Idra Novey: I Didn’t Want to Write an Obituary for Appalachia
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
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On writing about Appalachia:
Idra Novey: It took me a long time to figure out what exactly I wanted to write about Appalachia. I was listening to the marine biologist Enric Sala, and he was saying that a lot of his research was basically writing an obituary for the ocean. And he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life writing an obituary for the ocean. He wanted to talk about the future of the ocean and what in the ocean could be saved and resurrected.
And when I heard that, it rang true for me about what I wanted to write about Appalachia and why it took me a while, because I think so much of the literature about Appalachia and the discussion around Appalachia feels like an obituary.
I didn’t want to add to that. Appalachia is beautifully, complexly alive, and I wanted to figure out a way to write about it that felt like I was writing and imagining its future and imagining a present that is vibrantly alive. So that was why it took me a little while to figure out how to get there.
Maris Kreizman: I love that, especially because one of the things I’ve noticed in doing this podcast is that in a lot of the contemporary fiction I read, just about every author I read refers to a certain man as “that man,” and in this we get even more from Leah. She notices a stiff red cap.We all know what the cap says.
MK: Later on we hear her talk about unlaced construction boots and buzzed heads, and it has become a kind of shorthand to talk about so many different kinds of people who are foreign to people in New York City, let’s say.
IN: Yes, but the problem with cultural shorthand is that it makes it easy to dismiss people, to think of them categorically as kinds and dehumanize people. I don’t think anyone from New York wants to be dehumanized. It diminishes people in cities to do that to others. And I think it diminishes our humanity. I think it diminishes our literature. It diminishes our national imagination when we think categorically and we can’t get past it.
MK: One hundred percent, and you, of course, show all of the sides of this in Take What You Need, including the fact that Leah is someone who has left her hometown and has a husband and son who are not white, and she has a lot that she wants to protect.
IN: Yeah, the stakes are high. The stakes are high for all of us. The stakes are your life. The stakes are the question of what world do you want to live in? If you don’t want to be categorically dismissed, then I think—even if it’s more work—it is not to be inclined to categorically dismiss others based on those.
On the similarities between welding and language:
MK: Tell me a little bit more about Jean’s art, in terms of you as the author deciding what kinds of creations Gene will make.
IN: Well, a slightly nerdy background to this is there’s the Serbian poet Vasko Popa, who was translated by Charles Simic, who is recently deceased. And he has a series of poems called The Little Box, and I loved these series of poems. He fits himself in the little box in his town, and the whole world goes inside the little box. When I was teaching for the Bard Prison Initiative, I was teaching at the women’s correctional facility, I wrote back to that by writing a series of poems called The Little Prison, which sort of takes in the whole world.
Since then, I’ve had this fascination with boxes. When I learned to weld, I learned to weld boxes; I work with three different metal artist, and all of them approach the six sides of a box differently, which was fascinating. Julia Murray, who’s a metal artist I work with here in Brooklyn, cut them, and then we sort of tack welded them.
But when I worked with an artist at the Center for Metal Arts in Pennsylvania, he was sort of flummoxed by Julia’s approach to a box, and we did something entirely different. And then when I worked with a sort of off-the-grid artist that I wrote about for Orion Magazine, Norm Ed, he was like, huh, you know what I would do if I was doing a box?
I just found it so revealing that the nature of a box to them was so different. That was something I wanted to explore because Jean keeps revisiting the box over and over again. Where do you let the light in? Where do you mangle with it? Those are her driving questions.
MK: At one point she says she keeps trying to get all the darkness into the boxes, but then her mind keeps making more.
IN: I know. I was like, there’s a drop of autobiography right there.
MK: And the other thing about Jean’s art is that it’s a mix of the very large and the very small, the heavy and the delicate. Tell me a little bit about that.
IN: Oh, I like that. Yes, there is that dialectic between the heavy and the delicate. I think that is something that is interesting to do with metal. When I was starting to learn to weld, there would be a point where the metal anneals because you torch it too long and it becomes brittle and it becomes delicate.
But metal otherwise is very forgiving. You can melt down metal unless you introduce too many impurities and sort of remake it over and over again. And in that way I think it’s a little bit like language. You can melt it down and do it again. Unless you ruin a word. Sort of annealing the word, because you’ve pressed too much heat on it. Coming from translation, I really liked the way that metal could be endlessly melted down or remade the way language can, and so I think that was something that I was playing with writing those scenes too.
MK: Oh, I love that. And I must ask: have you personally done this? Have you watched welding YouTube tutorials?
IN: Oh yes, I’ve seen my share of weld-porn. It’s true. It’s called weld porn, but nobody’s welding naked because that would be quite dangerous. It’s just called that because it’s showing a little welding leg, as it were.
Idra Novey is the award-winning author of the novels Ways to Disappear and Those Who Knew. Her work has been translated into a dozen languages and she’s written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. She teaches fiction at Princeton University and in the MFA Program at New York University. Her latest novel is called Take What You Need.