The women in Nell Zink’s books may not live in bell jars, but they might as well. Her debut novel, The Wallcreeper -– which made a splash thanks to an unabashedly violent plot peppered with hilarious quips -– centers on Tiffany, a young newlywed whose been rushed off to Berne, Switzerland, where isolation and boredom lead to strange affairs. Her latest story, Mislaid, features heroine Peggy, who leaves her small Southern town for college hoping to discover sexual freedom, but winds up with a similarly lonely fate after having a child with a famous poet, who prefers men but isn't comfortable making his orientation public.
With these books, Zink boldly rejects the idea that feeling trapped within a marriage is old-fashioned. Her characters, though modern and sophisticated, struggle to find themselves amid the commitments that come with romantic relationships.
Perhaps this is what caught the eye of Jonathan Franzen, who’s endorsed her work after the two became pen pals decades ago, resulting in a friendship that would expose her to bird-watching trips and Franzen’s token snark. Zink spoke with The Huffington Post about her environmentalist adventures, the importance of political writing and why “chick lit” is an unfortunate genre label.
Your books feature characters who are shaped by the strictures of their marriage. In particular Peggy leaves behind the identity she was in the process of forming to have children. Why does this theme appeal to you?
Most young people I know do in fact want to get married, they want to find some perfect partner. I was consciously writing from the perspective of a much younger person, especially with The Wallcreeper -- of course all of my friends are like, “Oh, it’s you!”
Maybe I’m just young at heart! But people are looking for the perfect partner and they think, "Oh, commitment is going to require compromise." They don’t even know what they’re going to be compromising. They don’t know what they’re giving up, they just sign it away. You find out when you get to be 40 maybe what you lost by committing to a person. It’s a big question with no right answer, which is what you need to be motivated to write a novel; a big question that entirely mystifies you.
There are people you meet who are absolutely special and unique, and one way or another you may devote part of most of your life to them, and the question becomes, “How much should I be devoting? What of me is getting lost?” In the case of Lee and Peggy in Mislaid, she’s losing everything. She marries this guy, and she doesn’t exist. This was not a rare phenomenon in those days, and even now.
Sure -- and those themes remind me of something you wrote for Publisher’s Weekly: “Don’t free your heroines from economic concerns entirely, unless you want your work labeled chick lit!” Can you elaborate?
Oh, I was probably making a silly joke, but on the other hand, people will say a lot of what happens in … “chick lit”... Well, people call it “chick lit” but I would never just call it that. I was brought up with the term, “escapist reading.” Some escapist books are about a damsel in distress, but I think that’s sort of old fashioned, and the pattern now is the woman who thinks she has it all, but she doesn’t really.
Even a Paulo Coelho book, that’s what it’s about. “Okay, I have the perfect husband, the perfect children, the perfect house, but I lack … X.” In the really shallow chick lit, “X” is a Hermes Birkin bag. In the somewhat more aspirational chick lit, it’ll be that she wants a better man, but actually her husband is the ideal man for her -- she goes through the hero’s journey. But she’s not mostly concerned about making a living, because a woman concerned about making a living, if you’re realistic, could get boring really fast, because of the incredibly tedious jobs women have ended up having to take half the time.
Can you tell me a little about how you came to write Mislaid?
I thought about how my youth in Virginia was sort of a forgotten time that’s been erased by all of the immigration to Virginia -- there are so many new people there, and when you talk to people about the history, even of the places they’re living, they don’t know it. There’s always sort of a consensus narrative about what it was like to live in the '70s and the '80s, and if you do research -- if you read books or look online, you end up with that consensus narrative. I thought it’d be more interesting to just sit down by myself and just scrape the inside of my head and remember. Even though I was a child, there are things I remember very vividly that in retrospect seemed extremely strange. Certain events that I had to figure out how to explain. In what world were these events possible?
Virginia became superficially unrecognizable over the course of the '80s. Tidewater, Virginia went from being Mississippi to being more like -- somewhere farther north. The Old South receded, so that by the late '90s you had to go all the way to Mississippi to find it, and there it was: a profound ignorance about alternative lifestyles. “The Ellen Show” on TV proclaimed the existence of lesbians to quite a few people who hadn’t known about them before.
I get reviewers who are younger or just north of the Mason-Dixon line who don’t quite get the book because they think, what’s interesting about this? But I get really over-the-top positive reviews from people who are closer to segregation or what was basically an apartheid regime when I was growing up.
What I enjoyed about the book is that it acknowledged that parts of the South are these little time capsules, stubbornly lodged in old ways of doing things.
People retrospectively declare themselves hip and au courant. I mean, in 1977, what music was really huge? You tell me.
At least you knew that! Most people would say, “Oh, 1977, I was listening to the Sex Pistols.” Bullshit! I know from looking at William and Mary yearbooks when I was at the college of William and Mary, the '60s there began to happen around 1973. In 1971, women were not allowed to wear pants on campus and all freshmen wore a beanie. It was more like the '50s. These cutting-edge, metropolitan places were very, very different from the periphery. Now, of course, everyone dresses the same everywhere. Everyone has access to the same media everywhere. It’s hard to imagine these regional differences.
When I sat down to write the novel, I made a list of the years of my life, and tried to remember everything I could about that year. I got accused of putting in anachronisms and had to change a couple things because fashions came so late to Tidewater, Virginia. In “The Devil Wears Prada,” Meryl Streep makes fun of Anne Hathaway for wearing cerulean when it’s “so last year.” But things like pegged Levi’s took 10 years to make it to the woods.
Are there any Southern writers you admire, or who you read while working on Mislaid?
I admire Eudora Welty. Delta Wedding is a book I’ve given as a present to numerous women. Eudora Welty rocks. She writes such jewel-like, fine, refined short stories. And Flannery O’Connor appealed to me when I was younger. I read her now and I’m like, she’s making some very cheap points here, I don’t quite approve of her anymore.
Your writing -- The Wallcreeper, in particular -- doesn’t shy away from being political. Why do you find environmentalism and other political ideas important to include in your work?
If you’re going to clutter up the world with more novels, you should do a little more than entertain people.
Being political, in the sense of observing your surroundings and having thoughts about them that are more than merely superficial, you actually try to connect the dots and figure out what sort of structures are at work creating the world you live in, and possibly attempt to intervene when you see gross injustice and violence… the people who take the time to do that, well, I like them.
Changing the world is really hard, and sometimes it backfires, but at the same time, if you want to know the really good people, you have to go look for them.
Are there any books -- political or not -- that you're looking forward to reading this year?
I’m told Donald Antrim wrote some good books. And I got myself a copy of Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler because a friend of my mother’s, who’s in her 70s, recommended it to me. She’s recommended one other book to me in her life, which was Heartburn by Nora Ephron, which is absolutely brilliant, and she confessed to me that in Breathing Lessons I’d see her entire personality, and know what she’s really like.
When people recommend to me a book for personal reasons, that’s what makes it fun to read. It’s like when people would make mixtapes, and say, "Here are the songs I think you should know." It was a very personal gesture, it wasn’t like, "Here are the songs I would play on the radio," but, "Here is this tape I’m making for you." So when people tell me I need to read a book, I tend to read it.
For more, read our review of The Wallcreeper.