Purity of Essence: One Question for Nell Zink
December 8, 2014 | by Matthew Jakubowski
Nell Zink’s novel The Wallcreeper came out in October and was listed last week among the 100 Notable Books of 2014 by the New York Times. Jonathan Franzen—who had earlier tried to interest publishers in Zink’s first novel, Sailing Towards the Sunset by Avner Shats—wrote, “Her work insistently raises the possibility that the world is larger and stranger than the world you think you know.”
The Wallcreeper is the coming-of-age story of Tiffany, a young woman who marries a man she hardly knows and follows him to Switzerland. Zink’s compressed scenes and chapter-less form showcase her mastery of tonal register—think Diane Williams with a little less bathos—as the newlyweds’ shared interests in each other and birding quickly shift to other lovers and separate environmental causes. Meanwhile, the zingers and bon mots fly so fast and furiously that one often forgets that Tiffany is on the brink of poverty.
Zink, now fifty, has also published several pieces in n+1. She lives in Bad Belzig, Germany, where she worked most recently as a translator. As a writer living abroad, she does not seem fond of things like e-mail interviews, and understandably so. This exchange took place in August—part of a longer interview filled with some of the most riotous, pummeling insults I’ve ever absorbed—and Zink explained that the course of her experience as a writer has involved a great deal of travel, marked by an intense effort to insulate her creative life from the work required to make rent. Her second novel, Mislaid, is due out next year. She sold it, as she has said elsewhere, for “megabucks.” This may be half jest, but it hints nevertheless that her fortunes have shifted for the better since this summer, when she shared the following account of her personal history.
What kind of jobs have you had? Do you write full-time now, “living the dream”?
I was always a bit concerned about purity of essence. I never wanted a job that might affect the way I wrote or thought. I remember how in college I was very proud of having finagled a job in the English department, where I spent most of my time collating and stapling. I didn’t major in English, obviously, because I preferred being challenged in courses where I might get bad grades. Once, Gordon Lish came to speak there and warned us explicitly against going to work in publishing, because it forces you to read bad prose all day every day and spoils your style. After his talk, all the other student writers jumped up to beg him for jobs in publishing while I wandered off strengthened in my resolve to do manual labor.
I lived in a very confusing world of mixed messages. I knew a cub reporter for the local paper who was an ambitious writer, and he would talk about finding his voice in the context of writing a book review! Later, in D.C., I made friends with a serious writer, and she always spoke seriously of how exactly she was going to imitate her favorite novelist in her new short story or express her unique voice in an article about recent hires for the company newsletter.
Whatever I was writing at the time, I knew there was no market for it and never would be, because there’s never a market for true art, so my main concern was always to have a job that didn’t require me to write or think. So after I got out of college I worked construction, mostly. I waitressed some in winter. I was a very excitable waitress, but management valued me for my strange talent of taking drink specials seriously. They would order us to sell fuzzy navels at lunchtime, and I would obediently sell twenty fuzzy navels while the other waitstaff ignored them. My life changed forever in 1989, when a friend of my mother’s shanghaied me into taking the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s test of clerical aptitude. Apparently 98.9 percent was an unusual score. As I recall, it was a test of visual acuity and short-term memory involving long sequences of numbers. I started getting these blind, cold-call job offers in the mail from places like the Defense Logistics Agency. Working full-time in construction was really wearing me out.
Weekends were more convalescence than fun. Plus, I was just coming down from two years of reading almost nothing but Kafka and books he had recommended to his friends and little sisters—this is why I knew Robert Walser so well—and I felt like some time at a dead-end job in an urban bureaucracy would help me understand him more deeply. I soon remembered that he, unlike some of his characters, had enjoyed a responsible part-time position with travel, but coming off a career in construction I couldn’t aim that high. So I embarked on a secretarial career that took me all the way to the office of Joe Uzzolina, at that time VP of European Marketing for Colgate-Palmolive, a boss whom I cannot recommend highly enough. I hope he found a secretary he liked after I abandoned him.
Anyway, the first job I had with what you might call human dignity, meaning with an office of my own and a bit of self-determination, was in technical writing, and only after I moved to Tel Aviv, where being a native English speaker is a meal ticket. When I moved from there to Germany I had about thirty-thousand dollars saved from my life of endless drudgery, and I went on strike or, you could say, sabbatical. Basically I retired at thirty-six.
I didn’t think it would last. After a while I was sort of broke, but as I got to know more and more people, some of them started offering me translating work. So I ended up doing enough translating to cover my expenses. My German is good and so is my English, so I can get good prices, and covering my expenses involves maybe ten hours of work a month.
Poverty in Germany is not criminalized. There are beautiful public spaces and bike paths and frequent buses and trains, and you never have to live in a crime-ridden slum because they don’t have them. So I’ve been living the dream since I got here in May 2000, being an artist in a garret and writing anything I wanted, with complete freedom because I was always writing for friends who love me—mostly one single friend, Avner Shats, until I got into the weird pen-pal relationship with Jonathan Franzen that led to my writing in public. Avner reads many British books and watches BBC and listens to their podcasts and has written to me nearly every day since 1998, but he grew up speaking Hebrew, and when Franzen came along with his high tolerance for obscure American idiom it was just too much fun to write for him instead, and I probably got carried away.
Probably everybody assumes I only started living the dream after I got what Publishers Marketplace calls “a good deal” for my novel Mislaid back in March, but my lifetime income from writing books still totals three hundred dollars (my advance for The Wallcreeper), and in any case the “dream” for me, given my typically German lack of financial desperation, would be if somebody invited me to one of those literary festivals where you sleep in a comfy hotel somewhere interesting and speak English with people who are predisposed to be friendly.
Matthew Jakubowski is an editor for Asymptote. His writing has appeared in Music and Literature, gorse, and 3:AM Magazine. He lives in West Philadelphia and can be found online @matt_jakubowski and truce.