Sigrid Nunez has been writing precise, brilliant, subtly funny novels for 25 years, beginning with the autobiographical A Feather on the Breath of God, about a woman trying to understand her Chinese Panamanian father and German mother. She earned glowing reviews and devoted readers but was still not widely known outside the literary world when she won the National Book Award for The Friend in 2018. Her new novel, What Are You Going Through (Riverhead, Sept. 8), finds the unnamed narrator sequestered in a New England Airbnb with a terminally ill friend who’s preparing to end her own life. Our starred review calls it “short, sharp, and quietly brutal.” Nunez spoke about her work over Zoom from her home in Greenwich Village; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Ten years ago you wrote a book about a flu pandemic, Salvation City. What did you know that we didn’t?

I was always fascinated by the 1918 great flu, and I happened to know there were a lot of orphans. Mary McCarthy lost both her parents, and that was not uncommon. She had to go live with her grandmother, and she wrote this fabulous memoir called Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. And William Maxwell’s mother died in that flu when he was 10—and it’s in every book he ever wrote. It colored every day of his life. And I knew about Dr. Fauci from the AIDS epidemic, and I really admired him. I saw that all the science said it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when, so I’ve always lived with the dread that I was not going to get out of life without living through another flu—I always thought of it as flu—pandemic. When all this began, I said to my agent, I wrote a book about this, and it did not end well.

You wrote What Are You Going Through long before the pandemic began, but the narrator and her friend are in a kind of quarantine together. So many of your books are about friendship.

That was never planned. Just before I wrote The Last of Her Kind, I met a writer at a residency who said there were two big things missing from fiction. One of them was work. This thing that we all do every day—everybody has a job. But unless it was being a writer, there was no novel about it. And the other thing he said was that there were no novels about friendship. And I remember mentioning that to my students: Why is there so little fiction about friendship? And the way we answered the question was that people think there’s less at stake with friendship than with a family or a marriage or even a romance. But I think maybe there’s something in the culture that has changed, that that isn’t really true anymore.

Your books are always in conversation with other books. In your latest, you mention Three Paths to the Lake by Ingeborg Bachmann, and in relation to that book, you write, “If you put a group of women in a book, you have ‘women’s fiction.’ To be shunned by almost all male readers and no few female ones as well.”

For pretty much my whole writing life, I always felt—as did every woman writer I know—we lived in a world where if you heard “women’s fiction,” you heard “lesser fiction.” Not just male readers and male editors. Women also felt that a thing made by a man was superior to that made by women. Look at publishing—it was dominated by women. Most of the editors and agents were women, and the books that were admired most and given the most attention were by men. That’s changed. But to be honest, with books written by a woman, an older woman in particular, I’m still surprised when a man says he loves the book. I would feel like it was a hard sell.

What Are You Going Through, like many of your novels, involves a suicide.

That wasn’t planned. WithThe Friend, I knew it was going to be about suicide because I had discovered that among my friends, people had this idea that this was how their lives were going to end. They weren’t crying out for help or saying, I think I’m going to kill myself within the next year. It was more like in a calm way, they thought, “It might be when I’m 80, but this is how I think my life will end.” And then one of them did commit suicide, and he was one of those people who had quit talking about it, so it was on my mind. Now it’s even more on my mind because of what’s going on in the world. I can imagine it always being something I want to write about. And of course, there are different kinds. In What Are You Going Through, I don’t really think of it as suicide, I think of it as euthanasia. It’s different. But I’ve always thought writers have one or two obsessions, one or two ideas. And then they write book after book about the same thing. Virginia Woolf, for example—the same book all the time, the same idea. So, again, suicide is definitely one of mine.


What are your others?

Well, friendships, as we’ve already established, particularly women’s friendship. And I think I’ve always been interested in writing about people who are in some kind of extreme situation, because that’s what brings out your most essential self. Then the literary life. Solitude is certainly important to me. And memory, and imagination, how whatever happened to you as a child forms who you are as an adult, based on how you remember it. I’m often looking back or having the character look back, because their memory might not be totally accurate, but people are always composing a narrative of their life.

For all these heavy topics, your books are very funny.

Like most people, I really do love when books have humor in them. Comedy is part of every human experience, and when it’s left out of a work, something essential is missing. If you read Primo Levi writing about being in a concentration camp, there is some humor. Even if it’s not funny ha ha, there’s a warmth there.

Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor.