It’s been seven years since Nicole Krauss last produced a novel. Her publishers have made much of this in their publicity for her new novel, Forest Dark, but the 43-year-old, recognised both by Granta and The New York Times as one of America’s best young writers, is bemused by this.
“That’s not unusual for me,” she says. “It took me three years to write, and I guess there was a lot of living in there. It takes me a long time to gather enough new experiences in life that I feel there is something compelling enough to write a novel about. There has to be an urgency.”
This fourth novel has two narrative strands. At 68, New York lawyer, Epstein, sheds his marriage, his job, and his possessions, and moves to the Tel Aviv Hilton, before disappearing into the desert, leaving no trace. Meanwhile a New York based novelist with a crumbling marriage, goes to the same hotel to unlock her writer’s block.
That second character is called Nicole. And her marriage – with two young sons, echoes that of Krauss, who, famously, split from her husband, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer in 2014. Does she want the reader to speculate on the autobiographical element?
She nods. “I could have called the character Michelle or Ruth or whatever, but I’ve invited it to provoke certain questions. Why is it that we prioritise what we think about as real? Why do we want to know, did it really happen, and if it did, why are we pleased and comforted by that?
“My life is more public that most people’s; there are intimate aspects of my life in newspapers, but their version is not reality at all. It is so far from reality, so I am used to listening to multiple versions of my own life, and the one I know to be true, and the other life I know to be truer in the fictional sense.
“As a writer you’re used to spending so many hours of each day multiplying yourself into many possibilities, whether that of an old man, a life in the 19th Century, or the future. You are amplifying this one life you have and experience, and become used to the idea that there are other options and other lives.
“For some people, that can be haunting. I find it exnihilating, because the more you understand how flexible the self is, the more you can grow.”
Krauss, like the Nicole of the novel, is constantly told her writing is adding to the Jewish canon, and in a sense, belongs to the Jews. Does she feel a debt to her reading public?
“Not at all. If I did, I would be writing some version of The History of Love, over and over again, because that book was so beloved. I aspire, each time, to write something that is absolutely new to me, and that feels like a stretching of the form of the novel. Each book is some kind of transformation that is lodged in me.”
For all that, by being on the public stage, with a weight of expectation on her shoulders, anxieties had crept in which took the enjoyment out of writing.
“I remember joy well from being a young writer, and I had to find it again. This book was a pleasure to write, even though it was so difficult. It was hard, and I pulled my hair out, and I didn’t know if it would work out, but it’s really good to have that freedom, and to be able to capture things and choose where your mind will go.”
In the case of Forest Dark, a main theme is an exploration on wonder – and why, as adults, we turn our backs on it.
“Why are we so hung up on what we know, and have at our fingertips and why are we made so deeply uncomfortable and anxious by the unknown, when, actually, the unknown is our source of deepest change. I wanted to capture that sense of awe.”
In the novel, Nicole is recruited for a project involving Kafka, and mysteries intensify, with elements of magical realism creeping in. She invents, for example, an imaginative alternative end of life for Kafka. But much of the background, and many of the anecdotes come straight from Krauss’s life.
As a child, she spent holidays in the Tel Aviv Hilton. She remembers the magic of discovering coins on the bottom of the hotel swimming pool. It was only years later that she realised her father had placed them there. One mystery remains. She also found a valuable earring there, to her father’s astonishment. She shows it to me, saying in writing about the incident she misremembered the number of diamonds it contains.
“I was seven, with half a foot in that magical world, where reality is open to your special pleading.” Laughing, she says that her eight-year-old son still feels he might get a letter from Hogwarts when he is ten. “At that age, you still feel magic is open to you.”
Recognised as a literary giant, Krauss is often compared to Philip Roth. Indeed, Roth reviewed Forest Dark, writing, ‘A Brilliant novel. I am full of admiration.’ Yet she wouldn’t have become a novelist at all, had she been more successful as a poet.
“I wrote my first novel as an attempt to escape poetry,” she says. “I found myself constrained by the form. Great poets can take a poem and see into it. In my short time as a poet – between ages 19 and 25 – I couldn’t do that, and my poems were getting smaller and tighter. I needed a way out of the trap I had set for myself.
“It was a need to break a window and gain more space, and naturally I went to this large spacious form; but I had no sense of whether I would like writing fiction. I wrote Man Walks into a Room and though, oh wow! I’d found my freedom and my new form.”
Although Krauss is engaging company, and is unfailingly good humoured, she is an intense interviewee, with a tendency to reframe a question to suit her best answer. When I bring up money – she reportedly gained an advance of four million dollars for the novel and a book of short stories – she blanks me, and says she’d rather concentrate her comments on the novel.
“Writing is my way of processing the world and my way of creating coherence out of life,” she says, admitting that her broken marriage has posed challenges. “Once you are partial to the process, and doing it on a daily basis, something really deep happens. It becomes the muscle of your being, your way of making order, then disorder; the shaking up of the world so I can see it anew.”
Is it difficult coming out of her writer’s cave and into the public sphere? Does she have to coach herself?
“No,” she says. “But I do have to coach myself when I come back from a publicity tour, because once you settle to give certain answers – and they are one of many – and you give them enough times whilst travelling through the world and various audiences, you then have to get back to writing again.
“After a tour you think, last time I knew. It’s only now I don’t know anything. You have to unlearn what you knew on tour, and remind yourself that to write a novel is to not know for a long time – or at least, not to have the answers.”
Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss is published by Bloomsbury. €14.99. Kindle. €7.84
Published in The Irish Examiner on 30th December, 2017
© Sue Leonard. 2017.