I first met Idra Novey nearly three years ago, when she visited my MFA class to discuss her debut novel, Ways To Disappear. Over the course of two and a half hours, the celebrated translator, poet, and then-new fiction writer discussed the challenges of beginning to write fiction; writing while also translating other works; and the particulars of the art of translation: how it taught her to value not only other languages, but the nuances of other cultures. Her sharp intellect, genuine warmth, and probing mind make her a superb conversationalist and teacher. I (and my class) was wholly smitten with both her and her thrilling novel.
Novey’s two works of fiction are thrilling indeed—they toe the lines of mystery, thriller, crime, and political caper, and each contain surprise elements (untranslated dialogue in Ways To Disappear, meta-fiction in Those Who Knew) that make them delicious to lovers of more intricate, yet fast-paced and engaging fiction. There is always more than meets the eye to Novey’s writing. Her latest book and second of fiction, Those Who Knew, feels particularly relevant now. Set on an unnamed island ten years after the collapse of an oppressive regime, supported by an also unnamed, but powerful and highly recognizable northern country, it follows several characters embroiled in the murder of a young political activist on the island. The implications of silence are a focus: Who gets silenced, and how complicity in silence can be its own form of violence. Power imbalances are laid out, and those responsible for them taken to task; Novey makes it clear just how much the unnamed, great northern nation has to atone for. In a time when America feels particularly problematic, and when women have continued the tradition of stepping up to call out injustices, Those Who Knew shines as a book firmly of the moment, with indelible lessons to be learned about the consequences of actions large and small–ours and those we witness.
Novey’s global perspective is informed by her studies in Brazil and experience teaching in Chile for several years; she also translates in Portuguese and Spanish. Lately, Novey has been assisting on works by Iranian poet Garous Abdolmalekian. This all makes her, and her writing, particularly attuned to U.S. foreign relations and the ways America has influenced, affected, and attempted to control the fates and futures of other countries. We discussed this, as well as the book, over dinner in Brooklyn where she lives shortly before the release of Those Who Knew.
–Mickie Meinhardt for Guernica
Guernica: When did you start writing Those Who Knew? What was the genesis of it?
IN: I have my first notes from 2014, about four years ago. I came across this story of a rape case that happened in Steubenville, Ohio, and there was a football coach who was present when a student was raped by two football players. And he did nothing. I started thinking about how people justify inaction to themselves. I was really interested in writing a novel about complicity, grappling with the personal and collective. And I deepened those thoughts with what they have to do with patriarchy, and who has the onus to take on that complicity and who thinks they’re above it. I knew that I had to look at the aftermath of that complicity, and of feeling pushed into silence as Lena, the protagonist is. Your relationship to that silence can change, so I knew the novel had to take place over a bigger span of time. That was a very different challenge, to figure out how the novel had to move quickly and also jump in time in a coherent way.
Guernica: You’re very familiar with Latin American countries and politics—is that why you set it where you did?
IN: I grew up in Appalachia—my family has been there for several generations—but I find that I don’t feel freest writing about that region. And with the life I’ve had living in Chile and Brazil, and in Spanish and Portuguese, I somehow think about things in a different way. I don’t get quite as stuck. But the book isn’t explicitly set anywhere. Margaret Atwood has a really interesting piece she wrote about The Handmaid’s Tale, where she says she took from a number of incidents that were happening in other countries behind the Iron Curtain, and everything that had happened in the book had actually happened somewhere.
Guernica: I read that—none of it was outside the realm of reality.
IN: Exactly. And I would say everything else in the book is within the realm of reality. The benefit of setting a book in an unnamed, invented country is you can look at patterns. Patterns that have happened other places. Patterns in abuses of power, in power imbalances, and of patriarchal cycles of crimes without consequences. I looked at them so any reader could bring their own knowledge to them from places they’ve lived in or read about.
Guernica: Also, there’s hindsight. You’re getting to connect the dots in the present, but instead of just thinking of them as things that happened, you’re getting to use them and point out what could happen again.
IN: Yes! And I felt freer writing about it in this other place. Allowed to think about these larger patterns. All these things happen within the realm of reality, but that I could combine them and escalate them within the realm of the book.
Guernica: Did you have a structure? How did you set this up and where did you start writing?
IN: I have an extremely inefficient approach to writing [fiction], I think because I come from poetry. If you start a poem and it doesn’t come easily to you, you just delete it and start over, or at least I do. And I tend to do that as a fiction writer, too, which means by the time I have a page I’ve probably written ten versions that I didn’t use. Sometimes I’ll know that the nugget of what I want is there on the page and then I’ll edit it, but sometimes I know I’m getting at it in the wrong way and trying to keep it would actually lead to a weaker page than if I just started it again.
Guernica: It does get to a point—I’ve certainly been there—where you know you just need to start it all over.
