Writing for an Audience of One

The novelist Nell Zink discusses the psalm that inspired her, and what she learned about the solitary artistic process from her Catholic upbringing.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Some people are famous for being famous. Nell Zink, author of Nicotine, is famous for being not-famous. A 2015 New Yorker profile chronicled her slow, unlikely rise to literary celebrity, a decades-long meander funded by secretarial work, bricklaying, and the occasional translator’s pittance. Though Zink wrote—and sometimes deleted forever—a steady output of novels and stories, she rarely sought readers beyond a few close associates. Even her big break, at almost 50 years old, started as an attempt to please only a single person. In 2011, Zink sent a piece of unsolicited snail mail, a mini-treatise on Balkan birdlife, which had the effect she surely wanted: to charm and perplex an influential audience of one, the American novelist Jonathan Franzen.

This approach stands out in today’s exhibitionist, professionalized literary culture, where publishers increasingly expect new authors to come pre-equipped with thousands of social-media fans. But Zink’s never written for people in general, even though she’s come to like being read. In a conversation for this series, she explained how her Catholic upbringing reinforced a feeling that only one opinion matters, God’s—an idea that’s become a kind of metaphor for her solitary creative process. We discussed a line from Psalm 118 that shaped her outlook early, spurring a conviction that loneliness is next to godliness, a faith that, if you do just the right thing by the words on the page, the rest will somehow work itself out.

Nicotine, Zink’s latest, is the story of Penny, a young woman reeling from the death of her complicated, Shaman cult-leader father and the inheritance he’s left her: a squalid house in New Jersey, now filled up with anarchic, cigarette-stained squatters. Nell Zink is the author of The Wallcreeper and Mislaid. Other than a handmade zine, Animal Review, which she wrote for several dozen subscribers, Zink didn’t publish anything until 2013. She spoke to me by phone.

Nell Zink: I first heard Psalm 118 in church. I was raised Catholic, and as a child, I couldn’t miss it: It comes up in all four gospels, plus Acts and the first letter of Peter, and is the responsorial psalm at Easter mass. Sadly enough, a lot of the more violent passages appealed to me when I was young. I will look down upon my foes as their heads are dashed out against rocks, that kind of thing, which I would read in eighth grade to get up the courage to go to school. My parents were always pressuring me to fight back—I was supposed to slug people and say mean things. But instead I would be really submissive and just let them beat me, and think of the martyrs. (I was a weird kid.)

One line from Psalm 118 made an especially profound impression on me:

“The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

This is a very strong statement. The builders, the people who put me here, reject me—but one day, the city will be built on my foundation. It’s a lovely, constructive sort of revenge fantasy. Of course, this was presented to me in the context of Jesus, who in the Bible is always saying this avant-garde stuff: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you,” or, “A prophet has no honor in his own country.” To me, this fit right in with that. I thought it was expressed in an especially poetic and musical way. It still sounds good to me.

You hear all these fairy tales, when you’re a kid, about the ugly duckling, and Cinderella, and the littlest snowman: People who are overlooked and then have to be discovered. And that’s how this line is often interpreted, though in that reading both the originality and insight are gone, along with the suggestion of power. I think the message Jesus conveyed was different, at least subtly different. The stone that the builders rejected became the cornerstone, but it doesn’t say the stone changed. The stone didn’t grow up to become a swan. It was the same rock, and later, the builders said, “Oh, yeah—that thing is useful.”

I guess that was my dream.

When you’re raised in a family that’s religious—not like we were fundamentalist freaks or something, but I was taught religion—you learn you’re supposed to please one person. Your audience is God. And if you do what God wants, it totally does not matter what anybody else thinks. I think there’s a link between that and the anarchic individualism that’s so normal for Americans: the anti-social willingness to defy the group. The Protestant ideal, of course, is that ethics are between you and the higher power. This idea was omnipresent in my childhood, and I know it was important to me. When you’re an unpopular kid getting beaten up in school, the idea that your behavior is somehow pleasing to someone … I think I found it comforting for that reason.

I think this part of why, for many years, I didn’t seek out readers: my career was laying low. I wasn't Jesus—I was the early Christians hiding in caves. I was like, okay, I'm not going to get out there and try to tell people what I'm about, because they will crucify me. That's what Heidrich Heine said about images of Christ on the cross, which are all over the place in Catholic countries: “He's put up as an example and a warning.” This is what will happen to you if you act that way.

