Nell Zink's books aren't for everyone. They're freaky. They're upsetting. They're far too smart. Every suspicion I had about Zink—that she's probably a genius, that this is all some sort of game she's playing with us, laughing down at her keyboard with that long, gray-brown hair twitching across her face—was confirmed during our two hours together in the backyard of a grotesquely overpriced coffee shop on the Upper East Side. She was staying at Jonathan Franzen's place a few blocks away—"It's not bad," she said, with a poorly-contained smile. Franzen was off birding with his wife, somewhere on the African continent. Usually, Zink lives in Bad Belzig, Germany. She refers to the town as "infrastructure," and gripes only about her neighbor who blasts his television far too loud and likes to pull his trousers down to the edge of his pubic hair, as an intimidation tactic. Zink guesses she'll move soon. At 51, she carries herself like a 27-year-old: with curiosity and cocky grace.
Zink was stateside for just a few weeks, in anticipation of the publication of her second book, Mislaid. We met the day after her New Yorker profile was published. She had just sold her third book, titled Nicotine and written in three weeks this March and April. In her breathable fabric tanktop and cargo pants, it could fairly be said that the author was riding a high.
And why shouldn't she be? Has any woman over the age of 35 burst onto the scene with as much deserved bravado as Zink? Has any recent small-press novel—by a woman, about a woman—gained as much unexpected attention as The Wallcreeper? And would anyone among us—male, female, of any race—living in America dare to write a novel wherein a hot young lesbian co-ed shacks up with a gay playboy poetry professor before running away with her daughter to the backwaters of Virginia, pulling a Dolezal and pretending to be black? I think not. Because to write a book like Mislaid, you have to simultaneously be aggressively assured of your own cultural experience and have, truly, zero fucks to give. You have to be ready for the eggs to hit you, if they get thrown. And you have to have the rare smarts and narrative chops that can pull off a book that reads easy while methodically knocking at the reader's conscience. In an age where our major authors are focused on writing the stories of their post-9/11 Brooklyn lives, Zink has written the story of the South in the 1970s and 80s, from a studio apartment in Bad Belzig, Germany. The woman is riding a high she has earned.
VICE spoke with Zink about all the best things: money, sex, and feeling empowered in the face of literary-male mediocrity.
VICE: Where were you before you moved to Belzig?
Nell Zink: I was living in Southwestern Germany, in this perfect, dirt-cheap apartment. But I got involved with somebody who lives in Northeastern Germany, and what do you do? Because the thing we do together in the summertime is hang out by these lakes with very idyllic, very clear water.
That's very romantic.
It's a fine line between the romantic and other things that are unthinkable.
I read that you finish each book in three weeks—
I have this three-weeks fetish. Everything takes three weeks in my life. That's how long I can keep working, and then I feel like wrapping it up.
Are you just cranking the work out during those three weeks, or does that include editing and rewriting?
Cranking and rewriting. I tend to sort of work full-time during that period, and then I stop. My plan for my next book is to just do it the way everyone else does it, which is to do that several times in a row and have interrelated stories. A lot of people's so-called novels are actually cycles of novellas, or even short stories. Maybe there's a certain amount of time they can concentrate on a work of a certain size.
When you're working as a writer, you tend to expand that size. You get better and better at keeping what's going on. Breaking the 100-page mark is hard. Keeping a 100-page thing in your head. Still having an overview of what happens on every page. You get to a point where you can do that for 300 pages, and it's just practice.
The next book is going to be really big, and so deep and so important, and get a really mind-blowing advance and all the prizes. I have a whole plan for world domination.
And you've been practicing forever, now.
I've been practicing. The Wallcreeper… the first 50 pages I wrote in four days. Ten hours a day, with revisions. It got cranked out. I don't think I changed a word after that. When I wrote the rest of it, I didn't look at those first 50 pages. Writing The Wallcreeper was something very private that I was doing for myself. I started writing that book in August, and I finished on New Year's Eve.
Is that when you're going to write your next book?