IN: It’s less work sometimes. I tell my students to think about a term from economics: Sunk costs. Once you’ve sunk costs into an enterprise, whether it’s a short story or a business, you don’t want it to go to nothing, so you keep pouring more energy and more effort into it. But actually more effort isn’t going to save it. It may be that this didn’t work out, and it would be better to put my effort and energy into something else rather than to keep sinking more simply because I’ve kept at it and am invested in this piece emotionally. Sometimes you keep working on something just because you already have been.
Guernica: Well, you’re mentally investing in it. You can delete the physicality of it and still have all of that mental energy that you’ve put into it and know, because you’ve already done all this work, what it needs. It doesn’t need the physical attachment to improve, at that point.
IN: It feels almost superstitious—all those versions that you do, reiterating the same thing over and over and you can’t quite get it. You have been synthesizing over and over in that previous document the kernel of what it is you want to say, so when you move to a new document, you can probably say it more powerfully and more succinctly. That’s the nice thing about working in a number of genres. You start to know yourself and how you get to your best writing.
Guernica: I like that a lot, learning yourself from various genres.
IN: I just know myself better as a writer. It’s easier to take risks because I have a sense of how to surprise myself. You have to make yourself a little uneasy to get to something new. Between having translated different writers or having written in different genres, I try to stay open to that kind of play. You can’t lose it. If there isn’t a sense of joy for the writer, there isn’t going to be one for the reader. If the material isn’t going in one way, to pull back, open a new document and say, “Okay, I’m going to try this another way.” As you said, you still have this in your mind. It’s not like it belongs to the Word document, it belongs to you. It goes with you.
I was talking to a friend today about how maybe you don’t want to wash your hair because you’re worried that all of the ideas will fall out of your head with the water. But of course, what’s in your mind stays in your mind. I do think there’s this superstitious feeling of moving between documents or blasting water on your head you’ll somehow lose what’s in your mind. Maybe that’s because we’re in a very distracted time and it feels like you can turn on your phone and lose whatever’s in your mind.
Guernica: Do you have that anxiety? That you might lose an idea and so you need to write it down?
IN: I take a lot of notes down on my phone. A lot of [Those Who Knew] I wrote when I was going to festivals for my first novel and travelling on planes. And I could not stop working on this novel. I never wrote anything with as much irrepressible urgency. I was writing it in my head, I was writing it in airports, on planes, in hotel rooms. I feel like I almost lived in this novel more than I lived where I was. It really sort of overtook me. I think to really stay in an invented place you need to give yourself over to it that way. Going to all these writer festivals and staying at hotels, it was kind of a perfect way to stay in the world of the novel. I would wake up and not know where I was. And I would say, “Of course I know where I am, I’m in the port city of my novel.” So I could just sit down in my pajamas and keep going. I think there’s a reason a lot of writers, when they get a little off track, go and stay in a hotel. It’s a special space.
Guernica: What’s your preferred method of writing?
IN: I love to write at that hour in the morning before anyone is expecting anything from you, and before you’re expecting anything from yourself. The early hour. It’s hard to accomplish because I have two children and we have a small apartment. When I was working on this novel, even though I was exhausted the rest of the day, I woke up pretty early. Around 5:30, 6:00am sometimes. Just to keep going. I really did feel this sense that I had to keep staying with these characters.
I think part of it was writing my way into Victor. It was very uncomfortable. But I felt the novel needed it, to inhabit this man, to understand how he would justify his life, how he would be emboldened by the lack of consequences. It was cathartic, oddly. The person who usually writes the narrative gets to be written by somebody else. That’s a subversive act in a way.
Guernica: As writers, I think we resist tension in our own brains, so if you have a character who feels more comfortable, like Lena or Olga or even Christina, I’m sure it was easier to go and inhabit that brain space again.
IN: And that’s why I couldn’t stop working on it. I had to get rid of that tension I had with the story and those characters. I needed to keep going back. But I don’t think I lost that tension until well after I finished the book. It was a bit like being possessed.
Guernica: I don’t know if possession is the key to writing a great book, but you feel the energy go through this novel. Having read Ways To Disappear, I felt like there were accidentally quite a lot of similarities. I don’t know if this was your intention, but both have this mystery/thriller sort of air.
IN: I like bending genres, absolutely. With both books, I was very interested in women who go unseen. Crimes that go untried. I think the way power balances between countries and also between people is probably something I’ll always go back to.
Guernica: It’s an easy tension line to run thrings across because someone is always on one side of that power.
IN: It’s also a lens. A way to see things and understand who gets silenced and why. When you think of literature in some ways as the return of the repressed, you can think about whose truth is being repressed and how that manifests.
Guernica: Is politics something that feel necessary to you in your writing, or is it kind of unconscious?
IN: I grew up in a house where we were always talking about politics. My parents volunteered a lot. I remembered my dad writing letters for the Anti-Defamation League when I was a kid and talking about what was happening. Always reading the newspaper. Very engaged in issues of injustice. So I think I always thought that that was an imperative, to take the education and the privilege that you have in order to fight for the people who don’t have it. I just couldn’t imagine being any other kind of writer. I grew up in a way where anything you did, you would bring that sense of urgency to try and create more justice for people who don’t have it. That would have been an imperative in any field I would have gone into.
