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

​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.

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.

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