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Novelist Sigrid Nunez On Climate Change, Mortality And Life In A Pandemic

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Sigrid Nunez has written a new novel that's about facing the possible death of our planet from climate change while also dealing with our mortality as individuals. She wrote it before the pandemic, but one of her previous novels was set during a flu pandemic that results in anarchy. The narrator of the new novel is a woman whose ex is a well-known professor and author who's been writing and giving talks about how climate change, bioterrorism, cyberterrorism, the threat of a pandemic, far-right regimes and corporate power are a threat to life, liberty and civilization. He angers audiences by suggesting maybe it's time to stop having children. On a more personal level, the narrator's old friend, a famous writer and intellectual, is dying of cancer and wants her final days to be spent in solitude but wants a friend to be with her. She asked the narrator to be that person. Part of the dying woman's plan is to end her life with a euthanasia drug when she feels the time is right.

In a New York Times book review, Janice Lee wrote, in "What Are You Going Through," Nunez tells the simplest of stories about a woman accompanying a terminally ill friend through her last months and expands it into an exploration of the largest themes, nothing less than the realities of living and dying in this world and how we feel about both.

Sigrid Nunez received a 2018 National Book Award for her previous novel, "The Friend." She's taught at Princeton and Columbia and currently teaches at Boston University.

Sigrid Nunez, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I love the new novel. Thank you for writing it. So I want you to do a short reading from the book. And this is when the friend who's dying from cancer tells the narrator that she wants to go somewhere else to die. And the narrator thinks her friend is just asking her to help her find a nice spot to go to. But her friend describes what she really means, what she really wants. Would you read that excerpt for us?

SIGRID NUNEZ: Yes, sure.

(Reading) What I really want is to find some quiet place. It doesn't have to be far away. In fact, it shouldn't be too far. And it doesn't have to be anything particularly special, just somewhere I can be peaceful and do the last things that need to be done and think my last thoughts, she adds as her breath runs out, whatever they might be. I relax my grip on my glass. So all she's asking is for me to help her find this ideal place.

I ask her whether she's sure about wanting to be in a strange place rather than home. I think it will make it easier, she says, so long as it's a comfortable, safe, attractive place. I've done a lot of my best work, my best thinking away from home on visiting fellowships, for example, on meditation retreats, even in hotels. I think it will be easier to prepare, to focus on letting go if I'm someplace where I won't be surrounded by intimate, familiar things, all those reminders of attachments and so on. Of course, I could be wrong, she says, and this could all turn out to be some kind of fantasy. But I've thought a lot about it, and it feels right to me. Am I making any sense?

I think so, I say. And you need my help finding a place or helping you get settled in? No, she says, I can do that myself. I've already started looking. She lays one palm flat on the table and presses her other hand on top of it to quell or hide the tremor. What I need is someone to be there with me, she says. I'll want some solitude, of course. It's what I'm used to, after all, what I've always craved. Dying hasn't changed that. But I can't be completely alone. I mean, this is a new adventure. Who can say what it will really be like? What if something goes wrong? What if everything goes wrong? I need to know there's someone in the next room.

GROSS: People think of a good death as a death surrounded by family and friends, being lifted up by them, being spoken to, have your hand held, being sung to. The idea of needing solitude - a place that would be peaceful but not be surrounded by things you're attached to or by people you're attached to but just by one person who's there in case, a person who's a friend but not family. You wrote that. Did you understand the sentiment that you were writing?

NUNEZ: I did. I believe I did. I felt that this was a way that a certain kind of person would feel. You know, this character, she has a daughter, but she's estranged from her daughter. And she's single at the moment. And she has asked her closest friends if they will be with her at the end. And they've said no because they do not want to be there if she's going to take her own life. Much as they don't want to her - her to suffer, much as they understand why she wants to choose her own moment to die, they know they would not be able to do that. So she calls on this old friend who, at least at the moment, isn't very, very close to her. They were close when they were younger, and they've always stayed in touch.

