‘Manhood has never been more beleaguered or more challenged’ says author Nicole Krauss

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Author, Nicole Krauss. Photo by Goni Riskin.

Author Nicole Krauss is no stranger to exploring the human condition. In 2002, Krauss arrived into the literary world with her first novel, “Man Walks into a Room,” which was followed by the acclaimed novel, “The History of Love.”  “To Be a Man” is her first short story collection where  she explores her own relationships with men and the ways she inhabits the male personality in her writing. Written in the shadow of the #MeToo movement, she dives into relationships teetering on the edge and the desire for men and women to be free. Her characters grapple with the tensions of love, fidelity, history, and heartbreak. The collection takes the reader on tour, from boarding school in Switzerland, through the museums of New York, to the streets of Tel Aviv. 

Born into a Jewish family in New York, Krauss’s writings also explore what their deep religious and cultural traditions mean to her. She currently lives in Brooklyn with her sons, who are 11 and 14. Krauss divorced their father, author Jonathan Safran Foer, in 2014.

KCRW’s Joanthan Bastian talks with Krauss about her latest collection of short stories “To be a Man.”  

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: How did you come up with the idea of writing this collection of stories about men and masculinity. Did raising two boys have anything to do with this?

Nicole Krauss: “Some years ago when I was thinking about this collection, I had to give my publisher a title. I only had a few stories from this book. Most of these stories were written in the last few years and I remember riding up in the elevator to see my publisher and thinking of a title, because you're often asked for a title when you propose a book, and this one just floated into my head. 

At the time, it meant many things to me. I have been thinking about how for most of my life as a writer, I've been inhabiting men equally, as much as I am inhabiting women and I wanted to try to understand what that is like on the page. I started to think about my own experiences with men in my life, which of course began as a child and has extended in every possible fashion and way since then. But then I came to that last bit, which is what it has been like to be raising two boys who are, at least one of them on the cusp of manhood and the other will soon follow and I've thought a lot about what that means for them at a moment in time when manhood has never been more in a way beleaguered, or more challenged or more confusing, an occupation. 

And, when I thought of this title it was also right around the time of #MeToo. Those issues have always been with us but as that cultural conversation widened, I also felt to some degree the necessary narrowness of it, just any movement has to kind of simplify in order to be effective, and the #MeToo movement and its address of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, couldn't address so many things like for example, misogyny, which exists from the top down in our society. 

So much of the complexity, the tenderness, the challenge of manhood; all the conflicting things that are asked of men and it's there where I settled in as thinking about this. I'm interested in looking at this with some with some tenderness, not trying to necessarily resolve these paradoxes, but at least opening them up a little bit for myself and I hope for the reader.”

The theme of love and the tension of freedom versus the stability of relationships, comes up over and over in this collection — do you relate to that?  

Krauss: “Absolutely, the most insistent question this book is about to what, are we each drawn? Are we drawn to stability and the safety of a relationship that can hold, keep and protect us in a kind of enduring way? And all of us need those, very few people can live without some of those, they don't need to be romantic but there has to be some type of relationship that roots us and connects us. Closer to the other side of the human spectrum, would be the freedom to become — which demands an opening of experience, ongoing change, ongoing opportunity for change, for experiencing novel things that will make us change our minds change, and ultimately, ideally, our being. 

And the question as to where we each fall on that spectrum has always been with me. I guess it would come as no surprise to any longtime reader of my work that I probably fall closer to the side of the spectrum that that longs for, or yearns for experience and change — something in me feels that that's what I'm alive for. My life has just had to organize itself around that, for better or for worse but I also respect the other position and I respect all the positions in between. I don't know that there's anybody alive, who isn't in the midst of a difficult negotiation between those two yearnings and those two needs and sacrifices are made on either side. 

I have parents who have just celebrated their 50 year anniversary. That's a different set of sacrifices and different set of needs. But no different than the ones that somebody who needs to live knowing that every day she wakes up and anything can happen to her. They're the same kind of species, the same kind of human beings, it's just how we choose to live. 

I remember when my youngest son was much younger. He really desperately wanted to grow up to become an explorer  —he wanted to travel all over the world and always be discovering things, have this little backpack and one day walking with him to school he said ‘Mom, why doesn't everybody want to be an explorer?’ and I said, because a lot of people really need the comfort of being in one place, things not changing and the stability of that. And everybody needs to figure that out, where they're going to fall at what time in their life on that spectrum. And so I'm interested in finding characters who are in the midst of that struggle, who are on the threshold of ‘should I stay or should I go?’”

How does Judaism, your Jewish identity and culture speak to you? 

Krauss: “We are all born into our material and very early on in my fictional writing life, I realized what a gift it was to have been born into Jewish culture, Jewish history, Jewish thinking, Jewish literature, Jewish humor, and a Jewish family that in my case, really falls at the crossroads of so many nationalities and languages. My grandparents were all from Europe and during the war, they all left. My mom grew up in London and my dad grew up in New York and Tel Aviv and my parents met in Israel. So all of that, which was problematic as a young person because I had no real fixed sense of belonging was, as a writer an enormous gift, because you belong to something which can't be put on a map, but it certainly can be mapped out in words. 

It’s been like a gift to just engage with those 3000 years of history and it keeps reverberating in modern history, for a million reasons, the State of Israel, not least of all. So it's been interesting to place my characters in those same crossroads of history and tradition and there are lots of questions that that raises, but I always have the hope that those things then become universal — that people who read my books and might not know a particular reference to some Jewish idea or text but it applies equally to them and they they will feel at home in the work. I don't know that that's always true but I hope it is.”

You write about the endless optimism of the American spirit; the notion that anything that we can be anything we want to be. Does that apply to writing? 

Krauss: “After five books, the question raised is we can reinvent ourselves as writers, formally stylistically but can we reinvent our concerns or does every artist really have just a number of concerns that play out in their work over a lifetime? I don't really know the answer to that but if I look at other writers and artists, I would say that's probably true and maybe there's something comforting about that. I've always been told that my novels seem very, very different from one to the next but at least preoccupations have a thread. But the idea is absolutely right to pull that threat and it's such an important one to me, just to be caught as a writer between these two completely different visions; one, the American one, which is really about self invention that we're so steeped in and that we don't realize how much the rest of the world sees this as unusual — the notion that one could just make oneself up. Countries like India with a class system or England or many other places. It’s absolutely an absurd notion, it shouldn't be, but it is. 

On the other hand, if we really look at it in America, it's a somewhat absurd notion here because nobody can entirely invent themselves. We all have to answer to history, to our history into which we're born. The families we’re born into, the nations we're born into and their particular histories. And so as Americans we're always toggling between those two things. As Jews, we toggle between those two things in a deep sense in that you take a place like Israel, it's a country that's only seventy years old, but on land where there's been a history for many, many, many thousands of years that keeps coming to the surface, literally in the dirt, in archaeology, but in in countless other ways as well. 

And so that struggle, like in the collection ‘Zusya on the Roof’ is very much about. What does it mean to be a person who has bent oneself to duty, to serving tradition, serving one's history? The protagonist is a professor of Jewish history who is nearing the end of his life, nearly died of stomach cancer but comes back to life just as his grandson is born. And he wants, he imagines or fantasizes for him a life without that. What would it be to be born into a moment, in which one could be free to become whatever one wanted to be, without the crushing forces of one's familial and historical background?”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the title of the book “Zusya on the Roof." This post has been updated and we regret the error.  



Andrea Brody