In Sigrid Nunez’s new novel, The Friend (Riverhead), one of the central characters is a bereaved Great Dane named Apollo, who comes to live with the novel’s narrator in her small, “no dogs allowed” NYC apartment after his owner, the narrator’s mentor and best friend, commits suicide. It’s also a meditation on the writing life, and what it requires from those who live it. Bark’s editor-in-chief, Claudia Kawczynska, recently discussed the work with Sigrid Nunez.
Bark: What informed this storyline–why did you add a dog to it?
Sigrid Nunez: I can’t remember now exactly at what point Apollo became such an important part of the novel, but I’ve always been drawn to the idea of writing stories in which an animal has an important role. (My third book, Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, was a fictional biography of Virginia Woolf’s pet marmoset.) I’m also a great believer in the healing power of the human-animal bond, especially the human-canine bond, and I liked imagining how these two grief-stricken beings, woman and dog, might end up loving and consoling each other.
B: Tell us more about your relationship with dogs.
SN: I’ve always loved dogs. Growing up, I hated that we lived in a place where no dogs were allowed. But later, when I was in college, my family had a Great Dane, and in my 20s I had a dog whose sire was a Great Dane. I’ve had other dogs since, but unfortunately, I can’t have a dog right now because, once again, I live in a place where no dogs are allowed.
B: Was the dog’s size important to the story, or would a smaller dog have served the same purpose?
SN: I really liked the idea of the dog character being an exceptionally large and visually striking animal, almost like something out of a fairy tale. Also, the narrator’s decision to take on a dog’s care and share her tiny apartment with him is a lot more meaningful when the dog in question is a gigantic one.
B: I was surprised that, although the narrator and the man were such close friends, he didn’t tell her that he’d bequeathed Apollo to her.
SN: The narrator suggests that he was afraid that if he had talked to her explicitly about entrusting Apollo to her, she would have guessed that he was planning to take his own life. Instead, he made sure that his wife knew that he thought the narrator would be the best person to adopt Apollo, should that need ever arise.
B: Did you research how a dog grieves, or have you experienced it firsthand?
SN: All I had to do was rely on my knowledge of canine behavior in general, and in particular, a dog’s loyalty and sensitivity in regard to its human companion, and let imagination do the rest.
B: Do you think that love for a dog can be as absorbing as love for a person?
SN: I do. That’s what I love about J.R. Ackerley’s great memoir My Dog Tulip, which so wonderfully describes how one man finally found, in his relationship with his dog, the ideal companion he’d always been searching for. The 15 years he lived with Tulip were the happiest of his life, he said, and her death was the saddest day of his life.
B: Does being entrusted with the life of an animal companion make the grieving process any easier? SN: I’m sure of it. I saw this as one of the most important themes of The Friend, the way the narrator works through her grief by taking on the care and responsibility of her dead friend’s dog, who turns out to be far more of a comfort than a burden to her.
B: Did you see great The New Yorker (1/22/18) cartoon by Edward Koren that shows a man gazing at his smiling dog and asking, “If you could spend an hour with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?” If Apollo had been asked that question, how would the narrator have wanted it answered?
SN: I love that cartoon! There’s a scene in my book where the narrator, a little drunk, is talking to Apollo and asking just that type of question: “Do you love me?” “Am I the best person you’ve ever had?” So I think we know how she’d want Apollo to answer Koren’s question.
B: An observation—your use of quotes from many writers, including poet Rainer Maria Rilke was quite effective. One really resonated with me: “Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
SN: For me, the more relevant Rilke quote in the book is his definition of love: “Two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other.” Reflecting on this, the narrator thinks, Isn’t that what we are, Apollo and me?