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Nicole Krauss
How did you plan Great House to make sure that each strand overlapped in the right time and place?
If I planned my books, I’d have never dreamed up this one. The things that happen unconsciously are always much more interesting and exciting to me than anything predetermined. Writing a novel, for me, involves pursuing a series of accidents. In Great House, those accidents led me to four characters—just the sound of their voices, and a sense of their predicaments. Once those original accidents were set in motion, I let them unravel without trying to control anything too much, leading to many more accidents. Patterns began to form between the characters and their stories. Sometimes I extended the patterns, and other times I resisted them. In time, I began to see the shape of the whole structure—the house I had been building all that time.

I like writing this way. I arrive at places I never could have predicted or conceived of setting out. At this point, any other way of working would feel unnatural to me, and I think the resulting work would feel forced and inauthentic. But it has its disadvantages, too. There’s the anxiety of not knowing for so long what the book wants to be, and whether it will work. And of course there are times when things don’t line up in the right way. When two different plotlines need to meet on a boat at a certain time, and one arrives in 1947, and other in 1948—well, that’s a problem. I often have to go back to make adjustments. But most of the time I’m surprised at how small those changes actually are. So much of writing involves submitting to the unknown only in order to discover what was hidden in oneself the whole time. I suppose that’s what is meant by intuition.
Daniel Varsky haunts Great House throughout, and a large part of the trauma of losing him is the lack of contact or information about his tragic end. Can you tell us a bit more about the effect of the lost Chilean poets on this book?
Soon after The History of Love was published, I began to read obsessively about the period of Chilean history following Pinochet’s coup, when thousands of people were “disappeared.” For months it made it impossible for me to sleep at night. Looking back, I think it had to do with the fact that I was pregnant for the first time, and trying to grapple with the enormous vulnerability of becoming a mother. Reading about history that happened so far away was a way to touch, as if with an asbestos glove, a fear associated with the understanding that as soon as my child was born, my happiness, forever after, would depend on his safety and wellbeing. For a while I thought I would write a whole novel about that time in Chile, but instead everything was absorbed into the character of the Chilean poet Daniel Varsky who, though he never has a voice in the book, nevertheless weaves through it like a ghost, trailing that sense of grief and fragility.
Every character that sits at Varsky's desk leaves a trace of themselves behind and the object is invested with the stories of its owners. Do you think that writing itself is a process of objectifying memory?
If I could easily say what writing is, I might not need to do it. That it remains so mysterious to me after all this time accounts for much of what draws me back to it. Sometimes I think I understand less and less of how it works the more I write. And, at the same time, the more I write, the better I understand that writing requires the presence of some enigmatic thing, and that the pursuit of this enigmatic thing, in one’s own idiosyncratic way, is what we call, in kinder moments, a novel.
Is it wise to invest so much human emotion in an inanimate object? Is it unavoidable?
What interested me about the desk was what it could provoke in different people, and how as it migrated from character to character it accumulated new meaning. It became a way to access unspoken parts of their lives—their inner struggles, their regrets, their solitude, their histories. I never felt that I was writing a novel about people’s attachment to objects. I wrote about people, some, but not all, of who at one point or another lived in the shadow of this desk—which is to say, in the shadow of a certain kind of inheritance.
Do you think the message of Yochanan ben Zakkai, 'to turn Jerusalem into an idea', is as powerful today as it was in the 1st century?
The Jewish response to destruction of the Temple and the exile from Jerusalem amounted to a radical reinvention of the Judaism that allowed it to survive in the diaspora. The need, the will, and the ingenuity to reinvent oneself in the wake of loss or tragedy must be as old as the earliest human catastrophe, and it doesn’t appear to be losing any relevance in our time.
Can you tell us a bit about your next novel?
I haven’t decided to write one yet. I’m still in the interim stage between books at which, once again, I consider all of the other professions I’d rather have, but not yet at the stage at which I realize I’m not, and never will be, qualified for any of them, leaving me no choice but to write another book.
Nicole Krauss

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