Sigrid Nunez’s The Vulnerables could be hastily described as a pandemic novel. Yes, it does take place in Manhattan during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet unlike Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea and Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends, our central character, an unnamed older woman writer, doesn’t flee New York City when the pandemic hits. In the face of crisis, she still maintains her daily walks and picks up take-out coffee, but struggles to keep a routine. Despite her efforts, she finds it hard to concentrate. With increased solitude and heightened anxiety, her thoughts turn to the past. Her childhood, long-standing friendships, and the condition of life consume her thoughts.
Although the book could have successfully carried on as a hermetically sealed chronicle of introspection during the pandemic, the novel takes a twist. A friend of a friend needs help caring for her parrot, left at home when its caretakers chose to remain in California, where they happened to be visiting as lockdown descended in March 2020. With this legitimate excuse to shake up her routine, our narrator is drawn to the charismatic and highly intelligent Eureka, a macaw. When she can be of further help, offering her apartment to a frontline medical worker, she moves in with Eureka. But soon, she’s not his only caretaker. This is a book of unlikely friendships, unconditional bonds, and the looming awareness of our omnipresent fragility.
Having known Nunez through publishing circles for well over a decade (I helped acquire Sempre Susan for the independent press Atlas & Co.), I corresponded with her through email during the early days of the pandemic. During the sleepless nights of spring 2020, one of many books I read late into the night was an early copy of Nunez’s 2020 novel What Are You Going Through, a deeply empathetic novel that deals with friendship and mortality and one that felt especially poignant to me during that fraught time of isolation.
We turned to email to discuss publishing and writing during the height of the pandemic, the fragility of friendship, the art of writing personal—but not autobiographical—work, and the lasting bonds between humans and animals for Vanity Fair shortly before she left New York City for a residency at Yaddo.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Vanity Fair: In The Vulnerables, your narrator reflects, “Looking back, I would always wonder: However did I pass the time?” Could you talk about how you spent your time during the early pandemic? What changed and what remained constant for you during that time?
Sigrid Nunez: As a writer and someone who has lived alone for a long time, I was used to solitude and working at home. The biggest change was having to socialize and teach online, which I could never get used to. When my gym closed, I started taking very long walks every day, all over the city. Once I had adjusted to the weird moment we were all suddenly trapped in, I was able to read for many hours a day, though writing remained, for some time, nearly impossible. I also spent hours each day watching the news. And I spent time doing what so many others did during lockdown: deep cleaning the house, decluttering, organizing closets, and other chores. I even tried baking. Once.
In fall 2020, you were publishing your novel What Are You Going Through. What was it like to publish a book during that time? What did you want from books and reading during those earliest months of the pandemic into that fall?
Publishing was both harder and easier. For the first time, I had a book coming out for which there were no printed galleys. I couldn’t travel anywhere, but I got to do plenty of distanced interviews and virtual events. I was grateful for that option, but I was never happy with it. What I wanted from reading was what I’ve always wanted and always found: pleasure, inspiration, wisdom, and—then more than ever—consolation. Reading helped me to forget, for hours at a time, how troubled the real world had become.
When did you begin working on The Vulnerables? Was this novel always imagined as a book set during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic? Could you talk about the impulses and ideas that inspired this novel?
I was teaching in the graduate writing program at BU, and it was time for the annual faculty reading. That year, the event was on Zoom, and each of us was asked to read for about eight minutes. I decided to write something specifically for the reading, just a few pages, and those pages were about what was happening right at the moment and was of course foremost in my mind: the pandemic, the lockdown, and the extraordinary upheaval in daily life. Sometime later—I can’t recall exactly how much later—I started writing The Vulnerables, taking off from some of what I’d already written. As usual when I write a novel, I didn’t know where that beginning would take me. I just kept writing, spinning out the story from whatever had come before. And as it happens my novel The Friend began in the same way, with a couple of pages I wrote for a BU faculty reading.