'The Friend' Novelist Grapples With Suicide, Grief And Student-Teacher Relationships
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's away today. We're going to listen to Terry's interview with Sigrid Nunez, who won the National Book Award for Fiction last November for her novel "The Friend," which will be published in paperback February 5. It begins with the narrator, a woman, at the memorial of a dear friend who killed himself. He was more than a friend. Years before, he was her writing professor and mentor. When she was his student, they slept together once, at his suggestion. She wasn't the only student he seduced, but her friendship with him outlasted his three marriages and many affairs. After his death, she reluctantly inherits his dog, a 180-pound Great Dane who, like her, is grieving.
The novel is filled with reflections about the line between appropriate and inappropriate relations between students and teachers, what it's like to mourn a friend who left no note to explain his suicide, the bond that can develop between a dog and a person, and how being a writer has changed in the world of social media.
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Sigrid Nunez, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start with a reading from your novel. And this is from very early on, when the main character has recently learned that her friend has committed suicide and is reflecting on, like, why.
SIGRID NUNEZ: (Reading) Because of the timing, so near the start of the year, it was possible to think that it had been a resolution. One of those times when you talked about it, you said that what would stop you was your students. Naturally, you were concerned about the effect such an example might have on them. Nevertheless, we thought nothing of it when you quit teaching last year, even though we knew that you liked teaching and that you needed the money. Another time, you said that for a person who had reached a certain age, it could be a rational decision, a perfectly sound choice, a solution, even - unlike when a young person commits suicide, which could never be anything but a mistake.
Once, you cracked us up with the line, I think I prefer a novella of a life. Stevie Smith calling death the only god who must come when he's called tickled you pink, as did the various ways people have said that, were it not for suicide, they could not go on. Walking with Samuel Beckett one fine spring morning, a friend of his asked, doesn't a day like this make you glad to be alive? I wouldn't go as far as that, Beckett said.
That there was to be a memorial took us by surprise. We, who had heard you say that you would never want any such thing, the very idea was repugnant to you. Did Wife Three simply choose to ignore this? Was it because you'd failed to put it in writing? Like most suicides, you did not leave a note.
GROSS: There was Sigrid Nunez reading from her novel "The Friend," which comes out in paperback February 5 and won the National Book Award for Fiction.
So this novel has a lot to do with suicide and trying to understand why somebody did it. Have you lost someone to suicide?
NUNEZ: Yes. I have. I have. And before I started writing this book, one of the main reasons why I wanted to write about suicide was because I realized that I knew quite a few people who had the idea of suicide on their minds. I mean, they might not have been actually planning it, but it had come to - they'd come to believe that this was how their story would end. It was a choice that was very much on their minds all the time, not just at moments of despair. And actually, it was - I had finished the novel, though it hadn't been published yet, when one of those people did commit suicide.
GROSS: How did that person take their life?
NUNEZ: He jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge.
GROSS: And what did it make you think about thinking of the way that person chose to end it?
NUNEZ: I actually think that when people make that decision, it's such a mystery. In fact, I don't think it's so easy to understand what is on people's minds when they actually attempt the suicide. I do know that people who have jumped and have survived, no small number of them have said afterwards that as soon as their hands let go or as soon as they were in the air, they regretted it. And then afterwards, when they were saved, they were happy to have been saved. So I have to have that in my mind, that that might've happened to him, too.
GROSS: It must hurt for you to think about that.
NUNEZ: Certainly. And, you know, he did not - I was not in touch with him right before he killed himself, and there was no note. So I really don't know exactly what his thoughts were. Now, he was somebody who had been suicidal during his life and who suffered from depression and had been very unhappy. But still, even when a suicide like that happens and - it can come as an extraordinary shock while at the same time not really being a surprise. I was not surprised. In fact, when I came home from teaching and I saw an email from a mutual friend that said, call me when you get this message, I knew instantly that he had committed suicide, this man.
GROSS: When a friend of yours talks about the temptation of suicide, what do you say? Do you say - you know, do you try to talk them out of it? Do you try to just listen?