Well, my next book to be published is one that I wrote in March and April. It's already written. But the next one is going to be really big, and so deep and so important, and get a really just mind-blowing advance and all the prizes. I have a whole plan for world domination.
You're coming from the Franzen school of knowing how to describe a book you're working on…
Is that how he describes a book he's working on?
Back in the day he said he was working on the Great American Novel.
He makes a mistake, saying "the" Great American Novel. You've got to define American. Of course, people want the Great American Novel to be one that includes a war. But the minute you include a war, it's not just American. I think that's something he's getting at. But if we're talking about a conflict, something global, something international, it's not the same as when [Franzen], in Freedom, sits down to say: "What are we doing to our mountaintops?"
There was a period when nobody was listening to me when I talked, so I could just go around saying, "Oh, I don't like anything written after 1930." And nobody cared if I said that or not. Now, this is not something I really want to go around trumpeting.
Because those are your peers now?
It's also not true. I like my own books. They're new. I was so heavy into dead writers, because I liked Expressionism and when it's done now, it's so kitschy. I like Bruno Schulz, but it's annoying when Nicole Krauss or Cynthia Ozick tries to be Bruno Schulz.
So I was heavy into all these dead guys. Then all of a sudden I began to know—beyond my friend Avner—other people writing novels in English, who are themselves thinking in a very serious way, What should a novel be? What kind of novel should I be writing? People like Keith Gessen, or Franzen, who are thinking these thoughts. Not thinking about a specific agenda they want to advance, but really thinking about the novel, which is what gets Franzen into trouble. It's like, who died and left him boss of the novel?
People look to the tall white guys to be our avant-garde because they're the ones who are not obligated to be political, in the sense of advancing some agenda.
I guess his thinking is: If other people aren't thinking about the novel, why shouldn't he?
Well, it's a boring topic. But it's just the classic thing that because he's a tall, educated, white guy. In a weird, contradictory sense, he feels like he's the avant-garde. People look to the tall white guys to be our avant-garde because they're the ones who are not obligated to be political, in the sense of advancing some agenda. There's no great collective injustice that Franzen is trying to right. You know, R-I-G-H-T. He's the one who can say, "OK, I'm in good condition. I can talk about the novel."
It's easy for anyone to adopt that pose. It's just a pose. It's an artistic position.
Would you like your work to not have the burden of righting any wrong?
No, not at all. I try to be as political as I can! These art-for-art's-sake novels, like I said, I haven't read that many. But I read both novels by Ben Lerner and they're very… art for art's sake. And I read the Jenny Offill thing and thought, OK, I guess she's the girl in the Ben Lerner novels or something.
They are sort of like companion books, aren't they?
I mean, [both novels feature] people very much concerned with their own lives and questions of domestic affairs, in the narrowest sense.
People are so excited about your voice because it's distinct and different from that cluster of writers. Is that because you're all the way off in Belzig?
Often I would say yes. People are social animals. If I had lived in Brooklyn surrounded by women or men writing these very domestic works concerned with existential questions, those would be my friends and acquaintances and I would probably position myself in that field. But the epigraph to Mislaid is that thing from Poe. "Among the rabble, men"—not that Brooklyn is the rabble—"Lion ambition is chain'd down… Not so in deserts where the grand, the wild, the terrible conspire…"
That's what I was getting at. Tidewater, Virginia, was a desert. And Germany is definitely a desert. And so my ambition knew no bounds. Not up, not down: I could be as coarse and stupid as I wanted, as lovely and poetic as I wanted, and write about anything I damn well please. That's not necessarily the case if you have an editor looking at you, or a workshop reading you, or friends who care, or any of that.
With Mislaid, you were no longer writing without an editor, without an audience. You were writing for a major publishing house and a serious audience. Did that change the experience of writing, for you?
When I wrote Mislaid, I was a lot more careful. And when I was editing it, when it was being edited by other people, I just… made a game out accepting all those suggestions.
