Mislaid – an interview with Nell Zink
By Ellie Broughton.
Despite having a long writing career, Nell Zink’s first novel, The Wallcreeper, wasn’t published until last summer. It was picked up from its indie publisher Dorothy by HarperCollins (US), and published back-to-back with Mislaid by Harper imprint Fourth Estate (UK). Already on her third novel, Zink is a welcome newcomer to literary fiction.
I spoke to her about the radical protagonist of her debut novel, moving out of the US to pursue a writing career, how reviewers have been coping with the racial and sexual complexity of Mislaid, and what effect Jonathan Franzen’s promotion of her work has had on her success so far.
3:AM Magazine: Tiffany’s voice in The Wallcreeper is incredibly outspoken, graphic and confident. How did you develop that style and character?
Nell Zink: Mostly what was going through my head was that I wanted to write a book that would be fun to read for people I knew: for my friend Abner, and for Jonathan Franzen in the case of The Wallcreeper, so I just tried to make Tiffany as smart as I could.
I was thinking about how much people, even when it’s not strictly realistic people, do like reading about people who are a little wittier than they are, where it’s not just the sort of drab naturalism and I thought I could make her fairly convincing so that’s what I tried to do.
3:AM: Were there any difficult decisions to make in writing Tiffany in that manner?
NZ: The last two thirds of the book were difficult to write because I wrote the first part, up to where the wallcreeper dies, in a fit of exuberance. After writing the first part I then had to translate a book, and months went by before I went back to finish the story and make it novel-length, by which point I was in a very different mood.
And so Tiffany, who was just so cocky, becomes a very defeated person, which is how I felt at the time. It mirrored my moods in that sense and I didn’t really write it for publication, which I guess is one of the reasons the voice is so merciless and sometimes so odd because I was not really having to… write in a way that I was sure would be understood by everybody and his brother. It was mostly for myself. Maybe for friends. And of course if I had sold that novel to some kind of big mainstream publisher I’m sure a lot of that might have got edited out.
3:AM: In The Wallcreeper, is Tiffany meant to be a funny character?
NZ: No. She’s funny in a different way. She’s philosophical.
And she’s not the only funny one. One my favourite lines in the book is when Stephen says, the only mistake the Taliban made when they blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan is not to say they did it as an investment. From my experience of the destruction of natural and cultural treasures for the sake of creating an investment vehicle, he is absolutely right. If those Buddhas had been destroyed for a hydroelectric dam, people would just let it happen. It happens all the time. It’s happening in Turkey; it’s happening in the Balkans. Nobody gives a shit. That was their mistake.
I see this as a really funny joke and at the same time it’s not a joke at all, it’s perfectly serious – it’s just that reality is bitterly, darkly funny.
Tiffany is also radical, and when people start to be critical she has a certain aesthetic distance to her situation and she acts on her insights, which is what a radical does. It’s one of the reasons why radicals can be so annoying and dangerous in politics because they don’t play along; they have ideas they act on, and they take risks and make mistakes just as she does. But it certainly stops her from being passive.
3:AM: Did the idea you were writing for yourself, your own audience, help you finish The Wallcreeper?
NZ: Because I have a friend or two who are willing to read everything I write no matter what it is, I knew I wasn’t writing entirely for myself, but when you’re writing for someone who knows you really, really well, to tell him even more than he knew before, you don’t really have to be shy about it.
And so when I went back to revise and finalise the text I did some anonymising and cleaned it up and made it a little less roman-a-cleffy in parts. Although it’s already so coded you’d never guess.
3:AM: This seems like a good time to ask: where did you learn to write about sex like that?
NZ: That’s a funny question. Maybe I did it by not learning to write about sex at all. I’m quite interested in sex but so are a lot of people. I don’t know if the way I write about it is unusual.
Maybe it’s because I seldom read books in which there’s any sex. And that’s a fact. I’m now reading Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth because some dudes were telling me how great it is and it’s a historic work, and you have to have read it. And someone I know is claiming The Wallcreeper reminded him of it, so I thought OK I can read this.
But most of the books that I read don’t have sex scenes at all so when I got rid of a sex scene, I just write it as if it’s some other kind of scene and maybe that’s conspicuous in a good way.
3:AM: I felt like sex was important to the characterisation of Tiffany, but I don’t know whether you agree with that. The fact that her sex life is a part of the book shows you a lot of things about her.
