A Conversation Between Idra Novey and Liv Lansdale
Liv Lansdale: Thinking of Exit, Civilian, the absence of certain women from civil society seems to be a thru line in your work. How would you describe your relationship with absence?
Idra Novey: That’s been a theme in all my books. With one of the first poems I wrote, I was living in Chile and I was volunteering at a domestic violence shelter, doing a writing workshop there. At the same time I was learning about these murders of women in a mining town up north and no one was investigating it. The media had assumed that maybe all the girls were prostitutes because they happened to be outside when they were murdered. No one looked into it because they didn’t come from wealthy families, their families didn’t have any political influence, no one did anything about these serial murders in this mining town and there were seven or eight of them. Everyone knew this prostitute assumption was an excuse not to investigate. I was reading about it and it was so upsetting. I was working in this domestic violence shelter and taking down women’s narratives, thinking about my own childhood in Appalachia. The town I grew up in was listed as one of the worst places in America to live in as a single woman. All this prompted me to think about how we confine women in definitions that are stifling, both for them and for how we incorporate them into society, how much of themselves we allow them to see.
There was this great piece in the New York Times Book Review about how women who play their instruments behind a curtain are more likely to get a seat in an orchestra. Because they’re missing. We can only hear their music when they’re unseen. I think that stayed with me because it’s something I was trying to write in Ways to Disappear: Once [Beatriz] was missing, people could hear her work, the language. I think it’s very similar to that orchestra.
LL: It’s like Ferrante fever!
IN: If we could see Ferrante and she was my character’s age—mature—there would be no Ferrante fever. Because we would see her physical body. And once you remove the female body, you can see the art. And not think of the fact that it came from a female body that didn’t look like the body you saw on your porn video recently. If you tend to objectify the female body in a dismissive way, then any art that comes from a female body you would also be maybe more inclined to dismiss. So if you were to remove the female body, and all you’re hearing is the music behind the curtain, as I think has happened with Ferrante, is I think what I was trying to explore in the novel and what happened with those orchestra tryouts.
Alex Chee put something up on Facebook that he retweeted—it was a picture of a woman probably in her eighties with white hair and she was holding a sign that said, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.”
LL: Maybe behind the curtain they also have the confidence to play as themselves, and not feel self-conscious as women.
IN: Hmm, to not be confined by gender. In this book, I often thought about how I’d be defined—would people see me differently because I’m a translator, would they see me differently because I’m a female translator, because I’m a female translator with children, or because I’m married, and I’m an American. I was just so aware of how all these filters confine you and how your work is read. It’s a loss for everybody.
LL: I’m remembering the David Denby review of Wild, and this irrelevant comment he made about the difference between Reese Witherspoon’s body and Cheryl Strayed’s.
So much crime and chance in this book, it’s tempting to read it broadly as a meditation on agency. Was the dispute over whether a phrase should be translated as “can’t __” or as “won’t __” related to that reading, or was it more coincidental?
IN: No, I think about agency as an author, agency as a translator, agency as a person: Do you have the agency to resist the definitions imposed on you? That’s a central question for Beatriz in that story, why he makes off for the trees—he had so little agency in what gender he presents himself as in society. And for him as an author, his sense of agency. And I think for Emma, to redefine herself even though people are trying to restrict her.
LL: That was something notable about her boyfriend’s emails—he kept saying things like “This isn’t your life, this isn’t you.”
IN: He was imposing that definition on her.
LL: That’s how you psych out a frail person: just say “This is unlike you.”
IN: And they depend on you to know who they are, they need your definition.
LL: Is this book going to be translated?
IN: It’s coming out in German, French, Italian, and in the UK in July.
LL: Not Spanish?
IN: There are editors really interested in Spanish, but they take longer. It’s only been out for a month, today. I think with debut fiction they’re more likely to wait to see the reception of a debut novel after it’s out.
I also just set a time to meet with a film agent, so that’s pretty exciting. I think he wants to represent the book.
LL: Any particular reason why Beatriz takes to the trees?
IN: I had to be three different places on the same day and I thought to myself, what if I got in a tree and just chilled and read. Then I got fixated on that as a solution to conflicting demands.
LL: It struck me as a charmingly inefficient way to run away.
IN: But it’s traceless! If you construct or concoct an illogical vanishing, you can’t be traced. A really crazy thing happened: I did a reading at BookCourt and a woman told me that her father had read my book and disappeared. She went on and on, then she said her mother was upset that he’d read this book and vanished. Then we talked for a while and I felt terrible that her father had read my book and disappeared and then she told me that it actually came out in December. Then she said “It can’t be my book, because it came out in February.” It turned out he actually had read How to Disappear, which is a book about how to vanish without a trace. I don’t think he recommends the tree!
LL: It only now occurs to me that “disappear” is a politically charged word for the book’s setting.
IN: Definitely. Disappearing as something that can be done by others. “Disappeared.”
LL: I was interested in the idea of a character finding herself enacting a scene another character had begun to write; it felt like Jose Saramago, or one of Borges’s ficciones.
