Sigrid Nunez makes a policy of not inviting interviewers into the studio apartment on West Thirteenth Street where she has lived for decades. But during the last of our sessions, on Zoom, she picked up her laptop and danced me in a circle: bed tucked behind the sofa and book-laden coffee table under a large, cheerful geometric abstract painting on long-term loan from the artist, Dan Walsh, an ex-boyfriend; dining table bearing tulips and framed by walls of books; Singer sewing-machine desk with holes in it; hydrangeas on the book-filled sideboard, below the vista of a courtyard’s reddish fire escapes—“like Rear Window!” Nunez had just heard that the film adaptation of her best seller The Friend (2018), due to start shooting soon, might be in jeopardy after losing Bill Murray, in the wake of a public disgrace, and Naomi Watts; Nunez kept picturing the plight of the last star standing, Bing, who’d already endured years of training and several moves in preparation for his role as Apollo, the Harlequin Great Dane. Still, she has been fielding the odd factual query from one of her favorite directors, Pedro Almodóvar, for a screenplay he’s basing on her latest best-selling novel, What Are You Going Through (2020).
Our previous conversations, on a series of spring afternoons in the dim, cozy bar of a hotel a short walk away on Eighth Street, took place over a glass of wine or—on one occasion when the news cycle was particularly bleak—a vodka martini, straight up. Nunez is small, vivacious, direct but self-possessed, and as quick and light on her feet and in conversation as she is on the page. Beneath a pixie cut and circular spectacles, her delicate round face conveys a sweetness cut with something sharper, tougher—the quality that allows her, in novels, to land a lacerating joke then open an emotional trapdoor from one sentence to the next, and to make animals speak without a hint of mawkishness. When a cat tells its story in a Nunez novel, you’re made suddenly aware that such deft, respectful approximation is the closest you may get to any other mind; you feel discomfort only at how many sentient, suffering creatures you habitually ignore. Alongside teaching and working on a new book, she’d been relaxing by rereading Proust in French—one clear influence on her taste for the essayistic digressiveness Javier Marías has called “literary thinking”—and going over a new German translation of her first novel, A Feather on the Breath of God (1995), which includes elements of her own biography.