And there's a thing about her - about this character is that she's - in a sense, she wants things to be as orderly as possible, as peaceful as possible and also to be as little trouble to anyone as possible. That's just in her nature. But I think that if she were dying without having the idea that she was going to use these drugs, then maybe she would have other people around her and holding her hand and so on. But there is that idea that if you're going to take your own life, not everybody is going to want to be there and is going to allow that to happen.

GROSS: So part of your book, the part of it that's about how the world is on the brink (laughter) - you know, possibly the end of civilization, the end of the planet because of cyberterrorism and bioterrorism and climate change, global warming, a pandemic - you actually wrote the book before the pandemic.

NUNEZ: Yes.

GROSS: And it's published just as numbers are really going up again. And you have an earlier novel about an influenza pandemic. What made you want to write about that before we were actually in the middle of one? I mean, it's not the flu, but it is a pandemic.

NUNEZ: There were a couple of things. One, I am someone who always thought, from what I knew, that sometime in my lifetime there would be another great flu.

GROSS: You always knew that?

NUNEZ: I always knew that. I mean, I knew that because I was aware of the science that said that it's not a question of if, but when. I mean, that has - that's been well known. And, you know, I would come upon things that were, you know, that was said by Dr. Fauci about this well before the new pandemic, the pandemic that we're living through.

And I knew that Mary McCarthy had lost both of her parents in that flu. And I remember when I learned that as a younger person, I thought that was so terrible. But then I learned that there were a lot of orphans that came out of the great flu. And then William Maxwell, of course, lost his mother when he was just a little boy and never got over it. And everything he's ever written, you know, has that as part of the emotions of the book.

So I - you know, it was really that. I mean, I wanted to have a certain amount of science in it. I wanted to - you know, to say what would happen in the world if there were such a flu. So there's that. But I wasn't trying to write like an apocalyptic story or a dystopian novel. I really wanted to focus on a boy who loses both parents in the flu, who becomes very sick himself and who is in a place where - you know, where things are very chaotic, where things are really falling apart.

GROSS: I want to quote something that you write in the book. And I feel the same way (laughter). You write, (reading) it amazes me now to think back to when I was an adolescent and to remember how little attention my friends and I paid to one another's parents and grandparents. What could they possibly have to say, these ordinary people, most of whom, if they weren't housewives or retirees, went to work every day at jobs we couldn't imagine being the least bit interesting?

It was only later it occurred to me that these were people who'd lived through some of the most dramatic events of the century. They had come of age during periods of upheaval, had endured all types of hardships, had escaped harrowing conditions in foreign countries or in the Deep South, become homeless during the Depression, fought in world wars, been held captive in prisons, survived death camps.

I mean, that amazes me, too, especially, like, my grandparents. They were immigrants from shtetls in Eastern Europe and Russia. And I displayed a minimal amount of curiosity. Why do you think that is, that you and I - and probably a lot of other people when they were younger or when they're young now - aren't really interested in what their parents or grandparents or other, you know, older people in their lives experienced?

NUNEZ: I think it's pretty much universal. I think it's about being a young person because I cannot think of anybody for whom this wouldn't be true. I mean, you know, when you think back just - not just about yourself but think about your girlfriends or your little circle in high school and junior high school. No one among your friends was not like that. What you were interested in exclusively was what your best friends were doing, what they had done on Saturday night, what kind of hair they were wearing, what they were reading, what they'd seen on TV - whatever it might be. That was fascinating, you know? And you could talk forever.

But what your - what their parents had been through, what your friends' parents might have to talk about or their grandparents, you know, it would've - you would've died if you were sitting in their kitchen, you know, and they had started in about some experience from their past. You would've tried to be polite. But you would not have been really interested, I believe. And I'm not really sure why that is. But it is a question of feeling, you know, that it's just not your world. It's that generation gap, I guess.

