History Lesson

A Conversation with Nicole Krauss

There was a lot of buzz in the book world when the second novels from literary power couple Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer arrived on shelves barely a month apart. Krauss's lyrical and richly imaginative The History of Love quickly became a breakout book of the season, and was selected as a Today Show Book Club pick the week of its publication. Amazon.com senior editor Brad Thomas Parsons spoke with the author and discussed the history of The History of Love , books, music, and the power of memory and the written word.


Amazon.com: 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?

Nicole Krauss: 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 The New 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.

Amazon.com: Congratulations on being tapped for the Today Show Book Club. Harlan Coben seemed like a bit of an unlikely author to make the pick.

Krauss: 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.

Amazon.com: 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?

Krauss: 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.

Amazon.com: 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?

Krauss: 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...

Amazon.com: 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?

Krauss: 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.

Amazon.com: Did you prefer spending time with one character over another?

Krauss: 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


Amazon.com: Books and writers and writing are woven into The History of Love 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.

Krauss: 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 , the 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 organized order.

Amazon.com: 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?

Krauss: 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.

Amazon.com: What is your writing routine like? Do you write every day?

Krauss: 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.

Amazon.com: Do you and Jonathan influence each other as writers or do you refrain from talking shop?

Krauss: We don't talk a lot about our work. We certainly don't show each other our work.

Amazon.com: Are you each others' first readers?

Krauss: 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 Krauss


Amazon.com: Do other mediums inspire your work, like music?

Krauss: Absolutely.

Amazon.com: Do you listen to music when you write?

Krauss: 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 Neutral Milk Hotel and then a couple songs by the band Bright 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 Philip 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 life.


"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


Amazon.com: What kind of books were you drawn to as a young reader?

Krauss: 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 Portnoy's 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.

Amazon.com: What are you reading now?

Krauss: An English writer called Ali Smith. She wrote a book called Hotel 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.

Amazon.com: Are you looking forward to anything particular this summer?

Krauss: I'm never that aware of what's coming out. Going around in bookstores I just noticed the new Umberto Eco book.

Amazon.com: 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.

Krauss: Perfect. Did you see that story in the New York Times 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 cinematic.

Amazon.com: Any book you'd like to hand-sell to our customers?

Krauss: So many books are floating through my mind right now. I'll give you a choice of two. Helen Dewitt's The Last 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 really terrific.

The other book is Garden, 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.

Amazon.com: Finally, do you hang around your book's detail page on Amazon or do you avoid checking your rank daily?

Krauss: 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.

By Nicole Krauss

The History of Love: A Novel
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