The photograph circulating of a young stunning Sigrid Nunez with long dark hair and a shining smile, sitting next to Susan Sontag, gives you the physical reminder of what caught David Reiff (Sontag’s son)’s attention. The Sigrid I have come to know has short-cropped hair and is often found in a tweed or houndstooth suit jacket, yet that smile is still at the ready, as she cuts straight to the problem in your prose. It is her caring as a teacher for the young writers at her table, to bring forth the best in our stories without even a hint of “you are just a student,” that has made me “fall” a bit myself.
Essayist, novelist, and short-story writer, Sigrid Nunez has just published Sempre Susan, her first memoir.
The Rumpus: Sigrid, you wrote, “Looking back, I only wish that I could feel more joy—or, at least, that I could find a way of remembering that is not so painful.” The essence of pain within this quote seems to thread throughout the text of your new book, indicating complex feelings for your time at 340 Riverside Drive, where you lived with Susan Sontag. What motivated you to go back and write about this time of your life? What was the genesis of this, your first memoir?
Sigrid Nunez: I had no plans to write a memoir, or anything about Susan Sontag, until I was asked to contribute an essay to an anthology called Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Influenced Them. I wanted to write about Elizabeth Hardwick, with whom I’d studied at Barnard, but it turned out two other contributors were already writing about her. Then I thought I could write about Susan, because although I’d never studied with her she was in fact an even greater influence than Hardwick was, and I was closer to her than I ever was to Hardwick. The essay was published first in Tin House, where the publisher James Atlas read it. He suggested that I write a longer memoir about Susan, and that is how this little book came to be.
Rumpus: Having been born in 1976, the year you met Susan, I am particularly interested in the street life of and around 106th Street, Manhattan. What did you experience when you walked out the doors of 340 Riverside Drive, went for a drive, or out for dinner together—often as a group, with Susan, her son David Reiff and Joseph Brodsky?
Nunez: That part of the city was seedier and much less safe than it is today, and everyone complained about it being a wasteland. If you wanted to go to a good restaurant, you had to leave the neighborhood. There were no decent Chinese restaurants, which is why we went all the way to Chinatown. You couldn’t get a good cup of coffee or tea anywhere. The nearest gourmet market was Zabar’s, 25 blocks away. Luckily, they delivered. Something I always associate with that place and time is the arrival of boom boxes. Guys walking around with these giant boxes on their shoulders, blasting music that could be heard for blocks: this was a common sight and sound.
Rumpus: Boom boxes. I wonder what Susan felt about this new and hulking form of noise pollution—being such a fan of music, specifically opera? Was there music within 340—playing among the “blindingly bright light,” as you noted on your first day visiting the place that would become your shared penthouse apartment?
Nunez: There was a stereo and a large number of LPs in the apartment, but as I recall Susan didn’t listen to a lot of music at home, at least not then. She was indeed a huge fan of music, especially opera, and she went to the opera as often as she could.
Rumpus: Your original involvement with Susan was as an assistant of sorts, to help her respond to a pile of correspondence after she returned home from a radical mastectomy; yet, her energy seemed mighty. Tell us about that time.
Nunez: I worked for Susan for a few days in spring, 1976, typing letters while she dictated. At the time she was recovering from surgery for breast cancer and she was being treated with chemotherapy, but she seemed perfectly healthy. She worked very hard on her writing, and she went out just about every night. She even did some traveling. She had tons of energy, always. I almost never saw her tired.
Rumpus: I specifically enjoyed that she referred to her mastectomy scar as “an erasure,” and how she would so fearlessly display it, often at socially inappropriate times. Perhaps you could give us an additional example of one such scene.
Nunez: She said it was like an erasure, which it was. There was only a faint scar. And as I say in the book, she was not shy about showing the scar to people, because she expected them to be curious and able to look without flinching. She hated squeamishness in people, particularly in regard to illness. And she would never have considered what she was doing socially inappropriate, or making some kind of scene. She thought she was educating people about something they should know about.
Rumpus: Susan referred to herself as “a beauty freak,” and as having a “morbid” obsession with beauty, yet her fascination only truly lay with the human form, she seemed to have no interest in nature. Did Susan ever give you any advice on your own appearance? Was there a particular feature of yours that she specifically ever complimented you on?
Nunez: It’s true that she was not much moved by the beautiful in nature, but when she called herself a beauty freak she was talking above all about her response to art, of which she was as appreciative as a person could possibly be. She was also immensely appreciative of human physical beauty. However, she wasn’t the type to give me or anyone else any kind of advice about their appearance, and I can’t remember her being complimentary about any specific feature of mine.
Rumpus: On Susan’s writing life: though she didn’t often drink, in the book you mention she did take Dexedrine to work in daylong sessions. What was her day-to-day, week-to-week process? What was yours like within her home?
Nunez: In those days Susan’s habit was to clear out big chunks of time and write around the clock, often taking Dexedrine. She didn’t have a daily routine. She wasn’t able to write every day; there were just too many other things she wanted to do besides write. In the book I talk about how difficult it was for me to establish a routine and get any writing done while I was sharing a household with Susan and David. There was just too much going on. I’m the kind of writer who needs endless solitude in order to work.