And, in fact, if you knew someone, a very young person, who was the opposite of that, that would have been the class weirdo. That would have been a person like - how strange that - why does he do that? He always wants to talk to these old people about what they did in the war. And, you know - and I guess this also comes from the idea that for young people, older people are boring.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sigrid Nunez. Her new novel is called "What Are You Going Through." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sigrid Nunez. Her new novel, "What Are You Going Through," is told from the point of view of a nameless narrator, a woman who's asked by her old friend to live with her in her final days or weeks as she dies from cancer. Nunez's previous novel, "The Friend," won a 2018 National Book Award.

Your new novel, "What Are You Going Through," starts with a quote from Simone Weil. And the quote is, "The love of our neighbor, in all its fullness, simply means being able to say to him, what are you going through?" But the original French has a slightly different meaning. Tell us what the original French says. She was French and wrote in French. And then tell us why that quote is so meaningful to you.

NUNEZ: Well, in French, she wrote - quel est ton tourment? - which would literally translate as, what is your torment? But, of course, that doesn't make sense in English. I mean, you know, that - you don't translate things literally. And so in English, at least in the translations that I've seen, that has become, what are going through? And, in fact, that is what we say to people. I'm really sorry about what you've - what you're going through.

So I guess - I can't remember when I first read this quote. But it seemed, to me, to be, you know, absolutely true and meaningful. And since this book was going to be about people talking to the narrator and the narrator listening to their stories, which were often sad stories or stories of trouble of different degrees, it just seemed to me, you know, totally apt to have that title and to use this quote as an epigraph.

GROSS: You quote Henry James, the writer, as having said, there are two kinds of people in the world - those who upon seeing someone else suffering think, that could happen to me, and those who think, that will never happen to me. The first kind of people help us endure. The second kind make life hell. Your thoughts about that (laughter)?

NUNEZ: Well, I lied, actually. Henry James didn't say that. What I (laughter) have in the text is that the narrator's been thinking about something else that Henry James had said. And then she thinks what you just read. And so the narrator says, someone, maybe or - maybe Henry James or maybe not Henry James, said - and then your quote, what you quoted. I think, whoever said it, I think it's absolutely true.

And it goes back to the Simone Weil quote because her idea about loving your neighbor in the way that she's talking about, enough to say, what are you going through meaningfully and then want to listen, that depends on your seeing - and this is in her essay where that quote comes from. That depends on your seeing that person, that afflicted person as an individual and identifying with that person, you know, in a full way. So I think it's absolutely true. I mean, and that kind of person who automatically dismisses other people's suffering with that, you know, well, that, well, that won't happen to me, so why should I be concerned? Yeah, I find that kind of person, you know, really, really, really quite terrifying.

GROSS: I want to ask you a little bit about your relationship with the writer, essayist, intellectual Susan Sontag, who was really as much as somebody can be a celebrity intellectual, she was in the '70s and '80s and '90s and - in the '60s too, should we say? And you knew her. You worked with her. And then you also were a couple with her son, David Rieff, for a while. How did you first meet, and what impact did she have on you as a writer?

NUNEZ: Well, I met Susan Sontag because I was an editorial assistant at The New York Review of Books. And that was in between college and grad school. And so I met her in passing there. But then after I graduated from grad school, she had her first bout of cancer. And we lived very close to each other, you know, just on 106th Street. She was at Riverside Drive. I was, you know, just a few buildings away. And she wanted - she'd had her surgery. And she wanted some help because she had this great big pile of correspondence that had, you know, built up while she was in the hospital. She just wanted somebody to sit there and type while she dictated. And she asked her friends at The New York Review of Books if they could recommend somebody. And since I lived so nearby, they said, well, why don't you do this? And I did. I mean, we only did it for about 12 hours on two or three occasions. But during that time, I met her son, David Rieff. And yeah, we ended up a couple.