Really. I just said, "Well, OK, she doesn't like this scene, I'll cut it out and see what I can do with what's left." I didn't care. I wanted the money! Are you kidding? Because when I sold that book, they said, "Well, we'll have to revise it over the summer." And then my translation customers would say, "Can you translate a book in June?" And I couldn't. If you say no to a freelance customer once then it's over, you'll never work for them again.
So you just did whatever the editors wanted.
I wouldn't say that, because I trust myself to rebel. I know from experience, if I do my very best to submit and do everything everybody tells me to do exactly the way they tell me to, it won't happen. I'm just too perverse that way.
So if somebody deletes a scene I just say OK, I can get that material in somewhere else. I ended up compacting and compressing things that people didn't seem to be getting. When I'm writing to an audience I know they're going to be reading it, and I want them to keep reading it, not throw it down.
You want [your plot] to be gripping, to make total strangers read it and not put it down, because you can't get an editor to look at it unless they don't want to put it down. And it won't be reviewed unless the reviewer failed to put it down. So you have to go to great lengths to make every page just like, "Read me, read me, read me." I don't want to be Dan Brown, but I need to be a little bit of a mix between Nell Zink and Dan Brown if I want to sell some books. And I would like to do that because I like this job. This is definitely the best job I ever had. I do not want to quit this job.
Is there as much pleasure in writing that way as writing when you don't have to worry about your reader "getting it"?
When you write something and you're revising it completely to your own tastes… well, it's very simply a question of power. When the second New York Times review appeared for The Wallcreeper, I was empowered. It was that simple. That was the moment when I could say, "No." From then on, I feel like my status with the people I work with in Literary Land… it was like a switch was flipped that day.
Does that bother you at all?
Why should it?
I know that's how the world works, but…
Writing, creating art, is something I'd been doing on my own time all along for fun. Completely free. If I want to play the game of getting advances in New York City and making a living, I'm going to play that game.
I don't want to be Dan Brown, but I need to be a little bit of a mix between Nell Zink and Dan Brown if I want to sell some books.
Do you feel like the discipline you acquired as a bricklayer is part of what keeps you going?
No, I was raised to be a worker. And to… abuse willpower to get things done.
So you've always been that way?
When I was young, I would start a new job, realize it was really bad, and then I'd submit it to the "Gulag Archipelago" test. I would stick with the job if it didn't involve being barefoot in Siberia in the winter. I had very low expectations, so I did very terrible jobs. If I had said no and quit a lot more, I'd be way better off.
Do you think you'd be writing full-time earlier? How would you be better off?
People I know who were just spoiled a little more as children, they're the ones you run into and ask what they're doing and they say, "Oh, I'm beta-testing video games." Because if you offered them a job digging ditches, they'd just look at you like, "What?" Whereas I didn't apply any sort of class standards to myself. I would do any job anybody gave me. I don't know if if was a self-esteem thing.
You seem like you have lots of self-esteem.
I wouldn't claim I was blessed with… look, I was profiled in the New Yorker yesterday. You're probably seeing my self-esteem at an all-time high. Because as the social psychologists know very well, self-esteem is just social status.
It takes incredible strength of character to stick to your principles and ideals if your social surroundings don't support them. That's why even AIDS activists are constantly going to conferences. Why? To get the social reinforcement to keep them going.
I saw Yoko Ono speak a few days ago. She said something to that effect, about how she'd been working as an artist, unrecognized, for 40 years—
Oh yeah, Yoko Ono was alone in the wilderness with no one to encourage her work. That chick is out of her mind!
From the VICE archive: Leave Jonathan Franzen Alone by Emily Gould
To talk a bit about Mislaid, I found the ending to be frustratingly neat, until I started to see the bigger picture. Were you going for a Shakespearean comedic tying up of ends?
Hell yeah! Yes. Yes.
Was the ending a touch sarcastic, then? None of the characters do anything to resolve their situation. Life just brings everyone together. Or did you mean it in earnest, that sometimes in life everything falls to hell and then life resolves itself?
