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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: Less Is More For Lily Tuck

NEW YORK – Lily Tuck lives in a French Second Empire building on the Upper East Side, with an Italianate terrazzo floor in the tiny foyer and a little elevator with a faintly Art Deco interior. Her apartment is carefully appointed, in no one particular style, with classic and modern artworks, abstract and representational, from East and West, all gently balanced. That sense of everywhere, but nowhere in particular, pervades the well-tempered work of Lily Tuck, who won the 2004 National Book Award for her novel The News From Paraguay, a tour of pain, cruelty, delicate love of children and animals, delusion, endurance, and the lure of the exotic. Her American English accent is unplaceable, perhaps because she spoke none before emigrating from France, with her mother, at age 8. “I think that dislocation is a big theme in my stories, people feeling uprooted,” said Tuck, 66, who speaks softly and seems a bit shy of the attention paid since the award. “I feel very rootless. Sometimes I wonder where I’m going to be buried – not that I care, but that I have no place where I really want to be buried.” Her German parents (they were assimilated Jews) had moved to Paris in 1933, where she was born in 1938. Fearing the worst when World War II began, Rodolphe Solmsen, a filmmaker, sent his wife and daughter to Peru, while he spent the war in North Africa with the French Foreign Legion. After several years in Peru and one in Uruguay, Liliane and her mother moved back to France. But her parents divorced, and in 1947 she and her mother took a ship to New York, where she was enrolled, speaking not a word of English, in a private school near where she now lives. “I was in the fourth grade,” she said, “and was terrified of being perceived as a foreigner. I didn’t speak English until I felt that I could speak without an accent.” She spent summers with her father in Italy. She did well in school and went to Radcliffe College, class of 1960. After college, she married an artist, with whom she had three children, and lived for a time in Thailand. That marriage ended, and in 1987 she married Edward Tuck, a New York-based international lawyer who also had three children by a first marriage. “We combined families,” Tuck said. “I have six children and 10 grandchildren.” In 2002, Edward Tuck died of cancer. For years, she had written stories (and one unpublished novel), but with little self-assurance. Then in 1989 she began to work with Gordon Lish, a former Alfred A. Knopf editor who had become a minor legend for his demanding writer’s workshops. Several former Lish students have written disparaging accounts of his eccentric theories and methods, but many others — some of them best-selling writers — have thrived under his influence. Tuck is one. “He not only taught me to write,” she said, “but to comport myself as a writer, to take myself seriously, hold my head up as a writer, without being arrogant or boastful.” After working with Lish, she began to publish stories in The New Yorker and elsewhere. Since 1991 she has published four novels and a short-story collection. Her 1999 novel, Siam, or the Woman Who Shot a Man, was a finalist for the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award. Restraint is a hallmark of Tuck’s writing. It has violence, pain, and vivid scenes, but her narrators, even when speaking in the first person, have a coolness, like someone in a balloon floating over a landscape, looking down with high-powered binoculars. Tuck calls it “distance, staying on the surface of things,” and attributes it partly to Lish’s influence: “Don’t explain; let the readers draw their own conclusions.” Her novels are brief, and all but The News From Paraguay have a similar phrase in the title: Interviewing Matisse, or the Woman Who Died Standing Up, and The Woman Who Walked on Water. All, and most of the stories, concern women out of place or at fault (in the tectonic sense) with the people around them. They don’t quite fit. The News From Paraguay is Tuck’s first historical novel. It concerns Irish-born Parisienne beauty Eliza Lynch, who in 1854 became the mistress of Francisco Solano Lopez, the future dictator of Paraguay on a mission to France to buy arms. She returns with him to Paraguay, bears his five sons, and suffers through Lopez’s catastrophic 1864-69 war against Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil — known as the War of the Triple Alliance, which devastated the country. Published last spring to mixed reviews (which Tuck says is publisher-ese for “bad reviews”), the book in October was named one of five finalists for the National Book Award, and immediately became embroiled in one of the odder literary controversies in recent times. All the finalists (Tuck, Christine Schutt, Kate Walbert, Joan Silber, and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum) were women from New York, all their books are fairly short, and none had sold more than a few thousand copies. Some publishers grumbled and a few critics complained that the judges were trying to thumb their noses at the literary establishment by favoring what some considered minor books by minor writers. Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley offered his own best-five list — all well-known male writers — and sniffed, “My own view is that the literary judgment of the . . . panelists was clouded by their desire to Make a Statement.” Tuck did not take it personally, though she thought it was personal in one sense. “It wasn’t the work that was being criticized,” she said, “it was more about us, that we were unknown and not popular. I felt the criticism was totally invalid. I have paid my dues as a writer. The fact that we should be attacked because we hadn’t sold enough books was absurd.” But in the end, she said, “it didn’t really affect me. It brought more attention, so I sold more books as a result, and drew all of us together, and now the other women and I are friends.” HarperCollins, Tuck’s publisher, rushed 15,000 more hardcover and 80,000 paperback copies of The News From Paraguay into print, five months ahead of schedule. Since her children have grown and her husband has died, Tuck no longer rents spaces in which to write. Her small office has books and a long row of family photos. “Writing allows me to think,” she said. “When I write, I know what I am thinking. I work pretty much all day, very slowly, spending a lot of time staring at the walls. I don’t believe in having a view. I hardly ever go out to lunch.” In the summer, she lives on a small island in Maine’s Penobscot Bay, where she also writes, though no more easily than in New York, despite the surroundings. “I have to think about taking my trash to another island,” she said, “whereas in New York I just put it outside the door.” She loves Paris and Italy (she speaks French and Italian) but is more at home in New York. Still, her roots are in other beings, and in the careful making of thoughts in sentences. She loves a verse by the French poet Paul Celan, and used it as the epigraph in her story collection “Limbo, and Other Places I Have Lived”: “In the air, that’s where your roots are, over there, in the air.” “I feel very close to my family,” she said, “very supported and loved by them. My work and my family are the two things that center me. Not place, not objects. Everything here looks very nice,” she said, indicating the elegant small living room with a yellow fireplace at one end, “but it’s not something I’m obsessed about. If you were to smash that plate” – pointing to a porcelain bowl on the coffee table – “I would be upset, but wouldn’t worry about it. Less is more. I like to get rid of stuff.”

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