And at that time, David was living in the same apartment as his mother and also in Princeton, where he was in school. He was dividing his time between those two places. I ended up moving into the apartment with them at 340 Riverside Dr. And so we were living together as a little family. Now, her impact on me as a writer was enormous, I mean, enormous. It's something that I to this day am extremely grateful for. And I guess the main thing is I've read her work and had read some of it before I met her. And, of course, that was an influence because a lot of it is so important. But to meet her and to have her in my life, it was a different thing because she was somebody who made me feel like even at that point in my life, where I'd never published anything, where I didn't have any idea what I was doing really, that, you know, that it was perfectly - a perfectly good idea and a right thing to do and even a noble thing to do to take myself and my work, you know, totally seriously and to think about making any kind of sacrifice I might have to for it, and that everything matters, and that you must read everything and just, you know, that kind of attitude.

And she just introduced me to so many different books and movies and just everything because she was a great sharer. And she liked to be a big influence on anyone who was in her circle or, you know, she - if she'd read something and thought it was great, she wasn't happy until she'd gotten all these other people also to read it. Yeah. So the way I write, the way I think, my attitude towards what it's like to be a writer, all of this was influenced heavily by the time that I knew Susan Sontag.

GROSS: Was it important to you to have a mentor like that who was a woman? Because there weren't as many well-known women writers at the time as there are now.

NUNEZ: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, that was also a really important part of it because that was, you know - because the idea was part of her mentoring was also don't let people influence you in such a way to make you think that because you're a woman, you can't do this or that or you're a woman writer, in other words, a lesser writer. You know, and don't be afraid to not look feminine. All these things were very important to her.

GROSS: Let me introduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sigrid Nunez. Her new novel is called "What Are You Going Through." We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with writer Sigrid Nunez. Her new novel, "What Are You Going Through," is about a woman whose friend is dying of cancer. The friend wants solitude in her final days but wants the narrator of the story to live with her during that time in case everything goes wrong. Part of the dying woman's plan is to end her life with pills when she feels it's time. The narrator's ex is a famous writer who's been writing about how the threats of climate change, a pandemic, terrorism, corporate power, far-right regimes and more are leading to the end of civilization. Nunez's previous novel, "The Friend" won a 2018 National Book Award. When we left off, we were talking about her mentor and friend Susan Sontag.

You had said in an interview that you figured out you didn't want to be famous by watching how fame had affected Susan Sontag's life and the responsibilities that came with fame. So what were some of the things that you saw that convinced you you didn't really want to be as famous as she was?

NUNEZ: Well, I don't think I ever expected to be anywhere - as famous as she was. But what gave me pause was how much of a distraction fame can be. And what I saw - I mean, she handled fame very well. I mean, the thing is that she - she was able to do a lot, and she always wanted to do a lot. And I'm someone who always only wanted to do one thing well. And I have this great need for solitude, and she was the exact opposite. There's nothing that she hated more than being alone.

There were so many demands and so many distractions. And she didn't have any trouble keeping up. But I looked at that, and I thought, well, if this is the writer's life, that's not going to work for me. I could never handle anything like that. But of course, I knew that there was a whole other kind of writer's life - obscurity (laughter). You could be left quite alone. And, you know - and I knew of or knew other writers who, even though they were publishing and they were successful, they didn't have anything like her celebrity. And therefore, they also didn't have the kinds of demands. And plus, the publicness of it - when you're as famous as she is, you attract a certain amount of negative attention as well. She was able to handle that well, also. But I - if I tried to put myself in that position, I thought it was actually quite intimidating and undesirable.

GROSS: Your parents, were they both immigrants?

NUNEZ: Yes, they were.

GROSS: And your father was part-Chinese, part-Panamanian.

NUNEZ: Yes. And my mother was German.

GROSS: So what was it like for you having parents from different cultures?

NUNEZ: You know, it was a strange marriage and strange for the three of us, the three children in that household, because very often with an immigrant family, the immigrant parents are both from the same country and culture and speak the same language. And in my case, you know, they were from different places, and they didn't really - what they had in common as a common language was English, which my father never really learned English that well. And my mother, though she kept a heavy accent all her life, her English actually was quite good. But they were really quite at odds with each other's culture. There was that divide.

