What Appears to Be Fiction: A Conversation with Nicole Krauss


Nicole Krauss’s new novel Forest Dark is her first since her National Book Award finalist Great House, and the book manages to be both a departure from and also find new ways to consider the ideas and themes that run through her previous work. The book details two characters who never meet, Jules Epstein, an elderly lawyer, and Nicole, a writer from Brooklyn. Both are drawn to Israel and to the desert and they find themselves confronting questions about themselves, identity, and reality. It questions the stories we tell ourselves, from marriage to King David, considers the life of Kafka, and asks questions about the role and meaning of narrative in our lives.

Krauss has been interested in exploring these questions of the self and history and change and transformation throughout the course of her career. She was kind enough to take time to discuss some of these questions with us, as well as the role of structure in writing a novel and Franz Kafka.


The Rumpus: One of the book’s main characters is a writer from Brooklyn named Nicole so I’m sure you’ve spent some time thinking about how to answer the inevitable question of, how much of her is you?

Nicole Krauss: Of course. It is a good question. It’s one that the book wants to provoke in the context of asking questions about what is reality and why are we so given to believe that reality is firm and unbendable. There’s a whole host of questions that the book is asking about that. Why do we believe that the world is only one way and as we see it? Why are we not open to the ways in which it might be otherwise. For example, at the most simplistic level physicists tell us that what we see as reality is not actually accurate. A rock looks solid to us but it’s full of empty space and atoms moving and we see it as solid because we need to because it helps us survive, right? Survival being our goal. You can extrapolate that to many other things.

I think in that whole field of questions about what we take to be “real,” one of those questions is about the self. When you talk about the self we’re always talking about whether it’s a construction and it’s a construction we’re always in the process of working on. I don’t think that work ever ends, to some degree. I think writers are particularly aware of it and are particularly good examples of it to study because in their work—writing fiction—they are forever playing with that ability to expand themselves and invent themselves on the page. So whether I’m writing in the voice of somebody who looks very radically unlike me on the page with different life experiences, or whether I’m writing a character who bears my name, I think that there is always a huge element of—I want to say autofiction instead of autobiography—autofiction in it, because I’m drawing on my experiences and my sense of the world. I’m trying to provoke questions about that in the reader. I hope that in the process of wondering they’ll start to wonder, why does it matter and to what degree are we so sure that anything you can see about me or somebody else is more real than what appears to be fiction?

Rumpus: Writers are always using the truth of their lives in their work, but using the facts of your life makes people think about interpreting it differently.

Krauss: Or it just puts a spotlight on some of those questions or desires. I’m not immune to the readers’ desires. Sometimes they are my own, because I’m a reader, too. The readers’ desire to know what really happened and what didn’t. To have a glimpse into what’s really the author and what isn’t. I think we all have that and I wonder about what it means. Maybe it’s a little bit more strongly pronounced in me because I’ve lived a public life. I feel like sometimes people “know things about me” that are far from reality. One lives with many versions of oneself. Who your father thinks you are is different from who your girlfriend thinks you are or your next door neighbor or your high school English teacher. All of those versions do have elements of truth and fiction to them. I guess I’m playing with that and I was playing with it—not at the reader’s expense and not because I wanted to only provoke the reader, but also for my own curiosity. Of course, so much of what’s in the Nicole section is right out of my life. I took a lot and set [the story] onto a path and the path took me to places I couldn’t have gone in my life.

Rumpus: I’ve been describing the book as the story of two people who end up in Israel and both go through a crisis of faith that’s not so much about religion as about their lives and the choices they’ve made and this desire to change. How do you describe it?

Krauss: I think that’s one fair way to describe it. There are a lot of ways. It depends on what your emphasis is. One of the things that fascinated me about trying to write this was having these two parallel stories that never really cross but are going over the same physical and metaphysical ground. A lot of the meaning happens because of how they are in conversation with each other. Formally speaking it gave me a way of doing something which I really enjoyed in Great House where without having to be explicit about an idea, the stories echo off of each other. I think a lot of the questions—questioning reality and the self and about as you put it, the desire to change, to me are always at the heart of life. No matter how old you are, to me life is always about changing and growing and discovering and that’s not always easy.

Also, one of the other things that the two stories are constantly throwing back and forth between them is this notion of why have we in our time turned our backs on wonder? Why are we so addicted to factual knowledge? Why are we so uncomfortable with the unknown? Is it something about the anxiety of our time? Because of course that wasn’t always the way. Even now the whole idea of the rational individual has been subject to question and yet we still cling to this idea of factual, rational knowledge being more valuable than whatever its opposite might be. So all of those questions and issues which are important to me could be spoken to and not in a heavy-handed way but by writing out the stories of these two characters who are affected by these ideas and themes.

