By Seija Rankin
September 02, 2020 at 11:00 AM EDT
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On the heels of her National Book Award for 2018’s The Friend, Sigrid Nunez continues to forge a literary career that peddles unapologetically in the inner monologues of women. Here, she reflects on her most memorable novels, including the upcoming What Are You Going Through.

A Feather on the Breath of God (1995)

While many of her books can easily be mistaken for thinly veiled memoir, Nunez considers this her most autobiographical novel: The narrator’s ethnic background, family structure, and interests are nearly identical to her own. The young woman at the center of Nunez’s debut is the daughter of a Chinese-Panamanian father and a German mother, who grows up in a New York City housing project after leaving postwar Germany, and looks to books and ballet for escape. “When I wrote this book, I knew that, like a lot of writers, I was using material [from my own life] that I had to work through and deal with before I could move on,” says the author, 69. “Once I finished, it was so memoir-like and it was so obvious that the distance between the narrator and the author was thin, I very much wanted to do the opposite with my next novels.”

The Last of Her Kind (2005)

Nunez was teaching at Smith College in Massachusetts in the early 2000s when several of her students wrote papers on their disdain for hippie culture. “I remember asking myself, ‘I wonder what these young women mean by hippies?’” she says. “I felt that the late ’60s and early ’70s were so interesting and confusing, and I realized I hadn’t read a novel about it that seemed to work for me.” The resulting story follows Barnard roommates Georgette and Ann, whose friendship is tested by Ann’s desire to shun her wealthy upbringing by devoting herself to ardent activism — and, eventually, violence. “People had very strong opinions about social justice and how the world should be,” she says. “Everyone changed and became much less radical, but I wondered what would it be like if someone remained completely attached to those ideals?”

Salvation City (2010)

This haunting book details the aftermath of a flu pandemic but resists veering into dystopian fiction. Rather, Nunez uses the sickness that spreads across the world in Salvation City as a device to explore religion: An agnostic 13-year-old boy is orphaned and sent to live with an evangelical pastor and his wife, forcing him to reconcile his starkly different upbringings. “While we have extreme polarization now, back when I was writing this it was only just becoming clear how polarized people were,” Nunez says of America’s religious makeup. “I wanted this young person to be at a very vulnerable point [in his life] and be forced to figure out what to believe in, what he thinks is right and wrong.” She also admits to feeling an eerie pandemic premonition ever since: “When all of this [COVID-19] started, I thought, ‘Wait, didn’t I write a book about it?’” [Laughs]

The Friend (2018)

“When I finished The Friend, it suddenly occurred to me that it flowed directly out of my first book,” says Nunez. “This is the same narrator as A Feather on the Breath of God, just much older.” Her award-winning novel tells of a year in the life of a woman who unexpectedly loses her mentor to suicide and even more unexpectedly becomes the caretaker to his dog — despite a crippling depression and a very dog-unfriendly New York City apartment. The canine companion was the hit of the book, but the author admits to stumbling upon that element of the story by accident: “It didn’t enter until I was 30 pages in or so; I thought, ‘Oh, I could put a Great Dane in the story!’ It came from nowhere except for the fact that I’d always wanted to write a book where an animal, particularly a dog, played a major role. I was surprised by it.”

What Are You Going Through (2020)

Nunez’s latest novel reads like an answer to The Friend: Whereas the earlier book dealt with the impact of a sudden death, What Are You Going Through follows a woman tasked with keeping an acquaintance company as she nears the end of a battle with terminal cancer. There’s more closure but just as much heartbreak. Still, the author was deep into writing What Are You Going Through by the time her National Book Award came. “I didn’t get jolted and start having anxiety about ‘What if I can’t write another one?’” she says of her newfound fame. “And in a more general sense, I’d written so many books already and felt like I knew what I was doing, so while it was a wonderful pleasure and helped me in many ways, my life didn’t change and I didn’t make other plans about how I was going to conduct myself as a writer.”

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