When I was in my MFA program, a teacher said to me, in poetry, “Idra, this poem is so political. I don’t know who’s interested in this kind of thing anymore.” As if addressing U.S. behavior abroad, our policies abroad, was passé. As if it only belonged to a certain decade of American poetry and we were done with it. As if we’re ever done with injustice! And I knew that was wrong.
Guernica: I think there was an abiding sense of that. I do wonder what will come out of our current climate because I think we’re finally in a space where people realize how important this writing is again.
IN: What we need is not just to read ourselves but to read what people have lived through elsewhere. People say, “Oh, what we’re living through in this country is unprecedented!” Well, it’s unprecedented for this country. But it’s not anywhere else. I think that this is maybe even a time when it’s especially important for us to engage in literature from other places and learn from it. You know, we intervened in the elections of other countries. Then another country intervened in ours—but we invented the tactic! That was our own trick coming back to haunt us. I think a lot of what is happening is coming back to haunt us from the kinds of interventions we have done elsewhere. And an important part of this book for me was the long shadow of U.S. intervention in countries all around us.
Guernica: That scene when Oscar and Lena get into a fight felt very much like a pointed critique of the United States, though not undeserving. For you, someone who is very steeped in what this country has done to other countries but yet is from this country, how does it feel to write something like that?
IN: Oscar, the northerner, came to me very early on. I realized he had to be a counter, and that his ignorance had to have some real-life consequences. I had a sense that this tourist would have to come into the novel and his wandering around in a country where his government intervened would come back to haunt him in a serious way.
That scene was really about exploring my own complicity. I was in Panama once, going to go see the Panama Canal, but it was closed because it was the day that the U.S. army had killed some Panamanian students who were protesting. And I really felt that in the deepest way, how every year they were marking the death of these students who were killed by my government and we don’t know or learn anything about that.
That’s certainly happened for me, too, living in Brazil, and these past four years I’ve been co-translating poems by an Iranian poet—that Guernica published!—Garous Abdolmalekian.
Guernica: Right. And you didn’t know Persian before?
IN: I didn’t. I sort of do the alchemy once my co-translator, Ahmad Nadalizadeh, gets a first draft. Working with Ahmad and learning about Iranian literature and history, and a lot about U.S. interventions in Iran, expanded my sense of how often in the United States we go through our entire educations without any sense of how we’ve impacted the realities of these other countries. You could go through your whole life in this country and never have any idea that this country has intervened anywhere. We just don’t make it part of our education. I wanted Oscar to embody that—to be this wandering American who has no sense of his own country’s history.
Guernica: You mentioned interest in the parable form—what part of that did you work into this book?
IN: The sense of timelessness. [I was] trying to create a place where the story is playing out concurrent with our reality, but also has been playing out all over the world for a long time. So you have a sense of this island existing in your reality always. I think that’s what a parable can do. It feels like it’s pressing up close to you but that it will always go on next to you.
Guernica: The truths of it will always be true.
IN: Yes! I didn’t expect it to coincide with what’s playing out in our national politics. And then to see it play out with someone nominated for the Supreme Court in my own country was gruesome. It’s eerie.
Guernica: The book did feel awfully prescient—so much is about holding people and power accountable. Does it feel strange that all of a sudden there is this moment of accountability happening in real life?
IN: I don’t know if full accountability has come yet; certainly not for much of the administration. It just emboldens even more egregious, dangerous behavior. And promotes facism all over the world. You look what’s happening with Bolsonaro in Brazil and Duterte in the Philippines and how our government is enabling the consolation of power in these other countries. That’s scary.
Something I haven’t talked about that I wanted to mention—there are these lakes full of pig shit in the novel, and in North Carolina after the hurricane, there were actual lakes of pig shit that overflowed. It seemed like such a rich metaphor for political corruption, and of all the times in American history for us to have overflowing pig shit lakes to be during the Trump administration—it is so apt. It seemed like art manifesting life in the literal, smelliest possible way. I’m alarmed that our country has become so surreal and hyperbolic in its egregious injustices as something you would put in a novel.
Guernica: To bring it back to Margaret Atwood, it’s nothing that is far from reality. Still, you don’t expect it to become reality. Did you have imaginations on what might have happened later?
IN: I wrote further and then pulled back. When a book doesn’t write it all out for you, you have to continue it in your head and it pulls you deeper into those characters and those questions of the novel. And it it’s tied up too neatly it’s easier to push the questions of the book away.
Guernica: Also when it ends like that, you start to fill it in yourself and realize how you actually felt about these characters. Because you were following along and in their world so deeply, and when you’re cut off from it you feel an immediate swelling of emotion that tells you how you felt about the whole.
IN: I do think when a book leads you up to a cliff you have to say, “Okay, who am I jumping with?” And grab whatever there is on that cliff and go out with as a reader. To me, that is the most gratifying experience of a novel. I think we’re in a time of great uncertainty and to end something with certainty feels maybe less emotionally true.