Nell Zink flutters into a room. She is mesmerizing. She exudes an energy of curiosity interested in observing and experiencing the place around her rather than the performance of reading her book. A bouquet of flowers arrives for her. She says they are from a friend who she has not seen since 1989, a florist in Florida now. Their arrival is symptomatic of the life of Nell Zink; she collects people on a journey that seems forever incomplete.
Zink is at Community Bookstore in Park Slope to launch her second novel, Mislaid. She debuted her first novel just last fall, a short narrative about a woman struggling with unhappiness. The Wallcreeper was published by Dorothy, an independent press that identifies itself as a publishing project. Mislaid, meanwhile, is published by HarperCollins and the launch has been accompanied by high-profile press shaken awake by Zink’s unexpected arrival on the literary scene. She launched The Wallcreeper with fellow bird-lover Jonathan Franzen. She was expected to launch Mislaid with Jeffrey Eugenides until a family emergency pulled him away. Eugenides was replaced with Sean Wilsey who is by no means a replacement as much as a substitute.
After placing the flowers in water, Zink announces that she feels intimidated in front of the crowded room. She never feels intimidated, she explains. As if to prove her point, she describes an earlier incident in Union Square. A Nazi, as she described him, was pontificating in the middle of the park. He continued to rant undaunted by passersby or attempts to disrupt his vitriol. The impression Zink leaves is that the Nazi is standing his ground like a Queen’s guard at Buckingham Palace. So Zink decides to take the man’s pants off. She unbuckles his belt and pulls his pants to his ankle, just to see what he would do. He continued with his hate speech.
Wilsey’s first question is about how Nell Zink the person became fully formed. He wants to know if her odd mix of careers has influenced her before she became a novelist. Zink has worked laying bricks as well as a translator of corporate documents.
“I’m one of those animals that grows very slowly,” Zink says. She mixes metaphors, describing animals as growing slow like a tree. Both seem appropriate for her. She says that many of the earlier jobs she held were simply “dumb.” They were not essential to making her. Eventually she found translating though. She earns a good hourly wage translating documents for large companies. She jokes about literary book translations earning far too little to make them worthwhile as a form of employment.
Much of Zink’s writing crams social criticism into the texts Wilsey notes, asking how she is able to pull off that kind of delicate balance of entertainment and commentary.
“That’s a function of being old,” she says. She thinks that young people can produce good material linguistically but that only through life experiences are they ever going to have something meaningful to say. She explains that whatever she writes is drawing on her past. Much of her early writing has been thrown away, and she says that she misses some of the innocent musicality of her early work.
She says that in Mislaid she is definitely writing a form of satire, and that helps combine commentary into a narrative.
Zink is very comfortable writing about sex. In the The Wallcreeper, there is an easy nonchalance to an anal sex scene that is disturbing because of how casual it is. She says a lot of this comes from reading innocent books. They prepare you for writing innocent sex scenes. She adds that she doesn’t say “then I felt.” She describes what she writes as books about Homo Sapien Sapiens; they have sex, so there is sex in her books.
“I was raised a feminist,” Zink says. Her mother had her reading Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather when she young. “It never crossed my mind to be anything but a feminist.” In fact, she says she was raised to dislike good looking white men. She only half-jokingly says that it was a struggle to begin to believe Jonathan Franzen might be smart, adding that her mother trained her to mistrust the tall, white guy.
“I think it’s important to recognize I am a fuck up,” she says explaining that despite high test score she ended up majoring in philosophy and then became a bricklayer after college. “I don’t get it right.”
“How am I not a fuck up?” she asks. She points to the New York Times review where she is described as an author of “potential.” She adds to that: “‘Potential’ is my middle name.”
Although Zink has been writing (and throwing away her work) for years, she finds working with an editor a novel and useful experience. “I never had to revise,” she said of her earlier projects. She has recently finished a draft of her latest novel. Nicotine is now in the revision stages.
In the past, Zink mostly wrote for her friends. She describes taking on writing projects that she wrote just to entertain them. She could write a novel or story in a few days and give it to them without worrying about editing. She once translated the novel of her friend Avener Shats, an Israeli. The translation looked nothing like Shats’s original book, but that wasn’t really the point. For Zink, the act of creation is a personal, intimate act between the author and the reader, usually a specific intended reader.