IN: Those are both definitely influences. And Cortázar, I love Cortázar. I see my book as, I hope, in conversation with them. I think it’s good to be influenced by someone who’s writing in another tradition or another language. That can give you the space to inhabit a theme in your own way. I read a book that’s not American and I can do my own thing with it because I’m not so close.
LL: Did you try to write the action scene in prose or did you know from the get-go you’d have a poem there?
IN: I wrote the book in sections and I told myself if I couldn’t get excited about a scene I was writing I would just delete it. I’m a deleter. I think I approached it as a poet—if something wasn’t compelling to me, why would it be compelling to a reader? If there was something that I in a formal way as a writer wasn’t excited to be working on, then I’d switch it up and do something else. No surprise for the writer, then no surprise for the reader. That may be why I kept inventing forms as I went: it kept me interested in the book. I didn’t get the memo about what you’re supposed to do in fiction. I just didn’t want the memo.
LL: I thought it worked well because poetry offers a kind of immediacy. No one has the mental space to compose complete sentences when they’re in an action scene anyway.
IN: I think violence happens in discrete fragments and it’s very bodily. I don’t think it has a coherent narrative. You hear a cry, you feel the something on your arm, you feel the twitch of a rat tail on your ankle . . . when I picture the scene, it was sensorial fragments: What do you hear, what do you smell, what do you taste. That’s how we experience violence, how I experience it.
LL: Do you consider poetry a more bodily form than prose?
IN: We allow poetry to get at the essence of things without connective tissue, but with most conventional fiction there’s an expectation of connective tissue. I’m just not interested in connective tissue. I wonder if in 2016, when we have six tabs on our computers open all the time, and we’re used to jumping between things, if that Victorian model where you have to take the character into the party then down the hall, then take off his coat . . . just get to the dance floor! Right? I don’t need to see anyone take his coat off, I just want to get to the revolution.
LL: I’m always interested in how visible writers themselves become, once the book is out, and how that visibility is received. Remember Jeffrey Eugenides’s Marriage Plot billboard? It was good to see the literary community’s outrage when Ferrante was doxed, but at the same time, I’ve witnessed discomfort or even disapproval directed at women writers who are particularly vocal on Twitter, such as Jennifer Weiner, or even Roxane Gay
IN: I’ve experienced that, as a woman alone somewhere, the sense that I could vanish here without a trace. I think in the age of constant online availability, there’s a real appeal. I was on the Leonard Lopate show a couple weeks ago and Cory Booker had been the guest before me. When I came out he said “Oh, my whole interview I saw your book next to Leonard Lopate on the counter and I kept looking at it and thought, ‘Sometimes I’d like to disappear!’” I just said “Me too, Senator Booker. Me too.”
LL: That’s been a recurring theme in the online dating interviews I’ve been doing—people feel the temptation to check in on an ex’s twitter feed or Instagram. You can see the world through their eyes. And that’s becoming a widely recognized response to loss, like an unofficial stage of grief.
IN: And there are so many constructed selves with those apps. How can you show how pleasing your mind is? We’re all these floating brains trying to please each other! It’s kind of crazy! I don’t have a body, I’m just a series of photographs trying to please you. It’s such a disembodied thing. But then, that’s what art is probably, also.
LL: Well, that’s what I find appealing about social media: It can make inadvertent artists outd of ostensibly ordinary people.
IN: It’s democratic that way.
LL: Do you know Jennifer Egan’s book, Look at Me?
IN: Yes. That character who was transfigured for the rest of her life. It really makes you think about how appearance defines who you are. I think that’s why Elena Ferrante is invisible: She’s playing her music behind the curtain. Our generation, you couldn’t get away with that.
LL: I’m interested in credibility. Would the Brazilian media really make such a kerfuffle over the disappearance of a novelist?
IN: It’s meant to be cinematic and stylized. I saw Hector Tobar after he went to Brazil, and he’d read the book before he went. He said he thought I was poking fun at the Brazilian media, and how sensationalist and over-the-top they are.
LL: I liked how the radio broadcaster was the Greek chorus.
IN: He was like a Greek chorus! No one ever said that.
LL: What informed your decision to have so many different types of text? Did you want the reader to think about them?
IN: I wanted them to bleed together because I think the translator’s voice and the writer’s voice bleed together. And with Portuguese and English, if you speak both and you’re switching between them, the voice you have in another language won’t be the same as your other voice. There’s a lot I was trying to explore around that. I speak Spanish at home with my family. I’m a different person a little bit when I’m cursing in Spanish than when I’m cursing in English. I do think expletives are culturally specific. I’ll be speaking Spanish, then drop something hot on my foot and I’ll definitely swear in English.
I wonder about how our own voices switch, and how a different language informs how we talk about ourselves. Emma talks about how she expresses herself and explains her life to Beatriz differently in Portuguese than she had in English. So I think you can be freer. You can redefine yourself when you’re using a new set of verbs and a new syntax.
