A double instalment from hotly-tipped Germany-based American author Nell Zink. Mislaid and The Wallcreeper (4th Estate, £20) share themes but are startlingly different. Mislaid is a sharp satirical story about an unconventional marriage that upends traditional views of race, sexuality and class in America. The Wallcreeper, about another irregular marriage, is a slim, highly original volume addressing drug use, domesticity, infidelity and bird watching.
Was it your intention that both novels share female protagonists attracted to older academic types?
There are no academics in my books—just Americans with baccalaureates and some books on their shelves. They’ve heard of education, but they haven’t actually experienced it. I like exploring the gap between intelligence and literacy. Most of the characters in these two books live their lives in that gap. They want to rise above common sense, but their uninformed insights only isolate them more. To educated or commonsensical people, they sound merely eccentric, so they end up talking out their worldviews in those tiny communities we call couples and families. Or maybe it’s just the lasting influence of Georgette Heyer.
Does the juxtaposition between the traditional relationships and the subversive elements of the novels reflect women’s roles in the 21st century?
There’s an apparent swing to the right going on—a backlash against feminism—that’s hard to interpret. Much of it comes packaged as religious revival, but religion is a feminist force. Christianity preaches gender equality. Even Islam gets confusing in context—after all, Muslim women don’t need those veils until they leave the house! Indoor Islam gave us belly dancing and the odalisque. Society is sexist and male-dominated, so it’s worth second-guessing so-called feminist solutions. The entire working class is moving toward what used to be called women’s work—temporary, minimally compensated part-time positions without fringe benefits on flexible schedules. So is it “feminist” to demand free 24-hour day care for tiny babies? It would certainly help us keep those jobs!
What perspective has living in Germany given you on the US and has it influenced your literary style?
Of course Germany is now subject—with the rest of Europe—to neoliberal austerity programmes, but there’s still an ease of living here that encourages artistic creativity. Society’s resources are shared more equally than in the US. Also there’s less financial creativity here, which is good. Many Germans still think labour is value. When I started working as a translator, I soon stopped having prices, because in the end customers always gave me more than I had the nerve to ask for. That won’t happen in Berlin because it’s not in Germany (Berlin is a suburb of Moscow), but anywhere near Stuttgart or Munich, people want their prosperity to be shared. As for the language, it reminds me every day that any really good story survives translation. My style in English gets me taken seriously as a writer, but style isn’t what sells books.
Are parents condemned to either neglect or try to control their children?
No. But people are neurotic, especially when it comes to their own children, so it doesn’t matter what their intentions are. I think it’s a mistake to control young children too much. You know—raise orderly, quiet, obedient little introverts. Those are the kids who flip out when they get their freedom. In my experience it’s the unbearably rambunctious kids who turn thirteen, settle down, and accomplish great things—often the younger children in large families, with parents who were just too busy being miserably frustrated and overworked to thwart them at every turn. When you have kids, you’re rolling the dice.
Your characters are often both cruel and resilient. Do they go hand in hand?
The characters in both these books are not from supportive families. They are thick-skinned kids accustomed to punishment and criticism—standard childrearing practice in Protestant America, where children leave the nest at eighteen and report back when successful. That doesn’t stop them from loving each other as much as families that might display more outward warmth. They just express it differently (or not at all).
With the Texas pool party still making headlines, is there any way to end racist policing in the US?
It’s not easy being a police officer in a country of ubiquitous handguns and prison terms so long and lethal you might as well shoot any stranger who sees you with a recreational drug. Racism is mostly unconscious (ask yourself what you really think of Europe’s “coloured” “criminal” “underclass,” the Roma!), but there’s a lot sensible lawmakers could do without trying to alter the contents of people’s heads. Enact and enforce gun control. Reduce jail time and prison terms. Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences. Diversify hiring by police departments. Train teachers, integrate schools and neighbourhoods, make higher education free, strengthen unions, invest in public space, etc.
What’s your next novel, Nicotine, about?
A young woman falls for a handsome asexual squatter bike mechanic – or maybe he’s just impotent from chewing tobacco day and night? To talk him into quitting, she will need the help of someone who is much sexier but kind of a car crash – a three-way romance for our times. It’s also about other stuff.
What impression would readers have if they read the two novels back to back?
I think they might guess correctly that I’m not married.