Mislaid and The Wallcreeper

Mislaid and The Wallcreeper

Event: Nell Zink in conversation with Iona Dudley

Location: Daunt Books, Marylebone

Report by Alex Masters

‘It’s very smart, very funny… just on the cusp of outrageous!’ Iona Dudley, from Daunt Books, is trying to sum up Nell Zink’s debut novel, The Wallcreeper.

‘So’, Iona asks, ‘How did the book come to be published in America?’

‘A lot of it is very embarrassing!’ Nell Zink admits. She is slight in build but there’s a strength about her when she speaks. She gives an aura that few things would shock her.

‘To skip to the end,’ she continues, ‘I sent The Wallcreeper to a small publishing company in Missouri and they gave me $300 for the manuscript. I’d been trying to write something to make some money but $300 wouldn’t allow that.’

Nell explains that she spent about 15 years ‘just writing for a friend’. ‘I was used to getting very inflated compliments and merrily going my own way so I could skip this humiliating public audience thing and get to the readers.’

The critics

‘Was reception to the book in the US positive?’ Iona asks. ‘It felt like the New York Times was my PR department!’ Nell replies, smiling. ‘The Wallcreeper had a lot of negative reviews but people just expose themselves as idiots – you could not write a bad review of The Wallcreeper without looking stupid. It was a win-win situation!’ The audience laughs cautiously. She’s so deadpan it’s hard to know when she’s speaking in jest.

‘The book is as smart as I am,’ she says frankly. ‘Maybe by the standard of other writers, I’m relatively intelligent!’ She has a delightful twinkle in her eye. It’s clear that Nell Zink is not afraid to rock the boat. ‘To write a best-selling novel, you’ve got to hit where it hurts and be shameless!’

It’s time for Nell to give a reading. She flicks indecisively back and forth through the book. At last, she decides. ‘Just to make this terribly entertaining, I’ll skip straight to the anal sex scene!’ More nervous laughter.

The audience members are of a slightly different breed at Daunt Books: there’s more coiffeured hair and less raucous laughter. Still, they appear to thoroughly enjoy Nell’s energetic reading.

Iona Dudley and Nell Zink

Iona Dudley and Nell Zink at the beautiful Daunt Books

Champagne and picnics

As she finishes and closes the book, Nell quotes the late, brilliant Christopher Hitchens. ‘He once said that the most overrated things are champagne, picnics and anal sex.’ There are gentle titters. She pauses for comic effect. ‘We have a lot of chat about champagne and picnics!’ There is much laughter.

‘Is it easy to be funny?’ Iona wonders. ‘Twenty years ago, I was hanging around with post-punks from Chicago,’ Nell reminisces. ‘I don’t think we said anything we meant.’ That would perhaps explain her gloriously deadpan nature.

She pauses, reflecting. ‘Maybe it’s to do with that “Chicago post-senstive thing”; that being lefty and PC among friends.’ She pauses thoughtfully. ‘If I didn’t think about the seven billion readers… it’s not Mao’s Little Red Book! It’s voluntary: I take great joy in that I can say what I want. The author has the last word.’

Iona points out that Nell writes most of her books ‘in very short bursts’. ‘That’s probably to do with my work as a translator,’ Nell explains. ‘I did that for a while to get money into my account. Then I could write for a while. But I never knew when [the next job was coming] so I was always really rushing! I would write for ten hours a day for three weeks – it was like a tick! That’s when I’d run out of energy and have to take a little break. Now I’m a professional novelist I have an excuse to tinker and tinker!’

‘Isn’t that dangerous?’ Iona wonders, with a smile. ‘No!’ Nell replies adamantly. ‘You can keep dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ’t’s and it becomes more glorious.’ She also claims that she never went to ‘author school’, as she calls it. ‘It’s on-the-go training!’

Nell Zink

Nell Zink

Sex and bird-watching

Another area Iona is intrigued by is how Nell mixed the subjects of sex and bird-watching in The Wallcreeper. ‘Did that come naturally?’

‘Apparently you can get people to read a lot of environmentalism if you keep the sex coming!’ She laughs.

The conversation moves on to the female characters in both novels, The Wallcreeper and Mislaid. ‘In America there’s such an emphasis on marriage,’ Nell explains, almost in disbelief. ‘They really believe they’ll find the perfect person and it’ll be sublime and they expect red-hot sex for the next 40 years with the exact same person… it’s weird, pseudo-psychological propaganda!’

She revels in the feeling of power writing gives her. ‘If I have a readership, I can say what I want to say; I don’t have to candy-coat it.’

An audience member is keen to know which living American writers Nell likes. There is a long pause. ‘I’m not sure I’ve read a book recently and liked it!’ she admits. ‘I started reading contemporary books about a year-and-a-half ago because I wanted a sense of the competition… and it’s very encouraging!’ Her confidence (be it real or ironic) is refreshing.

‘When you look at the pulsating, screaming, sweating organism that is modern literature… there is an enormous diversity in the market.’

Amen to that.

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