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Author Sigrid Nunez releases her 9th novel: 'The Vulnerables'

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Animals loom large in the novels of Sigrid Nunez. "The Friend," which won a National Book Award in 2018, addresses mourning with the help of a Great Dane. "Mitz" from 1998 is the biography of a tiny marmoset monkey. Her 2010 apocalyptic novel "Salvation City," about a global flu pandemic, features a basset hound named Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands, just like the Bob Dylan song. In "The Vulnerables," her ninth novel, out today, Nunez takes her readers to another pandemic - New York in COVID lockdown in 2020. Her narrator, an unnamed writer, ends up caring for a macaw parrot whose owner gets stuck in California. It's an ode to our basic need to connect with other beings - be they human or animal - even in a global crisis that told us to stay apart. Nunez told me how her own meditations on the pandemic inspired the story.

SIGRID NUNEZ: It was time to write another book, and for a time during the spring of 2020, like most writers I know, I wasn't able to write because of fears and concerns about the pandemic and the lockdown. But it came to mind the first sentence of Virginia Woolf's novel "The Years," it was an uncertain spring. And taking off from there, I started to write about what was happening in our uncertain spring.

FADEL: You mentioned that you struggled to write when the pandemic happened and everybody went into lockdown. And the female narrator in this book also struggles to write in this moment of loneliness and separation. How much of her is you, and how much of her is invention?

NUNEZ: Most of my books are hybrid books. There's - you know, there's always a story, a plot and characters - invented characters, but there are elements of my autobiography in there. And with a book like "The Vulnerables," what happens is that the story is invented - not every bit of it, but most of it. For example, the pandemic really happened. The lockdown really happened.

FADEL: The narrator locks down with the macaw and a college student, and these types of birds form a very strong bond with the person who cares for them. How did Eureka become a central part of the story?

NUNEZ: Macaws are, just as you say, they bond with people, they're beautiful, they're extremely intelligent. And I've never owned a parrot, but there used to be an exotic bird store on Bleecker (ph) Street. And when I was living nearby there, I used to go there very, very often to look at and interact with the birds. The narrator, like other people, can't do other things and having trouble deciding what should I do, what is important right now? And as she says in the book, this was one thing on my agenda that I didn't have to question. The bird needed care. I knew how to give it. I was there to give it. It was a simple, direct task, and it gave me a great deal of pleasure, she says. The company is so consoling.

FADEL: I was very moved by that, the importance of caring for a being other than yourself. The female writer who is the main narrator here writes, (reading) though I've had several pets, I count not having had more animals in my life among my biggest regrets. Is that also something from your life that is part of this book?

NUNEZ: Exactly. I wouldn't attribute that kind of idea to the narrator if I didn't share it. It's part of her character. It's part of her sensibility and it is part of mine. And yes, that is a regret I've had for quite some time.

FADEL: How did this Gen Z College student become central, as well? I mean, ultimately, they form a bond in this extreme loneliness and fear that the pandemic was intergenerational. He shows up unexpectedly at the apartment where she's bird-sitting, and their relationship goes from hostile to aloof to actually close. Can you describe that relationship?

NUNEZ: Well, he's somebody who was in college in his last year when, like other college students, he was suddenly told, well, you've got to go home. We're closing down. And so he goes to be with his parents in Vermont. He is someone who has had lots of troubles. He spent a summer in a psychiatric hospital being treated for a very serious eating disorder, and that is behind him at this point, but he clashes terribly with his parents, and in fact, they end up telling him he's got to go. And that's how he comes down to Manhattan and ends up in this apartment. He had originally been the bird-sitter. He still has keys to that apartment. He suddenly shows up.

She is - as a friend says to her, don't be so territorial. It's a big apartment. It's an emergency. Deal with it. Stop complaining. He's being very nice to you. Why can't you be nice back? Etc. And then something happens to her outside that is very upsetting, and he can tell. He has an idea that she's also not eating. And he has an idea that if he leaves an edible for her, that it will help her to eat, to feel better and to feel less anxious and less depressed. And so they begin to do that, they begin to take some kind of marijuana most days, and then they end up talking to each other and revealing certain things and laughing a lot and enjoying each other's company.

FADEL: It did feel like almost a meditation on companionship in loneliness and in isolation.

NUNEZ: Well, and of course, she's - this is - this narrator doesn't have any children of her own, has never had children. So there - you know, there is a certain maternal feeling that she begins to have for him. And I also think that although it's described as unlikely, I don't think it's all that unlikely what happens between them. In fact, I think that was part of the point of the story that, you know, when people are thrown together in situations like that, people do realize how much they need each other and how much they can give each other, even in small ways. I mean, that he would notice her distress even though she hasn't been particularly nice to him and feel like he could do something to alleviate that, I think is the most natural human feeling in the world.

FADEL: That's author Sigrid Nunez. Thank you so much for your time.

NUNEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE SONG, "BROTHERS ON A HOTEL BED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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