When I was writing little stories for my zine, Animal Review, in the early nineties, I was conscious that I couldn't think of anyone who was going to like these stories or approve of them, except me. I remember vividly just writing for myself, and how each one just had to be right. Like a lot of people, I trust my own superego. I think one can make good ethical judgments if one takes a little time to think about it. Editorial judgments for me feel ethical when I'm making them. I want to say what's right. I've always felt like writing is a little bit like drawing: if you get certain details to be accurate, then the full picture will be accurate. Like with that facial recognition software that, because of nine dots that it computes from your features, can tell it's you. You’ll have a recognizable picture if you put the dots in the right place.

It was a special state of mind I had put myself in to write. At the time when I was writing little tiny stories, I was living in New York, working as a secretary. It’s not like I went around in an idealistic trance—I would have been run over. I had to be more aware than that. (In the time I lived in New York, I saw five bodies in the street of people who had been hit by cars—they weren't all dead, but it happens.) But when I sat down to write, which I did Saturday mornings, it was a very pleasant experience of putting myself into this mental state where my concerns mattered. It was just between me and these stories. Just a paragraph, looking back at me on the page.

I guess it’s like flower-arranging or anything else. To tweak a text and say, okay: It's good now. Sometimes you discover that there are people who agree with you—yes, it’s good now—though, of course, that came late in life for me, and was a very cheering experience. For years, I had only the sensation of making something I loved, and having the privilege of being my own favorite writer.

I do regret that I suffered so much doing terrible jobs, when possibly I could have been making money writing. At the time, there weren't that many creative-writing programs. There was Iowa, and nobody ever mentioned any other program. In Willamsburg, I knew one guy who got into Iowa, and it was if he had ascended into heaven. People wanted to touch the hem of his garment. Of course, even then I wanted to do journalism—but I think the avant-gardism that's serving me so well would have been drilled out of me. I knew people who did journalism, and I watched it being drilled out of them, and I thought, nah, that’s not for me. I don't know. I was a little odd, my social behavior was weird. Maybe I wouldn't have made any money anyway.

When I got out of college I went to work for a bricklayer. Today, it's considered so politically incorrect to say this—you have to be reading Pierre Bourdieu to have someone admit that the work that women do in a system of masculine domination tends to be routine maintenance, while the men create and construct. But my mom was a very feminist person, and it was clear to me that in this system you did not want to be on the female side of the equation. There was absolutely nothing genderqueer about it—I was just saying, if we have a system where men skim the cream off the top while women drink the dregs, I need to move up. That, and I loved Irving Stone’s book about Michelangelo, The Agony and the Ecstasy, which I read when I was 11 or twelve, which made me want to work with my hands on stone, a big hunk of Carrara marble.

Well, I immediately got $8 an hour instead of the $4.50 you got doing women's work. But going to work as a bricklayer was not the smartest thing I ever did. It was punishingly hard work. The weekends were more like convalescence than like time to relax. I wouldn't say I'm a physically frail person, but I have little tiny bones like a bird. I did not belong on construction sites.

The first time I published something (besides my stories in Animal Review) was a little piece on the N + 1 website, and I was sort of terrified emotionally. I knew it wasn't true, but the feeling was as if everyone was going to read it, and they were all going to hate me. It was not a good feeling at all. I wrote it in a way that was completely coded and very indirect. It’s funny: I think that might be part of what people find interesting about my writing even now. If I ever lose my fear of the mass audience, maybe I'll just become a banal crank or something.

Of course, we’ve long had the idea that art is supposed to be subversive or unpopular. You see it all the time in interviews with artists—even people like Bob Dylan, who traces the idea of the avant-garde to the French symbolists Verlaine and Rimbaud, the feeling that art is supposed to appeal initially to only ten people and then twenty years later maybe to fifteen, and then maybe you're famous after you're dead. That was the avant-garde ideal from the 19th-century. Today, though, it’s more common to hear people stomping their foot and saying, why didn't I get a Booker nomination? It’s funny, because even in the fifties and sixties, self-respecting artists were turning down prizes. It was a sort of popular mass appeal they didn't want. People associate that kind of thought with people like Cocteau, but I was picking it up as a two year old, sitting in church: that the best kind of person to be is the kind of person being nailed to the cross. It's such a weird message, but it shaped me.

Whenever you put yourself in the public eye you're going to be looked at, and people are going to make judgments about you, and they're not all going to be positive. If you care what people think, you’ll do what I used to do: hide. We're now in a societal phase where caring what people think is just a way to completely lose your mind. So I don't do that. You put those people out of your mind. It's not possible to care what people think and do what I do.