It was mostly just… I don't like suspense. I have to force myself to put suspense in when I'm writing. I like seeing the same movies over and over. I could watch Vincente Minnelli's Gigi day after day. I know how it ends.
When you go to see something like Shakespeare, you know how it's gonna end. Shakespeare isn't the only example. You know the end of Oedipus Rex, but you might see it anyway. At the end of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, you know what's going to happen, too. In Mislaid, you know very well where it's headed, and what I was playing with was the disconnect between the characters and their attitudes toward what's going on. Because the reader knows what's going on, I can suggest perspectives of different characters on it and show how completely they exist in their own world.
It's not straight-up realism, but it has the trappings of realism, to make it readable, and also partly because I was pulling my punches when I wrote it. I was writing about things that I regarded as controversial. If I were sitting down to write the same book now, I would be a lot more direct about some of the themes. I wouldn't be oblique.
Because I realized that if you're oblique, people aren't necessarily gonna get it. If you have something to say, you should probably say it.
If you enter into a life partnership, you have to—half the time, at least—subordinate your desire to somebody else's. If the other person wants to have pygmy goats, you have to live in the country and take care of those goats.
And what were you trying to say?
For example, some points about the subtlety of racism in the South. There was a review in the Chicago Tribune where the person said, you know, "Racism has no adverse consequences for little Temple and little Karen—she gets a minority scholarship!" OK. These people are run off their land, forced to live in a rental project. Temple, who is a completely brilliant guy, he doesn't get a good elementary education, he doesn't get a good secondary education. He goes off to college absolutely unprepared and is unable to even come close to thinking about achieving what he wants to achieve, which is to work at the State Department. To pass that test, to work at the State Department, you have to be from the loftiest family and have gone to the best university. He doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell, and he doesn't know it until he's there.
Many of the disadvantages that Temple has are the same disadvantages that you have if you're just a white outsider, if you're white but you're not a member of the Bush clan. White and not a Kennedy. I made certain things subtle or I made them crass, but in misleading ways. You know, just playing my usual games as I'm writing. And this amuses the living tar out of some people. They'll read it and just be laughing their asses off the entire time. But if you want to make money, you can't write for those 15 people. You have to make the story work on several levels, and not foreground the subtle level quite so much.
Like how Sesame Street works for kids and for grown-ups.
It's a matter of practice. It's still a game for me. With the thing I wrote in March and April [Zink's next novel, Nicotine], I was like, I've done it. I've taken the Porsche and put it in whatever gears Porsches have and not lost contact with the road.
In both of your books, female characters' lives are often played out as the consequence of their partners'. Is there a warning against marriage in your work?
It's definitely not a generational difference because God knows in my generation women slept around. But I think it's fair to say that people underestimate how much a strong sex drive leads to pair bonding. People have this image that a guy with a strong sex drive will be fucking everything that moves. Well, that's not what a guy with a strong sex drive typically does. [Instead] he'll jump on somebody and stick to her like glue and drive her out of her mind with his endless demands for sex.
Women's sex drives can lead them to think obsessively about babies, night and day. And to want stability and someone they can count on. People have this image: "Oh, if your sex drive is really strong, you'll just go out to a bar and pick up somebody different every night." That's not the reality. I think in Mislaid what ties Peggy to Lee initially is her sex drive and his. And then: There they are.
God knows I've known enough women who got pregnant and ended up tied to a guy, financially dependent. Some of them didn't want to be at all. They're like, "I'm gonna raise this child alone," and then seven months into the pregnancy, they say, "What was his phone number again? I think I wanna call him up now." Then they end up living with him.
A baby is a powerful thing.
Maybe you should say the question again.
These days if I hear a guy say, 'I want to marry her,' I hear it as an act of aggression. Somebody who wants to marry you wants you to have fallen in love for the last time already.
Is there a warning in your books?
A warning about what?
Is it inherent that if a woman marries—if a woman ties herself to a man—no matter how progressive the partnership is (because the Mislaid partnership is pretty progressive, especially for its time), the will of the woman will be largely subordinated to the will and drive of the man?
