By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
Sigrid Nunez’ novel, The Friend (Riverhead Books), winner of the 2018 National Book Award, is hard to describe. It is the story of a woman taking in the dog of a close friend after his death, but it is also a rich examination of a very fully lived interior life. It is a novel about grief and friendship, about Rilke and Virginia Woolf, about the changing role of writers, about suicide and trauma. And, yes, it is about caring for a very large dog in a very small New York apartment. The author of numerous books, including A Feather on the Breath of God and For Rouenna, Nunez spoke to the Current via telephone from her home in New York. Answers have been edited for length.
This is a book about the death of a really good friend — a grief that is often overlooked. Can you talk about how you started this novel?
There were certain things on my mind. I knew several people who had become very relaxed with the idea that suicide was, or could very well be, the way they were going to end it all. None of them were threatening. None were in an emergency situation. None were even screaming for help. It wasn’t that. But I knew people who had come to a certain acceptance of this possibility of suicide. That was very troubling. And that’s why the book starts out the way it does.
At first, I thought ‘The Friend’ was the mentor. By the end, I was thought the titular friend was Apollo. Did you know you were going to write about a dog?
The idea of somebody doing that — her becoming the caretaker of this dog — it really came later. But I love animals and I always wanted to write something that had an animal as an important character. There’s one more person people seem to forget about when they’re talking about The Friend: the narrator. She turns out to be a helluva friend.
The narrator muses at multiple times throughout, “There is a certain kind of reader who is thinking, but does something bad happen to the dog?” I am one of those readers.
What is it that so horrifies us when an animal is harmed?
I was very struck by the Robert Graves quote [about the trenches of WWI] and seeing the corpses of horses. He said, it’s all very well for human beings to have gotten themselves in this mess, but then to drag the animals in, it just didn’t seem right.
There is this innocence that we all have and we pass out of. Whereas animals remain in that innocent state. To abuse them or see them suffer, it can feel particularly barbaric because it’s an innocent being. I don’t think it’s warped. I worked hard on that because I felt it was a difficult argument. I don’t think it means anything bad about the human heart. I think it’s quite positive: it speaks quite well for the human heart, not something misanthropic or perverted.
The way that the narrator and Apollo sort of sniff around each other is really lovely. You refer to them as two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other.
That’s from Rilke. It’s something I’ve known and had in my head for a very long time. Isn’t this Rilke’s definition of love, even though it’s not at all what Rilke had in mind? That’s the thing about her being a literary person. That thought would only occur to somebody who loves literature, who loves Rilke, who has these thoughts at her fingertips. Otherwise I think it would have been not authentic.
She drops a Mary Oliver in there, too.
Yes, yes! Also very much of a dog person. When I was writing this, I re-read all of Mary Oliver’s dog poems.
In some ways, the book is the craft of writing and getting in the mind of a writer. Can talk about that?
I had this certain sensibility, this certain consciousness in mind. She is very isolated, in grief, and on the verge of a breakdown. The way this particular character looks at the world, thinks about the world, observes the world is clearly a writer. She is somebody who takes references from books read and writers loved. It would have been so false not to just go there. What she is doing, besides walking the dog, is thinking. Her interiority is the main character. So I just let myself go in that way. It seemed a little bit like a gift.
Sigrid Nunez will speak on Monday, September 23rd at 7:30 at the Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland