Author Q&A: Nell Zink

Doxology (4th Estate, £14.99)

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Pam, Daniel, and Joe are shocked when their terrible punk band becomes a springboard for Joe’s pop superstardom, even as they raise Pam’s daughter Flora. But on September 11, 2001, New York’s devastation coincides with a personal loss for the trio. In the aftermath, Flora becomes a committed political activist. When a new foe threatens the country, Flora’s family have to look to the past for unhealed wounds and rediscovered strengths. Zink tells you just as much as you need to know about bass guitar amps and early IT coding as she propels the story into state of the nation – state of the planet, even – territory with her usual originality and wit.

Your last novel, Nicotine, was drafted in a month but Doxology has a greater historical sweep. Did you take a different approach to writing it?
Definitely. Nicotine has more than a hundred short sections – mostly dialogue – and no chapter breaks. It could even be called a formal experiment, if this were 1922. Doxology is divided into three main sections, each with a different focus, more like a regular novel. So writing it was a very different activity. It’s a good bit longer than Nicotine. It took all my mental powers and then some to keep track of the story.

You’ve said you tried to make Joe, the improbable rock star, an unlikeable character. How come he isn’t? 
I guess because people identify with underdogs, or maybe it’s that the behaviour of people who appear mildly insane is more fun to read about than to experience in real life. I emphasise that for most people he’s a fatiguing character to be around, but he’s less fatiguing for readers encountering him in noiseless prose scenes that last a couple of minutes. That’s the power of fiction – it can turn even war into entertainment.

Despite the purity of her rejection of her parents, Pam comes to regret it. How does this set her up for her relationship with her daughter?
She becomes less egocentric. The question is no longer whether her parents were guilty of physical abuse – obviously they were – but whether the sentence she pronounced on them was proportional. She never stops blaming them, but after she’s a parent herself, she starts to feel how much her disappearance must have hurt them. That thinking is what makes it so easy for her to let go of Flora. She knows uncertainty is the real nightmare, not separation.

You write: “The internet was conceived of as a giant library. The world’s naiveté was grotesque.” Do we have a more realistic view now or are we in danger of going too far and overlooking its virtues?
As far as I know, it hasn’t developed any new virtues since about 1992. Access to email and on-demand asynchronous media was enough of a jolt. Society still isn’t ready to mount a defence against intimate surveillance. People even seem to like it. The internet was more likable when it was mostly porn, which is fairly easy to boycott. But it’s hard to boycott surveillance by service providers without boycotting the whole thing.

After 9/11, you write that the air in New York was “thick with smoke and love. Love poured into a city whose inhabitants were not used even to being liked.” Is it back to normal now, do you think?
No. Not even close! Between aggressive policing and the after-effects of Sex and the City, the inner boroughs are unrecognisably safe and twee now. The parks are charming. The homeless people are beloved local icons, not hordes of lunatics blocking your access to public transit. You never hear about gang-initiation-related straight-razor face slashings anymore. New York used to be a dangerous wayside on the road to money. Now privileged people move to Brooklyn to enjoy the high quality of life. Different world.

Pam and Daniel’s daughter Flora campaigns for green presidential candidate Jill Stein in the book. In a two-party system like the US, can she afford such idealism?
The novel puts that question a number of times and finds different answers. Young people have a right to make idealistic mistakes. The one to blame would be Jill Stein, who should have pulled out of the race and loudly endorsed the Democrat.

When we last spoke in 2015 you told us that living in Germany fostered a sense of artistic creativity compared with the US. Is that still the case? Oh, and an obligatory Brexit question – how does Britain’s weird political situation look from Berlin?
I could survive as a writer in the US now that I’m rich, but Germany makes life a lot easier for struggling artists. Rent is cheap, food is cheap, and artists can get 50 euro a month health insurance that covers two years of psychoanalysis. I haven’t met anyone in Berlin who minds in the least about Brexit. You would need to ask someone in south-western Germany, where the economy revolves around cars and machine tools. Berlin is full of management consultants under contract to government agencies, and I’m sure they couldn’t be happier.

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