Nell Zink on German authors, selective shelving, and sailing through ‘Byzantium’
Nell Zink got a late start as a novelist — publishing her first book in 2014 when she was 50 — but she quickly made up for lost time by publishing four critically acclaimed novels in four years. Now she adds a fifth, “Doxology,” the story of an oddball trio of musicians in the wake of 9/11, which is out August 27. Zink, who grew up in Virginia, has long called Germany home, where she has worked as a translator. She reads from her new book at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 12 at the Harvard Book Store.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
ZINK: I’m reading two books at the same time, which I seldom do. One is in German, “Mr. Sonneborn Goes to Brussels,” a very funny autobiography by Martin Sonneborn, who was an editor of the German humor magazine Titanic. He managed to get elected to the European Parliament. The other is “Marilou is Everywhere” by Sarah Elaine Smith. It’s good despite having two features that would normally make me throw it down, a child narrator and a girl disappears. The language has this rawness like the inchoate thoughts of a ninth-grader.
BOOKS: How long have you been reading in German?
ZINK: I hitchhiked here with a boyfriend in 1983. I made German friends who taught me to speak German and recommended books. I was into German literature immediately, such as Franz Kafka and Robert Musil. I had an attachment to Kafka because the themes in his work were the themes in my life. He has heroes who ought to quit what they are doing, but no, they do their duty.
BOOKS: Are there some German authors you wish were better known in the US?
ZINK: All of them basically. Daniel Kehlmann is one, but he lives in the US now. My favorite of his is “Me and Kaminski.” Recently I met two authors at a festival, Judith Schalansky and Tanya Malayarchuk, who is a Ukrainian novelist who lives in Austria. They have larger than life personalities and their books are great too. Judith had a bestseller, “The Atlas of Remote Islands.” I haven’t been reading as much German fiction because when I started publishing novels I finally got interested in American literature. I read John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” for the first time because a writer from Zimbabwe I met told me to. I had been passing for a well-read person.
BOOKS: When you dug into American fiction what grabbed you?
ZINK: When I look at my shelves here, it’s books by people I’ve met. Meeting someone like Keith Gessen and then reading his novel “A Terrible Country” is an incredibly fun experience. My whole life I had only read dead authors. I worshiped Dostoevsky, George Eliot, and Robert Walser. I’m not going to be meeting them any time soon.
BOOKS: Do you own a lot of books?
ZINK: By the time I was 18 I had a little shelf that held about 100 books. So I decided to have no more than that. I read the same books over and over as if I was looking for the one perfect book. But I’ve been accumulating books. Now I have three little shelves and there are 300 books or so. It’s because I live in an apartment and books are good at absorbing noise from neighbors. But I’ve read almost all of them.
BOOKS: Do you read mostly fiction?
ZINK: I do because novels tend to go down pretty easily. I just spent a year working through a book on the history of Byzantium by Judith Herrin that’s very good. The best book I read in a while was the East German singer/songwriter Wolf Biermann’s autobiography. The other highlight of the past couple of years was Gerard Russell “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms,” which is about Zoroastrians and all these strange religious groups that have survived in the Middle East.
BOOKS: What are you reading next?
ZINK: Let me see. I have people coming over so I moved the to-be-read pile from the buffet. I have several German novels, including “Bukolisches Tagebuch” by Wilhelm Lehman and “Journey to Russia” by Miroslav Krleza, a book that ought to be some kind of immortal classic.