ILB Interview: Nell Zink

Bad girl of lit, bird lover, Brandenburger-by-choice – novelist Nell Zink is many things... including busy. Not just with a book a year, either. On Sep 11 and Sep 12 at Haus der Berliner Festspiele, you can see for yourself what that might mean.

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Photo by Francesca Torricelli

At this point, there is not a lot to add about Nell Zink’s rise to fame. Ever since the American author burst onto the scene with The Wallcreeper in 2014, a slim and peculiar novel about a married couple moving to Europe (anal sex, activism, ornithology), there’s been much written about her backstory (catch up with our 2015 interview) – her odd jobs, her move to Germany and subsequently Bad Belzig, the letters to Jonathan Franzen and her big break when he asked her to write a novel. Ever since then, Zink hasn’t slowed down a bit, releasing Mislaid (2015), The Private Novelist (2016) and Nicotine (2016) in quick succession. At this year’s International Literature Festival, she speaks about birds on September 11 at 9pm and reads excerpts from Nicotine on September 12, 7:30pm – both at Haus der Berliner Festspiele.

This’ll be your first time at the ILB. What are your thoughts on literature festivals?

These festivals vary so wildly. The best ones are the ones where the writers have something in common. Very promising about this festival is that it has a theme; they’re getting together writers with an interest in nature writing. At a lot of festivals they try to get a really diverse group of writers and then they have nothing to talk about!

In your first novel The Wallcreeper you describe Berlin as an ugly place where nobody is “sleek or fluffy”. What is your take on the city and why did you choose not to live in it?

Berlin is also changing! People are getting sleeker and fluffier every day. At this point it’s totally yuppified. It’s becoming more like Stuttgart. The people coming to Berlin are not coming here to be hippie freaks. I don’t live in Berlin simply because I don’t like living in big cities. I get aggressive after a couple of days fighting through crowds.

What is your relationship to Germany? Why did you decide to stay?

I first came to Germany as a tourist in 1983 and immediately started learning German, but I didn’t live here until 2000. I went to Tübingen on a student visa and eventually got a doctorate in Media Studies. But I wish I’d done zoology or geography or sociology or something else interesting. But anyway, I stayed on because rent was so cheap in relation to what I could make translating. There’s no way I could have survived in the U.S. working about 15 hours a month, which is what I did for years.

What’s the weirdest job you had before writing?

It was in Germany about 1985 at this very rich guy’s pump factory. He needed somebody to make parts for the pump on the weekend and so I sat in a gigantic factory with nobody around. This enormous machine had a huge wheel of 10 feet in diameter and every time it turned, it forced pieces of metal down. I was scared shitless the entire time. After you had punched out a piece of metal, you would blow it away using compressed air. Suddenly the compressed air hose came loose and started whipping around, making a hissing noise. I was so keyed up from being around this machine, I was scared it would explode. I ran out of this factory building screaming “Help!”

Having had a lot of jobs and coming to literary success late in life – do you believe in fate or predestination?

Of course, it’s predestined! If you know about cognitive neuroscience you know that consciousness is just along for the ride. We make our decisions before we are conscious of them. So, factually, things are determined and my career has not been all that surprising. I got lucky when I got in touch with Jonathan Franzen and he agreed to help. But it took him three years. We were in touch about bird-related stuff. Yes, there is predestination but not the romantic kind, more the sociological kind.

How did you originally get interested in ornithology?

I was always into nature but it’s such a downer. If what you love most are forests and trees, you’re going to get depressed. Trees are helpless and people come and cut them down. A bird can fly away, it can protect itself. If you build a new habitat for them, birds will come very quickly.

You keep writing about activists. How political are you as a writer?

I try to be as political as I can be! However, the idea of an individual human having political capital is silly. There are seven billion of us. I have literally zero political power, I am not even a citizen of Germany! I’m happy when politically motivated people get their act together and find out where they would need to work to make a difference. There are programs to prepare you to be a bureaucrat in the EU, which is a way more effective thing to be than do protests in front of Hauptbahnhof.

Is it a strategic move to write short novels?

My next novel is going to be 420 pages or something. It will come out in about a year in English. It’s called Doxology, which is an Anglican Church praise for the Lord. But now that I’ve written a long one, my next one after that will be short again because it’s just so much work! Writing 400 pages is twice as much work as writing 200 pages!

What is the most challenging part about the artistic process for you?

I don’t think any of it is difficult per se. Some of it is laborious. Difficult is correcting the galleys when the typesetters keep making mistakes. But there’s not much else frustrating about working as a novelist, it’s quite fun!

What is your take on MFAs? Is the industry oversaturated with young writers?

There are more writers now than there had ever been, just because of the technology. It’s so easy to write on a Word processor. Back when you had to do it by hand or on a typewriter, it discouraged a lot of people. When I talk to agents and editors they don’t say there is a lot more talent. Possibly even less, because young people don’t read as much anymore, they are not very sophisticated. It’s hard to find promising new literary authors and the market is smaller in terms of how many books get sold. But the editors still have artistic ambitions and that’s never easy.

Is there a necessary connection between sex and literature?

No, not at all! There can be a connection between sex and getting published. If you really want to get published, use violence! But I refuse to do violence, so I go with sex. I was a beginner starting with The Wallcreeper. The novel I am publishing now has no sex at all! I have my readers now, I have the attention of critics, I can write what I want!

Is love an obsession?

People in love sometimes work hard to make themselves obsessed – focusing their attention, thinking of nothing else, blinding themselves to other possibilities. No relationship is improved by obsession, but for some people it’s a thrilling element in courtship. It’s just kind of pathetic when it’s one-sided.

Are you through with relationships?

Are you kidding me? Definitely not!

What about marriage?

Marriage is a bad idea. There is no reason to do it anymore. It makes no difference to your children or your last name, plus nobody will ever ask to see your marriage certificate. The only time marriage matters is when you break up with the person and suddenly you need a judge. Just because you’re in love with someone and think they’re perfect, to take that piece of information and go to the state and say “Look, look, government! I’m really into this person!” That’s not smart.

The protagonist of your first novel, Tiffany, marries fast and follows her husband to Berne and to Berlin. How much do you make of influence from the outside vs. following your own dreams?

I’m sane, so I’m a determinist. But the fictional character Tiffany is free. She needs time to figure out what an appropriate dream might be. People follow their dreams all the time – you talk to young women and their dream is to be Kim Kardashian! Following your dreams is really a piss-poor idea. People need to be educated first.

Is writing a spiritual process for you?

I don’t think anything is a spiritual process. Does the spirit exist? No, so how can anything be spiritual? It’s a social process, a cultural process; but spirit, religion – those are cultural contracts like writing. I believe in writing but it’s not my religion.

NELL ZINK: AVIAN WRITING: A BIRD’S EYE VIEW OF NATURE; NICOTINE Sep 11, 21:00; Sep 12, 19:30 (German) | Berliner Festspiele, Charlottenburg

INTERNATIONAL LITERATURE FESTIVAL (Sep 5-15) | Various venues, see literaturfestival.com for full programme