Rumpus: So did you have this structure, two characters going through similar experiences who never interact, there from early in the process?

Krauss: Some semblance of structure—not structure in terms of what will happen in a book or what the book is about or where it’s going, but some formal structure—is important to me early on. In Great House I had just the very beginnings of those four characters and then I understood that I would give them all a moment to speak and then I would return to them all for a second time. I had no idea what would happen, but once I had that understanding of the work as a grouping of four in concert I started to get to know what I wanted to do. I would say here it was similar.

After I published Great House there were a couple of years where I was writing a lot of different things in search of a new book. Some of those things became short stories. Some of those things just lodged there in my throat and wouldn’t budge but also wouldn’t go away. Two of those pieces were the beginning of Epstein and the beginning of Nicole. The Nicole part came because I became completely absorbed—or obsessed I guess is really the right word—about writing this novel about the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv. Nicole’s part grew out of that. Epstein’s part appeared largely as you read him in the opening pages of the book. The fact of his disappearance in the desert and some sense of him this character for whom death was too small, this larger than life authoritative man of material who’s overlooked the spiritual. They were there along with lots of other bits and pieces. And then just didn’t go anywhere. [Laughs] Everyone else went somewhere, but they didn’t go anywhere and I started to see that they had these commonalities. Obviously geographical, because Nicole is looking for the Hilton in Tel Aviv and Epstein disappears in the desert, but there’s something their in their souls that I thought was similar. Then I started to write them a little and I started to see where these parallel stories could live together.

I guess the short answer to your question would be, yes. [Laughs]

Rumpus: All your books have this sense of being not heavily plotted, but structured.

Krauss: They’re carefully structured. The structure is so important because it’s in those more oblique connections or echoes that can happen between the narrative voices that I feel like the most exciting work happens. Both in my mind and in the book. I feel really strongly about not wanting to overly guide the reader about what he or she should think. I really trust the reader to know for themselves and not to need too much. You have your own imagination, your own experiences, your own feelings, and a novel wants ultimately to ask questions. It doesn’t assert anything, or shouldn’t, I think. There’s something about those structures which are careful that work really well in the service of giving the reader that space that I feel he or she deserves to think for themselves.

Rumpus: I know that you used to write poetry early in your career and you seem to be talking about novelistic structure in a way that sounds a lot like the poets I know and have interviewed talk about form.

Krauss: I think that’s true. When [Joseph] Brodsky was a mentor, he always used to encourage me to write in formal verse—which everything in me sort of screamed not to do. [Laughs] The rhyme always knows better than you, and leads you to places where you wouldn’t otherwise have gotten to and that is absolutely the case. Leading off from formal poetry, there is something about when you pay attention to form and you allow it to have its own laws and you listen to those laws you really do end up in places you wouldn’t otherwise go. Which isn’t to say that I believe in following the rules when I write. I don’t. Each of the forms in my books feels to me new. I like the sense of not always being in control when I’m writing. That I’m forced to go places where I really get lost and I don’t know whether things will work out and therefore I end up discovering things about myself and about what I think about others about these characters that I never would have gotten to if I had just sketched out a story and followed a plot line.

Rumpus: In the Nicole story, she talks about feeling as if she’s in two places at once, which plays into that notion of parallel stories, but when she would talk about that, I kept thinking about the experience of being a writer. To exist in this headspace and then having to make dinner and deal with family can feel like a very different experience.

Krauss: I think that that’s true. It’s hard to say what comes first. An instinctive sense of always being here and there and then becoming a writer, or whether becoming a writer brings it on or exacerbates it? I think in some strange, uncanny sense it really has always been there for me. It’s a sensibility that you find a lot in people who have been in some way displaced. Growing up in a Jewish family where all the grandparents and parents were from elsewhere, it was just by chance I was born where I was. The congenital knowledge of these other places, this “over there” which either no longer existed or couldn’t be recaptured. Then all of that is further twisted or emphasized by the fact that for Jews who live in the diaspora there’s the “here” and there’s the “there” which is Israel, this parallel existence and one can’t help but wonder what would it be like if one lived “there.” So all of those things, and yes, what you said, too—the practice of being a writer is the practice of being somewhere else all day in your mind. It can feel physical. All of that is very true to my experience of life. Then finally just to connect it also to having this yearning to change.

