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Sigrid Nunez Wants To Know: 'What Are You Going Through?'


Author Sigrid Nunez has a new book called "What Are You Going Through." Her narrator, a writer and a teacher, tells stories by tracing conversations and encounters with her friends and even her cat. NPR's Mandalit del Barco had the opportunity to talk to the award-winning storyteller.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: What are you going through right now, Sigrid Nunez, I ask over the phone from across the country in LA.

SIGRID NUNEZ: Well, I guess I'm going through what everyone else is going through, and it does seem overwhelming. I've been hunkered down in my Manhattan apartment, and I haven't gotten sick at all. And anxiety is very high, as it is for everyone.

DEL BARCO: But not everyone was as prescient as Nunez was 10 years ago when she wrote a novel set during a flu pandemic, "Salvation City."

NUNEZ: We were told that it would happen by the scientists.

DEL BARCO: Elements of "Salvation City" seem to have come to life now.

NUNEZ: You know, a certain amount of violence and then, towards the end of the book, there comes another crisis of heat waves and fires and a lot of Internet quackery and fake medicines that are peddled that you have to warn people not to poison themselves. And there's also - there's the elbow bump. And there are people in the evangelical community who will not give up giving one another hugs. It doesn't end the world or destroy everything, but it does change the world in very important ways.

DEL BARCO: In this, her ninth novel, the narrator allows everyone she encounters to tell their own stories, even a cat she meets at an Airbnb. Nunez reads a passage in which the cat, curled up in front of a fireplace, is kneading the duvet.

NUNEZ: (Reading) I had a decent home, the cat said, his words muffled by the purr but still clear. I'm not saying it was the lap of luxury, but I had food and fresh water every day and a dry bed. And at the time, I'd never known anything better. I was born in a cage in a shelter, he said. I never knew how sweet with the right human life could be, especially when the human is a female of a certain age, living without a mate.

DEL BARCO: I tell her it reminds me of something my friend Irene (ph) once said. When she dies, she'd love to come back as the cat of a single woman.

NUNEZ: (Laughter) That's lovely.

DEL BARCO: The 69-year-old author used to have two cats. She still can't bring herself to get another pet since they died of old age. Sigrid Nunez wrote about those cats - also about a Great Dane - in her last novel, "The Friend," which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2018. The cat in this new book is just one of many lives the narrator runs across. Another is a woman who was once very beautiful.

NUNEZ: (Reading) If you're really good-looking and you aren't mentally ill or obnoxiously conceited or a total dimwit, you get used to being popular. You get so used to love and admiration that you take it for granted. You don't even know how privileged you are. Then one day, it all disappears. Actually, it happens gradually. You begin to notice certain things. Heads no longer turn when you pass by. People you meet don't always later remember your face. And this becomes your new life, your strange, new life - an ordinary, undesirable person with a common, forgettable face.

DEL BARCO: "What Are You Going Through" is about what a lot of women go through, she says. Like her, some of them never married or had children - not that you have to.

NUNEZ: I have a lot of wonderful, extremely interesting friends - you know, women who are older. And a lot of them are writers, journalists, novelists. I recognize them in the book, in these characters and a kind of humor that they have in the face of great difficulty because, of course, nobody gets to be to their 60s, you know, without having experienced some serious heartbreak in life.

DEL BARCO: Like the narrator's college roommate, who has terminal cancer. She asks the narrator to accompany her to the end.

NUNEZ: There's a kind of irreverence and humor about her that comes from people I know, such as saying where's your sense of adventure when she's asking her to be with her during this extreme time. And at another point, she says, oh, come on. You know, I promise to make it as much fun as possible.

DEL BARCO: Like Nunez, the narrator is a writer and teacher who tells other people's stories and is somewhat isolated. It reminds me of the acceptance speech she gave when she won the National Book Award for Fiction.


NUNEZ: I became a writer not because I was seeking community but rather because I thought it was something I could do alone and hidden in the privacy of my own room. How lucky to have discovered that writing books made the miraculous possible - to be removed from the world and to be a part of the world at the same time.

DEL BARCO: She thinks about this now at a time when much of the world is inside, hiding from an invisible virus.

NUNEZ: My writing is about making a connection with other human beings. Yes, you do that in solitude. But, you know, as long as you're writing and you have a reader in mind, you're never really alone. It's the same thing with reading.

DEL BARCO: Nunez says she looks forward to going back to the movies, Carnegie Hall, the Met, to be around people again. I agree, and we bid farewell.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.