I was very much looking forward to this author interview yesterday at Jewish Book Week, and I was not alone; the room was filled with adoring Nicole Krauss fans. I had just finished Krauss’s acclaimed and beautifully written novel The History of Love in time for the talk, and have also read Naomi Alderman’s book Disobedience, which I had enjoyed, so was pleased to see both writers at this interview. I was not disappointed. Nicole Krauss was beautiful, considered and elegant in slim jeans and a black jacket and Alderman’s questions were thoughtful, allowing Krauss plenty of room to talk about her work. Krauss answered all the questions put to her as carefully and beautifully as she writes, showing intelligence, sensitivity and confidence. No answers were rushed or badly thought out, except for one answer to a question from the audience about her relationship with husband Jonathan Safran Foer, which flustered her and drew the only slightly frosty refusal to answer fully in the hour-long interview.
The session started with a brief reading from Krauss’s new book, Great House, about a series of characters who are linked together, although not necessarily part of each other’s stories, with links including, for many of them, encountering a particular large and looming desk, although Krauss denied that the book centred around the desk itself. Krauss said that being a parent had definitely shaped this novel, firstly as she would have been unable to write about some of the emotions of being a parent if she herself had not experienced them, but also because having children had influenced the solemn tone of this novel ‘perhaps because I am taking life more seriously now.’ Other themes in the book that were discussed included the idea of identity, particularly Jewish identity, being tied to the idea of loss; of building an identity ‘wrapped around an empty centre’ where something of importance used to be.
As a writer, I was particularly interested to hear about Krauss’s creative process and the way she crafts her novels, each one built more through intuition than forward planning and often based on the voices of the characters who guide the story to its conclusion. She says that for her, being truly free to imagine is far easier than attempting to write about real people or real situations, and so she never intentionally bases any of her characters on people she knows as the writing wouldn’t take flight in the same way, even though of course all writing must pass through the filter of the writer’s own experience.
Throughout, I found Nicole Krauss to be a mesmerising person to watch and listen to, erudite and careful, but perhaps, for me at least, a little glacial. She was not a warm speaker and, while I was entranced by her beauty and intellect, I felt myself thinking that, if I could have dinner with one of the writers on the stage after the discussion, I would have chosen the perhaps less stellar, but far more welcoming, Naomi rather than Nicole. Nicole, though, I’m sure, will not be short of other (more fashionable) dinner invites for some time to come.
Rachel Buchanan is the General Manager of the Free Word Centre, a centre for literature, literacy and free expression. In her spare time she is the Vice Chair of the Camden Poets, and enjoys reading, knitting, walking and procrastinating rather than practising magic tricks.
Nicole Krauss photo courtesy of Daniel D. Moses