NUNEZ: I try to just listen. My friend who jumped from the bridge, suicide was something he talked about all the time, and the different ways that he might do it. Also when you know that somebody is feeling this way, you know, you make all those suggestions about places to get in touch with, people who might be able to help, to go into therapy if you aren't already. But I think it's very, very hard for people to deal with other people's suicidal feelings because it's so extreme, self-homicide, self-murder. It's so against the normal course of things.
And since I wrote this book, I receive so many emails all the time from people who have lost people - in some cases, very recently - to suicide. And I do have to think of ways to answer those emails, and I do. I answer every one of them.
GROSS: Another issue that your novel deals with is relationships between professors and students, specifically, between male professors and female students and the attraction that can form between them. The main character is a woman, and the character who kills himself - her very dear friend - had been her college professor years ago. And they even had a brief affair after he told her they should try sleeping together because, he said, we should find that out about each other. And she says, I don't think it ever occurred to either of us that I might refuse.
And then he tells her that it's not really going to work out. (Laughter). And she's kind of devastated, but they remain good friends. He marries three times. They remain good friends throughout all those marriages. She's never quite sure what the wives feel about their relationship. And he tells her, to be a teacher is to be a seducer. And there are times when he must also be a heartbreaker. Have you heard men say that about teaching, that to be a teacher is to be a seducer?
NUNEZ: I have. I have. And I believe in this case, he is paraphrasing something that was said by George Steiner. Yes. If not in those words - or let's just put it this way. If not in words, in some cases, that message is there. I have certainly heard that.
GROSS: It strikes me as such a male thing. Like, I don't think women teachers, women professors, see themselves that way, unless you're talking about seducing people into learning. But I don't think women teachers see themselves as wanting to flirt and maybe go to bed with their students. I'm not saying all men do, either, but I think it's, over the years, been more a common thing for men than for women?
NUNEZ: Well, that might be true, but I do think that women, female mentors and women in positions of power, do indeed have that same feeling. They might not carry it all the way through, but wanting to seduce their mentees or their students - but I think you can understand that, what that - you know, that doesn't seem so strange to me that a young person would say that. And then, I think, as a mentor, Susan Sontag certainly was extremely seductive and was fully aware of how magnetic and charismatic and seductive she was to men and women in that role. It was a huge part of her personality.
GROSS: Seductive in the literal sense of, like, I'm going to try to convince you to sleep with me or just seductive at a...
GROSS: ...Distance. Yeah.
NUNEZ: Both, both. It would depend on the person. But Sontag used to talk about that, about her - how when she had any kind of affection or strong feeling for anyone, she always also wanted to sleep with that person. That was part of it. Now, she didn't always, of course. But it was always there. There was always some attraction like that or some desire there. But as I say, it - just to remember her, I can't separate that seductive quality of hers out from the rest.
GROSS: I was going to say, just to put that in context, when you were in your 20s, I think...
GROSS: You were a couple with David Rieff, Susan Sontag's son. She, at the time, was diagnosed with cancer. You were both living with Susan Sontag. She became a friend and mentor to you. And you got to see her at her best and her worst.
GROSS: OK. Have you ever felt like a seducer as a teacher yourself? - because you've taught in different settings. I mean, you've taught literature and writing in colleges. You've taught English as a second language, so - and you've taught over the years. So you've seen issues about, you know, power in the classroom change over the years.
NUNEZ: I've never - no, I've never had that - I've never had any kind of issue come up, even, you know, remotely connected to that. You know, it's been helpful to me that I didn't start teaching until I was in my 40s. And I can easily imagine - oh, God can I imagine how different it might have been if I had been teaching, as many of my students do and my fellow writers, in their 20s. It might've been a whole other story.
GROSS: What do you think would have been different?
NUNEZ: Well, I think I might've been more susceptible. And I think that anybody could be.
GROSS: Why don't we take a break here? And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Sigrid Nunez. Her latest book is the novel "The Friend," which won the National Book Award for Fiction and is about to be published in paperback February 5. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Sigrid Nunez. And her latest novel "The Friend" won a National Book Award for Fiction in late 2018. And now "The Friend" is about to be published in paperback February 5.
