I was hearing buzz about
The History of
Love months before the publisher even presented it us. It's been
receiving terrific reviews and living up to its early forecast. How have you
personally reacted to the book's reception with readers?
I really have been so surprised, basically from the beginning. For
me, the beginning was the first person I showed the book to. At that point I
had about 150 manuscript pages and it just sort of became necessary to show it
to someone to keep my sanity in a way. I really was convinced that this person
was going to hate it. I didn't think it was a book that was going to work for
other people but I knew that I was really loving writing it. Soon after that a
section of it got published in
Yorker and in a way the book met the world before it was even a
completed novel. I've been continually surprised since then. I learned an
important lesson, which is that I'm a terrible judge of my own work.
Congratulations on being tapped for the Today
Book Club. Harlan Coben seemed like a bit of an
unlikely author to make the pick.
I was surprised. We certainly write different genres of books. I
don't really imagine an ideal reader when I'm writing a book. I don't think
that much about who the book will reach and hopefully connect with, and the
fact that it was chosen by somebody who works with a totally different kind of
book is wonderful.
You dedicate the book to your grandparents who, you write, "taught
me the opposite of disappearing," and you even include their photos. Is it a
given then that they're the primary influence for this book?
I certainly never would have written this particular book had it
not been for who they are and, in a way, the sort of things they survived--all
four of them were born in places in Europe they had to leave because of the
Second World War. The book for me is really a celebration of the imagination
and every time I write I feel like I want to exercise my freedom as someone who
can imagine and invent things rather than necessarily draw from reality as we
all see it. I think that part of the need to write this particular book was to
fill certain silences and losses in the history of my family.
You follow several primary threads with characters across age,
gender, and even time. Did you approach the book, day to day, following the
narrative plot-wise, or did you work on each section independently?
For a long time I had just Leo's voice and then Alma, the young
14-year-old girl's voice, and absolutely no connection between them. I just
knew somehow that they belonged in the same book together and if the book was
going to work, whatever the plot was going to be, they had to be the answers to
each others questions. And I knew, even in the earliest fossil forms of them,
that there was something that bound them together. I wrote those two voices for
almost a year before I found the crossroads where they would meet. For a very
long time it was a book that was on the edge of failure. I cared what I was
writing about, I knew the voices were alive, and I believed in the characters,
but I had no way to tie them together. There was sort of a moment when I
realized OK, Leo is going to the author of this book and Alma's mother is going
to be asked to translate it and suddenly...
Was it more challenging to write in the voice of Leo, an eccentric
World War II refugee, or Alma, a 14-year-old New Yorker?
Strangely, Alma. You would think having been a 14-year-old girl I
would have an easier time of it but strangely it was just the opposite. The
fact that I'd never been an 80-year-old man from Poland allowed me to
absolutely invent him on the page and just take off and sing with him.
Originally with Alma I felt really bound to a kind of veracity to telling it as
it was for me when I was 14. For me, that's not really a way of writing well. I
end up feeling sort of a bridled writer rather than open to whatever might
happen. It was only once I was able to break her part down into sections and
just write her section by section that paradoxically she was freed and really
came to life for me.
Did you prefer spending time with one character over another?
I wrote the book in pretty much the order that you read it. And I
would write a little bit of Leo, and I had a wonderful time with him and
absolutely feel totally natural with the cadence of his voice, and then I'd get
to the end of his chapter and be ready to write in Alma's voice. It was a way
to keep myself on my toes. I was never bored writing this book. Ever. And
whenever I was tired of writing a certain part I'd just switch. Just make a
sharp turn and go somewhere else in the book.
"The book for me is really a celebration of the
imagination and every time I write I feel like I want to exercise my freedom as
someone who can imagine and invent things rather than necessarily draw from
reality as we all see it. I think that part of the need to write this
particular book was to fill certain silences and losses in the history of my
family." -- Nicole Krauss
Books and writers and writing are woven into The History of
and you include sections of the book within the book, also called
The History of Love
. Was there any concern letting readers in on
excerpts, or did you know up front that you were going to have to feature this
actual fake text? I imagine it could dangerous featuring this life-altering
book while actually giving readers a peek at it.
I actually wrote those sections before I had a novel. The very
first thing I wrote was the section "The Age of Silence." Then I wrote "The Age
of Glass." Then I started Leo's voice. I wanted to find a way to yoke them into
the novel. So I had them before I had the idea that Leo was going to have
written this book. I think if it had been the other way around, yes, it would
have been a little bit nerve-racking. The History of Love
book within the book, is the anchor, the thing that moves all these people and
connects them. I really wrote this book backwards, I never knew where I was
going. And I'm absolutely certain that if I did know where I was going, it
would have been daunting at best. Instead, I just sort of let all of the
fragments kind of appear and then kind of shuffle them into some kind of
You had major themes in this book--love, loss, survival. Did they
develop organically over the course of writing the book? Did you know while you
were writing it that these would be your emotional touchstones?
