Nadia's writer's block, her massive writing desk, and lovers' fear of it. How does writing work for you? Do you sit at a big desk?

Yeah (laughing), exactly like that. One of the strange things about writing Great House was not realizing for a long time that this desk which was beginning to be important in a number of parts of the novel was almost an exact echo of my own desk - which I also inherited, unfortunately not from a Chilean poet. That would be all too romantic. But from the former owner of the house, who had it built to his sort of strange, esoteric specifications.

So it's a very unusual desk. I've never liked it, actually. It's not what I would have ever chosen for myself but it's at the top floor of a tall house, a narrow house that you could never get it down. So you can't get rid of it basically or even give it away without destroying it, chopping it up. It's always been this strange, um, agreement that I've had with myself to keep writing at this thing even though I don't like it because what a waste it would be otherwise.

It's strange. It doesn't have 19 drawers [like the desk in Great House] but it does have this wall that rises up from the desktop with shelves and drawers. Certainly, there was a moment early on when I realized, 'Wait a minute, this has weasled its way into my novel!
What is it that i'm writing on here?' And I began to think of this idea of the burden of inheritance.

That's when it really came into consciousness for me, this idea of inheriting the desk. That's a simple and comic story: nothing really deep associated with me, just the former owner of this house. If I really wanted to get rid of it I could. But it invoked for me this deeper idea which obviously was very important for me at the time, having just had my first child and being deeply concerned with the idea of - do we pass sadness onto our children, for example? What do we pass on in terms of the mood that is handed down to us historically and is there a possibility of overcoming that or transcending that? And how does it happen? 

This is something that I've wondered for a long time. There have been recent studies of the earthquake victims in Haiti that seem to suggest that trauma is actually passed down genetically... even with that there seems to be some sense in which, if we can't say that it's genetically passed down, it is deeply passed down, simply in the way we raise our children without even being aware of it. That moved me, concerned me, and made me wonder, and this desk embodied that. It sort of pushed its way into my work.

Can you explain the novel's title: Great House?

The book is of course filled with houses and rooms. In fact, I always thought of this novel as a house. The working name for the chapters were "Room 1" and "Room 2" and so on. Even before this book, I always from the first moment I began writing a novel I began to think of novels as houses.

Wanted to be a poet since I was 15, until I was 25 when I wrote Man Walks Into A Room, my first novel. I was so dedicated to this idea of writing poetry for a lifetime. Various things happened and I decided to experiment with writing a novel. Very, very quickly I was amazed at how at home I felt and I began to think of a novel as having rooms.

The italian word "stanza" actually means rooms. A poem, because of the relative smallness of its form, of course it can kind of contain infinity but it's small. You're finished with it after a day. Whereas a novel seemed to me so much more like a house. Because it's so sprawling in its formlessness, it's always necessarily imperfect. This sense of imperfection as a form actually comforted me. I felt at home in it and the idea that you could live in over the course of the years as you wrote it.

So from very early on there was this idea of the novel as a house. Over time the idea only became more profound for me. There's this idea that a writer's only home is his or her language or her work, but of course, since I come and my family comes from so many places, and there's never been a strong sense of any one place being a home. Home has always been an elusive idea to me. With my novels, I quickly realized that they were always going to be filled with these many places that somehow I was trying to bring together into this whole, that I will always try to bring into a whole, I guess.

Then there began to be this other idea, as I began to know myself as a writer, of how I literally build my novels architecturally. I really began to think of them as architecture. I think I have a strong sense of space and engineering. My family, some of them are engineers. I think that's almost a genetic inheritance. I always think of a novel spatially as I'm putting it together. I have a very strong instinct for that. 

I began to think of this novel as building it from the inside: so fashioning a door knob, then the door, then the room. And only as I would back away and be finishing the book would I have a sense of the whole house and what it looked like. Of course, at that point you're on the outside. You have to throw away the key. You publish it and it goes off into the world. 

Specifically for Great House, you come to the end of the book and there is the House of Study, the Great House, that is burned in Jerusalem in the first century A.D. when the Romans conquered Jerusalem. That's the moment when the title is pretty literally revealed. The reference for me is one of the most beautiful stories in Jewish history.

Up until that point, everything that it meant to be a Jew depended on the place, Jerusalem, and the temple. All the rituals were about the temple sacrifices. Then when the Romans conquered Jerusalem and the Jews were from that moment on exiled, the diaspora begins and this question arrives down to us who have survived outside of Jerusalem: what is a Jew without Jerusalem? 

And one of the answers to that question came from this rabbi -- Yohanan ben Zakai, who left Jerusalem during the siege and survived -- was basically a radical reinvention of what it means to be a Jew. It began with: OK, we can't sacrifice at the temple anymore so we'll replace that with prayer, which is portable and internal rather than something that is external, which is the nation state that can't survive. But prayer is something we can carry with us within, wherever we go. We can survive that way.

So I've always been drawn to or fixated on the idea of the ways in which people reinvent themselves following catastrophic loss.

Great House is filled with female characters who give up motherhood to become writers. Were you ever worried about that? Do you ever feel like you're giving up too much to become a writer?

One of the things that interests me is the other position: what is it like to be that other way, that other person who isn't me but who I can imagine myself into. So when I wrote The History of Love, I had to feel like I could be Leo Gursky, this old man at the end of his life who, on the surface, is nothing like me. But yet in some deep way he was me. I was him. He allowed me to talk about things that were incredibly personal to me that could have been spoken of in no other form except in his voice.

That has always moved me as a reader and as a writer, the opportunity that literature affords one to become another person. I can't think of anything else in life that allows that in such an intimate way, to just step into someone else's shoes and feel the conditions of that other existence.

The result of that is this incredibly powerful empathy, which we have as readers but of course has to happen for me as a writer as well. So to choose someone too close to my own circumstances or my own position in a way inhibits me. I know what it is to be me. But what moves me is what it is to be another, and being that other sort of amplifies and enlarges my own sense of myself.

An Evening With Nicole Krauss. Friday, Nov. 18, 8:00 p.m. at the MDC Chapman Conference Center (Building 3, 2nd Floor, Room 3210). Visit miamibookfair.com for required tickets ($10).

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