The bad girl of Bad Belzig

Eccentric expat novelist and “next big thing” Nell Zink on her meteoric rise, sex as a fiftysomething, and the stuffiness of Berlin’s American Academy.

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Photo by Francesca Torricelli

Eccentric expat novelist and “next big thing” Nell Zink on her meteoric rise, sex as a fiftysomething, and the stuffiness of Berlin’s American Academy.

In a breakthrough like no other, American-born author Nell Zink skyrocketed from obscurity to literary phenomenon in less than two years. But the 51-year-old is no stranger to new life experiences: she’s previously worked as a bricklayer, gained a doctorate in media studies in Tübingen and published obscure fanzines about punk and animals. She lived in Virginia, New York, Tel Aviv, and the southwest German town of Reutlingen before moving to Bad Belzig, a small town about an hour’s train ride southwest of Berlin. What came next sounds like a perfect PR fairytale. Following a long pen-pal friendship with Israeli writer Avner Shats, she struck up a correspondence with Jonathan Franzen about ornithology, bombarding the best-selling author with emails of droll, perfectly constructed prose. Amazed by her untapped talent, he encouraged her to try writing a novel. In 2014 she released The Wallcreeper. Eight months later, Mislaid, which she drafted in three months, earned her the label of “Next Big Thing” from the literary elite. Not one to let the dust settle, this summer she’s putting the finishing touches on her new novel – before the paperback of Mislaid has even hit shelves.

I draft things fast because if I don’t, I forget how I started.

Since hitting the big time, Zink has acquired the reputation of an eccentric – she emailed a photograph of herself nude, posed by a piano, to a Guardian journalist who had just interviewed her. When she arrives at the Tiergarten Schleuselkrug, composed and fresh from a night at her friend’s apartment in Charlottenburg, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed at how normal she appears. The illusion is soon shattered. Dressed in a simple maroon jersey and a wide-brimmed hat, she takes a seat, sips her latte and grimaces when she’s told she’ll be photographed. “Oh no, no. I should only ever be photographed in tight clothes,” she says. “Or naked.” Proof, perhaps, that the mind (and life) of Nell Zink is as unconventional and exciting as her fiction.

How are you enjoying your initiation into the world of publishing?

I was just in New York, but everyone I know was booked solid so I ended up hanging out with my agent’s former intern and this other writer’s assistant, people who are very young and who look up to me because they want to write, which is really cute. It’s an interaction that I’ve never had before, you know – people in their early twenties wanting to be like me! I ended up giving them advice because I looked at how they were living their lives and I was like, “Oh god, no! Don’t do this to yourself, you’re fucking up!”

How were they fucking up?

They want to write novels for a living, so what do they do? They get an internship in the publishing industry! Bad idea! I mean nothing could be worse because it’s full time work, unpaid, and it forces them, day and night, to read manuscripts by no-talents instead of reading Proust, stuff that they ought to know. The randomness of complete shit coming in! I just wanted to shake them and tell them to leave New York.

So you’re not a fan of the Big Apple? What about the US in general?

Well actually, when I go to the US I notice really young guys in their twenties scoping me out! Sometimes they follow me around until they see my face and decide, okay, she looks too much like Grandma. But a lot of guys 35 and down just assume that if they offer me a one-night stand, I’m going to say yes. They seem to assume that I, as an experienced woman with some sort of erotic aura, would just be on fire for some fun. Young women want a relation ship… not women my age. When they talk about a woman being ‘experienced’, what does that mean? It means she’s not clingy, she’s not going to fall in love with you… Fuck those guys! I deal with them all the time.

Do you worry about your appearance?

In my books there’s an awful lot of sex and if people think I look like some old lady who’s not getting any, I’m screwed.

It’s my job to look relatively youthful and attractive, otherwise I don’t sell any books! In my books there’s an awful lot of sex and if people think I look like some old lady who’s not getting any, I’m screwed. Because then it’s like, “Oh, she’s writing about the sex she remembers having when she was 22.” I have to look like I have sex – I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true.

Really? Why?

Because I remember from when I was a younger woman how creepy I thought women my age were. The sort of horny women in their fifties… ew.

You were married back in the 1990s – is that out of the question for you now?

I had sworn off marriage simply because it really does make it hard to live your own life if you’re also living someone else’s, even if it’s out of love – overwhelming, romantic, sweet love. The problem is that a grown man doesn’t need that stuff. Women are capable of incredible love, and a grown man needs that like a hole in the head. I now have relationships that aren’t built on that, that are better designed to avoid mutual dependency, and it works much better.

There are rumours that you moved to Berlin for the sex…

I didn’t move to Berlin for the sex, I moved to Reutlingen! You hear such horror stories from women in Berlin – it’s worse than Brooklyn! There are more women than men, and the men are spoiled. Falling in love is a risk, it makes you do stuff you wouldn’t otherwise do, so for me there really was an element of wanting to get away from the US because there are so many adorable men in America, not a majority, but they’re out there. But in Germany, in my generation, a relationship is almost not an option. All the men are either sexist assholes or complete softies, and they work fine for an affair but I was never tempted to fall in love with a German.

So now the love of your life is writing. How autobiographical are your books?

My books are autobiographical in the sense that I didn’t go to libraries and do research to write them. I wrote [Wallcreeper and Mislaid] based on personal experience. Obviously they are based on my understanding of human psychology and my understanding of the world so there are autobiographical traits, but as far as events paralleling my own life, no, not really. Both books are essentially stories about America.

