Sigrid Nunez has published six novels, including A Feather on the Breath of God, The Last of Her Kind, and, most recently, Salvation City. She is also the author of Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. Among the journals to which she has contributed are The New York Times, Threepenny Review, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Tin House, and The Believer. Her honors and awards include four Pushcart Prizes, a Whiting Writer’s Award, a Berlin Prize Fellowship, and two awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters: the Rosenthal Foundation Award and the Rome Prize in Literature.
Sigrid Nunez! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?
I’ve done so several times. I do it when the publication is something I feel is worthy though compensation isn’t possible. Several literary journals where I’ve been published pay what might be called a nominal fee, and if I like the journal I have no problem with that.
Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?
No. I also teach, though I don’t have a permanent teaching job.
If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have as much time as you need to write?
Since I don’t teach full time and also don’t have a family, I can’t complain about not having time to write. And yet, like everyone else, I live day-to-day feeling as if there is never enough time to do everything I want to do. That includes various writing projects.
How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?
Alas, nothing could be more obvious.
When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?
I like the saying, “A book is finished when the editor takes it away from you.” Part of the torment of writing is knowing that there really is no end to revision. You could always try something different that might work better; the language could always be more interesting and more precise.
Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?
I think of my writing as a vocation, which is both a choice and a calling. It’s a choice because it’s something I want to do and that I’ve always wanted to do. It’s a calling because it’s something that feels natural to me. When I’m writing, even when it’s very difficult, which is very often, I feel that I’m doing the thing I’m most suited for, the thing I do best, the thing I should be doing.
BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?
I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I read Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hugh Selby, Jr., a book of extraordinary graphic violence, but I was certainly too young. The most shocking scene in the book depicts the brutal gang rape of a teenaged prostitute. The memory of it is unsettling to me even now, decades later. Selby’s book takes place in the Fifties. Sadly, no matter how much transformation has happened there since, because of that early traumatic reading I still associate Brooklyn with danger, depravity, and sadistic violence, and I probably always will.