As you've said, you've seen the rules of conduct in the classroom change. It's against the guidelines in most places now to have a relationship with a student - you know, a sexual relationship with a student. And you've also said you know, in the past, marriages that have worked out really well between a professor and the student. And the one I think of immediately is poet Donald Hall and poet Jane Kenyon. And she was...
GROSS: ...First his student. And then they - you know, they had a long marriage.
NUNEZ: Right. And I can't think of any names right now, any couples. But there are many, many of them like Donald and...
GROSS: But, probably, the more common thing is closer to inappropriate. You know what I mean? (Laughter) Like, there have been some great marriages and relationships that have come out of that and some, also, are, like, real damage and inappropriate things. How have you seen the rules change? Like, your character has to attend sexual misconduct classes and learn what the new rules were. So how have you seen the new rules change? And how have you reacted to it as a woman?
NUNEZ: Oh, we all take those courses now in universities and colleges as soon as you start teaching. There's an online course about sexual misconduct, so trying to make everything as clear as possible. And it's completely understood now that it is inappropriate. It's not allowed. You could lose your job. You know, this is fairly recent. And I think it's just something that had to be done. You know, even though there were these marriages, that doesn't mean that it wasn't inappropriate for the professor to have the affair with the student before he married her. I mean, it was still an inappropriate thing. It was still a dangerous thing to do. It was still something that was far more likely to hurt young women in some way than anything else.
And I think that the most pernicious thing about when a mentor or professor has an affair with a student or treats a student in some sexual way is that there's also the student's work. And what happens is because - this is something that has happened to me - happened to me as a student. You don't know what - it affects the value of your work. I mean, you think, well, did those guys really think that my work was so great? - because the one female professor, she actually didn't think it was as great as they did. So is it that they really think that or are they just trying to sleep with me? And that is something that a lot of women know about. It's something that a lot of - it's a kind of gaslighting. You end up not knowing, is it the work or is it me, the girl, the young - you know, the young woman? For that to be eliminated is, you know, is definitely progress.
GROSS: What year are we talking about, about when you were in college?
NUNEZ: Well, this would have been - I graduated from Barnard in '72 and from Columbia in '75 - the MFA program. But I'm not just talking about school. I'm talking about men in positions of power after that as well. I'm - you know, I'm talking about a long period of my life.
GROSS: And then there's the question like in - if you're not supposed to talk about sexually related subjects in class, when you're teaching a writing workshop, which is what you do, and you're encouraging people to write openly and sex is a part of life and sexual thinking is a huge part of young people's lives, do you make that subject off-topic? Do you make that subject taboo for writing in class? How do you talk about it if it's not taboo for writing in class? Have you thought about that a lot?
NUNEZ: I have. I have no idea what other writing instructors do. But, in fact, it turns out, in my experience, not to be a problem because the students do not write about sex. They are either too shy or afraid to offend somebody. I have heard stories about other workshops where very bad things have happened. People have gotten upset. But mostly, I find - and I find it rather odd - that it is - it's very, very unusual for a student to write about sex in the writing workshop, either undergrad or graduate.
GROSS: Is that a relief to you (laughter) as the teacher?
NUNEZ: No. No, it's not because I feel like it's just one of many things that they are - you know, parts of human experience that they're just - they just won't go there. And, you know, a writer has to go there, you know? Very often what they do - and then we talk about this in class - is they go up to a point, and then they panic or get shy or whatever. And then they just make a leap. And then, you know, I say, but you didn't do it. You lost your nerve. You see, the most important thing when you're writing is that you don't flinch. You know, you'll - you know, the reader will not accept this. The reader will see right away that you didn't have what it takes. You didn't have the guts to actually write that scene that you led us right up to, and then you skipped right over it.
But there are a lot of things that, you know, that students are very, you know, anxious about writing about. But I mean, it's very understandable because maybe if they were, you know, writing it for publication - they hope - but they don't have to share it in a classroom with an instructor and everybody talking about it. You know, that's difficult for them.
