Stuart Nadler: The Book That Changed My Life

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Portrait by Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

Stuart Nadler's fiction explores the complex and sometimes frustrating nature of family. His first novel, Wise Men, focused on the tense relationship between a father and son, while his follow-up, The Inseparables, dives into the family life of a cult-favorite fiction writer. Nadler’s work taps into a classic strain of literary fiction: one that picks apart the messiness of emotions and human connections and finds resonant drama within. We talked with Nadler about his book, along with the work that’s had the greatest influence on it.

What is the one book (or one of the books) that you feel has changed your life?

There are too many to list here without sounding like a weird kind of biblio-robot, but certainly The Stories of John Cheever, or Anna Karenina, or Herzog by Saul Bellow, or Alice Munro’s Selected Stories, or Michael Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys, or any of Philip Roth’s Zuckerman novels, or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or, more recently, a book like Laura van den Berg’s staggeringly excellent Isle of Youth are books that when I read them, or reread them, changed the way I approached my work or changed the way I felt in the world.

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Is it something that you find yourself revisiting over the years?

Some of these books I’ve read over and over for years. I’m onto my second copy of Wonder Boys, and my copy of John Cheever’s stories has moved with me across eight states and has the scars to show. For a long while when I was younger I kept a stack of some of these books on my desk while I wrote. Sometimes, if I was stuck, or despairing over the day’s work, I’d find myself flipping through, if only to remind me what I love about writing and reading, and why I do it.

In the background of The Inseparables is a decades-old book that has had a significant effect on many of its readers. Were you channeling any of your own experience with life-changing books in writing about Henrietta's?

What fascinated me most about Henrietta’s book as I drafted it was the way its success haunted her. She considers the book a failure, even though it was a wild commercial success. She’d hoped the book would usher her into a certain kind of intellectual echelon. Of course, the book was terrible, and the sort of people she’d hoped would read it instead scorned it. The shame that emerged from this dynamic was what interested me, how shame follows you, how its shadow will always outrun you.

Did you have a specific work in mind as a model for the history of the book within the book?

I’ve always thought of Henrietta’s book as an unsavory mash-up of Jacqueline Susan’s Valley of the Dolls, with, say, The Joy of Sex. It’s important to remember that Henrietta’s book was full of lewd, hand-drawn diagrams.

Among the subplots in The Inseparables is the history and decline of a high-end restaurant, which is at times wrenching to read. What inspired this particular subplot?

For one, I found myself interested in how pervasive food culture had become. Everyone everywhere it seemed was watching the same five cooking competitions, and all at once people began to acquire all these discerning notions about every aspect of the culinary world: what breed of chicken was best; what butter to use when making whatever Belgian shortbread cookie you’d heard about. On some level this was fun and maybe charming, and then the networks began to produce child versions of these shows. I remember watching some pint-sized nine-year-old salt-crust a branzino, and wondering, possibly out loud, how a nine-year-old even knew what a branzino was? Were they teaching this now in the fourth grade? But then I began to wonder about how a seasoned, classically trained, middle-aged chef would feel about this new cultural fad, especially if that chef had a failing restaurant. By then, I’d begun to notice all the near-empty restaurants in all the cities I traveled to: waitstaff looking out imploringly at me as I walked by. There was something in that expression that stuck with me, that hope that I might come inside and eat whatever they had cooking — food that they’d been making for years, or decades, or generations, and for some reason had stopped being popular. Eventually this feeling wormed its way into this book.

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