Siri Hustvedt is the author of four novels, The Blindfold (1992), The Enchantment of Lily Dahl (1996), The Sorrows of an American (2008), and What I Loved (2003), which was an international bestseller. She has also published three essay collections, Yonder (1998), A Plea for Eros (2005), and Mysteries of the Rectangle: Essays on Painting (2005), and a book of poetry, Reading to You (1983). Her most recent work is a book of nonfiction, The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves (2010). Hustvedt’s essays have also appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times online, PsychologyToday.com, and Granta.
Hustvedt was born of an American father and a Norwegian mother, and grew up in Northfield, Minnesota speaking both English and Norwegian. She currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the writer Paul Auster.
With a Ph.D. in English, international acclaim as a novelist, a long track record of celebrated writing on subjects as diverse as painting and psychoanalysis, fluency in several languages, remarkable beauty, and disarming generosity, Hustvedt is a true embodiment of a modern Renaissance woman.
When did you become interested in writing?
I date my interest to a moment in my childhood. I was in Reykjavík, Iceland with my family. My father was studying the Sagas, so we spent the summer in that city. I had always been a voracious reader, as the cliché goes, but that summer my brain clicked. I felt I could read anything. In other words, I could read novels for grown ups, even though I didn’t understand every word. I was thirteen years old, and I remember I had to ask my mother what the word ‘rape’ meant. That shows you what a protected childhood I had! That summer in Iceland I read maniacally. It never got really dark, and for the first time in my life, I had trouble sleeping. I would lie in bed and read one book after another. That summer I read some of my most beloved novels for the first time: David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, a couple of books by Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Alexander Dumas. One night— I’ve written about this moment in an essay called “Extracts from a Story of the Wounded Self”— I took a pause from reading David Copperfield and went to the window. I looked out at this eerie, late night light, everything quiet in the city. I remember the image so deeply. And I think that was exactly the moment I started nurturing the idea of becoming a writer, and it came directly from my reading. The fantasy had started. The feeling was very simple: if this is what it means to write novels, I want to do it. I want to create these worlds. How I was going to do that, I had absolutely no idea.
And how did you nurture that fantasy after the summer in Iceland?
When I was fourteen, there was a weekly series in the local newspaper—I grew up in a very small town, 10,000 people—called “Teen of the Week.” The local paper interviewed a teenager. It wasn’t that you were anybody of importance. All that was required was to be an adolescent in town. One of the questions was, of course, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My pretention was already in place. I said, an author. I didn’t say a writer, I said author, with all that implies; a generator of words, of material coming out of you. By then the fantasy had become fixed.
Did you start writing at this time too?
I started writing fiction and poetry in junior high and wrote all through high school. I found poetry more felicitous because I found sustaining a long narrative very difficult. I have great admiration for young people who can churn out novels, or very long stories, simply because I don’t understand how they do it. I had to teach myself. In college I continued to write, poetry mostly. I spent a lot of time on formal exercises. I wrote sonnets, villanelles, long poems in heroic couplets and Spenserian stanzas. I wasn’t’ sending these out for publication. I was just practicing. It was a way for me to get my chops.
What did your parents think about all of this?
My parents tolerated all our [Siri and her three sisters] desires and ambitions. As a middle-aged woman, I have wondered whether they would have been so indulgent with a boy. Perhaps the idea of a “real” career would have been more important for a son…I don’t know. We did not have a boy in the family. We were four sisters who all ended up with careers. I think we occupied a particular cultural space at the time. Ambitious girls, although they may not have been as encouraged as boys, were also not as discouraged as boys would have been if they had wanted to be writers or painters or musicians.
You took a year between graduating St. Olaf College and going to graduate school at Columbia. What did you do in that year?
I was a bartender for a year and applied to graduate school. I was confused about where to go and what to do. I think I was mature intellectually for my age, but I was probably a little behind in other ways. I needed that in-between year. I lived at home and saved money.
New York was another fantasy. I applied to several graduate schools, and was accepted at all of them except Princeton. Cornell offered me a five-year full scholarship— the works— and they only took four people a year. It was a big honor. But it was Ithaca! Columbia gave me a scholarship for their one year M.A. program. After that, they weeded people out, and one had to be accepted into the Ph.D. program. It was a much riskier proposition. But I couldn’t bear the idea of being in Ithaca, so I took the Columbia offer. I think that nearly everyone I spoke to about my decision thought I had gone nuts. I do not regret it.