Mislaid is very much centred on racial identity and apartheid – the main characters, Meg and Karen, adopt black identities in order to escape from Meg’s husband. It’s also set in Virginia, the state you grew up in, where many black people were forced to move into housing projects…

It would be just about impossible for me to write an essay about that topic, how exactly black people were run off their land. The thing that makes it possible to write fiction about it is that it raises big, unsolved questions for me, where all I can say is that I’m fascinated but I don’t know why. That’s what allowed me to spend 250 pages writing a story about a white mother and daughter masquerading as African Americans. When you’re writing fiction you can afford to pull your punches, put things between the lines or try to draw people in and then surprise them.

The two young characters in Mislaid are very independent – they don’t really connect with their parents. Was that a reflection of your own experience?

My parents were very hands-off. There’s a British children’s book we read over and over, Swallows and Amazons, in which the kids are getting permission to go sailing and their father sends a telegram that says, “Better drowned than duffers, if not duffers won’t drown.” That was like the motto of us three kids and our parents. When we moved to Virginia I was seven, and my mom gave my elder brother a compass and said, “They say that a mile away through the woods to the north west there’s a beaver dam” and sent us on our way. We got horribly lost, but I guess my mom had some peace and quiet! Reading was also an approved activity, and I read a lot. I think that’s the one reason I can make a living as a writer now, because a bright kid now will never read as much as I read, no matter what. There are so many other things that they’ll be doing with different media. They’re not going to be staying up all night to read The Count of Monte Cristo.

You waited a long time before publishing your first book… was that an aversion to the industry?

I wasn’t so averse to publishing, I just didn’t see how on earth it was going to happen. I didn’t know anyone relevant and I had tried to write query letters and never even got an answer. I’m not really a genius when explaining what I’m up to, and also the manuscripts that I was trying to sell were just odd. They were hard to describe in a way that would appeal to a publisher, even one who only wanted to sell a few thousand. They were more the several hundred range!

So the problem was writing something commercially viable?

There’s no market for true art, that’s the problem. If something is actually original, it’s impossible to sell it on the basis of a summary. You have to get people to actually read it. Every critic who writes about Mislaid, it’s like they read a different book. There’s not much in the way of a precedent, so as the reviews accumulate there starts to be a consensus about what kind of book it is, or things that I say in interviews get picked up and join the discourse. Once people started to realise that it wasn’t just a commercial novel about a dysfunctional family, they understood the book a little better.

What do you think of your reviews so far?

They’re getting better and better. The first review just said it was an awful book, abysmally worthless. And then Library Journal said, well, actually, we kinda like it, and then the New York Times just put out a new review that’s like a love letter. I know officially if you ask any of these critics they’ll tell you “I never read anyone else’s reviews.” Bullshit. If you talk to other writers who are connected with New York City publishing, you get the impression that they all share one apartment in Brooklyn, where they sleep together in a big basket like kittens.

Did you find the European publishing world harder to crack?

In London it’s a million times worse. Cracking British literary publishing is like something you have to start doing on the day you’re born – if you weren’t born into it, you basically have no chance at all. So the fact that I’m being treated like a princess by Fourth Estate probably has a lot to do with my being upped by Jonathan Franzen. Without him I don’t think I would have the benefit of that.

Was contacting Franzen a tactical move?

Contacting Franzen was a tactic having to do with something completely different – a bird conservation project. After we had traded a couple of letters he complimented me on my writing, which was weird for me because I wasn’t used to getting compliments. I wasn’t even used to having my stuff read by a native English speaker – until then, the only person who had read my work was the Israeli writer Avner Shats. Then all of a sudden, this important writer guy was asking what name I wrote under so he could read my books. Of course it was really exciting but also really stressful, because there I was, 47, and I had been writing for my own amusement and never thinking that I could make a dime from doing it, and then somebody who makes millions doing it says, “You know, by the way, you have the skills to do what I do.”

What’s the new novel about?

The new novel’s setting is in New Jersey, it’s about squatters. The title is Nicotine and it’s not coming out until next year, because as much as I would enjoy that they can’t bring out a book every three months! And of course if you think a book is really good and might win a prize you try to place it in the fall… You have to lose all sense of the passage of time to get involved with book publishing. It’s like an elephant’s gestation period, it’s so slow. But I draft things fast because if I don’t, I forget how I started. It’s good, I can concentrate for weeks at a time and then I stop.

I heard you spent some time in an Italian squat. Is that what Nicotine is based on?

No, no, that was somebody getting confused. I mean, I’ve been in some squats in Italy, but I spent about a month in maybe 1985 in a place called Villa Romana in Florence. I shared this room in this artist’s communal villa. It was like the American Academy but without proper meals. If you want to see something creepy, go to the American Academy in Berlin.

Why’s that?

I was there the other night for the first time. It’s like this villa in Wannsee, probably belonged to Goebbels or something, and it’s one of these Cold War institutions where they invite fellows for six months and give them an apartment and there’s a chef who makes dinner every night and breakfast every morning, and maybe also lunch. It takes a certain lifestyle to want to spend six months in a villa in Wannsee, stuck there in this formal creepy atmosphere surrounded by rhododendrons and lawns that look like they have miniature sheep that crop them every morning at dawn. The night I was there they had an especially formal dinner party because there was some sort of economic summit on the same floor in another room.

That sounds like a bit of a culture clash…

I swear to you, every guy I met was 60, 65 and wearing a blue suit. Like 40 of them. You know those white men people complain about? There they were. They were so tall, it was like a basketball team, and some of them just looked so ridiculously movie star handsome at 65 or whatever. I mean, they are the assholes that run the world in full effect. It just made me think about how young feminists will complain about the privileged white men in the arts, and by that they mean some little nebbishy guy from Montana. No, no! Those aren’t the people you need to worry about! They’re writers and they have no power. Like, people will openly resent Jonathan Franzen for being white and a guy and tall, no. Resent his brother, who became a corporate exec; don’t resent him. He’s the loser who decided to write!

Originally published in issue #140, July/August 2015.