Rumpus: One of the stories running through the book concerns Kafka and this court case over his unpublished work, which I did not know about but have been obsessing over lately. Based on your books, I assume Kafka means a lot to you.

Krauss: Obviously I’ve been reading Kafka for a long long time, since I was really young, and even before I ever read him I knew who he was. I had this weird sense that he was some kind of family. Like Uncle Kafka. [Laughs] Now I really think of him that way, the way we think about an uncle who opened up some path for being in a family that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. I think of him that way as a writer and a familial figure. I didn’t mean to write about him. That court case always fascinated me and because I spend a lot of time in Tel Aviv I would sometimes go by that house and stand outside and think, Really, all of that is in there? It just seemed wild to me. Everyone says it’s so Kafka-esque. I followed the case year by year and then at a certain point pretty early on in writing Nicole’s part I knew that I wanted to take up an offer that I had failed to take up in my own life. Now I’m doing what I promised not to do which is to tell you something about my own life. [Laughs] After The History of Love came out I was contacted by my father’s cousin, who did have a career in the foreign service in Israel, and who did say, “There’s this person who is Mossad who wants to meet you and who has a proposal for you.” I did think it was absurd—as Nicole thinks in the book—and I did meet with him. The difference is that he wanted something different of me and I was too earnest, I guess, to take him up on it. For years I regretted that. It haunted me and so I knew that I wanted to write that into this story. As I was writing Nicole’s part this character who became Friedman in the book takes her on this walk. I wasn’t sure where he was taking her. I really know nothing when I’m writing. The reader is no further ahead than me. With every sentence I’m figuring it out. And so at some point he takes her to Spinoza Street and I had to think, Why is he taking her to the Kafka house?

That began a long process of trying to figure it out. I went to the Negev for a couple of days one December when I was writing the book, ostensively to figure out what had happened to Epstein. Of course I didn’t figure out what had happened to Epstein. One night we stayed in this bedouin-style tent and the owner of this place kept me up all night telling me about his twenty-five reincarnations, all of which he remembered, and after my sister escaped our conversation and went to sleep I pulled out my computer. The desert was beautiful and wonderful and strange and the kerosene lamp gave off that white glow and here I am in the desert freezing cold in December and I started to read from what I had written and suddenly I had this epiphany. Kafka didn’t die in 1924. He came here, to the desert, to what was then Palestine. In this instant it made absolute perfect sense to me without being able to articulate it. The articulation of it came later with all of the research I ended up doing by going back and reading his diaries and letters. This notion of did Kafka escape is tied up in that whole idea of how our image of Kafka as this fragile suffering ultimately tragic figure really comes down to us from Max Brod—and isn’t necessarily the real Kafka. You could say that Kafka, whether or not he ended up going to Palestine, he ultimately did escape—because he escaped into his work. To this day we still read him and he still eludes us and we still wonder about him and he still gives us this glimpse into infinity. All of it ended up making sense in the context of the book’s concerns, but none of that was planned out.

Rumpus: I was curious about your relationship to the desert.

Krauss: That’s interesting. I’ve done a lot of interviews and you’re the first person to ask me that. Which I think is weird. I would think that people would ask me about that because my first book was about this guy who disappears in the desert and here we have another guy who disappears in the desert. Obviously that landscape means something to me. I guess in some ways I see it as many people have throughout thousands of years of history as a place of revelation or transformation. It’s hard not to feel when you’re in the desert that you’re somehow being altered by it, or in touch with something that could alter you. It so easily becomes a mystical experience. It’s a place that I’ve always been drawn to partly because it’s strange and very evocative to me.

Beyond that I feel particularly drawn to the desert in Israel just because it’s really crazy to be like, I’m where David slew Goliath. The stage of it is there. It’s different than other books. You can’t go to a place and say, “This is where King Lear was.” There’s something strange about the fact that the Bible is literature and invention and yet at moments it brushes up against history and it is set in this very real place that you can touch. That uncanny sensation has always struck me whenever I’ve been in Israel, particularly I guess in the desert. The desert makes me feel connected to the story of David and I knew I wanted to touch on the story of David. I wanted to think about the ways in which convention can often limit us. How we pass on our sense of convention to our children through stories. Even though it seems like those stories are beautiful and poetic and enlarging, they can also be incredibly limiting, too. I don’t know if you read Yuval Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind that just came out? It’s a great book and a lot of what the book is about is that the reason we survived as a species and flourished is because we have this ability to make massive numbers of us agree on these fictions. Like a green piece of paper is worth something or that nations exist or that men should be one way and women should be another. I wanted to think in this book about the ways in which we are bound—and agree to bind ourselves—to certain kinds of conventions and what is what we lose in that. So questioning something like this ancient story of David. Many leaders of Western Civilization have modeled themselves after David and we hold him up as this national hero for the Jews and he was so flawed and so complicated and was probably based on this tribal lord who caused a lot of trouble. Why do we keep telling that story? Why does that story mean so much? Why do we keep calling our kids David? Just to think about it, I guess. That desert in Israel is the stage for that story—along with many others of those stories.

