The Untameable Nell Zink

Talking to belated literary upstart about hefty advances, millennial prudishness, and her pen pal Jonathan Franzen.

Photo: Olaf Blecker
Photo: Olaf Blecker

Nell Zink has an enviable problem. “I’ve been working hard to find ways to spend money,” she told me a few months ago over risotto in Princeton, New Jersey. Raised in Virginia and living in Germany, the suddenly celebrated 52-year-old novelist had been invited to give her only Stateside reading in the break between her second novel, Mislaid (longlisted for the National Book Award), and her third, Nicotine, which is out this week. Princeton was a pretty good place to spend Ecco’s $425,000 advance. “I blew a hundred bucks at Lululemon” — she wore a stretchy gray shirt with cutouts for the thumbs — “and like 60 bucks on books” — Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class — “and if I did that every day, let me think …” It would have taken seven years to blow it all on paperbacks and athleisure.

In addition to the advance for Nicotine, a careening VW-van ride of a novel occupied by a network of young anarchist squatters in Jersey City, Ecco paid another $25,000 to publish an early pair of novellas under the title Private Novelist (also out this month). Zink got only a $300 advance for her widely praised debut, The Wallcreeper, two short years ago. Most writers are loath to discuss their salaries; Zink clearly isn’t among them.

She still lives in the same bare studio in the town of Bad Belzig, an hour from Berlin, that she showed journalists who came to Germany last year to figure out how a middle-aged literary outsider who’d never lived in Brooklyn or set foot in an M.F.A. workshop had found her way into the literary Establishment. (She has not since swapped her futon for a proper bed.) Brazen enough to start a novel, as she does The Wallcreeper, with the sentence “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock and occasioned the miscarriage,” Zink left admirers wondering what she had been doing with her life. Now the question is what she’ll do with the rest of it.

Like the darts Zink tosses in conversation and in writing (a friend’s novel “has weaknesses you could drive a truck through”), her life story feels exhilaratingly reckless: a childhood in tidewater Virginia with unspecified traumas; college at William & Mary followed by stints as a bricklayer, secretary, musician, and zine publisher; two doomed marriages, one to a poet in Tel Aviv; 16 unwed years in Germany; a Ph.D. in media studies from Tübingen; and a correspondence with fellow bird-watcher Jonathan Franzen that led circuitously to her current and possibly strangest phase: middle-aged enfant terrible.

Zink was bemused by the reading invitation from Princeton, which she credited to Professor Jeffrey Eugenides. Two years ago, his department asked her to apply for an assistant-professor position. She replied to him, flat out refusing. “I wrote back saying, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I’m a novelist for a living. Now I’m supposed to do this job reading scribblings of 19-year-olds and telling them how wonderful they are?” Princeton might be a nice place to shop — and maybe to bird-watch — but “it’s a weird town. It has a bell-jar aspect. Riffraff bounce off it.”

By now, Zink fits no one’s reasonable definition of riffraff, but her writing process remains refreshingly strange. The Wallcreeper was written, at first, purely for Franzen: “I was educating him about anal sex from a female perspective.” Private Novelist was initially a series of emails to the Israeli author Avner Shats; its main story is a metafictional mistranslation of one of his novels. And on the cusp of recognition, Zink consciously set out to write Mislaid — about a lily-white lesbian who flees her gay husband and passes her child off as black — as both a provocation and a plot-heavy sop to a growing audience.

Zink conceived of her new book, Nicotine, after her agent advised her to turn in a manuscript in a “two-week window” between Mislaid’s early hype and its potentially “crappy sales figures.” It was originally subtitled “A Series,” the conceit being that it was like a TV pilot. “In the initial draft, there was no psychologizing, no interiority at all,” she said. “I was making fun of the shallowness of audiovisual media.” It also had no real ending: “I said [the story] goes on for 60 seasons … before the protagonists are wiped out by an asteroid.” Her editor, Megan Lynch, and early readers like Franzen nudged her toward something a little more interior and conventional. “I think she was unsure” whether to follow their advice, says Lynch, who was relieved that Zink agreed: “To tell Nell what to say would be impossible. It’s part of what makes her who she is, and I don’t want to change anything about that.”

Lynch believes Nicotine combines the strengths of Zink’s first two books: “It has a coming-of-age narrative, but it’s also doing something that’s larger and sharp and unusual.” Penny, the novel’s protagonist, is charged with renovating a family home, only to find it inhabited by the aforementioned anarchists, who become her friends. Nicotine has all the shocking plot swerves of a Zink novel — the deployment of unusual weapons like spray paint, toxic human waste, and VR-augmented sex — but it’s also a departure in style and substance. There’s more dialogue and fewer quips than in her earlier work; the emotions are closer to the surface and more vivid to the characters. While the heroine of The Wallcreeper couldn’t bring herself to name her female parts, Penny is at one point observed feeling “a dull ache in her vagina, and her soul is banging on her breastbone from the inside.”

