The Death, the Dog, and the Writer

Writer-in-residence Sigrid Nunez’s best-selling The Friend has won praise for its heartfelt takes on grief, writing, and pet ownership

At the beginning there’s a death. Then comes the dog. Then writing about them. Sigrid Nunez’s National Book Award–winning novel, The Friend, is an exploration of grief, and of recovery. When a writer’s friend—once her writing professor, briefly her lover, and then her companion—takes his own life, he leaves her with memories, questions, sorrow, and a 180-pound harlequin Great Dane, Apollo. The novel is the story of how she learns to live with each. It is a journey through the legacy of suicide, the bond between owner and pet, the life of a writer, and the complexity and consequences of a person’s flaws. The death, the dog, and the writer.

Although The Friend is a work of fiction, Nunez—a writer-in-residence at CAS—told Literary Hub “much of it is autobiographical, and I feel there’s not a great amount of distance between the writer and the narrator.” The New York Times, NPR, Vogue, and BuzzFeed named it a best book of 2018.

The Dog

“I see the gray hairs on Apollo’s muzzle and the redness rimming his eyes, I see how stiffly he walks some days, how it sometimes takes two efforts for him to get to his feet, and I ache.” The Friend

Apollo is an unwanted bequest and one that dominates The Friend, just as he dwarfs his new home—a tiny, pet-free apartment. He is the drooling, condoling heart of the book. Nunez’s descriptions of the hulking Great Dane are so rich, so charged with affection, and so real—the redness in the eyes, the arthritic attempts to stand, the owner’s pity—they can only have been written by someone who has spent a lifetime with dogs.

Bark magazine called the novel a “masterful celebration of our relationship with dogs.”

But Nunez doesn’t own a dog.

The best dog book in years was written by a cat person who grew up in a Staten Island housing project that didn’t allow animals.

 Sigrid Nunez
Sigrid Nunez has taught at BU since 2011. As a writer, she says, “you’re always observing.” Chris Sorensen

“I felt the deprivation of that really badly,” says Nunez of her pet-free childhood. “I was an extreme animal lover—that was my passion. They’re all over children’s books and television, so animals and animal ownership became one of the richest things in my inner life.”

Adulthood brought only fleeting brushes with dog ownership; Nunez really does live in a small downtown apartment. Like the narrator of The Friend, Nunez and her college boyfriend had a Dane-shepherd cross: “Not quite as tall as a Dane and with many of a Dane’s traits but with a shepherd’s nerves and aggression,” the narrator says. Eventually, Nunez’s parents did get a dog, a Great Dane, “but I was already out of the house by then.” She barely knew him.

“I don’t think I find anything easier to imagine than the relationship with an animal, than the bond with an animal,” says Nunez, who has taught in BU’s Creative Writing Program since 2011. “People and their dogs are everywhere you look, and as a writer, you’re always observing.

“I certainly didn’t have to do any research. When you really care about something, when you’re really interested in something, I think you’re able to write about it.”

On his first day in the unnamed narrator’s home, Apollo climbs onto her bed, squeezing her out. She sleeps on an air mattress in the “pungent fog of his breath.”

It’s not just the lush descriptions of the dog that resonate, it’s the familial, familiar relationship the narrator and Apollo cultivate: she guards him from passing cars when he does his business in the street; he barks at a texting jogger on a collision course with her.

“I feel completely sure that a large part of the book’s success is because it’s about a dog,” says Nunez. “We do love dogs.”

“Your whole house smells of dog, says someone who comes to visit. I say I’ll take care of it. Which I do by never inviting that person to visit again.” The Friend

The Death

“You write a thing down because you’re hoping to get a hold on it. You write about experiences partly to understand what they mean, partly not to lose them to time. To oblivion. But there’s always the danger of the opposite happening.” The Friend

The Friend is Nunez’s eighth book—her first was 1995’s A Feather on the Breath of God—but it has brought her something new: fame.

Nunez and her publisher had been conservative in their expectations: they reportedly ordered an initial print run of just 10,500.

Then the novel won the National Book Award for Fiction in November 2018. It became a New York Times best seller and Nunez’s mailbox began to overflow with letters from readers. Plenty waxed lyrical about Apollo—a few even wrote to complain that, with a dog on the cover, they expected more about dogs—but most shared their stories of grief and loss, particularly connected to suicide.

Much of the novel is dedicated to the narrator’s private, one-sided conversation with her late friend. She reminisces about their lives together, challenges his womanizing, wonders how long her grief will last and how her life will change, and contemplates the novel’s why: why did you decide to die?

“[Y]ou were not the unhappiest person we knew,” says the narrator. “You were not the most depressed… You were not even—strange as it now sounds to say—the most suicidal.”

Although Nunez says Apollo may be the reason The Friend leaped from critical favorite to best seller, it’s the exploration of grief that gives the novel a lasting power.

“Nunez’s gift to her narrator, to the narrator’s massive companion, and to the reader, is not to banish loss or pretend it can ever be banished,” said Charles Taylor in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “but to take in the warmth of the sun, the lap and sparkle of the water, to allow us the time and space to breathe with the realization that these treasures still exist, even in the face of death.”

By the end of the novel, the you the narrator addresses isn’t her late friend, it’s her current one: Apollo. The two are on vacation together and she’s writing again. They sit on a porch to watch spectacular storms and a man and his dog playing in the surf, sharing a joy in the vitality of life.

