Krauss' 'Great House' Built On 'Willful Uncertainty' Novelist Nicole Krauss explains how not knowing is an integral part of her writing process. She says her doubt-ridden characters in Great House are reflections of her own approach to fiction; she doesn't know what's going to happen — until it does.
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Krauss' 'Great House' Built On 'Willful Uncertainty'

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Krauss' 'Great House' Built On 'Willful Uncertainty'

Krauss' 'Great House' Built On 'Willful Uncertainty'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

Five years ago, novelist Nicole Krauss wrote "The History of Love." It became a best seller translated into 35 languages. Critics adored it. Readers loved it. In short, it was a hard act for Krauss to follow. Well, this week, she has a new novel out. It's called "Great House." As in "The History of Love," the new book alternates between the voices of different narrators, leaving readers to wonder how and whether the stories will come together by the end.

Nicole Krauss joins us now from our New York bureau. Hi, there.


LOUISE KELLY: So let me start by asking you, "Great House" has four stories, and they do weave together in surprising ways toward the end of the book, how did you come up with those four voices?

KRAUSS: Hmm. Well, I always start without knowing, at all, what kind of novel I'm going to write and - includes the themes, that includes the plot, and it even includes the characters. So I really just begin writing without any sense of where the writing will take me.

LOUISE KELLY: There seems like there's a real danger in that. What if it doesn't go anywhere, if the ends don't all tie up anyway together?


KRAUSS: Well, I think it's that danger of it not working out that makes me feel, first of all, most anxious but also, in another and stranger way, comfortable that I'm doing the right thing as a writer, which is to say that I feel I have to be working very close to failure. And what became very interesting to me in the process of writing this book was that willful uncertainty that I held myself to, never knowing where these characters were going to take me, having no sense at all, I really - I know (unintelligible) the reader as the book is happening. So I found a strange thing where my uncertainty was beginning to seep into the characters, so that not only was the uncertainty my process, now it's becoming my subject as well. So I had these characters who were struggling with self-doubt or the uncertainty of feeling one can never fully know another no matter how intimate we are with them.

LOUISE KELLY: As these stories are woven together, there are certain themes that connect them, certain objects that connect them. I wonder if you would read for us the passage where one of your characters describes this enormous desk that gets passed from one character to another and gets passed across the stories.

KRAUSS: Mm-hmm. Of course.

BLOCK: an enormous, foreboding thing that bore down on the occupants of the room it inhabited, pretending to be inanimate but, like a Venus flytrap, ready to pounce on them and digest them via one of its many little terrible drawers.

LOUISE KELLY: I love that image of its terrible little drawers. There are 19 of them, we learned about this desk. One of which is always locked. Why?

KRAUSS: Yeah. In the beginning, as I said, and I never know why in the beginning I write what I write and it takes me a whole novel often to discover the reasons in the same way that it takes the reader a whole novel to decode the mystery of the book. And as a young child, I had a desk, a large desk also, with one drawer that could be locked and I - that's the first desk I wrote at. And I always sort of think of that drawer, that space that I could sort of put things and then lock at will. And so it was there for a long time and locked and I didn't know what was in it really until the very end of the book. And I won't give it away.

LOUISE KELLY: Hmm. Keep us in suspense there.

Another theme that runs through the book is loneliness and the question of how well you really know the people that you love and that you live with. There's an interesting passage that I love to have you read. This is Nadia, the aging novelist in New York, and she's talking to a judge about her failed marriage.

KRAUSS: Little by little I grew lazy with the effort required to hold and to keep us, the effort to share a life. Because it hardly ends with falling in love. Just the opposite. I don't need to tell you, Your Honor, I sense that you understand true loneliness. How you fall in love and it's there that the work begins: day after day, year after year, you must dig yourself up, exhume the contents of your mind and soul for the other to sift through so that you might be known to him, and you, too, must spend days and years wading through all that he excavates for you alone, the archaeology of his being, how exhausting it became, the digging up and the wading through, while my own work, my true work, lay waiting for me.

LOUISE KELLY: Hmm. The idea of excavating, that's a very curious way to think about what goes on between a husband and a wife.


KRAUSS: I think that probably the work of a writer in many ways could be described as excavating. I'm interested in moments, very fragile and quite difficult moments, I suppose, in my characters' lives. I'm interested in the struggles that they have because I feel like in those struggles, in their sort of weakest moments when they are sort of faced with who they really are and the kind of depths of themselves, that is the moment not only for revelation but for, I suppose, transformation, for some kind of transcendence of the conditions that they've always felt locked in. And so, I suppose, that sense of digging down through the self, into others, into our own selves is somehow, to me, work I'm familiar and quite comfortable with, really.

LOUISE KELLY: That idea of loneliness that she describes and that shot throughout the book, that theme of loneliness. I mean, all of your characters at a certain level are profoundly sad. Do you worry about writing a book like that?


KRAUSS: No. I mean, I don't - I think the characters in this book are struggling, but I think to me that's the place where I feel and where I think my characters feel most alive, frankly. And I think somehow the solitude of my characters is not something that any of them happily accept. All of them are dissatisfied with that alienation or that isolation that they feel. They all quite desperately would like to be known, would like to be seen and understood, would like to communicate themselves. I feel the sort of liveness and the exhilaration of the effort, the effort to be known and to sort of to go beyond solitude.

LOUISE KELLY: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

KRAUSS: Oh, it's such a pleasure to be here.

LOUISE KELLY: That's the author Nicole Krauss. Her new novel is called "Great House," and it's just been named a finalist for the National Book Award.

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