Nell Zink has been a writer for most of her life, in venues ranging from a DIY zine about punk musicians and their pets to German newspapers. You might not have heard of the 52-year-old writer prior to 2014, but there’s a good chance that you recognize her name now. She released two of the best books in 2014 and 2015: The Wallcreeper and Mislaid, respectively.
The Germany-based writer’s third novel, Nicotine, out this week, is easily the author’s best work. If that weren’t enough she also published two early novellas — Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats and European Story for Avner Shats — in the collection Private Novelist on the same day as Nicotine. Zink is a wordsmith’s wordsmith. She’s sharp, wry, and might be a genius. I spoke with her over the phone after she arrived in America for a book tour and discussed how Nicotine came to be, her relationship with Israeli writer Avner Shats, and so much more.
The Millions: First, before we get into your new novel, I’m fascinated by and wanted to ask about the DIY zine you had about musicians and their pets.
Nell Zink: It was about five years long. At the time I had moved to Washington, D.C. and I met somebody and we got married and moved to Richmond, Virginia, and then he got a job in New York. So, in the spring of 1990 we moved to Hoboken. I was very interested in music, but never had the money for records. He was a real suburbanite who had an allowance as a child and worked stringing rackets when he was older, so he had records like you wouldn’t believe. He introduced me to all of this music. I always played guitar and started playing electric.
He was into this improvised music and it drew me in because it related to the aesthetic of how I was writing then. Like writing entire novels and then throwing them away. Similar to Yuri Khanon — the Russian composer — currently destroying all of his work at the rate of one piece per week. Anyway, we were playing this improvised music and that’s enough detail about the background of what was happening.
I really enjoyed zines then and it was clear to me that my favorite ones weren’t just about music, but also about something else. I thought, I like animals. To me, as a serious writer, I thought there is no way greater to reach human beings other than to talk to them about something other than human beings. There’s a reason people look at kittens on the internet. And that’s how it came to be.
TM: You mentioned the composer who burns his work. Was that you? Did you have a considerable amount of material that you just purged?
NZ: Occasionally I would search an old computer and realize that is what I was doing. I wasn’t doing it consciously because I legitimately forgot that stuff. I’m not entirely demented, but I certainly don’t have a photographic memory. I would write a story about an obsessive shut-in who falls in love with a box of Tide because of the colors on the labeling. I remember I wrote this story, I forgot about it, I found it again and then I lost it again. It was just called “Box of Tide” and it was about this guy’s passionate — and not sexual because I didn’t write anything sexual until I started writing for publication, because you have to give the people what they want — love for his box of Tide.
TM: So you have published three novels in back to back to back years, plus a collection of two novellas. Does that mean you’re going to keep churning out novel after novel each year?
NZ: No. If I release another one, no one will believe it’s great. So I need to take a break. At least my editor thinks so. She told me to take my time. I asked her what the optimal time was because I will write it to order. I asked her what the absolute ideal time would be: three years, three and a half? She kept naming people who took seven or ten years to write their next novel. I joked that she needed more time in between because she didn’t want to pay me another advance for another decade.
I really don’t know. It’s going to be big and more of a brick. You know when people are spending $27 for a new hardcover they expect a brick. I think they’re justified. And I know now how to write longer and in the more ambitious style. If you read The Wallcreeper, it’s written like how people write short stories. It just goes on for 200 pages. It’s very elusive and dense with very tiny scenes instead of chapters. But I can write a long novel. It could happen.
TM: All three novels have been short, but with such beautiful language and story. I need a longer novel to immerse myself in.
NZ: Well, thank you. I feel now that I know how it’s done. I figured out the secret of going long.
TM: I won’t ask for the secret. I only want you to have it.
NZ: Most people have no problem. Especially men that I know. They all have 1,000 page novels.
TM: It does seem that everyone is obsessed about these sweeping sagas now. Whether it be a generational familial saga or a long coming-of-age about a group of friends leaving college and navigating adulthood. With you, however, you find these offbeat stories that are completely unique?
NZ: I just try to come up with figures in a situation that irritates me in a way. Something I can’t quite get my head around; just almost but not quite. Something about it needs to trouble me. There are sort of difficult and unresolved positions taken and abandoned with gender and racial material in Mislaid and even in Nicotine there are things people do that I couldn’t tell you myself whether it was right or wrong, or if people should be allowed to do what they do.