Nunez told the New York Times she was drawn to the topic of suicide because so many of her friends seemed to be talking about it—or considering it. As she wrote the book, “one of her friends, a writer, jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge to his death,” the Times reported.

The narrator doesn’t just explore her own grief, she considers the dog’s too: is he still waiting for his late owner to come home?

Great Dane close-up portrait
The star of Sigrid Nunez’s National Book Award–winning The Friend is Apollo, a 180-pound harlequin Great Dane. Gandee Vasan/Getty Images

At one point in the novel, the narrator finds that reading to the dog calms them both.

“So I read on—as clearly and with as much expression as I would to someone who could understand every word. And I too find it soothing: the lyrical prose in my mouth, the great warm gently heaving weight on my legs and feet.”

Apollo starts sniffing for books, bringing them to the narrator and placing them next to her. She wonders if the dog was read to before.

“They don’t commit suicide,” the narrator says of bereaved pets. “They don’t weep. But they can and do fall to pieces. They can and do have their hearts broken. They can and do lose their minds.”

Nunez replies to everyone who writes to her about their loss. Each note is private and personal.

“The dead dwell in the conditional, tense of the unreal. But there is also the extraordinary sense that you have become omniscient, that nothing we do or think or feel can be kept from you.” The Friend

The Writer

“My own first writing teacher used to tell her students that if there was anything else they could do with their lives instead of becoming writers, any other profession, they should do it.” The Friend

Nunez hadn’t planned to write a book about an author. “It’s usually frowned upon,” she says. “People tell you not to do that.” But as the character grew, she could be nothing else. “She developed a certain sensibility and a way of observing things; it would have been completely ludicrous to have her not be a writer. She’s obviously a writer: she thinks like a writer, she sees like a writer.”

The book is packed with allusions to other authors, remembered quotes, and plenty of writing lessons: write about what you see, not what you know; remember the importance of telling details. Besides, Nunez adds, who else would have enough time on their hands to be stuck at home with a dog?

Nunez’s life seeps into the narrator’s. And not just when it comes to the Dane-shepherd crosses of former partners (Nunez quips she did change that dog’s name, “to protect his identity”): she shares her narrator’s weariness of writers more focused on fame than art. But with so much of Nunez in the narrator, what might her own students make of the novel’s withering gibes at the writing profession and the creative writing students jostling to join it? In the novel, writers are ruthless and aggressive; creative writing students exasperating and unreasonable.

 Sigrid Nunez
Nunez encourages her students to confront the things that hold their writing back: “I just find people tend to be extremely timid when they’re inexperienced writers; they dance around something.” Chris Sorensen

“The students in the book aren’t individualized; I didn’t use an actual student,” she says. And her students who have read The Friend have told her they appreciate the novel’s honesty about “the difficulty of trying to be a writer. There’s quite a few things [in the book] that are very familiar to them.”

As well as teaching at BU, Nunez has taught at Columbia, Princeton, and the New School. She dedicates her classes to the editorial process, workshopping stories line by line, looking at their architecture, improving the structure. And she emboldens emerging writers.

“I just find people tend to be extremely timid when they’re inexperienced writers; they dance around something,” she says. “They can’t bring themselves to really tell the story they were trying to tell; they’re afraid of something.”

Nunez helps her students face the something that’s holding them back. She suspects that’s why so many first novels are autobiographical—hers was too. A Feather on the Breath of God described immigrant parents like her own, a workaholic father and homesick mother: “The narrator,” wrote Publisher’s Weekly, “ignored by her father and dominated by her mother—escapes into a perfectionistic, masochistic world of ballet classes and becomes anorexic.”

“Many people have to get that stuff out of the way before they can move on,” says Nunez. “At a certain point, I decided I did want to write about my parents. And I did, and it was difficult. I think that’s when I broke out of this timidity.”

In The Friend, the narrator is held back by her grief— when she finally finds release, the words flow.

If Nunez’s students are stuck for ideas, she might venture a broad prompt—look to your childhood, for example—but prefers to let them find their own stories: “What the writer chooses to write about is sacred. You have to find that material yourself.”

Nunez has settled into a pattern for crafting her books. She writes each linearly, drafting one section, polishing it, then moving to the next. Very little is exorcised at the end. Nunez does much of the writing at home, sometimes in libraries or residencies, but almost all of it in seclusion. She quotes Franz Kafka: “One can never be alone enough when one writes.”

“That’s the way I feel,” says Nunez. “I feel that is so much more important than community for the writer, for this writer.

“It was instilled in me when I was very young, this whole idea of solitude and thinking of writing as a vocation and not a career, not having expectations about community, not having expectations about money certainly, not thinking of it as a business, of publishing as an industry.”

Although Nunez has had a solid following for decades, it’s fair to say the public hasn’t been pestering her for her next book. That might change now, but Nunez thinks her past successes—and her age—take away some of the tension. If The Friend had been her first book or she hadn’t established herself as a writer, she says, the pressure of a National Book Award might have gotten to her. When the awards were announced, she was also deep into her next book (“Like most writers, I don’t want to say anything about it”). “Maybe if I hadn’t been and had no idea what I was going to write next, I would’ve felt more pressure.”

When Nunez accepted her National Book Award, she told the whooping, cheering audience of her love for privacy when writing. But, also how lucky she was to be standing there, “to have discovered that writing books made the miraculous possible: to be removed from the world and to be a part of the world at the same time.”

“Whenever I’d go to a reading I couldn’t help feeling embarrassed for the author. I’d ask myself did I wish that was me up there, and the honest answer was hell no.” The Friend