Sigrid Nunez has written five previous novels told from the perspective of a female narrator, but her newest book, “Salvation City” (280 pages, $25.95, Riverhead Books), is her first from a male perspective.
“I’ve always wanted to write from a male’s point of view,” she said in a recent phone interview from her home in New York City. “I also thought it would be fun to be in the mind of a young person.”
The character she has created, Cole Vining, is a recently orphaned 13-year-old boy who is taken in by an Evangelical pastor and his wife. The setting is the near future, shortly after much of the world’s population has died from a virulent form of the flu.
“I’m not a science fiction writer or a futuristic writer,” said Nunez, “and I had no idea how to set a story well into the future, but this had to be set in the near future because it was going to be about a big world event that happened. I also chose the future to make some comments about our world today.”
She has also described a future with some of the very real problems we’re dealing with today, such as global warming and a world financial crisis.
— Seminar — 4:15 p.m.
— Reading from “Salvation City” — 8 p.m.
WHERE: Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany’s uptown campus.
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: www.albany.edu/writers-inst
“I started the book in 2007,” she said, “and I was doing my final revisions when the H1N1 virus hit. I was kind of paralyzed. We didn’t really know what was going to happen, and it was a bit too close to what I had just written about.”
Nunez feels that we are unprepared for a worldwide epidemic like the one she describes in the book.
“Our health-care system is broken and there are many emergency rooms in the past 10 years that have closed all around the country partly because of the cost of treating the uninsured. That is very frightening to me.”
Focus on conflict
She wanted to the book to focus on the conflict Cole was facing. “Cole is overwhelmed not only by the loss of his parents, but by his life at Salvation City, where he moves with Pastor Wyatt and his wife, Tracy. It is a place completely different than his life in Chicago where he was raised. In Salvation City everyone believes the second coming of Christ is near, and Cole’s parents had raised him as a non-believer.”
Nunez has no doubt that if a large group of children had been orphaned by an epidemic, many Evangelical Christian survivors would be stepping forward to care for them. “Pastor Wyatt and his wife have no children, and it made perfect sense to me they would try and adopt Cole.”
Nunez is not a believer herself. “I’m very interested in people’s beliefs,” she said. “Fundamentalists are strong in their beliefs, but not usually open to engaging in a discussion or a debate about other beliefs. I do think that’s threatening, but I also have warm feelings about Tracy.”
She views Tracy as someone with a good heart, but who simply accepts her beliefs without questioning them. “There’s no intellectual curiosity to Tracy, and a certain mindless bigotry to her.”
At his new Christian school, Cole is taught that everyone who believes Jesus is their savior will live in eternity in great happiness while those who don’t believe will live in eternal agony. “Cole can’t quite make that work,” said Nunez.
“Evangelists can make that work, but whenever Cole begins to ask questions he’s told that he’s overthinking. He’s told to just keep on praying. He’s open to the idea that there is a God, but he’s going through a struggle to know.”
Nunez believes it’s important for young people to question authority.
“That’s one of the fundamental themes I’m trying to get at. Cole is on the cusp of manhood, and at the end of the novel I can see that he’s going to continue to grow. Part of me would like to continue writing about him to see what will happen. He knows there’s more to the world than what he’s encountered at Salvation City.”
In writing the book, Nunez began to remember what it was like for her as a 13-year-old.
“I had forgotten how much I used to hear competing bits of advice from adults when I was Cole’s age. To young people, the adult world can look utterly crazy. You try to trust it, but at a certain point you realize adults don’t know as much as you thought they did. You begin to realize adults lie and have prejudices, and you have to figure it all out on your own. That’s what it really means to come of age.”
She is excited about her visit to Albany and the New York State Writers Institute. “They’ve had so many wonderful people who have read there,” she said.
“I’m also excited that in addition to the reading I’ll also be visiting a class. That’s even more exciting than a reading. I look forward to meeting young people who have read the book. I’m very interested in their take on it.”
She has a memoir about author Susan Sontag that will be coming out in the spring.
“Susan was someone I knew years ago when I was learning how to write, and I enjoyed writing about her and how she mentored me, but recently I got the idea for a new novel again told from a young person’s point of view. Once again she’s a female narrator, and her voice is very real to me. I’m excited to see where this young character will take me.”
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