SV: In the first part of Great House the narrator asks two questions: ‘Do you think books change people’s lives?’, and the more cynical, ‘Do you think anything you write could mean anything to anyone?’ They are very different questions, but both make me wonder how you feel about the author as a public figure.
NK: Are they such different questions? I see them as different phrasings of the same question, or the same question asked in different moods. I know both of those moods well, and the many shades in between, too. I don’t think a writer can get away without wondering about the impact of literature, or questioning the worth of what she does. Obviously it’s easy to make an argument for the importance of literature in general, but almost impossible to sustain any conviction about the specific value of one’s own work. And that’s where the problem begins, or one of the problems.
Your style of storytelling has been described as ‘kaleidoscopic’. Do you feel this is accurate? What attracts you to telling a story with so many strands?
Yes, I think it’s fair to say that I’m very interested in patterns – within a single life, and between many lives – and equally interested in where those patterns break or become ambiguous. I think this attraction is connected to some innate fascination with structure, specifically to forms where disparate parts are drawn together to form an unexpected whole. I find it incredibly pleasing to make things in this fashion. Why that should be is a more complicated question. I’ve been thinking about metaphors recently. Why do we love metaphors? Because, when we link or juxtapose two seemingly unrelated things to reveal a commonality that feels at once surprising and inevitable, it confirms in us a sense of the unity and connectedness of all things. It’s a very joyful feeling, and one supported in art far better than in life. I suppose one could say that I like to create metaphors on the narrative or structural level by discovering the bridges, patterns, and allusions between stories that at first seem remote from one another. And one could also say that, having discovered them, I have a paradoxical urge to resist those same patterns, to break and deny them. For as much as I am invested in the consolation of meaning, I’m also very much aware that ours is an uncertain life, and I’m moved by the struggle of what it is to live in doubt, or with the unknown.
Both The History of Love and Great House carry a sense of the impossibility of ownership and the inevitability of loss. How did you become interested in these themes?
I wouldn’t describe my themes exactly in that way, but that doesn’t mean much; the writer isn’t the only authority on her themes. But if you’re asking about the subject of loss, I’d say that I’m interested in how people respond to tremendous loss, and specifically a response that involves a form of reinvention. Take Samson Greene, the protagonist of Man Walks Into a Room, who loses twenty-four years of his memory and has to reinvent a coherent self out of what remains. Or Leo Gursky in The History of Love, who responds to his loss by altering his reality; for whom memory is a creative act; who draws vitality from his irrepressible imagination. Or the story that the title Great House is taken from – to my mind one of the most beautiful stories in Jewish History – about how the Jews, under the guidance of Yochanan ben Zakkai, reimagined themselves after the loss of the Second Temple and Jerusalem, a radical reinvention that allowed them to survive in the Diaspora.
Photograph © PEN America