To come up with those situations, I have to be a little bit creative because it’s not like life hands them to you on a plate. When it does come up you don’t want to think about. My own life is not one I want to wallow in; maybe that’s why I get creative. I can imagine having a happy adolescence where I can write about my travails of life at an Ivy League school and how I suffered being a wallflower on Facebook or whatever. But that’s not the case.
TM: When did the creative force for Nicotine come into your life? There was an interview around when Mislaid came out where you said you already sold this book. Was this an old idea just waiting to be published? Or did you churn it out recently?
NZ: Don’t say churn!
TM: Sorry, I don’t think I’ve ever used that word to describe writing a book and I think earlier today I read an interview where either you said it or the interviewer said it.
NZ: Well, you know what? What happens is that if I say, “I don’t churn them out. It took me a year to write Nicotine,” then the headline will include “churns them out.” For instance I had an interview with The Guardian yesterday and I talked endlessly about Keith Gessen and then I was asked about Johnathan Franzen. Now the headline has Jonathan Franzen’s name in it. I cannot win. Apparently Keith Gessen is not clickbait. He’s not the teen idol I think he is. We’re going to have to work on that.
TM: We can talk about him as long as you want.
NZ: No, no. I got that out of my system the other day. Nicotine was first conceived in about December 2014. I remember when I first got the idea. I was at lunch with my German publisher. Well, he’s not my publisher, but he had to keep jumping up to go outside to smoke and he was missing everything. He was really addicted to cigarettes. I had this image of cigarettes and the interesting way they change people.
Right around March 2015, when Kathryn Schulz interviewed me for The New Yorker, my agent dared me to write something fast enough for her to sell it before Mislaid came out because she said I would have market value spike before The New Yorker profile and the book publication.
So, that’s what I did. I drafted it in a few weeks. I beg you to appreciate the fact that is how most writers write. If you ask them how long it took to write a book they just look at the simple arithmetic of when they released their last book and they tell you they have been working on the new book since the day their last book came out. If you actually met them you’ll know they spend eight years doing nothing, two months outlining, then they sell a partial, and then they go to the MacDowell Colony and write the book in three weeks. That’s what everybody does. They all have kids and jobs that they can’t work the way that I do.
TM: I love your prose so much. You chose to write Nicotine in present tense, which your last novels weren’t in. Why that decision?
NZ: My reason to make it present tense was this long standing cynical-sounding idea. It’s very clear what people go for when reading a book and the ways you can draw them in. You really can legitimately call me a post-modernist. I’m not very often playing games with the medium itself in a way that has to do with form and words like a language poet. That’s not what I’m up to.
In this post-modernist sense, it’s clear for me and Avner [Shats, an Israeli writer and close friend to Zink] that people go for this young adult fiction even when it’s passing for something else. Jane Austen has been read all of this time because she reads like a popular genre. Do people read Stern? He’s like Melville; nobody cracks those novels. But Austen has been huge. She was huge the moment she started publishing novels.
In any case, I wanted to emulate this popular genre, young adult fiction, which is almost always in the present tense. I wanted to get the breathless quality of the sort of run-on-sentenceness of an entire book. It’s similar to a TV series: you can’t figure out when to turn it off so you binge-watch. I just wanted to emulate young adult fiction and TV because TV is in the present tense even if it’s set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. You’re seeing it unfold as it happens. It is in realtime You’re observing the events. I’m simultaneously smart enough to be interested by that and dumb enough to be challenged by that; so, I was able to take the idea and run with it.
TM: You seem to like to be challenged whether it be meeting a deadline set forth by your agent or writing in a young adult-esque present tense…
NZ: Once when I was organizing a classical piano concert, this wise old secretary asked me, “You always take the path of maximum resistance, don’t you?” And I thought, “Hmmm, she has a point.”
TM: The reason I bring that up was because you are also releasing Private Novelist which contains to early novellas that were both sort of a challenge in a way from Avner Shats. Unless I’m mistaken?
NZ: When I wrote Sailing Towards the Sunset by Avner Shats it was after I had gotten back from a prize ceremony that Avner won and my husband Zohar, the poet who is also in the book, also won a prize. In my jokey, mental life I told them that I am not going to get a job and that I would just write a novel and get a $5,000 prize. That’s all I was doing and people indulged in me. So that’s why the story goes immediately into these writing prizes and how worthless they are.