DAVIES: Sigrid Nunez speaking with Terry Gross. Nunez's novel "The Friend" won the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction. It comes out in paperback February 5. She'll be back after a break. And critic Justin Chang reviews the fantasy film "The Kid Who Would Be King" based on the legend of King Arthur. I'm Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's interview with author Sigrid Nunez. Her latest novel "The Friend" won the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction. It comes out in paperback February 5.
GROSS: The story in "The Friend" - the narrator is a woman whose mentor from college, who was close to her age, became a dear friend. And he has just committed suicide. She's left grieving and wondering why. And she also inherits his dog. And it's not just, like, any dog. It's a 180-pound Great Dane. And she lives in a small, rent-controlled apartment (laughter) in New York. And it's illegal - it's against the regulations to have a dog in that apartment. So she kind of violates the regulations, takes the dog kind of reluctantly. And they become very close. And they're both grieving. The dog is grieving, too. But as you've said, you can't describe death to a dog. You can't explain death to a dog.
NUNEZ: Yeah, that's something that has struck me well before I started writing this book, how difficult that is, really, because, you know, there the dog is at home. As far as the dog knows, everything is fine. And then the person - the dog's person, the most beloved one - vanishes into thin air, just doesn't, you know, doesn't - isn't there anymore. There's no way to explain to the dog what happened. And it just seems to me that that must be a remarkable emotional tumult for the dog.
GROSS: She walks the street with the dog. You know, she talks the - takes the dog on walks as, of course, you have to. Because the dog is so big, she feels like she's a spectacle (laughter) when she's on the street with the dog. And everybody's, like, stopping and wanting to do a selfie or asking how much he eats or how much he defecates (laughter). And she's kind of, you know - I think she feels, like, partly, her privacy is being invaded, but partly, just, like, amused by the whole thing. But it connects to something larger that her friend who took his life used to say, which is that - you know, he used to, like, love to walk and felt like he did his best writing while he was walking and just kind of losing himself in his thoughts and in his surroundings. But he always thought that that would be harder for a woman to do because a woman always has to be on guard. Is this guy following me? Is this guy going to grope me? Is this guy going to attack me? What about that catcall?
And so I'm wondering if you've thought about that from both directions, about, you know, the difficulties of sometimes losing yourself as a woman who has to be on guard when walking the streets and the difference when you have this, like, huge dog who everybody wants to stop and admire when you're walking.
NUNEZ: Well, it's true that I was writing about flanerie and the flaneur, who is an urban walker...
GROSS: That's a French word (laughter).
NUNEZ: Yes - and the mentor's idea that, you know, can there really be such a thing as a flaneurs? Can a woman be a flaneur? - because real flanerie requires that you are able to lose yourself in an urban setting and just walk and dream and discover. And that is very difficult for a woman. Now, if we were talking about walking in the country, that would be different. But that's not what a flaneur does. It did strike me, I guess, just as an idea when I was writing, that, of course, it is true what he says, that a woman is raised to be always on guard. Is there someone behind me? Is there - you know? Is - and not to mention remarks that are made or stares that are given. That certainly does make it much different for a woman than for a man.
And with my narrator walking with the dog, she does feel embarrassed. She's a very private person. And she doesn't want to be interrupted constantly when she's taking the dog for a walk. And then there's a certain amount of irritation with the same things always being said, like, why don't you ride him? And, as you say, how much does he eat? And also people putting in their two cents, such as, it's a sin to - a crime, as one woman says. I think it's a crime to keep a dog that large in the city, or that dog shouldn't be in the city, which is something that people do say if you walk a big dog.
GROSS: And you've walked big dogs. You've had big dogs, right?
NUNEZ: I've had - well, my family had an enormous Great Dane. And, you know, I was already out of the house by then. But I did walk him. And, you know, children would follow and people would say things. But I also had a dog that was half Great Dane, half German shepherd and looked like a somewhat smaller Great Dane that I walked. And yes, yes, people do make a lot of comments.
GROSS: I'm guilty of being one of the people who say, how much does the dog eat? And what...
GROSS: I could probably ride the dog because I literally could probably ride the dog. I mean, I'm so short, I could...
