Nicole Krauss on Fame, Loss, and Writing About Holocaust Survivors

The National Book Award–nominated author discusses her books The History of Love and Great House

A few years ago, after her novel The History of Love became an international bestseller, Nicole Krauss reflected on her unexpected fame: “Something about the feeling of writing seemed to change for me once the book was published. I felt, a bit, as if I’d lost something hard to put my finger on, something personal and natural that I'd loved about writing.”

Today, Krauss is more accustomed to sharing her inner world with the public. Her newest book, Great House, has been nominated for a National Book Award, and early reviews have been packed with praise. “It is a high-wire performance,” wrote fellow author Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in a glowing New York Times book review earlier this week, “only the wire has been replaced by an exposed nerve, and you hold your breath, and she does not fall.”

Though the novel itself is currently in the spotlight, its characters are intensely private people. Many of them, like Krauss herself, are writers. And in the course of the novel, many of them end up sitting at the same enormous desk. When we first encounter this piece of furniture, it belongs to a Chilean revolutionary poet. Later, we see it in the lonely apartment of a divorced New York writer and in the London attic of an elderly German-Jewish refugee.

For most of the novel, it’s unclear what the desk represents or whether the book's far-flung characters will ever meet. But Krauss has a unique way of assembling novels—baroque, complex, and with a stunning tidiness that isn’t clear until the very last page. All the parts do fit together in the end. The shape they form is a ghostly Great House, and its walls are ideas that leave the reader reverberating.

Krauss lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the writer Jonathan Safran Foer, and their two small boys. I spoke with her about her architectural approach to writing, her dark fascination with history, and the challenges she faced as she sat down to write her most recent book.

Great House is about a desk that gets passed from owner to owner. Your previous book, The History of Love, was about a novel that gets passed from author to author. What interests you about objects that get transferred from one character to another?

What interests me in writing a novel is taking really remote voices, characters, and stories and beginning to create some kind of web. At least, the stories seem remote to me setting out, because I have no sense at all of how they're going to relate to each other.

Setting out to write this book, I was aware that I didn’t want to write a novel with any kind of easy connective tissue. I wanted to, in fact, do the opposite. I wanted to see how long I could hold these stories at a distance from each other so that the connections wouldn’t necessarily happen with easy plot choices. They’d happen on emotional, philosophical, thematic levels. The desk in this novel becomes like a needle and thread that stitches some of the stories together.

The other thing I might say is that in The History of Love, it was a book-within-a-book that was passed between characters. And in this case, it’s this enormous desk. I suppose it’s no accident that these two objects stand for literature. I think literature became a character, almost, in these past two novels that I wrote.

It’s surprising that you sit down to write without any idea of how the stories will relate to each other. Your novels seem more carefully assembled than most. Is there a point where you do have to stop and make notes or draw diagrams?

I take almost no notes when I write. I have one notebook—this old green leather notebook that my dad gave me a decade ago. I used it to take some notes for my first novel, Man Walks Into a Room. But the notes were so sparse that there was room enough for the notes for my second novel, The History of Love, and then for Great House, and probably a few more novels.

So I have all these notes—actually, two sorts of notes that I take. The first happens during the writing, often in the first year of writing a book, when I’m trying to figure out how the stories will dovetail and connect. I almost think of it as sort of architecture or woodwork, the way you lay pieces together and how the joints will kind of fit. Those notes are arrows with the character’s name. So arrow-Lottie—will she connect to this judge? Or will it be Nadia who connects to the judge? And who is the judge? Is he this person’s son?—these endless kind of pictorial descriptions of how these abstract ideas will relate.

The second form of note is a kind of mathematical calculation that happens later in the book, which is chronology. Because if you want two people to meet on the boat, one of them can’t get on the boat in 1946 while the other one gets on the boat in 1947. But it doesn’t always work out that way when you first write it. So there are endless mathematical calculations—you know, 22 minus 13—and just desperately hoping that I didn't make some massive plot mistake in all of my free association.

