As a writer and compulsive reader—and maybe, a slight literary snob—I generally dread being gifted a book. We’re told all the time in Creative Writing degrees to read a lot and read broadly, and it’s true. Nonetheless, I am particularly fussy about what I read and when. It’s common for me to rush and buy a book I’ve been anticipating on its day of release, only for it to then sit on my to-read shelf—only so many books can be made into a pile before it collapses—for months until I know, intuitively, that it’s time. So even if I am interested in a book I’ve been gifted, it will probably be six to seven months of having to tell the gifter, sorry I haven’t read it yet. On more than one occasion I have lied. It’s easiest to be vague if you rave about it—thought it was great. Just ripped through it. This may horrify you. In my defence, someone else would be horrified to learn that I still haven’t read the copy of Two Steps Forward they gifted me two years ago.
So, I’m not sure why it was two years ago, when a friend handed me a book called The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, a writer I had not heard of at that time, I read it immediately. It was possibly because this is a good friend who works in publishing, so I was more likely to trust her taste. Or because there is a divine creative power permeating the ether that sensed I needed that book at that time to finish my own novel. Or, most likely, I opened it on the tram home to read the first page and ended up reading the first twenty. Like my novel, Small Joys of Real Life, The Friend takes places in the aftermath of a suicide. The book begins with the narrator addressing their deceased friend in the second person.
Before I begin writing each day, I like to read for an hour in bed with a coffee. It’s nice to think of this as a kind of ‘warm up.’ I’m not sure it makes any difference to the quality of my work, though. I persist with the ritual because, like my writing, I get my best reading done in the morning. The time when my brain is fullest, my focus not yet pummelled by yet another scroll.
I can vividly recall reading The Friend in bed one morning in my boyfriend’s old sharehouse in Northcote. After my hour, I went to the desk in his study and froze. Up until that point, the only times I’d experienced writer’s block were when I’d been working too hard. Akin to feeding my body food or filling my car with fuel, my creative output works in symbiosis with my life. If I can’t write it means I need to go to the movies, or to the pub, or to the beach, or maybe I just need to read. The block I felt that day was different, though. I’d been kept away from my desk for most of the week prior, preoccupied with my bread-and-butter work. I’d spent a lot of time looking forward to getting to my writing only to finally find myself there, constipated.
For the most part my book is written in first-person present tense. Going from reading a second-person narration with an intended narratee, to writing in the first person had wrong-footed me. Like having a burrata to start before a main of pho. Both foods are delicious, but in tandem they’re jarring.
I tried to persevere, hoping if I waded through my manuscript long enough, I’d hit my stride. Eventually I gave up. I opened The Friend and read another two pages. Then I put the book down, opened a new word document and wrote what became the opening lines of my novel: The first time I met you was unremarkable. We were at the Clarke Street house, this June just gone. All my friends were there, plus Travis, as he and Renee had started dating. You’d come with Travis.
Interspersed throughout the linear narrative of my book are these second-person addresses to the recently deceased character Pat. Before I found this device, I was struggling to depict my narrator’s obsession with Pat. Apart from constantly looking at his social media—which, she does still do a lot—I found it difficult to show her preoccupation in a way that didn’t seem overly sentimental and clichéd: staring out a window, seeing someone in the street that reminds her of him. The second-person addresses allowed me to show this preoccupation, and provided opportunities for context and backstory. Before I found this device, all these things felt shoehorned in to the present tense narrative. Realising I would pepper these ‘letters’ throughout my novel was when I first thought my book might actually work.
That day I wrote what became the first three letters to Pat in a fervent rush of inspiration, without coming up for air. They remain in the book, only slightly edited. I didn’t rejoice at the time of writing, though. I slammed my laptop shut and rested my head on the desk. Wondering if I was about to scrap the forty thousand words I’d written to start from scratch in the second person. I didn’t want to. I didn’t know what to do. I reverted to my regular writer’s block tactic and got back to my life. I probably cleaned my house or went for a jog. I would’ve gone to work. A few days later I knew what my way forward was going to be.
People like to romanticise these pivotal moments in writing, much like we do in life. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, but that we derive meaning from everything that happens, because it happened. If I had never read The Friend, I still would’ve finished my book. It would just be a different book.
I’ve since read most of Nunez’s back catalogue, her newest book What Are You Going Through, and I’ve returned to The Friend for second and third readings. While I was working on my manuscript, I also re-read Sally Rooney’s first novel, Conversations With Friends. This is a novel that every person I know who’s read it—love it or hate it—has read in just one or two sittings. This was true for me the first time I read the book too, but when I returned to it, I read very slowly. At the end of each chapter, I took out a pen and notepad and charted what had changed. I wanted my novel to be one that people read in only a couple of sittings without getting bored.
I did none of this on my revisits to The Friend. It’s not the incremental building of tension that I find intoxicating about Nunez. It’s her voice:
A cat had been promised, but I saw no sign of one. Only later, when it was time for me to leave, would I learn that, between my booking and my stay, the host’s cat had died. She delivered this news brusquely, immediately changing the subject so that I couldn’t ask her about it—which I was in fact going to do only because something in her manner made me think that she wanted to be asked about it. And it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t emotion that made her change the subject like that but rather worry that I might later complain. Depressing host talked too much about dead cat. The sort of comment you saw on the site all the time.
Slightly melancholy and mildly funny at once. Meandering without being unruly. Utterly charming. And all made up of simple sentences.
Reading Nunez feels more like listening to music than reading. I’m not preoccupied with where it’s going, I’m just enjoying the experience.
I’m working on my second novel now and while I jot out early scenes, I’m also collating a list of books to re-read. On the list are novels by Peggy Frew, Brit Bennett and Emily Bitto. One of the novels is Normal People. My second book, like Rooney’s, charts characters over their time in high school and the years immediately after. I want to dissect how she managed to navigate her reader over the long period, jumping over years at school without bogging the narrative down in large chunks of summary. I know for this one I’ll have my pen and notepad out again.
Another book on the to-re-read pile is The Last of Her Kind by Nunez. It’s the one I’m most looking forward to re-reading, but will probably take the least notes on. I don’t want to dissect it. I’m reading it for the experience. I’m reading it to be inspired.
Allee Richards’s short fiction has been published widely in Australian literary magazines and anthologies, including The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, The Best Australian Stories, New Australian Fiction, Best Summer Stories and Australian Book Review. Small Joys of Real Life is her first novel. It was shortlisted for the 2019 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award.