NZ: When I wrote The Wallcreeper I was purposefully putting in as much sex as I could. The first part of it, the exuberant part, was written sort of as a joke for Franzen.
I had read Freedom, and I could see how in Freedom Franzen was trying to take on bird conservation, an issue I had done a lot of work on.
I had been thinking about the aesthetic appeal of birds and how we could make them more appetising to people, long before I had anything to do with Franzen. To most people, birds are just like fish – they don’t have feelings, they’re just birds. I was trying to find out ways to give birds emotional appeal.
Most people I’ve met who’ve read Freedom either say they didn’t notice the bird conservation parts or they were outright annoyed at them. I just had the idea, sort of as a joke, of doing a book that would have a story, the beginning of a book with just two things in it: sex and bird watching.
And I kept it to bird watching for that first part and then they discovered conservation further down the line, because my initial concern was just with the aesthetics of birds, and because I was not writing it for a mass public either.
I know at this point what you have to say about birds to get people interested in them, but because I was writing it for the amusement of Franzen I made the birds out to be pretty pitiful, actually… It’s all just some vast clerical error.
3:AM: Is it OK if we talk about Mislaid as well? What was it that inspired the marriage in Mislaid, a marriage so central to the narrative?
NZ: I knew some people years ago when I lived in Virginia, rather flamboyantly gay married guys with wives and families.
And I knew someone who had married a guy knowing he was gay, and when their son was about twelve they got a divorce. But because gay people then tended to be in the closet and it was considered very unchivalrous to out someone, the judge didn’t know that this guy was gay.
She ended up losing custody of her twelve-year-old son to her gay ex-husband, which drove her nuts because of course he was so much more fun than she was because he was a gay guy and there was always stuff going on – he was totally louche in the things he said and did and the people that came over for parties. And of course her son thought this was just heaven on earth.
They had a running custody battle with kidnappings at rest stops and that kind of stuff. I remember these tales and the lost world of life before outing – back when many subcultures where simply underground, with no publicity.
And the gay scene could be so central and so important in a rural area because those would be the educated guys with time on their hands and there were a lot of really socially prominent gay people that I knew, so it made sense to me as an opening for a story.
3:AM: Was there something about today’s world that reminded you of how rich a subject that was, or was it just something you really wanted to write about?
NZ: I think it was just when I was thinking about the 1970s and ‘80s in Virginia: it just struck me as something that has changed, and where there’s been change and dynamism you have a story of how it’s changed.
Of course that story is not entirely internal to the relationship between the couple and that’s caused me problems with reviewers. Some reviewers had trouble making sense of the story, but then I also had enthusiastic responses from people who are maybe a little older and maybe know more about the South.
3:AM: Were there any particular misconceptions that really bugged you?
NZ: To say they bugged me wouldn’t be quite accurate. It’s not like bad reviews make me sad or something: they’re interesting. I like seeing what people understand and what don’t they understand.
That said, I’ve got a couple of mean reviews for Mislaid and I think that’s mostly because because of the racial material. People think of it as being very fantastical and farfetched to have a blonde blue-eyed black girl and, OK, it is: I run in a little hard.
But it’s not that farfetched at all, and I think people from the South know what it’s like to meet someone who then informs you that he or she is black and you’re like, “What, You’re black? Since when?” A lot of people forget that race in the South was never a social construct; it was a legal construct. It was opposed on the state from above. It wasn’t something that was in people’s heads – it was imposed by the police with clubs.
People think I’m addressing unconscious prejudices or something: no, I’m addressing an apartheid state.
When people say, “Well, he’s gay and she’s a lesbian but they sleep together and they have totally hot sex for three months. She gets pregnant and they marry, but he’s gay and she’s a lesbian,” does that make any sense at all? Does it make any sense at all to say he’s gay and she’s a lesbian? I find it funny. They spend most of the first part of the book fucking like bunnies.
It’s funny to me that people just willingly accept the idea that she’s a lesbian and he’s gay, and there they are. Or people don’t accept it and say, “Well, he’s gay, why would he have sex with a woman?” How hung up on concepts can you be? It’s like he checked his International Gay Men’s Association ID at the door.
3:AM: You said to The Guardian that you found the move to Germany productive to your writing career. Can you speak a bit about that?