I really take great pleasure in that kind of architecture. I guess in life I have a very strong spatial sense. There’s something about how my mind works that has patience for the delicate complexity of how parts can fit together—and the great discovery of the whole, which you can only see as you walk away and look back on the whole thing. I don’t get a sense for the whole until very, very far into the writing.

Your last two books both featured characters who were Holocaust survivors. Do you think writers our age approach this subject differently than writers of previous generations?

I know this goes against the grain of what most critics might say about my work, but I would not say that I've written about the Holocaust. I am the grandchild of people who survived that historical event. I’m not writing their story—I couldn’t write their story. There are characters in my novels who have either survived the Holocaust or been affected by it. But I’ve written very little about the Holocaust in terms of the actual events. What interests me is the response to catastrophic loss.

My first novel, Man Walks Into a Room, is about a man who’s lost his memory and has to start a second life. On one level, it’s about how we create a coherent sense of self. But I suppose you could also say it was my own response to my familial history—this history of surviving real catastrophe during the Second World War and the need to start a second life. How does one do that?

The story that the title Great House comes from speaks to this specifically. It’s the story of the first-century Jewish sage Yochanan ben Zakkai who’s faced with a question. He’s in Yavneh, he’s started a small school, he’s left the besieged Jerusalem, Jerusalem falls to the Romans, the Temple is burned, the Jews are exiled—the question becomes, “What is a Jew without Jerusalem? How can we continue to be who we have always been?”

His answer to that: the idea of replacing sacrifice at the Temple with prayer, which is portable. Or taking the oral law and beginning to codify it into what will become the Talmud, a book, which can be taken anywhere. And to me, this is so beautiful. Because the answer to catastrophic loss was absolute reimagination. It's a Jewish story, but it’s a very universal idea.

Even so, the characters in Great House are very attached to a localized, physical object: the desk. When it's taken away from them, they feel a deep sense of loss. The character who tells the story of Yochanan ben Zakkai is especially attached to it.

I don’t think the desk only represents the idea of what’s lost. Think, for example, of Arthur, the Oxford don who is married to a German-Jewish refugee. She writes at this enormous desk. Now, Arthur doesn’t know who she got this desk from. He assumes it was a gift from a former lover, but it’s something she won’t talk about. This desk, in a way, represents the part of his wife that remains elusive to him. It has to do with the unknown, with uncertainty.

For me, uncertainty was another really deep theme in writing this book. Uncertainty has become a critical part of my process. It allows me to have these accidents and reversals. So if I happen to wander and stumble into some difficult place—well, there I am. And I'd better figure out where it is and what it’s about.

In the case of Great House, my own willful uncertainty as writer begins to seep into the characters themselves. It becomes the self-doubt of Nadia, who’s 50 years old and has this question that rises up and terrifies her: “I’ve given up everyone and everything to wed myself to my work. And what if I was mistaken?” Or it's the moral doubt of Aaron, the Israeli father at the end of his life who is facing the question of what kind of father he really was. My doubt becomes the characters’ own doubts.

At the same time, as I’ve said, I crave some structural coming together. I have a need for things not to be perfect but for the architecture to be fully wrought. We can’t be left to dwell in a muddy bog of just being vaguely doubtful. There also needs to be a sense of things coming together so that once I, the writer, step away from the book, it doesn’t crumble without me.

W. W. Norton & Co.

There are so many different characters in this book. Was there one in particular who sparked the idea for the whole novel?

I'd written Nadia’s story as a short story, just a small part of it. I published it and I thought it was finished. And that was called “From the Desk of Daniel Varsky.” But I found I couldn't stop thinking about her story. So I revisited it, and it began to take on a new life of its own. Then I began to experiment with other voices and tried to open up other stories. And I think they each provided me with something that the other couldn't.

In The History of Love, the two main characters are a precocious little girl and a charming old man living in New York. The characters in Great House are more aloof. A lot of them are reclusive, even misanthropic, and they're scattered all over the world.

