Unfortunately, nearly as much ink has been spilled poring over Nell Freudenberger's looks and age as has been devoted to her writing. Yes, she is very pretty. Yes, she did have her breakout story "Lucky Girls" published in The New Yorker when she was a mere 26 years old. However, she also happens to be talented and exceptionally intelligent. If her debut novel The Dissident is any indication of what is to come from Freudenberger, then hopefully her fine writing will soon eclipse her image as a literary crumpet.
Harvard-graduate Freudenberger first stirred waves in the publishing world when "Lucky Girls" appeared in the summer 2001 fiction issue of The New Yorker. Whatever conclusions to which one may have jumped after seeing the provocative photo of her that accompanied the piece, Freudenberger's tale clearly spoke for itself. This story of the conflicted feelings an American woman experiences following the death of the Indian man with whom she'd been carrying on a five-year extramarital affair was elegantly written and intelligently realized. "Lucky Girls" also prompted a bidding war amongst publishers eager to get Freudenberger on their roster of talent. Although one publisher reportedly waved a $500,000 deal in front of her face, she opted instead for a $100,000 deal with Ecco because she felt a greater simpatico with Daniel Halpern, an editor at the company. Subsequently, Ecco (an imprint of HarperCollins) published a collection of four novella-length tales by Freudenberger under the title of the story that made her famous. Lucky Girls became a major smash. The New York Times was particularly effervescent in its praise, saying, "Young writers as ambitious -- and as good -- as Nell Freudenberger give us reason for hope."
In spite of the positive reaction Lucky Girls received, Freudenberger refused to allow herself to be charmed by her own success. With characteristic humility, she told India's Economic Times, "Lucky Girls was a huge learning experience for me. It was during the course of writing Lucky Girls that I realised [sic] the enormity of the enterprise and the skill required for it. In a way, I was lucky to get a publisher literally on a platter for my book."
Freudenberger's next hurdle was to complete a full-length novel. Anxious about undertaking the project, she traveled to Bombay, India, and took a room in a boarding house to work on the book. She told Entertainment Weekly, "Once I got there -- I think this always happens when you travel -- but whatever you're worried about suddenly doesn't seem like such a big deal.''
The resulting novel was The Dissident, a clever, intriguing tale about a Chinese performance artist and political dissident who takes up residence in the home of a wealthy but dysfunctional family in Los Angeles Freudenberger's concerns about the novel seem wholly unnecessary considering that The Dissident is a fresh, vivid satire. In its review of the novel, The Library Journal agreed that Freudenberger "remains a writer to watch." With two literary hits under her belt, hopefully she will now be considered worth watching for her accomplished prose -- rather than her other more superficial attributes.
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When Lucky Girls hit bookshelves, Entertainment Weekly named Freudenberger "the summer's hottest young writer."
A controversial article about Freudenberger titled "Too Young, Too Pretty, Too Successful," which appeared on Salon.com, was written by fellow young, female novelist Curtis Sittenfeld (Prep; The Man of My Dreams).
Freudenberger once turned down a position at Random House to teach English to teenagers in Bangkok. Her experiences in Bangkok helped shaped Lucky Girls.
In our interview, Freudenberger shared some fun facts about herself with us:
"My first job was in pest control. I collected snails from my family's neighbors' lawns in an foil baking dish. Then I would give them their liberty at the public tennis courts. I got paid a penny a snail. "
"My second job was even less lucrative, as an "actor" on a television program called "Wish Upon a Star." Kids wrote in to the show with their wishes, and the show granted one wish per episode. A girl had written in wishing to wrestle in Jello. However, she lived too far away for this (extremely low budget) show to fly her to the studio. The producer asked my best friend (whose father was a film editor) to be the "star" and I had the non-speaking friend role. My sympathy for the original wisher -- who had to watch two other kids getting her wish on television -- was intense, but not as intense as the thrill of wrestling in Jello on television. There were three rounds. We wore basketball jerseys that said "Super Sarah" and "Nifty Nell." There was no biting, kicking or hair-pulling allowed. The show only aired once, as far as I know, on cable. There was a tape, which hopefully no longer exists.
"I do ashtanga yoga, which is required by law if you are a woman between the ages of eighteen and sixty-five living in Manhattan."
"I like to cook for friends, but I tend to get very stressed out and make lists that say things like, ‘8:15: ask if anyone wants more wine' and ‘8:25: take lid off chicken!'"
"I love to travel, especially on the train. I'm learning Chinese (very slowly). Obviously I love to read, but I'm not sure that counts as a hobby.
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In the fall of 2006, Nell Freudenberger took a few moments to tell us about some of her favorite books, authors, and inspirations.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Sometimes I think that the books you fall in love with as a child are the ones that make the greatest impression. I'm thinking of two in particular: D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths, and a poetry anthology called Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle. The stories of the Greek gods as they're presented in D'Aulaires, with its evocative (sometimes violent) illustrations, were the most stimulating stories I'd read until that point: they made me want to write my own. I remember showing my parents an "ode" (at least, that was what I called it) that I'd written about Helen of Troy. They were nice enough not to point out that the subject of the Trojan War had been taken by another poet, quite some time ago.
Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle is the rare anthology for children that doesn't limit itself to poems written for children. Instead, they've been chosen with an eye toward what will make children respond. I find that I still know some of them by heart, not because anyone required me to memorize them but because I read them so many times. The anthology includes poems by Maxine Kumin, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and Langston Hughes, among many others, and it's illustrated with black and white photographs -- unusual in a children's book, and part of what makes it so memorable.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Middlemarch by George Eliot -- Eliot has an almost surgical precision in extracting the interior lives of her characters and presenting them to the reader. In her novels, you read about emotional experiences that are immediately familiar, and that you've never seen written down elsewhere. It's incredible to me that her books are now almost 150 years old.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy -- I love the way that Anna's story intersects with Levin's. The chapter late in the book when we suddenly see inside Karenin's head, and he becomes sympathetic, is astonishing. I also often think about the chapter when Anna and Vronsky go to see Mikhailov, the painter: his contempt for them as society people and, at the same time, his desire that they should like his work is very moving. You imagine that Tolstoy must have suffered the same uneasiness around his admirers. He has an amazing description of the moment in artistic creation when the artist is "removing the wrapping" from a piece of work, and suddenly sees its imperfections. In order to correct his mistakes, he would have to ruin it; in fact, what's good about the work depends on the mistakes he's made. That's the best description of writing I've ever read.
The Collected Stories of Grace Paley -- Grace Paley is just great, but anything you say about her writing makes you feel pretentious, because she would probably laugh at you. For one thing, she's a real New York writer, without ever really describing the city physically. It's in her characters' voices. I hugely admire Paley, but I don't think other writers can learn to do what she does. She doesn't sound like anybody else.
Illywhacker by Peter Carey -- Peter Carey is a great storyteller, and this is his novel about storytelling. I especially love the chapter in which Goon Tse Ying teaches the narrator to disappear. There's also a very sexy scene on a roof.
John Ashbery's Collected Poems -- I remember a college poetry exam in which we were asked: which, of all the poets we've studied in this class, have you formed a relationship with and why? It was surprising (and a little terrifying) at the time, but in retrospect I think it was a great exam question. Ashbery was the first poet whose work I felt I had a relationship with; all my friends were reading Ashbery too (as college students, we were very into how confusing he was) and for a while, his poetry felt like a experience we were all sharing. Now when I read Ashbery's poems, it's less about decoding and more to do with the parallel world of feeling he sets up by putting all kinds of strange things together in one poem.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf -- It's hard to choose one of her novels over the others. I love the sound of her sentences.
Waiting by Ha Jin -- This is the most intensely realistic love story I know. It's a novel that comes very directly out of its political context -- it takes place mostly during the Cultural Revolution -- but you get the feeling that the story of Lin Kong and Manna Wu would be the same even if they had lived somewhere else in a different time. What I mean is that as characters, Lin and Manna transcend the circumstances their author sets up for them. And Waiting has one of the best first sentences of any novel I know: "Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu."
A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul -- Naipaul clearly loves Biswas a great deal, and yet he's able to make him very annoying. That's a good reminder for a writer, that a character doesn't have to be loveable in order to be loved.
Age of Iron by J. M. Coetzee -- Maybe this isn't technically Coetzee's best book (Waiting for the Barbarians seems to me the most perfect) but Mrs. Curren is an incredible character. I like the question of safety that the novel raises: would you rather live somewhere dangerous, where you have to make moral choices on a regular basis, or in a place where those questions are easier to avoid?
East Village by Rong Rong -- This is a new favorite -- a little hard to find (the library in the Metropolitan Museum has it) but worth seeking out. It's a record of the Chinese photographer Rong Rong's life in a run-down section of Beijing in the early nineties, and of his development as an artist, told through journal entries and his own powerful photographs. The scholar Wu Hung's essay about the Beijing "East Village" is a terrific introduction to Chinese experimental art.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I love James Ivory's and Ismail Merchant's movies, especially The Householder, A Room With a View and A Passage to India. I like Satyajit Ray's movies, especially the Pather Panchali trilogy. I love Audrey Hepburn in Charade. I'm not a big Woody Allen fan, but thought Husbands and Wives was great. And I think my sister and I have watched Mystic Pizza together about fifteen times.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I can't listen to music when I'm writing. I like music best in a car or on the train. I love the Pixies, the Clash, the White Stripes, and Belle and Sebastian. I'm probably too influenced by lyrics. I like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. Cesaria Evora has an incredible voice; I listen to her a lot. I also like Caetano Velaso. I listen to a lot of jazz these days (my husband's good influence). And I've always loved Brahms -- if I had to pick one favorite piece of music, it would be A German Requiem. A friend introduced me to Steve Reich, and I especially like his Music for 18 Musicians.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. I'm reading it now, and it's such a social novel that you want to share it with friends. I'd like to talk about how Powell's novel responds to Proust, and is also very different -- a lot funnier, for one thing. It's been a while since I've read In Search of Lost Time, so I guess my book group would have to read both -- we'd be at it a very long time!
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like it when someone gives me a new book of poetry by a poet I haven't read. I don't usually give people books -- it seems kind of presumptuous. I like to decide what to read next, and I hate to feel pressure from someone else to read a particular thing.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I don't think I have writing rituals, other than the time I write. I'm pretty strict about writing every day. Right now on my desk are: photo albums from India, two English-Chinese dictionaries and a (low-level) Chinese textbook, two phones (that's bad), the OED, an e-ticket receipt, thank-you notes that need to be written, and my great-grandparents' passports. In other words, a big mess.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I submitted a story to The New Yorker when I was working there as an Editorial Assistant and it was published. After that, I left my job to write a book. I guess my real panic happened after I was "discovered" -- I was afraid that the people who said I'd just been in the right place at the right time were right, and that I wouldn't be able to write a book I was proud of. I think that the practice of writing every day was what made me remember that writing doesn't have anything to do with publishing books. It can be totally separate and private -- a comforting thought. If you can make that distinction in your head, you can write just the way you always did, even after you start publishing books.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I would probably embarrass her if I wrote her name here. I'm thinking of her because she's genuinely devoted to the practice of writing.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Don't worry about being influenced one way or the other: read everything that interests you. And write every day -- banal, but true.
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