Nicotine is a fierce and audaciously funny novel of families, obsession, idealism, and ownership from Nell Zink, the much acclaimed author of Mislaid and The Wall Creeper. Here the author discusses how she came to write her fiercely funny new book.

I wrote The Wallcreeper as an apprentice novelist; Mislaid, as a journeyman. (You can see where this is headed.) Nicotine is my masterpiece.

When my agent, Susan Golomb, learned in March 2015 that The New Yorker was planning to run a profile in May, she surmised that my market cap might peak in the few days between its appearance and the first, sobering sales figures for Mislaid. (This was before the Rachel Dolezal story broke, lending Mislaid credibility, and long before the National Book Award longlist.) Wouldn’t it be great, she asked, if she had something to sell in that little window?

I know there are writers who would regard her request as a cruel joke rather than a sporting challenge, but I’m not one of them. Writing fiction is my way of keeping a diary, at regular long intervals. Once I compared myself to a cuckoo clock. The Guardian promptly labeled me “the cuckoo of Bad Belzig.” What I said was that the tension of weights on chains—a telling metaphor for stress and burdens and feeling trapped—must first draw the gears into alignment. Only then will the cuckoo emerge to say its piece.

I mustered my current preoccupations. They were:

Jonathan Franzen’s habit of paying me extravagant compliments when tipsy.

My massive crush on him.

Our disagreements on the relative merits of YA fiction and TV.

My mother’s horrifying death.

A memorable afternoon spent with Maayan Eitan, magically earnest and vulnerable young Israeli poet.

The gears meshed; the cuckoo spoke. Nicotine is a tale of thwarted desire, exploring the politics of dying and money in fast-moving YA style with a hot ensemble cast that includes a Kurdish Maayan stand-in and an incorrigible male tease.

  • But it’s more than that, because conscious intention isn’t where writing comes from. Nicotine in its final form is something profound and moving, a story about meaning and ideals, and I love it. I’m grateful to Agent Susan for goading me to write my way through a tangle of thoughts I had never expected to unravel.

Nell Zink grew up in rural Virginia. She has worked at a variety of trades, including masonry and technical writing, and in the early 1990s, edited an indie rock fanzine. Her books include The Wallcreeper and Mislaid and her writing has appeared in n+1. She lives near Berlin, Germany.