I don't think you have to say woman and man. If you enter into a life partnership with anybody for any reason, you have to—half the time, at least—subordinate your desire to somebody else's. And no matter how benign that person is, no matter how nice, you're not going to have everything in common. You're going to have your own wishes and desires. And it will change you. Sometimes very radically. It determines where you can live, what kind of work you do. Economic partnerships very strongly affect your choices about jobs and so on.
You know, if the other person wants to have pygmy goats, you have to live in the country and take care of those goats.
Is that always a bad thing?
Well. The choice I've made in my own life, to not be in that kind of partnership, sort of speaks for itself.
But you've entered those partnerships.
Yeah, but it depends. I know married people where it totally works. I just don't happen to be that person. I tend to accommodate someone I'm with, and get real freedom only by having time to myself. If you're like that, then you have to guard yourself.
VICE Meets Miranda July:
You're sort of freaking me out. I got engaged earlier this year, and I'm 22. And he lives in England.
You're 22 and engaged? Are you drunk?
Something like that.
You're thinking of moving to England.
I'm eventually going to have to.
Do the smart thing. Marry this guy. Move to England. Have two children.
Do it when you're 24. Get it out of the way. You'll be 40 with adult kids! It will be so much fun!
That sounds terrible! Once you have kids, you can never do anything again!
Don't get married. I swear to you: Do not get married. It changes nothing about your relationship, but it makes breaking up impossible—really a huge pain in the ass—where you need, like, an act of Congress. There's no reason on God's Earth to get married in this day and age because it changes nothing. If you do have a child, it changes nothing. It doesn't even change alimony if he gets rich while you're together. There is nothing that it helps and a lot that it hurts because it will drive you apart when you have some stupid fight because…
Because you're stuck.
Feeling trapped is something I can't stand. Falling in love is the most wonderful, enjoyable thing I personally have done, probably. These days if I hear a guy say, "I want to marry her," I hear it as an act of aggression. Somebody who wants to marry you wants you to have fallen in love for the last time already. He wants you to never fall in love again! He wants you to take this highest pleasure that God above has created for the consolation of mankind and he wants you to never do it again! Because you can't fall in love with him.
The super mega-rush of falling in love with him for the first time, you're not gonna have it. What you're gonna have is stuff like, "We haven't had sex in two and a half months, maybe this weekend we should go to Ischia? Maybe if we fly to Ischia it will turn us on?"
Oh no! That's not what it's like.
Well, not for everyone. Marriage is a strange American institution where people say, "I'm gonna have hot sex with the same person for the next 50 years!" What the fuck planet are you from?! Are you homo sapiens? Is this space aliens talking? Read some Walt Whitman or something. I'm not entirely sure that's what humans are made to do. And of course, there's no pot so crooked there isn't a lid to fit it. My mother said there are people who do not have people giving them the eye every day, and they find one person who's willing to touch them at all and that's it. Looking at you, I'm not sure you're in that category. You're gonna have guys getting crushes on you from now until forever.
And now I can't fall in love with them.
You will fall in love with them. That's the problem. And then you'll suffer, and suffer, and suffer.
But aren't there so many other forms of suffering people get themselves into?
Yeah, but not all of them you do to yourself by signing on the dotted line that you'll never love anyone else.
That's the medieval version of class! It's fascist. It's like we have citizens and non-citizens.
I think you know far more than I do, given our respective times on Earth, but…
I know a lot about being me. You have to respect that some people don't have a sex drive that makes their lives this complicated. Plenty of people just placidly enter into the marriage bond and are perfectly happy.
You talk about sex well. You also write about sex very well. Basically better than any other writer I've read.
I've had friends remark about that too. Female friends say that when I talk about sex it's not embarrassing because I never make it pornographic. I never make it… sticky, squirmy. I don't know why that is. You know, my total lifetime consumption of pornography is probably three minutes or less. Maybe that has something to do with it. At the end of Mislaid, the kids are all right. Do you think that children are resilient, in general? What these kids have gone through is beyond difficult, but they both turn into lovely young adults.
