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'To Be A Man': Book Of Stories Filled With Small Estrangements

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The last time I interviewed Nicole Krauss was exactly 10 years ago, fall of 2010. She had a new novel out. Her books are intricate, interwoven plots with multiple narrators. And she told me something that stuck with me; that, as a writer, she needs, quote, "to be working very close to failure," to have no idea where the story's going as she is writing it with all of the risks that that entails. So for Krauss' new book, a collection of short stories, the process was a little different.

NICOLE KRAUSS: There were enormous pleasures for me in writing these stories. And, no doubt, part of that pleasure was less anxiety.

KELLY: The collection is called "To Be A Man." The stories are short, but they are not short on emotion or tension. Take "The Husband," in which a man shows up on the doorstep of an older woman in Tel Aviv, claiming to be her lost husband, which is not possible.

KRAUSS: What the story became about was about the ways in which life delivers to us unexpected gifts and that, in some ways, we have to embrace those without questioning them. And in this case, I was playing on the idea or, at least, the history of lost relatives, lost husbands, wives, sisters, brothers being returned to people after the Holocaust, something that the Red Cross was doing very often in Israel and Europe and elsewhere. And, you know, people thought that these loved ones were dead. And then suddenly, they would arrive. Of course, that didn't happen often enough, but it did happen. And so this story is - it's told now, and it's - but it's sort of pulling at that emotional thread, the notion that somebody can resurface in the family's life. Except in this case, this person never existed. And the assumption on Tamar's part is, of course you don't accept him. Who is this guy? But her mother, in a kind of beautiful way, accepts this new man into her life.

KELLY: I love that idea of a person as a gift that you didn't know you needed, who suddenly shows up in your life. And you can absolutely have the reasonable kind of response that Tamar did - who is this impostor? Or you can say, you know what? I didn't know I needed this person to show up in my life, but here they are. I'm going to embrace it.

KRAUSS: Yeah. These stories - all of them in some ways are shot through with, you know, various forms of maybe struggle, difficulty and, at times, sadness. But it was important for me to make sure they were also shot through with joy.

KELLY: So many of the stories in this collection are less about major rifts and blowups between people and inside families but about small estrangements and how those can weigh on a person. And I wonder what made you want to look at these small, quiet hurts.

KRAUSS: I guess that, you know, so much of life is made up of those in some ways, as life is equally made up of small, quiet pleasures - right? - and joys and connections. I think what draws me to those - these stories and these characters aren't so much those larger things or explosive moments in lives but rather just the everyday of, how do people deal with the paradoxes of who they are and who the people they love are? How do we sort of, like, hold others and ourselves up and allow for that paradox without trying to resolve it but just to live with it somehow? That's the - not an easy thing, but it's something that my characters are all struggling with, I suppose.

KELLY: Forgive me if this is too personal a thing to say, but there were moments, more than one, as I read your stories, that caused me to wonder whether you had gone through a divorce while writing them - stories that feel so raw about women decoupling from relationships and trying to figure out if a woman needs a man in her life to be complete. And I was thinking about the title, "To Be A Man." And I'm thinking to be a man, to be a woman - this is what you're exploring there.

KRAUSS: I think I've always all my life, like, since I was a really young woman, a girl even, really clung very, very tightly to my independence, for better or for worse, you know, whether out of fear or out of a kind of insistence on strength. And I think that clinging to my independence, to be personal, has kind of woven itself all through my relationships with men all my life. And there's this absolute joy for me in life about connection, but that doesn't always square easily with that independence that I describe. And I don't think I'm alone in this. I don't know that I've ever known anyone well who hasn't, at one time or other, or pretty much always found themselves kind of caught between those two poles - on the one hand, the need for stability, the need for belonging, which we all have, that comes with enduring relationships but also, at the same time, that incredibly human need to evolve, which requires change, which requires a kind of freedom, you know, for new experience. And so I think my life as a person has lived on that fault line often. And it's probably not a surprise then that my characters live on that fault line.

KELLY: On the fault line, too, yeah. There's a passage that you're making me think of in the story "End Days" that knocked me over. You write, and I will quote, "wasn't the pride only vulnerability masquerading as strength until, at last, it had become one? But as with all strengths that grew out of need, its foundation had never been solid. It was built on top of a hole." That's that fault line. There's confidence, but it's vulnerability, and they're flip sides of the coin.

KRAUSS: I love that you picked up on that line because I think that is something that applies to both the men and the women in this collection of stories. And it interests me very, very much. I think that the kind of demands on boys and men these days to possess both of those things, to be, on the one hand, incredibly sensitive, psychologically fluent, delicate and, at the same time, to have the old, traditional kind of strength or power - I think that's a complexity that all people deal with all the time. And I think the young women in this book deal with it just as much as the men, you know, trying to define themselves and their strength against the very things that make them vulnerable in the world, you know, their attractiveness, for example, to men.

KELLY: What are you writing now?

KRAUSS: Well, I'm trying to write a new novel, of course (laughter). I loved writing these short stories, but I will always love the form of the novel. It just allows me - I don't know - a kind of wildness I guess that I love, that I find irresistible. But getting a novel off the ground is like, man, oh, man. I'm, like, getting some massive plane, you know, that doesn't have an engine yet off the ground. So I'm working on it with a couple of distractions, (laughter) like we all have right now. Yeah.

KELLY: Indeed. Well, I wish you luck in getting that plane off the ground.

KRAUSS: Thank you. Thank you so much.

KELLY: That is Nicole Krauss. Her new book is titled "To Be A Man."

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, "THERE, THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.