Rumpus: You write that Susan “hated doing anything alone,” even writing. In fact, she would often call on a pal “to sit and work with her during the many hours it took to polish a draft.” Sometimes the pal would even move into the apartment, into Susan’s room, and they would go about “discussing every idea, going over every line, every comma.” I wonder who these “pals” were, and what they could have perhaps secretly contributed to her great works?
Nunez: The people she relied on to work with her were various friends whose editorial skills she trusted. They sometimes came to stay in the apartment during one of Susan’s work binges, and they’d work together in her room for very long stretches of time. I’m sure their help was important to Susan, but “secretly contributed” carries the wrong implication. It’s not as if they were Susan’s co-authors.
Rumpus: Sounds like they were Susan’s own brand of today’s “writing group.” Every writer needs a trusted reader or two. What about for your own work?
Nunez: I’ve never belonged to a writing group, though I was in a few workshops when I was still in school. I don’t have a particular trusted reader to whom I show work in progress. I don’t show any work of mine until I think it’s finished.
Rumpus: What was the process like for this your first memoir? Did you find it difficult working within this emotionally loaded, nonfictional world? In your book you mention dreaming of Susan.
Nunez: I dreamed about Susan twice while I was working on the book, but I often dream about whatever it is I’m working on. This memoir was hard to write because, for me, everything’s always hard to write. But in one way it was easier than writing fiction: I didn’t have to invent anything. I had the characters; I had the story. I didn’t have to make it all up from scratch. I just had to tell what happened.
Rumpus: You have written numerous emotionally truthful novels, covering a wide variety of subjects and characters, including Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s pet monkey, Mitz. Which one do you like the best?
Nunez: I didn’t used to think I had a favorite among my books, or that I ever would. But recently it occurred to me that I probably like For Rouenna best. I like it best because I think it’s my best book.
Rumpus: You speak with reverence about Sontag as a mentor, as the ultimate teacher for a young writer. How do you feel Susan affected or mentor you, ultimately?
Nunez: This is such a big question. To answer it satisfactorily I’d have to recapitulate the whole book. Let me just say that I’ve always felt terribly lucky to have had as an early model someone who took the vocation of writing as seriously as Susan Sontag did. She made me feel as though I were embarking on a great, noble adventure.
Rumpus: What about your own desire to mentor others, to teach? How do you balance this with your writing?
Nunez: I teach, but only part-time, and since I don’t have a family to take care of or any other such large responsibility, it isn’t so difficult for me to find time to write.
Rumpus: There is a scene in the book in which, seeing you curled up in David’s lap, Susan quipped, “The little girl and her big man.” This speaks to not only her anti-patriarchal ideals, but also to a level of tension between the three of you, your unique relationship, and your shared home. Was there an ever-present pull, or was it often a joyful camaraderie?
Nunez: I can’t really summarize what our life together was like. I think you have to get the big picture from the book itself.
Rumpus: Susan once stated in an interview for The Guardian that she had been in love nine times. “Five women, four men.” That seems like an extraordinary and wonderful thing to have found love nine times, and it says a lot about this very complicated and compelling person. How do you think Susan would have liked history to remember her?
Nunez: I can’t really speak for her, but I’d guess that she would wish to be remembered as someone who produced worthy books and who strove to be a force for good in the world.
Rumpus: How do you think she will ultimately be remembered?
Nunez: That depends entirely on who’s doing the remembering. Many of us will remember her as a brilliant, boundlessly curious thinker who created a meaningful body of work and left an indelible mark on our culture.
Rumpus: When was the last time you spoke with or saw Susan? How was that experience? And what about David?
Nunez: I haven’t been in touch with David for many years. The last conversation I had with Susan was about four years before she died, when she called me to congratulate me on a fellowship I’d won. I tell this story in the book. After that I saw her only once, I believe, in passing.
Rumpus: As you have portrayed her in this piece of your shared story, she was: A lady who began her life by drinking daily glasses of blood to cure anemia, whose famous white streak in her hair was this way because the rest was in fact colored, who when she was first told she had cancer, her first thoughts were, “Did I not have enough sex?” Who began college at 16 and went on to be heralded as one of the great female intellectuals? Could a woman like this have been anything but an enigma: extraordinary and roiling? Like her hair, both light and dark?
Nunez: If you mean to suggest that she had two sides, a light one and a dark one, well, that doesn’t nearly cover it. Susan had many sides, just as she had many interests and abilities, and the desire to do many different things. She would have needed more than one life to do all the things she wanted to do, and was capable of doing.
Rumpus: What was the thing/moment/or event you most treasured about that time with Susan and David, in the late 1970’s, along the Hudson River, at 340 Riverside Drive?
Nunez: I can’t say there was a single most treasured moment or thing. All together it was a very rich period, an extremely important part of my youth, an experience that would turn out to have a profound influence on the rest of my life, and that I feel very lucky to have known.
Photo of Sigrid Nunez by Marion Ettlinger.