I had an idea about New York, but I really knew nothing about the city. This is instructive. A lot of what we do in life is motivated by dreams and chimeras, projections that are often founded on very little that is concrete. I had a Romantic idea about urban life because I had always lived in the provinces. My particular fantasy, however, did not revolve around happiness. I wanted to make my way in the city and lead a passionate spiritual and intellectual life.
Where did you live when you first moved to New York?
When I first moved to New York I lived at International House [university housing] on 123rd Street and Riverside Drive. I didn’t have many options. I didn’t know a single soul in New York City. Who doesn’t know someone in New York? Well, I didn’t. My room was a tiny, narrow, and cell-like, with a sink on one side. I could stand with my arms outstretched and touch two of the walls. The first three days after I arrived in New York City, I reread Crime and Punishment. For some reason, I was compelled to return to Raskolnikov. When I think back on it now, I find it bizarre.
One thing that cannot be emphasized enough is how poor I was. I had a good fellowship: 3,000 dollars a year, but I did not have any financial support from my parents. So, the trick became how do you do make it work. I had lots of weird jobs.
What kind of weird jobs?
Before I was hired at Queen’s College as a graduate assistant, I worked as a research assistant for professors in the department at Columbia. I did research for a medical historian, and I worked as a waitress. I helped a painter friend prepare canvases. I did some translation from the Norwegian, and I worked as a floor model at Bloomingdales. I had to wear a parachute silk jumpsuit. Red.
It sounds pretty hot, actually.
[Laugh] It might be coming in again.
So, what did you do in this parachute jumpsuit?
When you’re a floor model, you carry little cards that say what you are wearing and you give them out to customers. I had to walk up and down the floor. It was without any competition the dullest job anyone could have. I would retreat to the bathroom to read. For…a while.
When I was really scraping the bottom of the barrel, I briefly entertained the thought of modeling for real. A photographer stopped me on the street. It turned out he was legitimate, and he told me I could model and make money. He took pictures of me, which he sent to the Ford Agency. They accepted me, but the hitch was I had to go to Paris first. And I was getting my Ph.D. in New York. So that was the beginning and the end of that.
Modeling is much harder than people think. It isn’t a nice business. Even while I did the test shots, the photographer said to me: “You’re not really cut out for this.” [laughs] I was there with my nose buried in Roland Barthes…
What was on your grocery list at this time?
I didn’t eat well. I ate chicken livers because they were thirty-nine cents a pound and full of protein. I ate a lot of pasta. When I went out on dates, I used to hope that the man would not take me to a pasta place. I craved a steak. I remember ransacking my apartment for change. And I remember that terrible, stomach-wrenching fear that I wouldn’t be able to come up with the rent.
Where were you living at the time?
I had moved out of International House and into my own apartment at 309 West 109th Street. It cost 210 dollars a month. I gave the address to the heroine of my first novel, The Blindfold. That is a work of fiction, but Iris’s poverty is not overstated. It is a description of my own poverty at the time.
How do you look back on those poor years?
My parents had four daughters in seven years and not much money. I had been in New York for some time and had met my husband when my two youngest sisters moved to the city to go to graduate school and shared an apartment on the Bowery. I told my parents that if they could afford to help my sisters with the rent, their experience in New York City would be completely different from mine—better. When my sister told me over the phone that my parents had agreed to pay their rent, I surprised myself by bursting into tears. I felt more sorry for my former struggling self than I ever had while I was struggling. It was as if all the pain and pressure of having been so desperately poor returned to me in that sudden flood of tears.
I was not at all self-pitying during that era of my life, however. I didn’t think it would last forever. I had some conviction, unwarranted, as it may have been, that it was a phase of my life that would end. Genuine, grinding poverty is something else. Genuine, grinding poverty means that you look ahead into the future and all you see is more of the same. I did not feel that.
What period in your life were these poor years, exactly?
I arrived in New York in the fall of 1978, and I finished my Ph.D. in the spring of 1986. But I met my husband in 1981, and we were married in 1982. My husband and I had very little money when we were first married, so the marriage didn’t lift me into sudden wealth, but nevertheless, my circumstances improved. So, that period, which seems to me to have lasted a decade— which I just called an era—lasted a little over three years. I was alone for the first time. I grew up emotionally, and I became a writer, truly a writer, during those three years of my life. So, spiritually and intellectually, that time has far more significance than it seems if you look at it only in terms of time.
