Nell Zink had been on our radar for quite a while. Her first novel The Wallcreeper had been nominated for our book club pretty early on and made it to the final two books in our Zombie Round. So when Border Kitchen organised an evening with her, we knew we had to be there.
Persis Bekkering was the interviewer of the evening and while she introduced Nell Zink as ‘world-famous’ and ‘acclaimed’ the author laughed and put her hand over her eyes, as to hide from all the attention. She started out by telling us about her connection to Jonathan Franzen. It’s no secret that he loves her work and championed her writing. They ‘met’ through a letter Nell wrote to him because he was writing about illegal bird-hunting. She said she didn’t just write him a letter. She wrote it and then looked at it again the next day. ‘It was a really good letter’ and it got Franzen’s attention. He asked her if she was a writer as well – she wrote stories for herself and her friends – and dared her to prove this to him. She called this the beginning of a long power struggle between herself and Franzen.
When Persis asked her to read a little from The Wallcreeper, she responds by saying it’s not the worst idea. Originally she had wanted to read a different part, but during dinner she had been convinced to read the opening of the book, just so she could make the bird sounds. Whenever the wallcreeper chirped, she made the best bird sound and everyone in the room was engrossed in her story.
The interview then took a little bit of a turn when Persis wanted to go into an analysis of The Wallcreeper and especially Tiff’s behavior. Persis said she found that Tiff lacks direction, but Zink almost immediately attacks her statement. In the novel Tiffany has a miscarriage, which changes the idea she had about where her life was going. Before she had a great idea of what she wanted and having a child and being a mother is a perfectly good direction. She almost chided Persis by saying that her comment isn’t a very feminist idea. ‘We don’t talk like that anymore.’ Zink doesn’t see her own character as directionless. She said that she know very few people who really know what to do with their lives and that even people who seem to have always known what they want, can end up doing something completely different. Persis seemed a little lost at that point and quickly asked her to read another part from her second novel Mislaid. She ignores this suggestion however and continues the discussion, softening a bit, saying that maybe Persis is addressing something she’s missed herself. Franzen told her that every character desires something, but when Zink started writing this was something she didn’t know. She just wrote from life, which to her meant adjusting your desires all the time.
Continuing from The Wallcreeper to Mislaid, Zink mocks the feminist academics in her novel. She had wanted to create an image of the 60’s and 70’s based on her own memories. She wanted it to be real, to show what young people don’t know or think of about that time. She says we don’t know what men were like back then. They always talked, dominated everything, so women decided to just throw them out altogether.
Persis asked her if she thinks of herself as a feminist and she stated there’s no question about it. She knows feminism well enough to make fun of it. Her mother was a real rebel and raised her as such. She taught her to seek out the people who were short and female, because they were the ones to think before they speak. Everyone male, handsome and tall would have things come easy to them, have everyone hanging on their lips no matter what they say. This is advice she took to heart as she had only one boyfriend who was taller than she was and none of them were good looking. At this the room breaks out in laughter and this only continues when she tells us about the odd literature her parents gave her as a child. Her favorite novel was one where a boy dies because a fox ate his entrails and she gleefully exclaims that her mind is kind of a mess.
After reading a part of Mislaid, the conversation turns to racism and the portrayal of LGBTQ in her novel and if she can write about this as a white, straight woman. Zink laughed and said there’s a reason she’s wearing a dress now. Most people who write about her somehow insinuate that she’s a lesbian. She says that whenever she wears pants that aren’t skin-tight, they get labelled as cargo-pants and she as a dyke. ‘I’m not terribly gay,’ she added.
About the cultural criticism in Mislaid she said that she would make it less subtle if she could do it over again. She grew up in the south during the 60’s and 70’s, during a time where people had to decide whether they were white or black. She had people who looked like her who passed for black and wanted to portray this in her novel. The main character, a woman as clearly white as Persis according to Zink, tries to pass herself off as black. Early critics didn’t believe that this was possible, but she got a stroke of luck when the story about Rachel Dolezal hit the news and showed that it was something almost easily done.
Her novels are often humorous and she treats these serious subjects with a lot of wit. It’s something I personally like about her writing, but Zink herself thinks that funny is bad. ‘Comic novels don’t get taken seriously’. She doesn’t seem to perturbed by this though as she immediately makes up the plot of a serious novel – ‘a boy gets hit by a car for a reason’ – in a very heavy voice. A good novel isn’t funny, she says to a laughing audience.
During the entire evening I found Nell Zink very charming. I had expected her to be a little reserved, maybe a little more mysterious, believing articles written about her. Instead she seemed very warm and enthusiastic, but at the same time sharp, ready to defend her ideas when necessary. If you haven’t yet read The Wallcreeper or Mislaid (preferably both), you might just want to get started. Zink has a new book coming out this year and I’m pretty sure we’re going to be hearing a lot more from her.