No doubt, Nell will be a good fit among La Paz Group’s global community of artistically and/or conservation-oriented invitees, many of whom you have not likely heard of, some of whom are more famous, but all with unusual talents and interests. Thanks to Kathryn Schulz for another invitation-worthy story: Nell Zink turned her back on the publishing world. It found her anyway.
The kookaburra in the Berlin Zoo is ten thousand miles from home, squat, top-heavy, large of beak, attractive of plumage, and making what is, ounce for ounce, the loudest, strangest sound I have ever heard emerge from a living creature. It begins with a classic evil laugh, bwaaahahahaha, à la Vincent Price in “Thriller,” then the bird throws back its head and lets out a series of hoots, like a plump British woman with an unbecoming but infectious laugh or a parrot that grew up in a frat house, dissolves into giggles, transitions to a chortle, appears to become an entire dinner party going to pieces, then starts to pull it together, O.K., O.K., the guests wiping their eyes and settling down, until out comes a little chuckle and hahahahoik!ha, the bird is cracking up again.
“Oh, my God, you are truly weird,” Nell Zink tells the bird. Zink, a novelist—reared in rural Virginia, expatriated these past eighteen years, acquainted with weirdness, fond of birds—steps closer to inspect it. “Look at the blue in his wings,” she says: two shades, turquoise and teal. “He’s so designer. He looks like an Italian bathrobe.” Affronted, perhaps, the bird abruptly ceases its lunatic call. In the aftermath, the squawky room feels intensely quiet, the way even Manhattan seems silent when the car alarm across the street finally stops. After a moment, Zink resumes her conversation with the bird. “You can keep singing the song if you want,” she says. “I promise not to look at you that way again.” The kookaburra, unmoved, regards the wall. In the background, some other bird will not stop repeating a single grating note. “That one is ridiculed by its fellow-birds for its stupidity,” Zink says.
I am in this birdhouse because Nell Zink knows a lot about birds, and because almost no one knows anything about Nell Zink. Her début novel, “The Wallcreeper,” came out last year, when she was fifty. (The title refers to a mountain-dwelling bird with crimson wings.) She wrote it in three weeks, chiefly as a provocation to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, and sold it, for three hundred dollars, to a tiny publishing house, Dorothy, which focusses on books by or about women. At the time, she was trying to sell a different book, “Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats” (by Nell Zink). A friend told Zink about Dorothy and asked if her book was about women. No, she replied, the book’s main female character was a seal—more precisely, a half-seal, half-woman who is romantically involved with a Mossad agent tasked with finding and killing the heir to the throne of Israel, i.e., the closest living relative of King David. Anyway, Zink figured, probably not the kind of woman Dorothy had in mind. The main character of “The Wallcreeper,” though, was a woman, so she sent the press that book instead, even though she regarded it as “unpublishable trash.”
In that opinion, Zink found herself, not for the first time, at odds with the world…
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