I think many people are lovely when they're young. So when you say they're all right, I think,They're all right. For now. Byrdie is monarch of all he surveys in college. And Karen lives in this weird little world of her own. I give her this crazed self-confidence and self-assurance because she's just been left to herself so much. She's just a little tiny loner. And she turns out beautiful.
Right. I suppose she's an incarnation of a figure that I've always sort of liked, something from Christian iconography: The triumphant baby lamb. There's the conquering lion of Judah, and there's also the conquering lamb of Judah. She carries a spear with a flag on it. In my animal stories, I always have the little baby lamb, who with her little flinty hooves fights off the anaconda. It's sort of like Hello Kitty with a flaming sword, or the Powerpuff Girls. The icy stare of defiant, outraged innocence that pierces armor.
Mislaid takes on a topic that makes Americans uncomfortable: class.
When you talk about class, it's a way of blaming the victim. That's something I try to bring out in Mislaid. Black people were disenfranchised, robbed, driven off the land. We don't need reparations for slavery—we need reparations for the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, and the 90s. I wrote Mislaid based on my own very vivid memories of the weird, unjust society of Tidewater, Virginia, with these good-old-boy assholes running everything. When I was in college, they tore down the black section of downtown Williamsburg and ran those people out of town. They gave them little apartments to live in, in a place that's still not on a map, not incorporated. When it comes to class, we discriminate against people who have been raised with no resources, given no education, provided no extra-curricular activities, housed in slums, and treated like shit every day.
It's difficult for me, coming from Germany. Of course Germany has an entrenched class system, but at the same time, an unemployed German has a constitutional right to his own apartment and 400 euros a month to eat. You don't get desperate poverty. You don't get people trapped in lives of crime because they have absolutely no other option. There's class here [in America] partly because if you've been convicted of a felony, you can't work again and you can't vote! And what is a felony? It's if you steal something worth $1,000. Didn't it used to be $5,000? I think they lowered it!
That's the medieval version of class! It's fascist. It's like we have citizens and non-citizens. But I think it's important to distinguish between that and class prejudice.
I found it interesting that you write a book that forced readers to think about class and you wrote it from outside the country, while a lot of our writers living in New York—who are surrounded by American class injustice everyday—aren't taking on those topics.
[If I were living in America], it would be very hard for me to write down a long scene with dialogue set in a black household in Georgia. I would have to research it in a way that other people would find distasteful. I would have to copy dialect from black authors, see how they spell certain things. It would get real hairy real fast. So you end up writing about your own milieu, and some people take it too far and write about people just exactly like them in every way.
Some people don't have that sort of ballsiness that I have partly because, in the distance, nobody's going to throw eggs at me for writing this way. In Belzig, they have no idea that I'm doing this. I could take risks and be conscientious in my own way by just trying to be accurate about certain things I remember about black culture. Like when I say Temple's mother is a "master of laundry chemistry." That's something I find amusing. Black moms knew how to use bleach. You'd see these people in these white shirts that are just like, Whoa! It's just incredible. My mom wouldn't know bleach if it bit her in the ass.
Other writers, if they're working within a system where they're constantly being published and trying to get their stuff into literary magazines and they know editors and they know other writers, they always have something to lose.
But now don't you have something to lose?
Well, I don't know. People write really revolting shit all the time and get away with it. I don't want to give the wrong examples but, you know…
[Zink proceeds to give an off-the-record example of a prominent dead male author's writing, which includes vivid descriptions of incest and assault. In Zink's words, "Like American Psycho, but worse."]
So you're telling me I should be afraid to write anything? Obviously, I have nothing to lose. In any case, when I look at what passes for literature—for literary fiction—what am I gonna write that's gonna even compete?
So you're just free!
I'm damn free! I could scrape the inside of my mind and try to find the grossest stuff in there before I could even compete. I refuse to worry about it.
Nell Zink's Mislaid is out now from Ecco.
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