Sigrid Nunez won a National Book Award in 2018 for her novel The Friend and saw it go on to sell 80,000 copies. After a decades-long career with many other prizes and accolades, she became a literary sensation. That’s the good news. The better news is that on September 9, Riverhead will publish What Are You Going Through, the spectacular follow-up to that spectacular success.
Nunez’s eighth novel tracks a woman through a series of random encounters and observations until a not-so-close friend with terminal cancer asks the woman to be with her as she prepares to end her life. Not to help her die, the friend says (“I know what to do. It’s not complicated”), but to be there in the time leading up to the end.
The narrator reacts: “I shake my head. Seeing how hesitant I am she says, Oh, come on. Where’s your sense of adventure?”
The themes in the book are serious, as Riverhead editor-in-chief Sarah McGrath points out: life, health, companionship. “But where the subplots are heavy,” she adds, “there’s a buoyancy.”
Nunez’s agent, Joy Harris of the Joy Harris Literary Agency, says simply, “Sigrid’s writing is so funny. She has such a sardonic voice, dark humor with such great compassion.”
These gifts are evident on every page. “How should a person die,” the friend asks. “Get her the dummies’ guide.” And: “There comes a point... when, if it’s really what you want to hear, your doctor will give it to you straight. Incurable. Inoperable. Terminal. Personally... I prefer the word fatal. Fatal is a good word. Terminal makes me think of bus stations, which makes me think of exhaust fumes and creepy men prowling for runaways.”
Harris became Nunez’s agent in 1998. “It was one of those dreams come true,” she says, “when a writer on your wish list becomes yours.”
Nunez says she found Harris right after Mitz, her third novel (a mock biography of a pet marmoset belonging to Leonard and Virginia Woolf), came out, noting, “I was agentless. My current agent had vanished while that book was in production! I asked around and met a few agents, and Joy was the one.”
The first book Harris represented was 2001’s For Rouenna, followed by The Last of Her Kind, both of which went to Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In 2010, the novel Salvation City (about a global flu pandemic, if you doubt the prescience of writers) sold at auction to McGrath.
“Joy sent the proposal for Salvation City shortly after I came to Riverhead in 2006,” McGrath tells me. “I don’t like to buy fiction on proposal, but this was Sigrid Nunez. The book hadn’t been written, but it’s an ironic book that uses a pandemic to look at relationships.” McGrath also published Nunez’s memoir of Susan Sontag, Sempre Susan, in paperback.
After The Friend, Harris and McGrath knew that Nunez was working on something, but neither knew more until she delivered the manuscript for What Are You Going Through in September 2019. Everything moved quickly, and the contract with Riverhead for North American rights was completed in a few weeks. While no one will reveal numbers, Harris classified the deal as “healthy.” What Are You Going Through has since been sold in seven countries, with many more foreign rights sales expected. The Friend sold in 24.
Nunez is the poster child for living the life of a “real writer.” She’s always remained a free spirit. “It’s worked for me,” she says, “living on the edge, keeping my freedom.” She teaches but never on a tenure track (currently, she’s writer in residence at Boston University but lives in New York City). She wins prizes (the Rome Prize, the Berlin Prize, the Guggenheim, the Whiting); she goes to writer’s colonies. We met at a Ucross dinner and bonded over time spent at the American Academy in Rome (she revealed to me that she didn’t get much writing done: “I realized, I can write anywhere—I shouldn’t be holed up in Rome”).
In fact, Nunez started What Are You Going Through at the Djerassi Resident Artists program in California. “I like to go to a residency in the middle of something,” she says. “But I had this residency a year after The Friend, and I thought, ‘Oh, I have a residency but I don’t have a book.’ But then I went to hear someone give a talk and it continued from there. Since I don’t write chronologically and don’t know what’s going to happen, I just kept going.”(And in fact, the first line of the book is: “I went to hear a man give a talk.”)
Nunez says she walked (the colony is on a 583-acre ranch) and thought, and the voice that came to her was that of someone with the same sensibility as the narrator of The Friend. “So I had the consciousness of how this woman thinks, and when I started writing I felt comfortable. I knew I could move forward.”
McGrath says that her heart “lifted and lifted” as she read the manuscript for What Are You Going Through. “It’s such a perfect companion to The Friend without Sigrid having planned it. When you have a successful book, as an editor you have an idea of the follow-up, but Sigrid was only going to write the book she wanted to write. It turns out that this book is what I would have wanted if I’d had a choice.” McGrath calls it “a perfect book with nothing out of place,” adding, “it has the right tone and detail with nothing extra.”
Marketing plans, McGrath says, are difficult to commit to given the uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 crisis, but she notes that the book has generated tremendous interest in-house and with booksellers.
Nunez is confident that whatever the situation, “Riverhead will do its very best.”
And the animals? (A Great Dane named Apollo features prominently in The Friend.) “I’ve always had a passion for animals, since childhood,” Nunez says. “And I always wanted to write something with animals, so with The Friend I decided there would be a dog—a great big dog. It was kind of a childish wish fulfillment”.
What Are You Going Through has a resident cat. “I thought there would be an animal,” Nunez says, “and somehow, the cat appeared and opened up its little mouth and started talking. I was sure Sarah would say, ‘Cut the cat!’ ”
Of course, when I interviewed McGrath, I had to ask about the cat. “The cat?” she said. “I love the cat!”