Sigrid Nunez on Converting Pain to Creativity

Sigrid Nunez’s Art of Noticing

The National Book Award winner smuggles profound reflections on pain and loss into novels of deceptive lightness.

By Wyatt Mason

We began outside on Adirondack chairs still heavy with dew, the 72-year-old American novelist Sigrid Nunez preferring the shade. It was a cloudless morning in mid-August in Middlebury, Vt., and I had gone to meet Nunez, a petite woman of almost suspicious good cheer, to talk about her half-century-long writing career. She had come up from her home in New York City to give a reading — from her new, ninth novel, “The Vulnerables,” which appears this week — at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Through time, Robert Frost, Toni Morrison and George R.R. Martin have all read at Bread Loaf. Nunez was joining those names, an unlikely advent. She didn’t publish a novel until she was in her 40s and wasn’t able to live on her writing until — 47 years after she began — she won the National Book Award, at 67, for “The Friend.” That novel became an international best seller, translated into more than 30 languages. I wondered how Nunez had managed such persistence.

Wearing a broad-brimmed hat that shielded her round, pale face, Nunez recalled a time, in the early 1970s, when she was taking an undergraduate writing workshop at Barnard. She went to college on a scholarship, her immigrant parents — a Chinese-Panamanian father, a German mother — raising her in a housing project on Staten Island. The Barnard workshop was taught by the celebrated novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick. Hardwick was a founder, in 1963, along with her husband at the time, the poet Robert Lowell, of The New York Review of Books, the literary journal that has been lighting fires small and large in the New York intellectual community ever since.

Delight and surprise still in her voice, Nunez recalled a meeting with Hardwick in her office, as if it had happened that morning. “She says: ‘I tried to read your story. I really did. But I just couldn’t. It was just so boring.’ Can you imagine? Read the full piece at the New York Times Magazine.

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