I don’t regret that period at all, but I also don’t think that hardship is necessary to becoming an artist. It’s silly to insist that suffering over money is important. There are many well-heeled people who end up making wonderful works of art.
What were you were writing at the time?
When I was in graduate school, I worked on poems all the time and was seriously committed to the work, but I was never happy with what I wrote until I finished a poem I liked called “Weather Markings.” I sent it to the most elevated magazine I could think of, The Paris Review, and they took it. I had many rejections later, but that initial acceptance of a poem I felt content with, decided to send out, and that by chance—let’s face it, chance is involved— was accepted, was a bit of good luck for me. It remains the greatest triumph of my literary career! I think I was twenty-three or twenty-four at the time.
After I published that poem in The Paris Review, I published a few other verse poems. But then I found myself stuck. It’s an ordinary passage for young writers. You are so steeped in literature that you love, that you read with such love and admiration, that every time you squirt out a line, it looks pathetic in comparison. I used to write with Stevens and Milton and Dickinson and Ashbery and all my beloveds open around me on the desk. You become constipated because you think, why bother?
I talked to a professor of mine, who is also a poet— David Shapiro— and he told me to do some automatic writing. Like the Surrealists, he said. I did it. I wrote thirty pages in a single night. Then I spent three months editing those pages down to a ten- page prose poem. I still like it. After that, I never wrote anything in lines again. A turn had been made.
With that little prose piece, I threw off the idea of literary greatness, jettisoned forever writing from the outside instead of from the inside. The fact is all the material you read continues to mount up inside you, some of it is explicit and available to recall, and some of it is implicit and outside recollection, but it becomes part of you nevertheless and part of what you do as a writer.
When did you begin to identify yourself as a writer, rather than as an aspiring one?
It certainly did not arrive with my first publication, as nice as that was. It came well before that. Maybe for the outside world being a writer involves some external property—a legitimate stamp of approval or recognition—but I think for writers it’s about doing the work and, through the work, gaining an internal sense of one’s own identity. Accompanying that sense is a feeling of discovering emotional truths while writing. I’ve always felt that when I write, I am more alive than at any other time. That feeling is behind the compulsion to write, which is a need more than a choice. People who have that need identify themselves as writers or artists.
It can be a very painful process, but I am enough of a believer in science and evolution to tell you that if it were only painful, people wouldn’t do it. It has to give you something and, for me, it’s that intense aliveness and proximity to almost magical emotional depths. In other words, you don’t know what’s in there until it comes out, and there are periods of grace when you hit it. Those breakthroughs often come after miserable days of eking out a few sentences or throwing away bad pages.
What were your work habits like before, and what are they like now?
When I was very young, during that “era,” I wrote at night. The youthful, unattached, childless person set her own hours. Because I had classes during the day, I would often sit at my desk and write into the wee hours, and when I didn’t have to get up for class, I would sleep. That schedule flipped after my marriage. Paul and I wrote during the day. The other person became an organizing factor. Because I ate dinner with someone, not chicken livers alone, my routine changed. After I had my daughter, the constrictions on my time became fiercer. She is now twenty-three, living on her own, and my life has shifted again. My great joy is to get up very early, about six, and be at my desk by seven, which gives me a long morning that stretches into the early afternoon for writing, after which, I read for three or four hours. I do this every day except Sunday. I am stunningly free.
In terms of work habits, your time now parallels the “era.”
Yes. Except that I am not impoverished! Worrying about money is not intruding on my work hours. Also, I have been writing for years and years and years now…there is a learning arc. There really is. It’s not that each new project isn’t radically different from the one before— in my case I always feel that I have to teach myself how to write this particular book. At the same time, I have sped up. I have a novel coming out next spring. A nonfiction book came out this past March, and I’m into another novel. I’ve also been writing essays. I’m faster than I was in part because I’m more relaxed. I’ve also digested more and acquired a greater facility to do the work.
Your work incorporates so much that you have to learn— art, science, psychology. This seems connected to your decision to pursue a Ph.D.— this yearning to acquire very in-depth knowledge about things.