Rumpus: You brought up story, which I guess is the one thing we haven’t discussed because Nicole is going through a crisis of what does it mean to be a writer and her belief in the value and meaning of narrative.

Krauss: She is really asking questions of her work and her life that mirror each other. Those questions are about form and formlessness. I think what she’s trying to say is that as a writer she has grown suspect of certain kinds of forms that narrative demands of us because they don’t allow for chaos, really. That’s the one thing they don’t allow for at all. And that there’s some dishonesty in that. She likens it to breaking an animal’s spirit in order to then describe it up close. At the same time she also has begun to feel that those forms she has chosen in her life—for example, marriage, or to a degree, motherhood—also are confining in different ways. And, at least in the case of marriage, it may not be the right form for her. The concerns are mirroring each other and she goes about trying to question them. One of the things she’s trying to ask is, why do we fear formlessness so much? There’s that moment where she says narrative can’t withstand formlessness and then she goes, wait a minute, that’s not true. It may be true of people but it’s not true of nature. In nature forms are endlessly being destroyed and then recreated and destroyed and recreated. Nature isn’t afraid to destroy forms in the process of regenerating. So why are we afraid of that in life?

Obviously she’s not advocating formlessness or chaos or some endless sinking into the mud of the unknown and never knowing. [Laughs] It’s not helpful, but neither is being afraid of the stage of formlessness that’s required before one changes, before one evolves and before one can assume a new form. It so often happens to all of us that we end up adhering to some previously held belief about who we should be and how we should live our lives. The idea that we’ve outgrown ends up limiting us and we have to make a choice about what we’re going to do in our lives. It’s frightening to give up those forms because after all they provide stability and some degree of certainty and those are very comfortable things. I think what she’s saying is, I would rather be uncomfortable. [Laughs] I’d rather be uncertain than comfortable. Which is totally absurd. But she feels that way and I must say, I do too. Again I don’t feel like the book is asserting anything or advocating anything but it certainly wants the reader to ask questions about that. Why should one be afraid? Isn’t there a value in letting go and being formless and being open to assuming a new form when one presents itself?

Rumpus: Literally and figuratively, the desert is where we can’t easily live and it forces us to face a lot of those questions about form vs. formlessness and who we are.

Krauss: The desert is crushing in terms of how big it is and the way it imposes on us some awareness of infinity. The city can’t do that because it’s a man made construction. It’s all about the finite. Forests, which I think do contain a lot more mystery and traditionally are the setting for lawlessness and magic and what is outside of the rational to some degree, are still something more finite. I guess the desert and its crushing sense of infinite space is part of its connection to the mystical—on top of making you dehydrated and therefore primed for visions. [Laughs]

Rumpus: I have to ask, why did you decide to include photographs in the book?

Krauss: My dad happened to be in Israel and I said, could you do me a favor and take these pictures. So from the very beginning I had those photos of the Hilton with me as I was writing. I had him take them in part so I could count and describe the floors and the shape of this building, which is pretty imprinted on my memory from the time that I was tiny, but I wanted to be exact. The more that I looked at them the more they just seemed to say something to translate something that maybe no amount of words would do—which is just the monumental monstrosity of the place. [Laughs] I just wanted to let it speak for itself. Aesthetically it’s not a beautiful building, but it looks really beautiful when I dropped it into the manuscript like that. I told you that I would sometimes haunt that place on Spinoza Street and I had that picture and they seemed to, in Brodsky’s words, rhyme, with the Hilton and its architecture. It started as this reflexive decision but over time it made an aesthetic sense in the book. You’re looking for ways always as the writer to bring readers into intimacy, you with them with you. Photos can sometimes do the opposite, create distance and perspective, but these somehow didn’t. They somehow bring the reader closer.


Author photograph © Goni Riskin.

Alex Dueben's work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Believer, The Poetry Foundation, The Comics Journal and many other publications. He is working on his first novel. More from this author →