Henry Adams, Expatriate Academics, and “A Dubstep Novel With a Bird”: An Interview With Nell Zink

Nell Zink-6-Fred Filkorn

Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper sneaks up on you. What begins as the story of a married American couple living in Europe and wrestling with frustrated ambition gradually becomes something far stranger, a bleakly funny look at matrimony, obsession, and the loss of control. Whether examining the ways birdwatching can become a fixation or the rivalries between small European cities, Zink’s novel is unpredictably captivating. I reached out to her via email to learn more about the book’s origins, her own experience of Europe, translations, zines, and more.

There are so many elements in The Wallcreeper that could have carried a novel on their own: the unique and flawed marital dynamic, the fixation on birds, the expatriate lifestyle, the political extremism on the edges of the story. What prompted you to bring them all together?

Thank you! My aims were strictly limited. I wanted to communicate vital topics in nature conservation to men and women in their thirties, the leaders of tomorrow, by wrapping them up in sophisticated language and conflicted sex. It worked for the first few pages. After that I had some personal setbacks and continued it as a tortured autobiography in impenetrable code.


Tiffany, your narrator, is a fascinating character to follow as her life evolves. I was reminded at times of Undine in The Custom of the Country, and I was curious: how did Tiffany, and her way of dealing with conflict, come about?

Tiff is very rational, including about her feelings. Stephen, her husband, is more like most people. Work hard, play hard. Tame by day, wild by night. Tiff is wild all the time. Possibly she’s a by-product of my wanting to write a sophisticated story. I needed a sophisticated person to tell it, and rational self-knowledge – not saving emotions for when you’re drunk – is a key ingredient.


How did you arrive on Berne as the setting for much of the novel? Is there much of an actual rivalry between it and Berlin?

I lived in Tübingen in southern Germany for almost ten years. The college grads there routinely go to Berlin. Not Munich, not Cologne – just Berlin. It’s like there’s a wormhole leading from one to the other. Berne is totally off the map, but I have a good friend there and I visit her on the train. We take incredible day trips, like to the revolving restaurant on top of Mt. Schilthorn.


What was your first interaction with a wallcreeper? What about it prompted you to put it at the center of this novel?

I discovered it reading a field guide to the birds of Europe and North Africa. The entry began with the words “a wonderful bird,” the only “wonderful bird” in the book. To me it looked like it should have been the original for the Firebird. An ornithologist friend of mine told me when they take you by surprise, way up in the mountains, it’s like giant butterflies. When I was in Seville I kept thinking the flamenco dresses could be wallcreeper costumes. All that red and black and white polka dots.


Do you find that your academic work or your work as a translator has any effect on your fiction?

Hell, yeah! Academic work teaches you to drag out redundant noun-heavy bullshit to maximum length, and translating fucks with your command of your native language, which you needed intact to be able to think. I am so fucking glad I don’t have to do that shit anymore. Thank you, Dorothy, a publishing project! I mean HarperCollins. I sold them a novel for megabucks. It’s called Mislaid. My editor there says I should mention it occasionally.


I read your novel just after finishing The Education of Henry Adams for the first time. What prompted you to invoke it in the later pages of The Wallcreeper?

When I wrote it I’d never seen anybody die. Most people haven’t. Even with somebody in hospice they just drop by in the afternoon and say grandma’s resting and get some muffins from the lounge. So they have no clue, and neither did I back in 2011 when I wrote The Wallcreeper. But Henry Adams, who is a truly lovable character to me, writes so movingly about what happened to the Alps when his sister got tetanus – that they turned from a beautiful stage set into solid rock – and that feeling is something I’d experienced. So Tiff borrows it. I like Henry Adams so much, I even went to Chartres to see the cathedral. That was a bit disappointing. The interior was clunky, the windows were like a crazy quilt, and a lot of figures on the façade looked vintage maybe 1880. And tucked way back in a corner of the town museum, I found a painting of the day it burned. The medieval roof, which was made of lead, melted. This was not long before Adams got there. I’m still mystified.


In the mid-90s, you were making zines in the Philadelphia area. Do you find any connection between what you were writing about then and your fiction now?

Actually Animal Review came mostly out of Jersey City. I moved to Philly in ’95, and by the end of ’97, I was in Tel Aviv! There’s a certain superficial parallelism between an indie rock zine with animals and a dubstep novel with a bird, but in all my old animal stories, the animals are our neighbors, and they walk and talk. One of my favorites is still unfinished, about a lamb in Brooklyn who works at a magazine for insectivores. She’s sure bugs don’t have feelings, but then she sees this poster of a nude Ralph Fiennes saying, “I’d rather go naked than eat bugs.” So she goes to this Society to Not Eat Bugs demo and sees all these bugs giving speeches to huge crowds, but it’s a trap set by insectivores like her boss. She’s plunged into an ethical quandary from which she never escapes. The Wallcreeper isn’t much like that. Mislaid has some of that sense of conflict between the simplicity of human needs and the complexity of the world, but there are no simple people in The Wallcreeper.


Photo: Fred Filkorn

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle +, our Tumblr, and sign up for our mailing list.