When I was a kid and wanted to grow up to be a writer,” Sigrid Nunez says. “I assumed I would be writing about animals and children, because that’s what I cared about and read about. But I never did.”

Instead, beginning with A Feather on the Breath of God in 1995, Nunez wrote novels musing on questions of identity, family, friendship, and commitment, esteemed by fellow writers and critics for their elegant prose and sensitive understanding of complex relationships. An animal did appear in Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, but Nunez describes that playful short book as “90% nonfiction; it’s really about the Woolves [Mitz’s owners, Virginia and Leonard Woolf].”

But in The Friend, which Riverhead will publish in February, a Great Dane named Apollo is very much a central character. The unnamed narrator reluctantly takes Apollo in after a close friend commits suicide, even though her apartment is tiny and dogs are not allowed. They form a strong bond based on shared grief, as the narrator faces an eviction threat and recalls incidents from her longtime friendship with the dead man.

As is the case with much of Nunez’s fiction, the novel’s roots are in personal experience. “A few years ago, I discovered that I knew quite a few people who were planning to commit suicide, at least in their heads,” she says. “They were stockpiling pills, they had said in conversation with me that this was what they were thinking. I realized that suicide was on everyone’s mind, and, like all writers, I write about the things that are troubling me. Then, while I was writing this book, one of them did it. He jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, which I had already written about as a famous suicide site.”

Nunez shakes her head over the weirdness of that fiction-reality coincidence and continues: “There’s a lot of material from my life in my books, but they’re not really autobiographical, in the sense that they’re not about my life. So, in A Feather on the Breath of God I write about my parents, I write about this Russian immigrant, I write about the world of dance, but it isn’t an autobiography; so much is left out. You take things from life, but then you realize that the needs of the novel force you to change things to make it more artful.”

It was entirely different, Nunez says, with Sempre Susan, her 2011 memoir about her relationship with the formidable critic, essayist, and novelist Susan Sontag. “There I took absolutely no liberties,” she notes. “Of course, my memory could be faulty, but I didn’t make composite scenes or composite dialogue; it had to be strictly what I remembered. Since so many people knew Susan, had I invented something, someone would have come forward and said, ‘This is a lie,’ but even people who didn’t necessarily like the book never said it was distorted.” (She did get one funny correction from a man who knew them both, about her recollection of seeing a hole in the underarm of a coat when Sontag strode forward to hail a cab; Nunez assumed it was a split seam that Sontag, characteristically, never bothered to have mended. “Peter Cameron, a good friend of mine and a wonderful writer, got in touch and said, “You know, some of those coats are made with a vent!’ ”)

In both fiction and nonfiction, Nunez frequently mulls over the contradiction between the desire to preserve experiences or people by writing about them, and the fear that writing about something will inevitably falsify it. “It comes up in The Friend too, the idea that if you write about an experience you might actually end up losing it,” she says. “Because then the memory you keep is the memory of writing about it, not the memory of having the experience. In the same way that people take all these photographs of a place they visit and keep looking at them; as time goes by, they’re not remembering the place, they’re remembering the photographs. There is always that risk, but even if it’s not factually true, a thing you write about can still be true to the experience, true to the imagination.”

Grappling with the nature and purpose of writing does not unduly preoccupy the students depicted in The Friend, which takes as one of its principal subjects the mistaken notions people have about the writer’s life. Like Nunez, the narrator teaches creative writing, and her pupils do not seem to her to have the sense of vocation she believes is required. “Shouldn’t we be studying more successful writers?” one asks, concerned that “so much of the assigned reading includes books that failed to make money or are now out of print.” When the narrator assigns Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, an inspiration to aspiring authors for nearly a century with its high-minded view of writers as a kind of priesthood totally devoted to their art, her students think it’s “ridiculous.”

Nunez insists that she didn’t intend to pick on creative writing programs. (And she’s careful to say that none of The Friend’s students are based on hers.) “It’s not just students,” she says. “I go to conferences and meet people who have other careers, and they too have this idea that becoming a writer and getting published is going to bring all these rewards that in fact it is not going to bring. First of all, writing requires so much isolation and solitude, which not everyone has the constitution for; it’s a lonely activity. Then there’s this Philip Roth quote that has always stayed with me, ‘It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.’ There’s so much failure and rejection in a writer’s life. So many of the best writers—like Woolf and Kafka—were constantly feeling like failures and thinking their work was complete shit. Yet I see a lot of people seeming to think this is the way for them to get self-esteem? My concern is that people have an idea about writing and being a writer that is really misguided.”

At 65, Nunez is willing to acknowledge the possibility that part of her concern comes from the eternal “this younger generation” finger-pointing people do as they get older. “I’ve been reading Elizabeth Hardwick’s collected essays, and in one she talks about Rilke and says that his idea of writing as a religion is gone. That essay was written in the ’70s! But I do think it’s true that it’s not how people think of being a writer anymore.”

Nunez studied creative writing with Hardwick as an undergraduate at Barnard and went on to get an MFA from Columbia while working as Robert Silvers’s assistant at the New York Review of Books. With examples like theirs and Sontag’s, she says, “It would have been very hard not to think about writing as the most difficult but important thing you could do.” She adds: “Working at the Review, if anything, the impression you got was, I’ll never be good enough, I’ll never work hard enough, I’ll never be devoted enough. These people are staying up all night over their sentences!”