At The Paris Review, Thessaly La Force interviews Sigrid Nunez about her short new book, which covers her relationship with Susan Sontag and Sontag’s son, David Rieff. Nunez dated Rieff, and lived with him and Sontag, in the late 1970s.
You talk about how your writing changed after you had this experience with Susan. I was really taken by those passages where you describe her giving you changes and advice on your fiction and you don’t accept it.
I hadn’t published anything yet. I was trying to write, but nothing was really working out. And the whole time I was living with Susan and David, I wasn’t able to write. But because she kept pushing me, I did finally show her a story I’d written. She was generous in her comments and she encouraged me to think I was someone who could become a writer. But for the most part, whenever she tried to criticize my work, I didn’t take it well.
Unfortunately, I was like a lot of my own students, who don’t really want criticism, just encouragement. It’s both embarrassing and hilarious to remember it now. You don’t sit there at 25, unpublished, inexperienced, and respond to Susan Sontag’s editorial suggestions like a little snot, rejecting every one of them. But it had a lot to do with the fact that I didn’t admire Susan’s own fiction. I’d read her first two novels and some of her stories, and I didn’t admire them the way I admired the essays. So when she tried to talk to me about language and style, I didn’t really trust what she said. Anyway, she was offended, of course, and she didn’t forget either. Years later, she’d ask me to send her my work and when I did she refused to say anything about it.