GROSS: I could really probably do it. I know people who won't get a pet after their beloved pet has died because they feel like they can't go through that grieving process again. And it reminds me of people who won't remarry because they can't bear the thought of losing a second spouse.
NUNEZ: Yes. I get a lot of emails from those people, too - a lot. You know, they have lost a pet. And it's been overwhelming to them. And very many of them say, I don't know if I could get another one or if I should get another one. Yeah. I mean, people become so emotionally attached to the animals in their lives, we probably underestimate how powerful that pain is when people leave - lose an animal that they love.
GROSS: Do you have pets now?
NUNEZ: No, I don't. I had two cats. And they grew to be quite old. And they both died. And it was when the second one died that, again, I was one of those people who was so overwhelmed. And I have not been able to bring myself to get another cat since then. And that was years ago.
GROSS: Because of the grief.
NUNEZ: Yes, largely because of that, just not wanting to go through all that again. But there was something about the way that cat died and the loss of it. In fact, I do write about that in the novel that I just was not able to get over that.
GROSS: How did the cat die?
NUNEZ: Well, she was elderly. And she became very ill. And then I took her to the vet, who, you know, who agreed that she should be put down because she was so - because she would have to have surgery. And at her age, you know, that was probably not such a good idea. And then the vet said, I have to give her two shots - one to calm her down. And something went wrong. And then the - she picked up the cat and ran off with it. She had said to me, do you want to be with her when she dies? I said, of course. And then something went wrong. It had to do with the vein being too dehydrated when she made the first injection. And she then picked up the cat and ran off with it. And then I waited. And then she came back and put the cat on the table, and the cat was dead. And I remembered her saying, do you want to be with her? Well, then I wasn't with her.
And yeah, it was very, very painful. And there was a certain point in - before the cat died, where, you know, I - she was so ill. And I brought her in, and - to the vet. And she was there. And I felt that - you know, the way I write it, I said that I'm not saying this is what she said, but this is what I heard. She put her paw on my arm. And I imagined her saying, wait. You're making a mistake. I didn't say I wanted you to kill me. I wanted you to make me feel better.
GROSS: Yeah. You never really know - do you? - what the cat or dog is thinking (laughter) about...
GROSS: ...Whether it's time to end their life.
NUNEZ: Exactly. So - and that - it was just a very overwhelming experience.
GROSS: Yeah. If you're just joining, us my guest is writer Sigrid Nunez. Her latest book, "The Friend," is a novel that won the National Book Award for fiction and is about to be published in paperback in early February. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Sigrid Nunez. Her latest novel, "The Friend," won the National Book Award for Fiction in late 2018, and it's about to be published in paperback in early February. The novel is narrated by a woman whose longtime friend and former mentor has committed suicide.
I spoke with you in 1996.
GROSS: And one of the things you said is, I've never been married, and I'm not going to marry. And I said, how can you be so certain? And you said, well, there isn't anything I could have from a marriage that I don't really have. Do you still feel that way?
NUNEZ: Well, I never did marry, just as I said. And that isn't something that I've regretted. I think at the time, what I was referring to also was that I was with someone. I was in a relationship. We were living together. I didn't really see why we had to get married, and we didn't. Now I am not in a relationship. I'm not living with anyone. But I - you know, I guess I understood it then. It was just - marriage was just not going to be for me.
NUNEZ: I don't - I've just - I do not - I have not shared that desire and need that so many people seem to have. I just - I've - you know, when I was very young - when I was a teenager, I think I had, you know, fantasies of a wedding and romance and marriage and - but - and children. But I don't have children, and I knew quite a long time ago that I wasn't going to have children. So again, I mean, that makes a difference, too. So I felt that I could be in relationships. I could have full meaningful relationships without getting married, and I did.
GROSS: I think it was in your first book that you wrote, time and time again, I discover that I have not completely let go of the notion that salvation will come in the form of a man.
NUNEZ: That's true, too.
GROSS: Do you still feel that...
NUNEZ: I think that - I think...
GROSS: ...Way, or did you give that...
NUNEZ: ...I'm losing (laughter).
GROSS: Did you give up that feeling - yeah.