NZ: Yes. In the US now, I believe, it’s possible to get health insurance without working full-time. But before that, to have health insurance in the United States you had to have a full-time job.
So in the US either I’d be working full-time with no spare time at all – and more money than I knew what to do with, seriously packing away more than $500-600 in savings every month – writing one short story every three months; or I would be trying to get by temping, working part-time, and applying for my own health insurance, and I would just be very much under stress, poor, losing money, and worried about it. There was no middle way.
And Germany is the land of the part-time job. You meet people all the time who will proudly tell you, “I am a professional photographer for the university press department with a 10% position.” This meant that person goes to work every week for three and a half hours and he’s insured.
Germany is just the place where everyone has a job because we all share. Life is set up to be much less expensive than it is in the US. Rent is lower, food is cheaper, and public spaces have to be high quality because everyone has so much free time they’re always in them. It’s just a better place to live. As soon as I got here I was just like, “OK, I can handle this.”
3:AM: Did you find problems moving away from English-language culture?
NZ: Oh yeah. Sometimes it was sort of heart-breaking and worrying. I would think, “My God, what am I doing?” I have an entire personality in English and I can sound articulate and halfway intelligent in English in way I can’t in German.
It was interesting to see the rise in my social status when I got a book deal and reviews. Germans who knew me as this American who goes around saying she writes in her spare time… I would make these pathetic claims sometimes, like, “I’m a really good writer. Someday you’ll see.”
3:AM: It’s well known than Jonathan Franzen wanted to promote your book, but were there challenges in that?
NZ: There’s the challenge that I’d get lost in the shuffle, but then I was coming from having absolutely no reputation at all, good, bad, or otherwise.
It was certainly very helpful to have this connection with him because he’s sort of click bait. When people write about me they’ll find a way to mention him so they can tag their post with his name.
The net effect has been very positive. I mean it’s not like I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Franzen fan. People who are sceptical about his work might think, “Oh, she sounds so interesting, but if Franzen likes her she must secretly be really square.” I can understand that, I really can.
I think of stuff like Freedom as deeply reactionary work. But I’ve been hammering on his head for a while and I think [Franzen’s next novel] Purity is different. Probably Purity will be a flop or something. But I think in Purity he stretches out a little bit and you see that he does have occasional critical thoughts about how the world works, and he’s not just trying to get families back together. Because family’s much more important than anything in the whole wide world… There’s a little more to him than that.
3:AM: I know that you mentioned to somebody that you’re writing another novel about “crusty old punks,” and that’s a quote.
NZ: Somebody misquoted me on that. Do you know what “a crusty punk” is? A crusty punk in the US is one of those people who live in a squat and never wash and so they end up all brown. Not “crusty old.” “Crusty old” sounds all wrong. They’re usually almost children, the crusties, because when you get a little older your immune system just can’t take being crusty. Or you just look like a standard homeless person, like a bum.
It’s mostly set in Jersey City. It’s called Nicotine and it’s extremely good and extremely funny. It’s much better than the other ones. Seriously, I’m very proud of it because I’m learning as I go along – it’s like on-the-job training, writing for publication.
It has very funny, climactic scenes. I forced myself to do less wordplay. People who love the voice of The Wallcreeper might not like it. But I like it, because the overall worldview is still there.
I made it just in the present tense, like a YA novel, and tried to stick to what’s visible, like if you were watching it as a TV series, because of course what people really love now is a TV series. So I tried to describe what you’re looking at throughout this book. I like it a lot.
The book is finished and it’s already sold in the US for a whole bunch of money. I am under orders to tell people that it took me at least two years to write it and it’s going to be published in the US next fall. So I can lay claim to nearly two years. But of course the truth is I wrote a draft in, like, two-and-half weeks. For megabucks.
Of course I have to revise it a lot so by the time I’m done I will have worked on it for years.
It’s going to be incredibly laborious. Labour is value – that’s the sad truth about how people conceptualise the world. It’s one of the things that leads to nature being so undervalued, because nature is just there. To some degree my novels are just natural phenomena. A German friend of mine, a journalist, said I write novels the way chickens lay eggs.
The Wallcreeper and Mislaid were published in the UK on 18 June.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ellie Broughton is a 28 year-old journalist and editor from London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 24th, 2015.