Idra Novey on the Conjuring of Haunting Characters
“To come convincingly to life, characters have to consist of mixed-up inextricable elements.”
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In a scrapyard, objects with a mix of organic and synthetic parts are called monstrous hybrids. An aluminum can, for example, with a plastic liner. Unlike pure aluminum, which can be endlessly recast, a monstrous hybrid can’t be turned into anything else. It becomes as mortal as the humans that produced it.
None of us are pure aluminum, alas, consisting of a single source material. To come convincingly to life, characters have to consist of mixed-up inextricable elements. We all contain aspects of self that make us anomalies, aspects that don’t separate easily into flaws, flashbacks, and virtues. I grew up in the Allegheny Highlands of Appalachia where parts of my family have lived for over a century. I’ve written numerous poems set there, but writing a novel set in the Allegheny Highlands took far longer. Every few years, I’d come up with another idea, then retreat, fearful of contributing to the many stereotypes that abound about Appalachia.
I didn’t understand why I could conjure the inner lives of women living elsewhere but couldn’t yet conjure a compelling voice for a woman in the place I lived first and where my family had lived for generations. And yet knowledge of a place or culture doesn’t necessarily mean a writer is ready to cast about in the unpredictable scrapyard of childhood memories, to risk creating a monstrous hybrid of a protagonist who will haunt them with enough complexity for the years it takes to complete a novel, a character whose mixed-up elements of self are dynamically confounding and irreducible.
I once heard Jennifer Egan speak about how she tries to take a new kind of risk with each work of fiction, and part of this risk-taking is creating a character who subverts stereotypes in a way she hasn’t written about before. What Egan describes is as a willed pursuit of disruption, and I had yet to welcome a full disruption of my intentions for a novel about Appalachia.
It took ten books—of poetry, translation, and fiction—to conjure Jean, the off-the-grid metal artist in my third novel, Take What You Need. I learned to weld and created some sculptures of my own out of scrap metal, in order to get a lived sense of Jean’s days and choices. I visited scrapyards, which is where I learned about monstrous hybrids. I interviewed artists and strangers at political rallies. I sat down with family friends I’ve known for decades but who’d I never asked what had kept them in the area, whether their outlook on the world had estranged them from anyone, maybe from their own children.
My interviews led to some anguished silences, but also to moments of honesty that were revelatory and gave me a deeper sense of the psychic state of my hometown in the years since I lived there. Jean’s art and voice took up residence in my mind like no other character I’ve written. It felt like a haunting, almost an exorcism. Jean’s monstrous hybridity drew me in so intensely that I missed her once I finished the book.
I woke up itching to get back to her, to understand more about how she held onto her audacity and drive to take her art seriously, how I do, how anyone can have the nerve to gather up what others have discarded as possessing little to no value and take those discards into the house, to live with those scraps for however long it takes to turn them into art.