What is the Rapture, in Christian theology? And why are the people of Salvation City so ready to welcome it?

Many Christians believe that, just before the Apocalypse, the saved will ascend bodily to heaven and thus be spared the tribulations of the final battle between good and evil. Christians like those in Salvation City believe that the world has become so perverse and corrupt that it’s clearly time for it to end and for Christ’s reign—which will bring eternal peace and joy to the saved and reunite them with dead loved ones—to begin.


What are “rapture children,” and how do they figure in your story?

This is something I invented. Rapture children are children believed to be endowed by God with special spiritual powers so they can lead others in the countdown to the final battle. I imagined them as a kind of Christian version of New Age so-called indigo children, who are said to possess paranormal powers and extraordinary gifts of intuition and empathy, and whom some people go so far as to call a new, superior type of human being. In my novel, the obsession with rapture children reaches a hysterical pitch in some places with people beseeching the children to pray for them or to advise them in various adult matters. There’s also a growing demand for child preachers. Cole himself is deeply skeptical of these children and their “powers.” Why, he wants to know, are they almost all good-looking and blond?


Salvation City begins at a time in the near future after a global flu pandemic has killed large numbers of people, including both parents of the thirteen-year-old main character, Cole. To what extent would you say your novel belongs to the genre of apocalyptic or dystopian fiction?

My book certainly has elements of both those genres, but it’s also different. Salvation City is really about a near apocalypse and a temporary dystopia. The pandemic is catastrophic, but it doesn’t destroy civilization and most of life on earth, as happens in classic apocalyptic fiction. The disease passes, and life goes on, which is of course what happened after the 1918 flu, the worst disease outbreak in history. In classic dystopian fiction, like 1984, the whole point is to portray the grim, hopeless future that awaits us if we don’t change our evil ways. There’s something of that in my book, which shows what could happen in the event of a pandemic, given how unprepared we are for such a crisis. But though the flu convulses and radically changes America, it doesn’t create some new repressive state as happens in most dystopian fiction. And though I’m interested in the effects of the flu on society, my main concern is how one young boy tries to find his way after being deathly ill, then stranded in an orphanage, and then sent to live in a community completely different from the one he grew up in.


Did your decision to write about a flu pandemic have anything to do with the outbreak of the H1N1 swine flu virus?

No. I started writing this novel in 2007, two years before the swine flu outbreak. Whenever I start a new book I always begin with a character, or a few characters, whose story I want to tell, and I’ve always been interested in writing about people who are facing some kind of extreme situation. I knew I wanted to set the story in the near future so I could play with certain “what if” ideas, something I hadn’t done before, and I knew, of course, that another pandemic like the Great Flu of 1918 was a real and perhaps even imminent possibility. Still, when the swine flu began I was as alarmed as everyone else, and surely more terrified because of all the time I’d just put in imagining the worst. I was doing final revisions then, and for a couples of weeks I was paralyzed, not knowing what to write, or rewrite, while watching the real thing unfold minute by minute.


Why did you choose to write about a young male protagonist this time when in the past most of your fiction has been written from a woman’s perspective?

I wanted to write a novel in which the main character was male simply because it was something I hadn’t done before. And, for the story I wanted to tell, an adolescent protagonist appealed to me. I wanted a character who wasn’t yet set in his beliefs, because Salvation City is largely about the search for belief. And I wanted someone still uncertain about what love means—family love, romantic love—and who doesn’t yet know what he wants to be in life. Cole spends a lot of time drawing comics, for which he has a real gift, and which is his major consolation through bad times. You can easily imagine him growing up to be a graphic novelist. But like most boys his age, he fantasizes a lot about being a hero, and the theme of heroism is very important to the story.


In your previous novel, The Last of Her Kind, you wrote about the social and political upheavals of the 1960s, which you lived through. Do you see parallels between that time and the present, or the near-future in which your novel is set?

The main parallel probably is the polarization of groups, the hardening of positions, the inability of people on different sides to talk to each other, and a tendency among many to automatically demonize whoever doesn’t agree with them.


Cole’s parents are secular liberals while the couple who take him in after he is orphaned are evangelical Christians – about as different as they could possibly be. How hard is it for Cole to come to terms with these vast differences?

It’s very hard, especially since he comes to have such loving feelings for Pastor Wyatt and his wife, Tracy. Perhaps the hardest thing for Cole is that, in his new community, everyone believes that if a person dies without being saved—and the only way to be saved is to worship Jesus—he or she is condemned to eternal suffering. Cole has to decide whether or not to accept this as the truth about his own parents, one of whom was Jewish and neither of whom believed in any religion. And if he can’t bring himself to accept this, how can he still belong among the believers?


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SIGRID NUNEZ has published six novels: A Feather on the Breath of God, Naked Sleeper, Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, For Rouenna, The Last of Her Kind and Salvation City. A memoir about Susan Sontag, Sempre Susan, is forthcoming in spring of 2011. Her work has been in three Pushcart Prize volumes and four anthologies of Asian-American literature, The New York Times, Harper's, McSweeney's, The Believer, The Threepenny Review, Tin House, and O: The Oprah Magazine. She is the recipient of the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Whiting Writer's Award, a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and a residency from the Lannan Foundation. She was the 2000-2001 Rome Prize Fellow in Literature at the American Academy in Rome, and in 2003, she was elected as a Literature Fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In spring 2005, she was the Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. She lives in New York City.

2 responses to “Sigrid Nunez: The TNB 

  1. I love, love, love this book, and have since you read from it at Amherst College last year. And I liked the way you made it, as you put it, a partial apocalypse. I think we live in a time of partial apocalypses.

  2. Gloria says:

    This is a great interview. This sounds like an outstanding book.

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