I don't tend to analyze myself when I'm writing--it's the kiss of
death. If I did step back, which I have to do a lot now that it's published and
lots of readers have questions about the book and my intentions, I think what I
would say is probably that those are the concerns of my life, whether as an
author or not. Those concerns are a part of who I am and they have everything
to do with where I come from, my grandparents, and the story of my life. I
wouldn't exist had it not been for a lot of loss. My grandparents all met each
other because they had to leave the places they were from. That's a little bit
of an existential burden on a child.
What is your writing routine like? Do you write every day?
Yeah. I never know what day of the week it is. The seven days of
the week are all the same to me. I get up relatively early and I usually walk
my dog in the park and get some coffee and then go up to my room to work.
Sometimes the day lasts all of an hour or two, when it's just not going well.
If I'm not meant to write that's it for the day. But more often the day goes on
longer to early afternoon.
Do you and Jonathan influence each other as writers or do you
refrain from talking shop?
We don't talk a lot about our work. We certainly don't show each
other our work.
Are you each others' first readers?
No, we're probably each others third or fourth readers. We're both
down the chain a little bit. We don't really have a system. We both wrote our
first books without knowing each other. We exchanged books once we both had
first or second proofs--quite far into the process.
"I wouldn't exist had it not been for a lot of loss.
My grandparents all met each other because they had to leave the places they
were from. That's a little bit of an existential burden on a child." --Nicole
Do other mediums inspire your work, like music?
Do you listen to music when you write?
I can't listen to music when I write but I listen to music all
around during my day. There are a few songs I really thought I lot about when I
wrote this book. When I like a song I tend to listen to it over and over until
I run it into the ground. There were a couple of songs--an album by
Milk Hotel and then a couple songs by the band
Eyes--that had a lot to do with childhood love. And I really think those
seeped into my consciousness in a really serious way.
I also think a lot about art. There was the painter
Guston. I really really love him. He's an American artist who
died in the '80s. At the end of his life he started to do these strange, almost
cartoonish, figurative drawings that are very very coarse. A lot of the
paintings are self-portraits, and he always draw himself as a sort of a
Cyclops. They're almost hard to look at but they're quite beautiful. And I
thought a lot about these paintings when I wrote Leo's part. The idea of a man
at the end of his life just taking it all off in this very coarse way trying to
express himself. The art world really rejected the final phase of his work and
only after he died did people celebrate it. And I always thought the risk of
doing that is so brave and admirable and it's my favorite period of his
"My first kiss--well, there was my first kiss in
life--but my first kiss in a way was when I read about it in a book. It was
somebody else's kiss but in a way it was mine because I was reading about what
it was like." --Nicole Krauss
What kind of books were you drawn to as a young reader?
I was quite a compulsive reader and I really just followed my
nose. I didn't have someone to really guide me with reading. I don't know why I
always remember this story but when I was 12 my mom gave me
Complaint. And I remember it struck me at the time, not only did
the book feel like something totally new, something that I'd never come across
before, but it also felt like I was reading something in the adult world. I
know that reading for me wasn't an escape--people always describe it as
that--for me it was a way to arrive at life and I was so eager to experience
things in life. I grew up in Long Island and you're not in the city and life
was always sort of happening somewhere else. My first kiss--well, there was my
first kiss in life--but my first kiss in a way was when I read about it in a
book. It was somebody else's kiss but in a way it was mine because I was
reading about what it was like.
What are you reading now?
An English writer called Ali Smith. She wrote a book called
World. She's absolutely her own writer. She's absolutely an
original voice. You read her and you know you haven't heard it before and yet
it's something absolutely natural. She has a gift.
Are you looking forward to anything particular this summer?
I'm never that aware of what's coming out. Going around in
bookstores I just noticed the new
Umberto Eco book.
You might like this new one--it kind of ties into the themes of
your first book. It's
about a rare book dealer who loses his memory and can only recall his life
through the books he's read.
Perfect. Did you see that story in the New York
about the man found on the shore of Britain? He had a suit on and
the labels were cut out and he doesn't speak. They gave him paper to draw and
he drew a grand piano. He plays piano beautifully but he won't speak and they
don't know who he is or where he comes from. I thought, this really does exist
and wanted to really write that book all over again and have it start like
that--on the shore in a beautiful suit with the labels cut out. It's incredibly
Any book you'd like to hand-sell to our customers?
So many books are floating through my mind right now. I'll give
you a choice of two. Helen Dewitt's
Samurai. It is so so good. It's really a beautiful book that's
as smart and intellectual as it is emotional, which I think the greatest books
are, and the books that I love are. And it's written by someone who seems to be
so desperately curious and open to the world. It's full of everything. It's
The other book is
Ashes and it's one of the most beautiful books I've had the
pleasure of reading. It's about a boy who's growing up in a corner of, I think
at that time was Hungary, during the war and his father is Jewish and his
mother isn't. But it's not about the war, it's not about history, it's about
how a childhood can happen in the face of all that. And it's really about this
boy's relationship with his father who has lost his mind. Just stunning.
Finally, do you hang around your book's detail page on Amazon or
do you avoid checking your rank daily?
I desperately try to keep away. I don't know about most writers
but I imagine you could have 17 5-star reviews but it's the one 1-star review
that you read and memorize. I try to stay away.