Oh, it is so much fun! There is a part of me—that has been accelerating recently— that loves living life as a roaming intellectual. My obsessions are all connected: philosophy, literature, neuroscience, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, disciplines that answer in various ways the questions: what does it mean to be human? Who are we? Why do we become who we are? After I published my most recent nonfiction book, The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves, I’ve been inundated with invitations to speak, a somewhat ironic turn of events because the book was born out of a seizure that first occurred when I was speaking in public. I’m giving the 39th Annual Sigmund Freud Lecture in Vienna! I’m talking to psychiatrists in Paris, giving a lecture in Stockholm…it’s funny. But I love doing this. I am always searching for answers, none of which I find in any conclusive way, but writing about these subjects has allowed me articulate the adventure of looking for them.
After you were married, where did you live?
Paul was living in Brooklyn, in Cobble Hill, and I moved there. You know, I had spent my whole life trying to get to Manhattan, and then after arriving in Brooklyn I never went back to Manhattan!
What kinds of jobs did you have at that time?
I did some translation from Norwegian into English. I taught English to insurance company employees. The insurance company hired me to teach employees who wanted to improve their writing skills. I liked the people in the class. They were earnest, hardworking, and engaged. It was my job to help them with grammar but also to give them a vocabulary to talk about language—genres, figures of speech, etcetera. I remember that when I explained the term ‘euphemism,’ I used examples, one of which was “to pass away” for “to die.” Every week I gave the students a short quiz on the material we had covered. One young woman had clearly misunderstood the term euphemism because she defined it as “to die.” Paul and I still joke about this wonderful error. “He euphemized!”
I defended my dissertation in the spring of 1986. Very soon after that, Paul was hired at Princeton, and I got pregnant. Sophie was born in 1987. Some of the financial burden was taken off of us because Paul earned a regular salary.
Was it difficult to write after your daughter was born?
I took care of Sophie, but when she was two months old, we hired a nanny so I could write. What is interesting about motherhood and writing is that it’s not only about hours in the day. I was lucky because I had help, but writing is also about having the necessary psychic room. I have never regretted my life as a mother, but children take up a great deal of emotional space. I think Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own” includes the ability to clear emotional space for one’s work, and to insist upon having it. This has been hard for women. It is hard even now. I was able to do it, sometimes more and sometimes less. The fact is it’s not only about cultural expectations, it’s also about a passionate maternal love that sucks your guts out. You really do have to find a way to write anyway. I think, mostly— not entirely, but mostly—men travel a straighter course. For many women with children, the route is more circuitous.
You and Paul are very much an artistic duo— how does that work?
Paul is eight years older than I am. I was twenty-six and he was thirty-four when we met. He was in the middle of writing his first prose work, The Invention of Solitude. He had already published books of poems, articles, and essays. He was ahead of me, and he was a faster writer. Once he got going, the novels seemed to pour out of him. I was more halting. Our marriage has been, among other things, a long literary conversation. And in ways that probably neither of us understands, we have each affected the other.
Do you edit each other’s work?
We do. We are each other’s first reader. I used to give Paul finished manuscripts, while he would read to me regularly, every two months or so, and I would give him comments. With my last few books, that’s what I’ve been doing too— reading to him or giving him chunks of the book—thirty to fifty pages at a time—and he tells me what he thinks. After a book is finished, we always go over the manuscript very closely and put X’s beside sentences that don’t look good or, much more rarely, critique larger issues, an ending or a whole passage. Everyone needs a reader he or she can trust. We have been lucky, both of us, to have each other.
Did it affect you that Paul was “ahead” in his career?
I don’t think so, because it was always part of my internal drama. I spent three years writing a dissertation. I had a different trajectory from Paul’s. The other point to be made is that I’ve been pretty lucky. I was published and was published in many languages from the very beginning of my career. I was widely reviewed from the start. If I had been rejected everywhere while Paul just became more and more renowned, it no doubt would have been harder for me.
Do you have any advice for young aspiring writers?
Read. I have taught writing a couple of times, briefly, at Columbia and at NYU. There were writers in my classes who hadn’t read much and that surprised me. It’s not that I think people should read prescribed texts. There are beautiful and great works in the so-called literary canon, but I don’t believe reading every one of them is crucial. What is important is falling in love with writers. Those writers will lead you backward or forward to other ones, and you just keep going. You can’t write if you don’t read. There is no noble savage in literature.
All reading is a collaboration between the text and the reader. The books that are in here [points to her heart] are the ones that resonated inside me, that affected me deeply, and those texts are various. They range from the obscure to the canonical.
Writers must find what reverberates with them personally. As you grow and get old as a writer, all of those meaningful texts become like an internal tuning fork of your own sensibility.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Marion Ettlinger