Rinky dinky: Nell Zink
This droll and dry super-bright American had a huge success with The Wallcreeper, her first and perhaps still her best novel. She was championed and helped into print by Jonathan Franzen, also an ornithologist and conservationist. They met through their joint interest in birding. Franzen pushed her to believe in her writing and to take herself seriously. The first part of the Wallcreeper was written in four days, she says, ‘to show him that I knew what I was doing as a writer.’ This very odd and very engaging book describes the break up of a marriage but is also about birds, eco-terrorism and how people live. Try this for a brilliant opening sentence: ‘I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.’ The swerve is because the nerdish husband wished to avoid hitting the wallcreeper – a bird he takes home and saves: ‘He said head wounds always bleed like that. I said he should have kept quiet.’ And on it goes, weirdly and very funnily.
Zink was – or is – an anarchist with a fascinating past. A teenage Maoist and ‘odd child’, she became a bricklayer ‘working with my hands so my thoughts were free’. A veteran of the radical squat scene, she describes herself as ‘interested in anarchist theory, which most anarchists are not’.
Even at college she found it ‘difficult to find viable ways to exist’ and as for mainstream corporations: ‘there is some cultural thing, and I lack it.’ She’s done every kind of job imaginable. She has waitressed, written a post-punk fanzine, worked as a clerk for the Defense Agency and for Washington organizations (‘being a very devoted, senile kind of person’). She says she was fired for writing a mean letter on Agency paper to George Bush. ‘I was concerned, as I was involved with a committee of solidarity with the people of Nicaragua actually formed by the FBI to bundle the energies of people on the left – you know, the sort of revolutionaries who played bongos.’ She describes being paid by the FBI to think of alternative rhymes to such gems as: What is the solution – Revolution!
This peripatetic life changed when she went to live in Israel and became a technical translator, which she describes as ‘her first job with dignity’. Married to an Israeli poet, who is her second husband, an important influence on her has been another Israeli, her friend the writer Avner Shats, said (by Wikipedia) to be Israel’s token postmodernist. This man, she said, ‘seems to get me the right way.’ She describes him, perhaps facetiously, as ‘living in the last displaced persons camp left over from the war, loving British fiction and watching the BBC and Stephen Fry podcasts.’ Obviously very comfortable outside the USA, Zink has also lived in Germany.
I met Nell Zink during her very brief stay in London. She appeared at Foyles’ fabulous new bookshop in conversation with Lucy Scholes and amused the audience with her dry wit. Tall and lean, long hair streaked with grey, she still looks like a hippie in her T-shirt and jeans and is one of those people who always remain strongly themselves, wherever they are.
It was curious listening to her. She is that rare beast, a woman of convictions who is also very funny and completely honest. And yet this serious, idealistic, politically committed woman is - or was - unable to take her work seriously. Zink claims that she ‘always thought they [the books she wrote] were complete crap,’ and she destroyed two novels – maybe more. I don’t know what that tells us about the world we live in, or indeed the inner torments of anarchists, but it’s rather depressing. She has no authorial vanity at all.
‘I still don’t think I am that good, so I had no expectations of publishing’. Perhaps she doesn’t value her writing because writes so enviably fast: ‘I am reaping the wages of a lifetime of suffering,’ she said drily, ‘Every 3 or 4 years I put in 2 or 3 weeks’. This is not quite accurate: her latest book, Nicotine, may have been written in three weeks but it took nine months to edit.
It was Franzen who told her that the first rule was do not delete your writing. Before him, she had only shown her work to Avner Shats. Yet she knew that she wanted to write and had started writing plays ‘all conflict and characters. I am never going to write the great novel about a man taking a walk in New York City thinking about Mahler’. And thank heavens for that (pace Peter Carey). She compares the great writers of the past to the ‘mediocre writers’ of today. But Zink herself is fantastic at character and dialogue and wildly inventive at plot – perhaps rather too much so.
Both serious and unable to take herself seriously, drawn to misfits and outsiders, she talked with insight about what it feels like to be forced into the fringes ‘if your sexuality or skin colour makes it difficult for you to conform.’ She was always drawn ‘to people having different ideas in their heads. I think you conform if you can.’ She remains interested in gender, politics and race, all of which surface in her second novel, Mislaid, which was published in a very beautiful two-book format together with The Wallcreeper by Fourth Estate/HarperCollins. Set in Virginia where Zink grew up, this novel (which prefigured the Rachel Dolezal story) tells the story of a white woman who walks out on the gay professor she has married to create a new African-American identity for herself. She takes her daughter, but leaves her son behind. The story hops all over the place, with sudden turns of plot (and character) reminiscent at times of 19th century fiction and a weirdly compressed happy ending that comes out of nowhere, but it never fails to entertain. In one interview Zink claimed to have structured it as a Viennese operetta; this sounds highly likely. New York Times reviewer Dwight Gardner called it ‘a minor and misshapen novel from a potentially major voice.’
Her latest book, Nicotine , centres on a radical squat peopled by smokers and tells the story of a young woman, Penny, who seeks refuge in this absurd house and believes one of the squatters to be her ‘dream date’. Zink is drawing on her days in radical squats in New Jersey, when, she said, ‘Quaker lesbians wearing lilac calico pants were providing housing for tattooed crusty punks and you could buy a house with no toilets for $5,000’. A non-too-structural wobbling wall composed of buckets of shit features all too aromatically in this novel. Zink described Penny’s story thus: ‘She tries to get closer and he tells her he is asexual and so she is placed in front of the father issue – do I accept this narrative or do I try to get my own perspective on the facts?’ Though this novel features a father dying in an excruciating way and a daughter desperate to be distracted, it is often a blast; the dialogue and one-liners are hugely enjoyable. Here’s Garner’s review of October 4, 2016. And perhaps he’s right – plot is not her strong point, and maybe Zink should be writing plays?
There is more work in the pipeline. Novels written in 1998 and 2005 for Avner Schats are in the book, Private Novelist, coming out in the USA: they are entitled Sailing Towards the Sunset by Avner Shats (who has written a novel called Sailing Towards the Sunset) and European Story for Avner Shats. So postmodernism gets the last laugh. These novels are not, however, being published in the UK. The audience at Foyles asked why: ‘ It’s a long story. Maybe we won’t get to it.’ And then Nell Zink smiled and waved a hand. ‘There’s somebody in the audience (over to you 4th Estate) who knows why.’
Nell Zink The Wallcreeper/Mislaid Fourth Estate
Nell Zink Nicotine Ecco, USA
PS Since writing this, I see that Nell Zink has created a one page website which says that she lives in Germany. It also says this: ‘Each of my books so far has gotten two New York Times reviews (except the rear-guard bagatelle Private Novelist, which however made the London Review of Books).’