In The History of Love, I felt I was writing characters—Leo and Alma—who had tremendous energy. I was aware of them being quite lovable from the start. They were funny and wore their charm on their sleeves. And I was deliberate this time about not wanting to use that. I wanted to find characters who had something that Leo and Alma didn’t. I wanted them to be sophisticated thinkers, acutely self-aware, able to go anywhere in their conversation.

I also wanted characters who were not immediately likable. I didn’t want to make the reader, or myself, fall in love with these characters too easily. When you meet Aaron, you might think, “Hmm, this father is quite cruel.” Or Nadia—in a way, she’s perhaps selfish in her shutting out everyone and everything for her work. But I wanted to stay with them long enough that we could come through to the other side. We would understand what made them the way they were.

I can’t write a character I can’t empathize with. In the case of Aaron, I didn’t understand why I felt compassion for him. But the more I wrote him, the more I began to understand him. Here was a person who felt rejected by his son. He felt that his son had chosen the mother against him. Had he been a better person, he would have continued to make the effort. Instead, he did what many of us would have done. He became hurt and he backed away. But he never stopped thinking about his son. Once you begin to realize Aaron’s own pain, I think you develop compassion for him.

To me, this is the singular privilege of reading literature: we are allowed to step into another’s life. It’s an opportunity for compassion that’s very, very hard to find elsewhere. So writing this book was a harder path, in certain ways, than writing The History of Love. But at this moment in my life as a writer, it was much more interesting to me.

Parent-child relationships figure heavily into all of your books. Has becoming a mother changed the way you understand your characters’ feelings as parents?

Of course. I remember one of the first books that I read after my first son was born happened to be, by chance, a book that had a mother and a son in it. And I was aware of something different. For the first time as a reader—the first time in my life—I was identifying with the mother. I’d never thought about the fact that, before, I'd always identified with the child.

I can only begin to describe the changes that were happening in my emotional life as I became a mother—even before my child was born, when I was pregnant. In Great House, there's this character, Daniel Varsky, who is this Chilean poet who disappears after Pinochet's coup. He’s arrested, like so many who were arrested and ultimately tortured and killed. And so he sort of flits through the book as this ghost.

Now, at the time I was pregnant with my older son, for reasons that weren’t clear to me at the time, I began to read obsessively about that period of Chilean history. And I couldn’t stop myself from it. Later it seemed to me that I was somehow trying to face, in a very strange way, this vulnerability that I was entering into—this sense that when this child was born, everything would change for me. My entire happiness would come to depend, would rely, let's say, on the well being of this child. And God forbid anything should happen to him.

So I think all that reading became a way to touch this quite untouchable thing. And I thought I would write a whole novel about that period in Chilean history. But instead, it got all soaked like this dark blot—this ink blotter—into this character, Daniel Varsky.

It’s interesting that you deal with your fears by diving more deeply into them. A lot of us would prefer to think as little as possible about the experience of losing a child—or the experience of losing a spouse, which is another major theme in your novels.

There are some things I couldn’t write about because they were simply too painful. I couldn’t write, for example, the story of somebody who loses a young child to brain cancer. I couldn’t go there. Some young mothers who are writers would be able to. We’re all made of different material.

But there are many things I’m willing to do and places I’m willing to go that feel very uncomfortable to me emotionally. And that’s why I’m drawn to going there. I feel like it’s in those places that I as a writer—but also in those places that my characters—those fissures, those very fragile and quite dark places, I almost think of them as these abysses that my characters fall into. Like the swimming hole where Lotte Berg swims every morning, and Arthur watches her disappear into this black pond and come up.

I think these abysses that they find themselves in give up this opportunity for revelation, for transcendence, I think, for transformation. I’m attracted to them not for their darkness, ultimately, at all. I think everything I write, strange to say this, but I feel hopeful about all the potential. I feel hopeful about the magnitude of life and all we’re given to feel. I’m not shy about touching and talking about how painful it is. But I have this hope that somehow, in dwelling in all that, there’s this opportunity for some kind of enhancement.