“Everyone Needs a Reader. I Just Happen to Be Married to Mine”

Siri Hustvedt is the author of four novels, a book of poetry, and a number of short stories and essays. She is the author of "The Blindfold" (1992), "The Enchantment of Lily Dahl" (1996), "What I Loved" (2003), and "The Sorrows of an American" (2008).

Hustvedt has had migraines and their accompanying auras since childhood and has long been fascinated by psychoanalysis, neurology, and psychiatry. In recent years, with the explosion of research on the brain, she has become increasingly absorbed by neuroscience. Her most recent book, "The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves" (2010), is a "neurological memoir," both a personal account of Hustvedt’s experience as a patient and an exploration of the ambiguities of diagnosis through the lenses of medical history, neurology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and philosophy.
  • Transcript


Question: Do you and your husband ever critique each other’s works in progress?

Siri Hustvedt: Always, actually.  We both read to each other during the course of the book.  When Paul's writing a novel, he reads to me at intervals of about a month, month and a half, two months, something like that.  And he will take a batch of the story, read it to me aloud, and listen to what I have to say. 

Earlier in my life as a writer, I had a tendency to hoard my manuscripts from Paul and not show him anything until  I had a complete draft.  And then he would usually read it silently and talk to me afterwards.  In the last few years, the last three books, I've read to him as I'm going along, chunks of 50 to 70 pages, and get his feedback.  So, this is very important to us.  Everyone needs a reader.  And I just happen to be married to mine and he happens to be married to his. 

The good thing about the two of us is that I and he are very free to be brutal if we feel it's necessary.  And I think that all works because there's an essential respect always of the project of the other person, so what you're really talking about is, "Does this help the overall project, or is there a weakness here.And I don't think that in either case we've ever rejected the other person's suggestions.  I have resisted a couple of times, but in the end I think he's always been right.  And I had—with one novel he read me three endings before I thought he hit on the one that really worked.

Question: How do you discipline yourself to overcome the challenges of writing?

Siri Hustvedt: I'm better at this now.  I've always been extremely disciplined in the sense that I can wake up early, sit at my desk and work for hours and hours every day.  This is never been a problem.  What I've understood as the years have gone on is that the best place for me anyway for me to be when I'm writing, is in a state of great relaxation and openness.  And I think when you're in that state all kinds of unconscious material can become available.  For me, the danger is being tight, being constipated, in a sense.  And that will create constipation.  That will create a day of looking at a paragraph, erasing it, writing another one and getting rid of that.

And I think of this as a state of play, that you really are open to the creative possibilities of what will happen, what can happen.  And both, I think, both playing in children and fantasizing in teenagers.  I don't know—you're much closer to your teenage years then I am, but those years are particularly prone to all kinds of fantasies, especially about the future, you know, what am I going to do.  Oh, the beloved.  All kinds of fantasies.  And I think that writing novels comes straight out of those two... first the childhood play and then the adolescent fantasy to making art.  But that the process is very similar.  And you need to be open, loose and let yourself play in order for the work to happen.