In Conversation: Nicole Krauss and Anne Helen Petersen on COVID, creativity, and how to be bored
In the publishing world, they've each reached their own pinnacles: Anne Helen Petersen, 39, a lauded chronicler of modern life whose investigative essays regularly upend the internet, and Nicole Krauss, 46, the author of timeless, prize-winning literary fiction (The History of Love, Forest Dark).
In advance of two of this season’s most anticipated releases — Petersen’s Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation arrives Sept. 22; Krauss’s first short-story collection, To Be a Man, Nov. 3 — the pair sat down to read each other’s latest offerings, then came together with EW to talk about the connective threads between them.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your books are pretty wildly different so maybe this is projection, but COVID-19 does seem to hover over both of them in interesting ways. Anne, you chose to write a brand-new intro for Can't Even right before publication, and Nicole, there are two stories in Man that definitely feel haunted by some kind of plague or dystopia.
NICOLE KRAUSS: It’s funny you mention those because they were the first and last stories I wrote. “Future Emergencies,” the one set in New York City with the gas masks, was written right after 9/11, just after I'd finished my first novel. It was so striking and eerie to return to that.
And that last story, “Amour,” I wrote when the book was already finished. It was early January, right [when Soleimani was assassinated] in Iran and we were thinking, “Okay, are we going to get bombed here?” I had already been thinking about a world full of refugees and [about] where our country is going, and it was not hard at all to imagine a future America in which there are refugee camps.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: I thought about that as I was reading, that all your stories are haunted in an implicit and explicit way by the Holocaust. Sometimes it’s evoked as this thing that echoes and reverberates off everyone’s life, and sometimes it’s just kind of there, and it makes me think of these incredibly seismic moments, how we just have no idea what their afterlife is going to be. Like, what is a short-story collection in 75 years going to look like?
Nicole, your book really is so much about memory and melancholy and confronting our own histories in this beautiful kind of way, and Anne you talk a lot about how digital life has strangled that, the ability to reflect and sort of just sit in our own feelings. Do you think that’s a permanent loss?
PETERSEN: I actually think the pandemic — not for everyone but for some people — has actually invited us to feel our feelings again. I for one used to spend every week traveling for work or whatever, and am grounded and quiet in my mind and in the world around me more often than I was before.
Like, my friends who are parents, they are totally stressed out by trying to juggle school and parenting at the same time, but they are also finding a little bit more space to just be with their kids. Even if they’re driving them freaking nuts, they’re very present with them instead of trying to always be bringing them to the next activity that’s character-building in some capacity.
I actually spent this morning revisiting some of the stories from Nicole’s book, and I was feeling so much pleasure living in this world where I wasn’t thinking about, like, the capitalist formation of our systems. [Laughs] There’s not all of this discussion and navel gazing of “Why am I so stressed out?”
It’s just literary. It’s sitting in those feelings and inviting the reader to also reflect and refract in those moments, and I think a lot of people I know really, really struggled to read at the beginning of the pandemic because everything was just so overwhelming. I could not pick up a book for months, but now I am finding myself really loving being back inside of them again.
KRAUSS: I was born in 1974, so that makes me older than millennials, but I found that how deeply I was able to relate to your book, Anne, has a lot to do with an immigrant experience. My grandfather came here with five silver dollars, and had to make a life, and so worked like crazy. And then my father spent 11 years, while I was growing up, in school to become a surgeon.
So I watched them both, and there was only work. And then when I was in college, I worked constantly because that had been passed down, which I think is a very immigrant thing, this idea of: You are your work, you’re only as good as what you can produce — and there's an anxiety about all of this being taken away or of not having enough. Except, what you were describing has everything to do with a moment in history, an entire generation born into circumstance.
PETERSEN: Yes! What I tried to show is just how much other generations felt this as well, and how much that anxiety that middle-class boomer parents felt about downward mobility was passed through osmosis on to millennials. The revelation for me was how broadly this experience extends — just that it is consolidated most vividly on millennials, not that it is exclusive to them in any way.
You both use an interesting mix of first- and third-person. Do you feel like you've found a good place when it comes to balancing the elements of yourself that you're comfortable drawing attention to with the part that maybe wants to stand outside the narrative?
PETERSEN: In nonfiction I have found that there is so much push to use the first person, because the style of the personal essay is that you invoke that identification, and as a former academic that was very uncomfortable for me for a long time. And my editor was always like “it’s not hokey, I promise!” So I started with this first-person narrative, and I still don’t totally love it.
I think I found a balance in this book that felt right to me in terms of including some personal stuff but trying to de-center it from myself and my experience and use so many conversations with other people... And I think there is also this tension of, as a white woman I don’t feel the need to speak as loudly, so trying to balance that with identification is a fine line.
KRAUSS: It’s interesting, because my books have almost always been in first person (except in the first novel [Man Walks Into a Room]), but they have also often included a first-person male. I wish I had the time to regale you with stories that we couldn’t print, but suffice to say I felt like I had to work incredibly hard to be taken seriously, and that for the men around me — many of them boyfriends and ex-boyfriends [of mine] who were starting to publish books — the assumption was that they were serious until proven otherwise. Whereas we as women had to really, really prove our seriousness first.