LL: Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received was from Jenny Offill, who suggested finding great sentences and replicating their syntax over and over. Introducing new syntax into your consciousness, whole new plots and characters can emerge.
IN: . . . which is why I translate. Because you get to do exactly that. You get to be Dostoevsky. Or whoever you admire. That’s why I think translation is the best apprenticeship for a writer. It’s so much cheaper than an MFA, and you can get it anywhere!
LL: That brings me to the section where Emma comes up with all these synonyms for “translate.” There, and at other moments, I found myself assuming you were writing figuratively when you were actually writing literally. Like when you wrote that Emma and her boyfriend had “run together five years” and then you’re talking about how sweaty they get. I love that ambiguity. When we talk about Emma, it sounds like she was jumping off the material she was translating . . . could you clarify exactly what was happening there? Here: “She’d learned to type for long stretches without ever looking, trusting her fingers to key in the words, looking back over what she’d typed with magic and seeing that she’d accurately translated. There was no reason to believe that her fingers couldn’t comply with a similar kind of magic when the words she was typing happened to be her own.” Is it reading too much into this to see this as a coming-of-age moment, maybe even autobiographical? Does this passage resemble a moment in your career as a translator where you decided “I can do this”?
IN: Well, I had written two books of poems before I started translating: a chapbook that Carolyn Forché picked for the Poetry Society of America, and I had an MFA in poetry. I think I’m not like Emma in that she spent her whole life translating one writer, and I’ve never translated more than one book by anyone. I’m like a noncommittal dater. But I think all the books I chose to translate I chose for the reason behind Jenny Offill’s advice: I was looking for sentences or poems I admired, that I thought could improve my own writing. I would inhabit the syntax and cadence of a writer I could learn from, then try that syntax in my own language. The first book I translated, I had less than a year, which just wasn’t right; I wanted to mull over my choices and create a space for her in the canon where she belongs. But I understood why they wanted to rush so I would read and type at the same time, and that got me writing with more alacrity than I had as a poet. Because I had this looming deadline. I had to just keep on going, and let my fingers build the rhythm.
LL: When I first began writing I typed out all of Barrico’s Silk.
IN: I kept thinking of it!
LL: Another story with an absent woman—she never speaks.
IN: I loved what a cipher she is, the woman at the center of that book. So many ciphers. Elena Ferrante’s a cipher, and a translator. I wrote an essay for LitHub called “Writing While Translating,” that addressed the suspicions that Elena Ferrante may be a translator. I think the reason she probably is is if you’re a translator, you’re not in it to get your picture in the book. You’re in it for the words alone, for the joy of working with language. And that’s why I think she wouldn’t need to be in public: because I think she prefers being behind the curtain. Something about her syntax. Cortazar was a translator also, for Ionesco. I do think there’s something about her sentences that feels like she’s translated some German. There’s something Bernardian in her prose style that I think is probably from practicing the German language until she found her voice in Italian that doesn’t sound like anyone else. You have to be patient, figuring out the syntax of your own voice. I think you’re less likely to come up with a singular voice that doesn’t sound like your peers if you’re only reading in English.
LL: That’s such a funny approach to text. It’s like you’re sampling perfumes: “Oh there’s a whiff of German from this Italian book.”
IN: Ha. I feel like she’s Germanifying Italian syntax.
LL: Were you always bilingual?
IN: No, I grew up in Pennsylvania. We were monolingual. But we had two Spanish-speaking exchange students who lived with us for a year. And for most of high school we took vacations in Spanish-speaking places. So I think it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. And I went to Barnard as an undergrad and I couldn’t do the English Department—I was like, I gotta go to Comp Lit.
LL: There haven’t been too many works of fiction that have broken into poetry, as Ways does—in fact 10:04 and Pale Fire are all I can think of.
IN: I guess that’s true; there aren’t too, too many. Ben Lerner and I both come from the prose poem tradition. You can see the narrative impulse in his poems. You can see how he would later be drawn to expand on that impulse and write a novel. For me, I found myself writing these sort-of fables. I love the prose poem form, so the fables had a bunch of discrete sections.
LL: Like a collage of poems.
IN: Yes! In fact, the first sections of this book were a lot like prose poems.
LL: Who’s doing the best job these days of advocating for translators?
IN: Susan Harris at Words Without Borders. Scott Esposito at the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco. And Barbara Epler at New Directions, who just won that PEN Award, is doing great things. Also, Bridget Hughes at A Public Space does a great job of reaching out to find works of translation. A story she chose from a Chilean writer ended up becoming a Ploughshares story of the week.
LL: Was the process of writing Ways to Disappear in any way unique for you?
IN: Yes. This book was a place for me to be as free as an artist as I wanted to be. I worked on it for several years without telling anyone about its existence. I was off the grid, and that made me braver as a writer.
LL: I hear that from women writers so much more than from men—this tendency to separate a project from her public life, to dive into it discreetly.
IN: No one wants to be defined. Beatriz felt her translators and editors had defined her as a certain kind of writer, and those designations constricted her as a writer. Labels can impede the truest work you can do.