The tonal shift might be generational. Zink both satirizes and channels millennial jargon. As we finished lunch, she explained that new terms are just window dressing for old behaviors and neuroses. Being polyamorous means simply “he just likes to go to bars.” Penny’s love interest would rather drink and smoke than risk exposing his small penis; Zink considers “asexuality” to be a backlash against hookup culture. “I’m from the generation that enslaved men and made them give you head for half an hour,” she said, within earshot of a wholesome-looking family. “And the current generation is the one that says, ‘You can fuck me in the ass and I’ll still be a virgin.’ ”

Nicotine’s most inscrutably self-destructive character, Jazz, is inspired by a resilient but damaged acquaintance of Zink’s. “You cannot help but love her and want to save her,” she said, tearing up. “And I think she’ll be all right … I just suspected it would give her joy, like a little umbilical cord from her to the literary world, if I based this character on her.” Nicotine leavens its wicked humor with what she calls “a serious core of sappy humanism.”

Justin Taylor, a younger writer who’s recently gotten to know Zink, was impressed by Nicotine’s social accuracy. “The fact that someone managed to be that finger-on-the-pulse from the other side of the world, and 30 years older than most of the protagonists, it’s just astonishing,” he says. “[The novel] has a cultural fluency that you would expect from a kind of Ben Lerner–ish or Tao Lin–ish autofiction. It’s not written in that style, but it somehow manages to be contemporary without any of that access — or even interest, really.”

Zink first met Taylor at last fall’s Miami Book Fair, where she shared a panel with Sloane Crosley and Lauren Groff—and felt conflicted. “There were about 200 people in line for each of them,” she said, and almost no one coming up to her. “I yelled at the other two lines, ‘People, this is depressing!’ ” When she mentioned it to Franzen—no stranger to the ironies of fame — he said to Zink, “ ‘That’s why I prefer to do solo events.’ ”

Zink claims to be wary of invoking “the F-word” too often, but “Jon” did come up 21 times during our visit. She excused it by explaining that, until this year, he was the only American writer she was close to. Reached for his impressions, Franzen replied that he was “calamitously busy” and had “been advising Nell to stop adding to the Google hit count for Zink/Franzen.” Asked specifically about their input into each other’s work, he offered a quote: “We’ve productively traded manuscripts.”

Zink enjoyed socializing with writers in Miami, but her most vivid memory of the trip involves catching a bus out to a mangrove swamp to see frigate birds. She described their prehistoric contour (“Eerie as fuck”) as we crossed Princeton’s campus. After getting briefly lost in a condo development, we scrambled down an embankment into a wild patch of lakeside brambles she described as “the picnic area that time forgot.”

Princeton’s lakefront boathouse loomed in the distance. We’d strayed far from the cultivated headquarters of the crew team. It was for the better, because the neglected turf sheltered a fairly robust array of birds. Having left her $2,700 binoculars at the school’s guesthouse, Zink had trouble naming American varieties beyond the obvious — cormorants, turkey buzzards, mockingbirds, and, across the lake, either a bald eagle or an osprey. “There’s birds, man!” she said triumphantly, picking up a branch and swinging it to keep thorns from snagging her corduroys. “Once you get interested in them and think of them as having little personalities, [bird-watching is] life-enhancing.”

As we scanned the bank for specimens, our conversation flowed freely into eddies of Zink arcana, ranging from the shortcomings of German NGOs to Arab communists, the ugliness of the American robin, what might happen if we stole a canoe, and literary gossip — this last topic covered with the zeal of a new initiate, tape recorders be damned. “Boring is something I definitely want to avoid,” she’d said earlier, “and of course that is handy when you’re talking to journalists.”

The greatest of Nicotine’s ironies is that Penny, the daughter of a Jewish ­ayahuasca-cult leader and a homeless Colombian woman, turns out be an avatar of the capitalist American Dream. Like her plucky heroine, Zink found the notion of selling out slightly antiquated: “People used to know that the revolution hasn’t happened yet.” Last year, she told Vice that her next novel “is going to be really big, and so deep and so important, and get a really just mind-blowing advance and all the prizes.” It was a joke: There’s no next novel yet, prizes are “a crapshoot,” and her editors don’t want her to be “as boring as the people who write the bricks [that win prizes].” She claims indifference to expectations; Nicotine is her best work, and no critic would convince her otherwise. “Even when I thought my work was trash and was deleting it all, I still thought it was better than other stuff,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of self-doubt about my art.”

After an hour in the weeds, she was due back at her Princeton guesthouse in preparation for her appearance, “which will involve taking sandpaper to my heels so I can put on panty hose.” Having denigrated writers’ workshops before, Zink told me she’s no longer so sure: “Maybe the institutionalization of the M.F.A. would have saved me a lot of grief.” Instead of majoring in philosophy, “I would have met someone who could have said, ‘You can do this.’ ” She has no plans of returning permanently to the U.S., much less earning an M.F.A., but she recently applied for a residency at a nonprofit arts center in Santa Monica. “I’m looking around for things where I can come over for a month and be a part of the vaguely arty community. I’ve realized how much fun it is talking to people who also write. We have a lot in common.”

Nicotine will be published on October 4.

*This article appears in the October 3, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.

Talking to Belated Literary Upstart Nell Zink