Interview: Nicole Krauss

We speak to an Orange Prize front-runner about the serious and sensitive business of writing fiction.


When she was interviewed for the Radio 3 programme, Private Passions - in which guests tell Michael Berkeley about their favourite pieces of music - Nicole Krauss worried why she had chosen such melancholy pieces. Berkeley reassured her: "They are the pieces that move us most."

And indeed there is something very melancholy about each of Nicole Krauss's novels, certainly her breakthrough book, The History of Love and her latest, Great House, now out in paperback and shortlisted for next week's Orange Prize. And that is why they move us. But there is so much more to them: they are at times funny, smart and deeply touching.

Leo Gursky and Alma Singer, characters in The History of Love, are brilliant creations, while the book itself pulls you along, with its super-clever book-within-a-book plot. After the huge acclaim it received it must have been a hard act to follow. But no, says Krauss. "Enough time had passed. I felt it was very important for me to change." And Great House is in fact very different. Darker, full of stranger, haunting children, less warm but, again, moving and a delight to read.

"Change" is a word that comes up a lot in the conversation. Her characters change so much. She says they have to; her books are about people who have experienced "catastrophic loss" - neurological damage in the case of Samson Greene, the central character in her first book, Man Walks Into A Room, or the death of a father, like Alma, or the loss of everyone they have loved, like Leo Gursky. But, she adds, "I am not so much interested in how people are haunted by their past, as in the response. How people reinvent themselves. How they survive." And it is true. That is what is so attractive about Leo, Alma and Weisz, her most extraordinary creations. They have suffered so much and yet they are so full of life.

Is that why she writes about the Holocaust? In part: "My grandparents all came from Europe: four different places in Europe. It's a crucial part of who I am, where I am. My geography is made up of many different fragments."

This is another recurring theme. Fragments that somehow come together. "I never start with a set idea or even a character," Krauss reveals. "I stumble on to a voice, a certain place and then create a novel out of many fragments." Like putting together a room out of its component parts in Great House. "A room is disassembled in one place and obsessively put together somewhere else. Like Bacon's studio or Freud's room. But you can never recreate the original so what's the difference between the original and what's been reassembled?"

As for that constant preoccupation with change, Krauss herself has changed too, she says - "as a mother, mainly" - and remembers, after having her first child, reading a book, "for the first time from the mother's point of view, not the child's." Now, she says, she writes from two angles: as a child, and as a mother. Perhaps that's the biggest difference between The History of Love, with Alma and her kid brother, and Great House, with Weisz, one of the great parents in modern literature.

Would winning the Orange Prize - the great accolade for female writers - change her? She laughs. She's not a prize person but has serious thoughts about it: "A male writer is assumed to be serious unless proven otherwise. A woman writer has to prove she's serious." Krauss has done that. She has also proved that she is one of the most moving writers of her generation.

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