October 29, 2018KR BlogUncategorized

An Interview With Idra Novey

Idra Novey started her writing career as a poet, and she brings this lyrical sensibility to her two novels, the 2016 Ways to Disappear and her new book, out next week, Those Who Knew. She’s also an accomplished translator of a number of pivotal Brazilian works, including  Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. 

Perhaps as a result of her movements between various linguistic spheres—whether it be poetry and prose or actual different languages—Novey’s novels telegraph the sensation of moving back and forth between different mental landscapes. I was lucky enough to get to speak with her about these different landscapes.

1) Not surprisingly, this novel about power, violence, silence and the theater of politics resonates with our current times. To what extent is Those Who Knew a commentary on our present sociopolitical climate?

By the time I was revising the third section of this novel, the wrecking ball of the 2016 election had occurred. As fiction often becomes, the invented world of Those Who Knew became a place to imagine kinds of justice that felt tragically missing in the reality around me. It has been glorious to see how many other people during those sickening months were also thinking about the urgent need for more women and unrepresented groups to run for public office in the United States, and how many of those people, as Olga does in the novel, have now boldly gone and added their names to ballots all over the country.

The grotesque theater of politics occurring now certainly shaped the risks I took in this novel and how urgently I felt the need to write about complicity and how fear of retaliation has impacted, and continues to impact, victims of assault all over the world.

2) Speaking of the theater of politics, how did you decide to work stage play format into this text? 

At sixteen, I wrote the first—and I think only—student-written play ever performed at my rural high school in Pennsylvania. No one but the parents of the other theater club kids came to the performance but there is a freeing joy in proceeding with a work of art regardless of the size of one’s audience.

Freddy, the playwright in the novel, knows that joy, and the boldness of mind that can come from creating art in a place where there is no support of it. The decision to work in those bits of stage productions emerged after creating Freddy’s character. The more I wrote from his perspective the more necessary his plays became to the larger story and how his irreverent sense of humor becomes a coping mechanism, and, artistically, a form of resilience.

3) It’s so interesting how the play-within-the-novel comments on the novel itself. With its unique perspective on the story, it almost becomes like another character. What did you hope it would add to the text?

I see the comic scenes Freddy writes as belonging to the tradition of the entremes, the satirical one acts that Cervantes and other Spanish playwrights used as interludes during long dramatic plays. The entremes would relate to the darker themes of those plays but with a lighter touch.

Freddy’s cardboard chocolate bars and floating question marks are playful props but they also address his dread and his profound sense of complicity in his brother’s crimes.

4) What were you reading (and watching) as you wrote this novel? What other works were influences? I have my guesses, and you make some overt references, but I’m curious to hear what you have to say.

Shirley Jackson’s second novel, Hangsaman, was a constant presence during the process of writing Those Who Knew. A sexual assault occurs early in the novel, which Jackson’s protagonist, Natalie, never discusses with anyone. That silence shapes Natalie’s escalating sense of social isolation, as it does for Lena, in Those Who Knew. Jackson embeds patronizing letters from Natalie’s father, and the contrast between those letters and Natalie’s reality influenced my decision to add bits of news articles and interviews with Victor, to show the public story that Lena and the other characters in the novel are up against.

5) How does being a poet inform your work as a novelist?

I think in sentences, no matter how long a scene might be. In poetry, the line, or the stanza, is the unit of meaning, and I bring that mode of operating to prose writing, too. I may have a larger action or plot aspect in mind, but I can’t move forward until I streamline and shape each sentence until it rings true to me, and not just in terms of meaning but in terms of tone and rhythm, exactly as I would approach a sentence in a poem.

My pursuit of that kind of exactitude in every sentence is likely why both of my novels are under two hundred and fifty pages. For both, I wrote pages and pages that ultimately, in the final book, took the form of a single twelve-word sentence.

6) Your first novel, Ways to Disappear, deals with the brainteasing topic of translation. You describe the act of translation in that novel so memorably: “She’d remember a morning in Rio as no more than an orange glow over the ocean and use that light to illuminate the strange, dark boats of Beatriz’s images as she ferried them into English.” Like translation, both your novels transport us back and forth between different languages and cultures. You’ve also translated your fair share of books. How did your work in translation come to play while writing Those Who Knew?

Those Who Knew is about power imbalances between countries and which narratives get heard and which don’t, all of which are questions translators think about daily. Alongside this novel, I’ve been co-translating the work of Iranian poet Garous Abdolmalekian with Ahmad Nadalizadeh and the fable-like tone of Garous’s poems, how subtly they allude to who has the power to control what history is said aloud and what history isn’t, was an ongoing influence on the world I created in Those Who Knew.

7) How does your writing in general benefit or expand as a result of this translation passion/pastime?

Every author I’ve translated has expanded my sense of what a sentence can do, and how it can surprise both a reader and the writer who crafted it. Translation demands the deepest kind of reading. When I first began sending out poems for publication in my twenties, I was living in Chile and then Brazil and working as a translator, and I’ve had some kind of translation project going every since. The rewarding back and forth of sounds and ideas that comes from writing while translating continues to be an essential part of my life as a writer. I hope it always will be.