NUNEZ: Oh, I've given that up. I've given that up, Terry. I don't feel that way anymore.
GROSS: Have you thought about the difference of being single in the latter part of your 60s where you are now compared to being single when you're younger?
NUNEZ: Oh, it's - course it's much easier when you're older, I think.
GROSS: Why do you think it's easier?
NUNEZ: To be single?
GROSS: Mmm hmm.
NUNEZ: I think it's easier because - well, I guess it depends on what we mean. What I - I think it's very hard to be single when you're young because there's so many opportunities to not be single. You know, I think there - it's - both romantic relationships and friendships, there is - you know, when you - when you're younger, you get into these relationships fairly easily, and the people that you meet who are, you know, your peers - they want those relationships and friendships, too. And it's quite different when you - when you're older.
I mean, I know people - actually, you know, feel melancholy about this, that it's harder to - you meet people when you're older, and you feel like you have a lot in common. And you really like that person, and that person seems to like you. But you just don't form the kind of friendship with that person that you did with people when you were younger. And so in that sense, it's easier because, you know, you accept a certain amount of being alone and not seeking out people to date. Of course everyone's different. But for me, I just I just feel like I - you know, I'm not distracted by the idea of dating or meeting someone or finding someone the way - you know, the way I was when I was younger, the way I was for most of my life.
GROSS: OK, then the thought comes up, what about when you get older - if you're single then and your health fails or something?
NUNEZ: Yeah, you mean, who's going to take you to the vet for the two injections?
GROSS: Or at least for the care.
NUNEZ: Right, well, it's something that - you know, it's something that people just have to face. It's certainly something that, you know, I think about and worry about. But, you know, this is what - you know, this is the way my life is. I will just have to, you know, deal with that when I have to.
GROSS: Did people used to warn you, if you don't have children, you'll regret it when you're older?
NUNEZ: Yes, and I think that that's very reasonable. I mean, as far as I'm concerned, missing having had children is enormous, is enormous. I don't - you know, I did what I had to do, or, you know, my life turned out as it has. But it's never - I've never not been aware that in not having been a mother and not having had a child I have missed one of life's greatest, most interesting, most meaningful experiences. I did. I did. And that - but, you know, you can't - you don't do everything. You can't have everything.
GROSS: So is that a tradeoff you feel like you willingly made, or do you have any regrets about the choice that you made?
NUNEZ: I don't. It's exactly that. I don't - no matter - in spite of the fact that I know exactly, you know, what a huge thing I missed, I also don't regret it because it was - you know, other women are different. Other people are different. I knew myself well enough to know that I was not going to be able to have the life that I wanted as a writer and be the kind of mother I would hope to be. That's just me. I - you know, it wasn't going to work out. I was not going to be able to work that out.
And I most certainly - unlike any number of women I know, I most certainly was not going to be able to be a good single mother. That I know I would have not been good at. And, you know, I was not ever in a position where I felt real confidence with someone I was with that we could do this and he would be there and I would be there and he would make a terrific father. That just didn't happen.
GROSS: I want to end with the quote that opens your book. It's a quote from Nicholson Baker. And the quote is, the question any novel is really trying to answer is, is life worth living? Now, it's a great quote to open a novel that has a lot to do with suicide, but does that also sum up your idea of what writers really are trying to write about?
NUNEZ: Yes. I was so struck by that quote, and I found that quote - that's from his Paris Review interview. The book was finished when I found that, and I - you know, by chance, I just happened to read the interview, and I thought it was so perfect, so perfectly expressed and a bit shocking when you think about it. But I think it's absolutely true. And I'm so grateful to him for having said that.
GROSS: Sigrid Nunez, thank you so much for talking with us.
NUNEZ: Thank you for having me, Terry.
GROSS: And congratulations on winning the National Book Award.
NUNEZ: Thank you. Thank you.
DAVIES: Sigrid Nunez speaking with Terry Gross. Nunez' novel "The Friend" won the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction. It comes out in paperback February 5. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the fantasy film "The Kid Who Would Be King" based on the legend of King Arthur. This is FRESH AIR.
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