And, you know, my father really didn't participate much in family life, largely because my mother, she wanted us to be German American children or German children, really. I mean, she was very nostalgic. She was very, very homesick. And, you know, she saw us as her children, you know, as opposed to their children. She made all the decisions. And, you know - and my father was really very, very outside. So we - as - growing up, we didn't really have any access to that part of our heritage. He kept it very secret in a way. He didn't share. He did not share. And my mother, as I say, was the dominant one and created a German household.

GROSS: Was it confusing to you?

NUNEZ: It was. It was very confusing. It was very confusing. And in fact, many people, their first book is autobiographical - many writers. And I've always thought that that's because the writer has to get certain things taken care of before they can move on to other kinds of stories. And for me, I really felt that I had to write that first book. I had to get that down. I had to think hard about all that before I could go on with life and with the writing life.

GROSS: Did your father grew up in China or Panama?

NUNEZ: My father was born in Panama, but he spent his boyhood - most of his boyhood in Shanghai. And then he came to the United States and ended up living in Brooklyn. But there's so much about my father's life that I don't know and that has never really been clear to me. It's always been very sketchy. And that's a big part of what I write about in that first book.

GROSS: So why does your mother leave Germany and come to the U.S. - since she was so attached to Germany and wanted you to be raised, like, in a German way?

NUNEZ: This was this was after World War II. This was after Germany's defeat. My father was in the Army, and he was stationed in southern Germany. And that's where he met my mother. And, you know, as I say, he was from New York. He was from Chinatown, New York, and they got married. She was a German war bride. They ended up first in the Fort Greene housing project in Brooklyn.

GROSS: My impression is that they weren't, like, terribly close. Did your mother resent having come to the U.S. and regret the marriage?

NUNEZ: She did. She never got over her homesickness, and she never felt really at home in the United States - at least during the time that we were growing up. I mean, she lived to her mid-'90s. And so, you know, in much later life, I think she was reconciled to her new country. But she always used the word home about Germany her entire life. She would say, well, you know, at home. And, you know, she did not mean the place that we were all living in. So it was very deep, that feeling of having been uprooted. And she did have many regrets about her marriage and her situation. And, you know, she was definitely not happy with her lot.

GROSS: I want to get back to your new novel, "What Are You Going Through," in which the narrator is asked by an old friend to be with her while the friend is experiencing her last, you know, weeks dying of cancer. And, you know, the friend who's dying has a daughter, but they are not close. They fight all the time. And the friend who's dying doesn't even want her daughter around. The narrator, who is asked to spend time with the friend who's dying, is not married and has no children. You're not married and you have no children. Have you thought a lot about the future, you know, like when you're dying, like, people want their - people who are parents, they want their children by their bedside, their spouse, if they have one, by their bedside.

Have you thought about, like, who will be there for me when I'm dying? Because I know that that's a question a lot of people who don't have children, whether they couldn't and - or whether they decided not to, it's a question they often ask themselves, and also people who are single, whether they lost their spouse or never had a spouse.

NUNEZ: Well, it's something that I have thought about. And this is where, you know, I do have, you know, I have family. I don't have children. And I am single. But I, you know, I'm close to my nephew and his wife and their children. You know, this is where you think about your friends. I mean, I, you know, I think about it, but I don't worry about it. I figure the, you know, I have people in my life that I feel I will be able to count on. But I think it's very important, you know, what you're saying.

And I think one of the things with the pandemic that is something that people didn't think about was that these people who were not able to have their loved ones with them at the end, I mean, it's just been, you know, one of the great brutalities of this situation. So now it feels even more real in a way, that idea that you could be completely alone. And, you know, I mean, there are many reasons why we want this pandemic to come to an end but, I mean, but that is one of the main ones because I think that that is one of the most terrible consequences of the pandemic.

GROSS: Sigrid Nunez, a pleasure to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

NUNEZ: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Sigrid Nunez is the author of the new novel, "What Are You Going Through." After we take a short break, Lloyd Schwartz will review a new double CD collecting excerpts of live performances by Leontyne Price, the first Black soprano to have a major career at the Metropolitan Opera. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.