Nell Zink: ‘Guys who like Kafka are insufferable’ | Fiction

Was it important to you to write unsatirically about a millennial protagonist?
She’s generation Z, I think, but I don’t think of the struggles of young people without money as amusing enough to satirise. By the standards of most American novelists, I’m from the wrong side of the tracks. Most people doing this job are solidly middle class and they have anxieties that I don’t feel about the kind of disgrace poverty would be. That’s something I could satirise, whereas the struggles of someone like Bran, who’s down and out from the day she’s born, aren’t ready to be skewered.

Why are your books always so action-packed?
People underestimate how much classic authors use action. Proust goes on for pages and pages with nothing happening, but … I enjoy reading books where things happen, so do a lot of people. You think my books are action-packed? Try picking up Isabel Allende some time. “What the fuck, this person was born and died like a page-and-a-half later?” There’s an expectation that the very highest quality of novel should be a certain kind of social realism – a fine-grained, moment-by-moment account of conversations with every thought in the head of everyone who’s involved. I do that myself to some extent sometimes, but I also think, wait, why should I even aspire to that? I should just say: “Go and read some Anne Tyler, she’s good!” She did it so I don’t have to!

How long did Avalon take to write?
I’ve been slaving away on it for 20 years! Because that’s what any other writer would say and I’m tired of people thinking I write my novels any faster than anybody else. It’s true I wrote the first third of The Wallcreeper in four days, but the rest took me a year. Probably I said something like three weeks because I was nervous [in an interview]. I’ve met writers; you know what they do? They draft, make notes, get a manuscript and then go to Yaddo [an artists’ retreat in New York state] for three weeks, write the last half and whip it into shape. But if you ask them, they say: “Oh, this book took me eight years; I had to do soooo much research.” They’re smarter than I was!

When did you start reading in German?
I came back to America from Germany in the spring of 1984, having spent time there during my philosophy degree. I’d learned German and started to read it and without being a student of German or knowing anybody who spoke it, I suddenly was reading it all the time. For two years in the 80s I read nothing but Kafka and the writers he recommended, like Robert Walser. Because I studied philosophy, not literature, it was always my own business what I read and didn’t read. I never mentioned my favourite writers to anyone. I just read them. When I did meet guys who also liked Nietzsche and Lukács, they’d turn out to be incredible assholes. It became clear to me: guys who like Kafka – it’s never women – are insufferable.

What have you been reading lately?
I quit Twitter the second Elon Musk bought it, but before that happened I read a tweet by Petina Gappah recommending Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa, about the history of colonialism in Africa up to the first world war, so I’ve been reading that. I thought that if Petina was recommending it, it’d be good – she’s spent a little bit of time in Berlin and we’ve met several times. I kind of enjoyed reading people’s tweets, but on the other hand: Elon Musk. I’ve also been reading a novel by a Tuareg writer, Ibrahim al-Koni. In English it’s called The Animists; he writes in Arabic and I’m reading it in German.

What was the last great book you read?
Three or four years ago, I read the diaries of Victor Klemperer, which are unbelievably magnificent – maybe the best book I’ve ever read. It renewed my faith that writing was worthwhile; there really is literature, it’s not all crap! Because people tell you to read stuff all the time, but PR has taken over everyone’s brains. I took Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman on vacation and it’s so bad. Yes, he’s critical of Stalin, but he’s pals with Khrushchev – fuck that noise – and it’s full of really sappy militarism and just poorly written. It’s bad!

Avalon is published by Faber (£14.99) on 12 January. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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