That’s how Sunset came to be. I liked Avner a lot, I didn’t know him all too well, but I knew he was a post-modern writer and I couldn’t read his novel [the yet-to-be-translated Hebrew Sailing Towards the Sunset] and I heard Zohar complain about it, “Avner is not a literary genius, he’s a shallow smartass.” And he’s such a nice guy, but I felt I could relate to being a shallow smartass. But he’s not shallow at all.
TM: So, you mentioned Franzen and how everyone mentions him when talking to you. But I’m more interested in your relationship with Shats. Does he read your works early before most people?
NZ: He reads everything first. Especially because he reads it overnight. We’re truly friends and if I send him a novel it takes about three days for feedback. Which is considerably different than other people.
TM: Does he provide edits and notes or just broad generalizations?
NZ: His feedback is always that I’m a beautiful genius and that he loves me. That’s one of the The Wallcreeper. He said, “I hate this character, where did you get her? Is she in your mind because I worry about you now.” It was just funny because he was used to reading the things I wrote for him. The Wallcreeper, I wrote for someone else — “He Who Shall Not Be Named” — and it was written in a very different style.
TM: So after it goes to Avner does it go to anyone else?
NZ: I let everyone read everything. If they want to. If I know that a novel will offend a certain person, I won’t send it to him or her. If people are interested I hand them out like candy; especially if I have galleys.
TM: And what about your editing process? I know Nicotine was challenged to you to write in a certain time. Was editing fairly quick?
NZ: The editors made suggestions, but at this point they kind of figured out that I know what I’m doing. They mostly just pointed out continuity errors. It was actually Franzen, when he read it, who had very good suggestions. Nothing specific, he just saw problems. He just told me what was wrong and it was actually very productive.
TM: What was one big thing that Franzen felt needed to be changed in Nicotine?
NZ: Well there was one character — and this isn’t a spoiler, you can print this verbatim without spoiling anything. In the original draft, the character of Matt drowns in a pool of toxic waste. It was a really cheap way of getting rid of somebody. It felt like South Park.
TM: It could have worked.
NZ: It had no need to work. It allowed Matt to go to an entirely different place. He’s a lovable character. He’s so damaged and so pitiful and there is hope for him. There just is. He had to get a chance, and it was enjoyable writing those moments where I gave him a chance.
TM: I’m glad Nicotine turned out the way it did. I was blown away by it.
NZ: I love Nicotine. I’m optimistic.
TM: I also can’t wait to read Private Novelist.
NZ: The story why it got published isn’t because they wanted to publish it. It took major arm twisting by me. It was very important to me because of my friendship with Avner. Because our lives are an elaborate literary hoax. he was described as a hoax in the pages of The Jerusalem Post. People were claiming he didn’t really exist. He joked about that’s when you know you’re really obscure. So it’s been this longstanding joke that I would publish Sailing Towards the Sunset by Avner Shats so that it would inspire someone to translate his novel so that I can finally read it. I realized we had to do it when I was young enough or else I would have to delete those files. So I made someone publish them.
TM: I hope that does happen so that we all can read his novel. One final question: I know it’s been jokingly suggested that you take seven years off, but I hope not. Do you have your next creative idea?
NZ: I have a vague plan that will take a bunch of research. Something I’m interested in right now for reasons I can’t justify right now involves soil erosion. To my horror I know Franzen is interested in that as well. It might be a battle of the novels, but he’s like, “No, yours will come out first no matter how many years you think you’re going to take. Yours will come out first.”
Ask me another question so I don’t close with Franzen.
TM: Oh, well, what are some novels or writers that fascinate you right now?
NZ: I very recently The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. Have you read it?
NZ: No one has read it! It really blew me away. I think it’s beautiful, it’s brilliant, it’s magnificent! It had never been recommended to me except once thirty years ago by this sort of confused young theatre person.
It’s the most rigorously brilliant novel that I have ever read. The idea behind it is that there is this women writer living in London, very on the left and very involved in politics, living her life, raising a kid and trying to reconcile these things. She keeps these diaries in notebooks, but she can’t keep just one because these ideas are incompatible. It’s the idea that these topics can’t fit into one head at once, or can they? It’s a profound novel like none I have ever encountered before.