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In November 2018, the prestigious National Book Award for fiction went to The Friend, a novel about grief, writing, friendship, and a Great Dane named Apollo. The author of The Friend (Riverhead Books, 2018) is Sigrid Nunez, a long-time faculty member of the New School Creative Writing Program. Nunez has published seven other books, including the novels A Feather on the Breath of God and Salvation City, and Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. According to a recent New York Times profile, however, it is with The Friend that Nunez has become an “overnight literary sensation.”
Amid the bustle of her big win, Nunez kindly set aside some time to answer Public Seminar editor Evangeline Riddiford Graham’s questions about The Friend, and what comes after the National Book Award.
Evangeline Riddiford Graham [ERG]: Winning the National Book Award is a marvelous accolade — congratulations! I imagine one result is that your schedule is suddenly full of interviews such as this one. Have you had a chance to celebrate your success, or do you have a reward waiting for you?
Sigrid Nunez [SN]: For almost a year now I’ve been looking forward to a residency at the James Merrill House in Stonington, CT. It started on December 19th and ends in about four weeks. It’s the perfect place to work on my novel in progress, but it’s also a perfect place to relax between two very busy semesters.
ERG: Apollo makes a magnificent, mysterious entrance into the human characters’ lives.
SN: Standing on an overhang, silhouetted against the sky: the biggest dog you’d ever seen. A harlequin Great Dane. No collar or tags, which made you think that, purebred though it was, it might have been abandoned.
ERG: How did Apollo arrive to you, in writing the novel?
SN: I’d always wanted to write a book that included an animal as an important character. Although The Friend did not start out to be about a Great Dane, or about any dog, Apollo suddenly appeared to my imagination while I was writing and I found a way to weave his story into that of the human characters.
ERG: Apollo is a dog without a past, and he arrives without a name tag. He isn’t the only one. Except for Hector, a beleaguered building super, no other character in the novel is named. And while the narrator conjures a vivid milieu of students, writers, and literary influences as she remembers her long relationship with Apollo’s owner — her dear friend, who commits suicide shortly before the novel begins — there’s little mention of the life she had before she met him, or he before her. What happens when characters don’t have names, or a neatly delineated “backstory?”
SN: I didn’t plan on leaving out the names of the main characters and I don’t have any strict ideas about naming or not naming characters. It’s really just the way things worked out. Early on I did give names to characters but they sounded all wrong to me and hindered me from writing. So I took them out. I didn’t include a lot of material about the narrator’s past history because it wasn’t relevant to the story I wanted to tell. The reader is told as much about her as is necessary. It’s very important when writing a novel to distinguish between what information is essential to the story and what can and therefore should be left out.
ERG: One of the most pleasurable aspects of The Friend is its great conversation. The narrator and her human friend talk about many prickly subjects, such as his dedication to what George Steiner described as the “eroticism” of the classroom. In his absence, the narrator talks to us — about blindness, Rilke, students rebelling against Rilke, and dog-walking incidents in a “doggy-dog world.” It was wonderful to recognize another friend: the steadfast and entertaining book between one’s hands. While the rest of us have been reading The Friend, what books have you been turning to?
SN: Most of my reading these days has been for a grad literature seminar that I teach. The reading list is made up of work whose authors have included autobiographical elements in their fiction. Many of my own favorites are on the list, among them short stories by Lydia Davis, Lucia Berlin, and Kathleen Collins, Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid, A Woman’s Story by Annie Ernaux, Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn, and Old School by Tobias Wolff.
Sigrid Nunez is the author of the novels Salvation City, The Last of Her Kind, A Feather on the Breath of God, and For Rouenna, among others. She has been the recipient of several awards including a Whiting Writers’ Award, the Rome Prize in Literature, and a Berlin Prize Fellowship.
Evangeline Riddiford is a poet and an MFA candidate at The New School.