And so I find it quite incredible how much things have changed since I became a writer. My first book was published in 2002, and I think we can all agree now that the most interesting books of new contemporary fiction are being written by women. I mean, I hate to generalize but also it’s true. [Laughs]
Anne, you recently moved to rural Montana, and Nicole, you live in New York but set a number of your stories in Tel Aviv. Is there something about having these other spaces that maybe freed you up creatively?
KRAUSS: You know, I think I’m somebody who’s always had a hard time accepting that I can only be in one place at a time, and I think that’s among many reasons I write. I just want to live many more lives than I’m allowed to live, than any of us are allowed to live. And I think having more than one city that feels kind of like home — which is another way of saying that no city feels entirely like home — allows me to have aspects of being that I can miss and return to, miss and return to.
PETERSEN: I mean, in a very different way, Montana can feel like a different country. People would say to me, “Nobody moves to Montana to work.” They go because they want to be able to have all these other parts of their lives available to them, and it took a long time for me and my partner, who’s also a journalist, to figure that out.
Just, “Oh! There’s this other world that used to be available to us," but we kind of forgot, got out of the habit of having a self and a life outside of work. And it is a practice every day to remember that, because it has become so ingrained in us. But I love what Nicole said about having multiple places that you can go to find that feeling of home.
Speaking of creativity, at the beginning of lockdown there was this deluge of people saying, “Just remember, Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague!”
PETERSEN: That’s totally a myth, by the way. [Laughs] I think there’s this impetus in all our lives to be creative and productive in all moments, you know? This was true before the pandemic, this idea of turning every hour of your weekend into a hustle or something you can Instagram and feel amazing about, and it’s just so exhausting.
But you know, the thing I’ve been trying to say to people in my newsletter is whatever you’re doing, whatever coping mechanism you have right now, as long as it’s not actively hurting or endangering other people, great. I think some people are super productive — like Zadie Smith has written a bunch, and people on Twitter slam her, “Oh, must be nice.” But some people become incredibly motivated by times of isolation and some people feel paralyzed. Everyone is different.
KRAUSS: At the beginning, I was frustrated by the way the pandemic was putting my imagination into a kind of lockdown — that we all couldn’t put our phones and computers down, and it bothered me that I had no flight from [keeping up with the news]. And I felt like my one way of resisting that was using my imagination in my work.
And then, irony of ironies, the fiction that I ended up writing was a story called “Drawn From Life,” which is about this painter in a time of quarantine who ends up painting the dead. And then also a bunch of personal essays that I’ll never publish. [Laughs]
I have my kids, too [Krauss shares two boys with her ex-husband, the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer], so I had this really unusual experience of being a very solitary person half the time and being completely in the thick of motherhood half the time. We hear a lot, especially as parents, about over-scheduling our kids and all that. And it’s so odd, to try to institute boredom into the lives of your children, but I’ve tried to whatever extent one can, and never have I been so successful as in this pandemic [laughs] — the excessive boredom I’ve watched my kids just disintegrate under has been an interesting test, like "Is this valuable? Let me see it, where’s the value?"
But they are a generation that, unlike ours, will have to deal with enormous disappointment and a breaking down of the myth that you can do something about everything. There is just nothing to be done, and I think that might do something extraordinary, to have that lesson early on in life and realize that you’re still okay and you find the humor and you just deal. It’s one I might not have been able to teach them because I love them too much. But life has taught it to them despite me.
How do we all not disintegrate? What keeps you going every day?
KRAUSS: I hope I’m not going to sound too Pollyanna-ish, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this really beautiful idea in an Italo Calvino essay, “Lightness,” where he talks about how right after WWII and the Holocaust and all of these atrocities, there was this expectation of writers to reflect their time.
And he tried to do that, but the heaviness and the weight — he described it as Medusa turning the world to stone. The stoniness of the time was contrary to this lightness or nimbleness that he wanted to find in his writing. Which is not the same as frivolity, it's not to not take it seriously or not to think about it, it’s just to choose a different way of looking at the world or to choose a different system of values which allows you into this other space of being and seeing things so that we ourselves are not turned to stone, you know?
That just made me think of a phrase in one of your stories, "I Am Asleep But My Heart Is Awake," when you're writing about the death of a parent, you say, "One day he will slip below the surface in his own house, or on the street, the way my father slipped below the surface in a restaurant. Or maybe it isn’t like that at all — maybe the weights that hold life down suddenly lift.”
KRAUSS: It’s so weird that you say that, because the whole thing I’ve been thinking about writing the last few days is about weight and lightness and the moment in which something lets us go. I totally forgot about that line!
PETERSEN: It's funny actually, the last lines of my book are basically “Underestimate us at your peril, because we have so little left to lose.” I think we are unburdened in a similar way of being able to see clearly just how f---ed up, for lack of a better word, all the systems that we were intended to dominate or were intended to serve us just are not functioning as they were meant to.
And so what that liberates you to do is to imagine in a different way, and that felt like the mantra that I wanted to punch throughout the book, is that it doesn’t have to be this way. I think oftentimes ideology functions in a way that we think that the way we are right now is the only way.
But to allow yourself to step outside of that and realize there are different ways for society to work, there are different ways for us to inhabit the world with each other. It sounds cheesy but I am obsessed with it, I am obsessed with us having this imagination of what a different sort of life could look like. And so I’m hopeful that we can try to cling to that.
For more from EW's Fall Books Special, order the October issue of Entertainment Weekly now, or find it on newsstands beginning Sept. 18. You can also find a special edition of the issue at Barnes & Noble stores beginning Sept. 25. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
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