Photo credit: Elena Seibert
Describe your latest book.
Lost and Wanted
is the story of a theoretical physicist whose faith in scientific thinking is shaken by unusual events after her best friend’s death. I don’t have a scientific background, and when I started writing this novel, I was intimidated by the subject matter. The more I read, though, and the more I talked to physicists — especially those working on LIGO: the thrilling gravitational wave detection project that was just awarded the Nobel Prize — the more I thought that there was common ground in fiction and theoretical physics. Both proposed models that might yield insights about the nature of reality, whether or not they were proven true. Both suggested another way the world could be. (When I tried out this analogy on one physicist, she shook her head and said, “But we aren’t making things up.” Of course I had to put that in the book.) In the past, immersion in an unfamiliar culture has fueled my fiction; this time, physics was the foreign culture that inspired the book. When I started writing it, I was thinking of George Eliot’s famous idea in Middlemarch
— that novelists never get tired of telling how two people meet and fall in love, but that we’re “comparatively uninterested” in how they find, pursue, and are often disappointed in their vocations. Lost and Wanted
is a novel about love for friends, love for lovers, and love for children, but I always wanted it to be a book about work as well. The protagonist of this story is lucky to have found her passion for science early, but as she gets older she sometimes regrets what she has given up, and feels the lure of unlived lives. Her friend’s unexpected death catalyzes that nostalgia and puts her back in touch with her younger self. After I wrote the book, I went back to that passage from Middlemarch
that I’ve always loved, and found that it continued this way, describing middle-aged people: "for perhaps their ardor in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardor of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home.” I was startled, because there’s a ghost in this book, too, which it’s the narrator’s job to explain away. In that explanation is the story of a friendship, and what it feels like to lose someone way too young.
What was your favorite book as a child?
The D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths
was my favorite for a long time. I loved the passion and violence in those stories, the operatic drama, made vivid by the gorgeous illustrations. I really believed in those gods and goddesses, and often told my parents — usually as we were arguing about going to church on Sundays — that I considered myself a pagan.
When did you know you were a writer?
I started writing poems when I was seven or eight, and stories a little later than that. I didn’t plan to be a writer who published her work; writing was an extension of reading for me, and I knew I was a reader from the moment I learned. I thought that writing would be something I did privately, when I wasn’t doing a proper job. I think that was partly because I knew how hard it was to make a living writing (my dad was a theater director, and then a screenwriter) and partly because I was scared to admit it was what I really wanted to do.
What does your writing workspace look like?
It’s a room in our house, and it’s a mess. It’s officially my office, but I share it with my husband (who blessedly works outside the home) and a lot of our miscellaneous stuff. Suffice to say neither of us has read Marie Kondo
yet. There are two windows, looking out onto the Brooklyn backyards behind us, so that’s nice. I try to keep the desk clear, but usually don’t succeed. There are lots of books and notes, post-its, to-do lists, and stuff related to our children’s lives. I once knew a writer who worked at a bare table with a cup of sharpened pencils and nothing else. I admire that, but I can’t pull it off.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Right now, gravitational wave physics and ancient Egypt, but I guess I’ve always cared more about novels, short stories, and poems than most people.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I forget everything: where I put my keys or my phone, people’s names, books I’ve read, books I’ve written, my childhood. This seems like an especially bad flaw in a writer.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Magda Szabó. I love The Door
, but I might recommend that people start with Iza’s Ballad
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
My best friend’s father was a TV editor when I was a kid, and I got two days work as a nine-year-old participating in a jello fight on TV. The jello was green, and I wore a shiny yellow jersey that said “Nifty Nell” on the back.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
“Pilgrimage” might be stretching it, but I just dragged my family to a café in Cairo where Naguib Mahfouz
used to work, where we met an elderly waiter who had served him coffee.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Unintentionally hurting people I love or respect with what I write is the worst thing. I’m thieving and selfish while I’m writing, and only afterward realize the ways it could affect the real people whose experiences I’ve used for my own purposes.
Offer a favorite passage from another writer.
Because I didn’t know enough.
Why didn’t I know enough of something?
Greek drama or astronomy? The books
I’d read were full of blanks;
the poems — well, I tried
reciting to my iris-beds,
“They flash upon that inward eye,
which is the bliss …” The bliss of what?
One of the first things that I did
when I got back was look it up.
— Elizabeth Bishop
, "Crusoe in England"
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
I’m proud of the first sentence (okay, two sentences) of my new book:
"In the first few months after Charlie died, I began hearing from her much more frequently. This was even more surprising than it might have been, since Charlie wasn’t a good correspondent even when she was alive."
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
“That” for “who” to refer to people, as in “The man that gave us directions was wearing a red fez.”
Do you have any phobias?
I’m phobic about cockroaches, although in general I like bugs.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
Excessive texting with friends.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
Can it be from a book? If so, it’s something Grace Paley
writes in her perfect story, “Wants": “I wanted to have been married forever to one person, my ex-husband or my present one. Either has enough character for a whole life, which as it turns out is really not such a long time. You couldn’t exhaust either man’s qualities or get under the rock of his reasons in one short life.” The best advice isn’t framed as advice, but as a thought that listeners can apply to their own lives, if they choose. I don’t think this particular thought is only about marriage, but about relationships in general: Paley reminds us that we should be very careful to keep our friends and preserve our relationships, because they become exponentially more valuable over time.
Top Five Books About a Place
That sounds awkward, but I often find lists of what are called “travel books,” and rarely lists of books that are meant to explain a place or culture to outsiders. The books below are (with the exception of the last one) about the writer’s native place. Three are fiction and two nonfiction, but I don’t think that makes much of a difference. What I love about all of them is the way that the author’s individual perspective throws a particular culture into relief, banishing stereotypes and generously allowing the reader entry into another world.
The Inheritance of Loss
by Kiran Desai
Coming of Age in Mississippi
by Anne Moody
by Ha Jin
by Peter Hessler
÷ ÷ ÷
Nell Freudenberger is the author of the novels The Newlyweds
and The Dissident
, and of the story collection Lucky Girls
, which won the PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Named one of The New Yorker
’s “20 under 40” in 2010, she is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and a Cullman Fellowship from the New York Public Library. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.