Novelist Lily Tuck: National Book Award Winner
An interview with Lily Tuck who writes with elegance and pathos about the mysteries of a long marriage.
Ask a writer to name the hardest thing about writing, and you’re apt to hear “beginning the damn piece.” Lily Tuck, who at 73 is still an active and prodigious writer, learned this from the well-known writing teacher Gordon Lish. Indeed, Lily’s own first sentences are bull’s eyes. In her most recent novel, I Married You for Happiness, the first line describes a woman lying all night beside the body of her just-deceased husband: “His hand is growing cold; still she holds it.” The book is coming out this fall in paperback by Grove/Atlantic, and a new book of Lily’s short stories is forthcoming next spring, including two that won the O’Henry Prize.
In 2004 Lily won the coveted National Book Award for her novel The News From Paraguay, an historical epic about the 19th century South American dictator Francisco Solano Lopez and his beautiful Irish-born mistress, Ella Lynch. I had read this book as well as Happiness and was eager to interview her because I admired her skill and ability to lose herself in her subject. This past July we met in an Upper East Side restaurant near her apartment. A widow, she is used to people assuming that “Happiness” is autobiographical, but she bristles at that notion. “Of course you write from your experience,” she said, “but I think a lot of the time readers don’t give the writer enough credit for having an imagination.”
Although her writing suggests a figure of outsized intelligence, Lily is of medium height, with straight, unfussy gray hair and a quiet manner that she attributes to shyness. Her selection for the prestigious Book Award was controversial, since she and four other relatively unknown female authors were nominated; as a result, she bonded with the other nominees. The five appeared on Charlie Rose together when Lily balked at going on the program alone. In contrast to her fluid prose, she describes herself as inarticulate. “A lot of writers say they write to know what they’re thinking,” she says, “and I feel that way too.”
Judging from her books, Lily’s imagination is one of her favorite places. She takes readers into worlds so densely textured that you could swear she knew them first-hand. But, often, you would be wrong. For instance, though she wrote about the Paraguayan landscape in voluminous detail, she had never been to Paraguay and did not go until she won the National Book Award.
Unlike the protagonist of I Married You For Happiness, whose husband was a math professor, Lily’s second husband, Edward Hallam Tuck, was a lawyer. Also, unlike her fictional heroine, whose life revolved around her husband, Lily resolutely carved out the space and time to be a serious writer. She knew only rudimentary math when she began Happiness. But researching the book took her knowledge to a deeper level. As Nina, the book’s protagonist, lies next to her dead husband, free-associating through the night about their 42-year marriage, his love of probability theory becomes entwined in her memories. The past and present collide, as do higher math and simple grief. “How can he leave her?” Nina asks. “Without saying goodbye.”
Researching is one of Lily’s favorite tasks as an author. “Part of the pleasure of writing, for me, is to learn something new,” she says. “If you write what you know, chances are it’s what everybody else knows, and you don’t surprise yourself. Surprising yourself is a big thing for me—to go somewhere that I don’t even know I’m going.”
From an early age Lily wanted to be a writer, although her first book, Interviewing Matisse, or The Woman Who Died Standing Up, was not published until she was 51. She has also published The Woman Who Walked on Water; Siam, or The Woman Who Shot a Man (nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction); Limbo and Other Places I Have Lived, a collection of short stories; and a biography, Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante, which won the Premio Elsa Morante, an Italian award.
She still lives and writes in the apartment she shared with her husband, and she extols Manhattan as a great place to write and “a good place to grow old.” Several good friends, also writers, live nearby, and Lily takes morning walks with them around the Central Park reservoir. After her walk or morning yoga she sits down at her desk and does a combination of research and writing, producing at least a page a day and revising very little. She is close to the publishing world, and the creative buzz, she says, “keeps you competitive.” Even so, she spends summers in Maine on an island.
Paris also figures large in Lily’s life. She was born there to German parents who fled Germany because her father, a film producer, was Jewish. In 1939 her father joined the French Foreign Legion; Lily and her non-Jewish mother fled to Peru, where her father eventually joined them. After the war, the family returned to Paris. But her parents soon divorced and in 1947 Lily and her mother immigrated to the U.S. This constant dislocation ended when Lily was nine and her mother remarried and settled on the Upper East Side. But Lily still feels at home in Paris and visits there frequently.
“I like to speak French, but I wouldn’t live in Paris,” she says. “New York is where my kids are.” She is close to her children, who include three sons from an early first marriage, three stepchildren and 11 grandchildren.
Lily is still a major figure in the literary community of New York; she participates in readings at the Center for Fiction and the Corner Bookstore in the East 90’s. She is a member of PEN and founded the PEN/Edward and Lily Tuck Award for Paraguayan Literature. She calls the award “payback” for the success she had with the novel.
During her acceptance speech for the Book Award, Lily stated that she had never been to Paraguay and never intended to go there. Shortly afterward, she received an official invitation to visit the country. It was, she says, “one of the most wonderful weeks of my life.”
Even though she has many friends, she also cherishes the anonymity of New York and the time it gives her to work. “If I lived in a small town, I’d have to give my time, because I’m a generous person,” she says. “Here, the pressure I feel is to work.”
Roberta Hershenson is an arts journalist whose features, profiles, and news stories have appeared in The New York Times and other publications for 25 years. She wrote a weekly arts news column for the Westchester section of The Times from 2000 to 2006.