Rosalie Knecht and Idra Novey on Translation, Writing Tension, and Literary ‘Retrenchment’
The Authors of Who Is Vera Kelly? and Those Who Knew
Speak to Brian Gresko
The Authors in Conversation series for Slice Literary Magazine grew out of connections I noticed in my reading. I wanted to bring together authors who explored similar themes in their work or walked adjacent paths in life, to see what resonances might come forth in conversation. Rosalie Knecht and Idra Novey struck me as perfect participants: both have translated work from South American authors, and both have new novels that seem to speak directly, and astutely, to the urgent political concerns of our time.
The title character of Rosalie Knecht’s Who Is Vera Kelly? works as a CIA spy in Buenos Aires in the early 1960s. By day Vera Kelly bugs congressional offices, and by night she infiltrates a group of student radicals, while in the background the turbulent clouds of a government coup take shape. In alternating chapters, Knecht fleshes out this tense story with moving scenes from Kelly’s youth in Maryland, where she struggles with her mental health and nonbinary sexuality, eventually ending up in a home for delinquent girls. In those fascinating scenes, Knecht reveals that Vera Kelly is not just a secret finder but a secret keeper, queer at a time when homosexuality was illegal in the United States.
Secrets also lie at the heart of Idra Novey’s latest, Those Who Knew. Like Knecht, Novey sets her novel south of the equator, in an unnamed island country. After a young woman who works as the assistant to a popular senator dies under suspicious circumstances, the novel’s main character, Lena, remembers how the same senator assaulted her at a similar age. At the time, Lena kept quiet about it, and the senator’s rise to power continued without a snag or blemish. Now, haunted by the latest victim of his violence, Lena must decide how or even if she should speak up about his toxic past. Novey bounces from perspective to perspective—giving voice to the senator’s creative younger brother, Freddy, a playwright; Lena’s best friend, Olga, who runs a radical bookstore; and the senator himself, Victor—sometimes shifting from prose to drama. In total, the novel provides a nuanced, multifaceted view of how powerful male predators manage to protect themselves from the wheels of justice.
The analogies in Knecht and Novey’s careers and the different ways their books address corruption, gender, and power opened up many avenues of conversation. Over the course of several weeks, in a shared document online, they discussed their work as writers and translators, the craft of character creation and plotting, and political moments from the Cold War to our current one.
Brian Gresko: How you did you become a published translator, and what did that work teach you about the art of writing fiction?
Rosalie Knecht: I had a grant to teach English and complete a project in Argentina after college, and I proposed (with some encouragement from my advisor, who was basically like, “Sure you can, why not?”) that my project would be translating a novel. I picked César Aira because I liked his books so much; there were dozens and dozens of them that hadn’t been translated, and they were short. When I finished translating The Seamstress and the Wind and Aira approved it, he gave me permission to write to New Directions, who had published his other work in the United States, and ask if they would look at it. They didn’t respond.
So then, because I was 23 and deranged, I just popped into their office one day with a hard copy of the translation. They were very polite and took it from me, and I heard nothing afterward, which seemed completely fair. I was just glad security hadn’t escorted me out. Three years later, I got an email from the editor-in-chief, Barbara Epler, saying something to the effect of, “I’m so glad I found your email address, because I’ve had this manuscript sitting in my office forever and couldn’t remember who gave it to me, and we want to publish it.”I came to write fiction through translating it. It is a lasting, free master class in fiction, translating a novel you deeply admire.
BK: Did Aira’s style influence your own, or do you see those parts of yourself—the translator and the writer—as separate identities? The Seamstress and the Wind has a very different feel to it than Who Is Vera Kelly?
RK: It definitely does have a very different feel. Aira really enjoys playing with form, and by that I don’t mean genre—he likes playing with the idea of a novel itself, by switching points of view, by creating impossibilities in narration (like a past-tense, first-person novel narrated by a person who dies at the end), by interrupting his own story to describe his process of writing it and then never revisiting the authorial perspective—by refusing to make it cohere, in other words, undermining the arc and the stability of the central point of view. I don’t do any of that! I’m a traditionalist; I love familiar structures. That’s where I feel the greatest freedom. I can digress comfortably, knowing that the structure will hold it all together. I enjoy work that undermines the artificiality of that narrative structure (by which I mean novels told mostly in chronological order, plot-heavy, with stable perspectives), but I also deeply love the artifice itself. I love it because it’s not how we actually experience our lives.
Idra Novey: I first started translating in my early 20s also. While teaching English at a university in Chile, I volunteered at a domestic-violence shelter, bringing in clothes but also running an informal writing workshop for the women stuck in the shelter. Some of the violent partners they had fled would lurk outside the shelter and make it impossible for them to step outside. The many ways victims of violence get trapped even after they get away was a frequent subject in the workshop. I translated poems from English into Spanish that I thought might resonate with the women in the group. Finding the words to make it possible for them to experience the poems in Spanish became addictive. After that, I started translating from Spanish into English, which was much easier, and after translating several full books of poetry, I started translating fiction. I came to write fiction through translating it. It is a lasting, free master class in fiction, translating a novel you deeply admire.
BK: From a storytelling perspective, you utilize narrative tension masterfully—both Who Is Vera Kelly? and Those Who Knew are real page-turners. I find suspense such a difficult thing to create in fiction. What advice do you have for how to build tension?
RK: I’m glad you thought so. I used to write more loosely structured stuff, and I felt weirdly blocked about plot and tension and suspense. I’m not sure when the shift happened, but honestly it might have only been in this book that I started to feel really comfortable writing scenes that are meant to be suspenseful. Maybe my advice to my past self is, “Just get to the point.”
IN: I find it helpful to think of plot as a laundry line. If you keep it taut, it’s possible to hang all sorts of ideas on it, and the weight of them won’t pull the line down into the grass. For every scene that ultimately appears in Those Who Knew, I probably deleted at least two. If a scene didn’t serve as a turning point of some kind for any of the characters, if it didn’t increase what was at stake emotionally for anyone in the novel, I took the scene out. It’s not for everyone’s taste, but I like fiction that leaves as much unsaid as possible.
BK: Even your books’ titles are mysteries, so the suspense begins for the reader before she even opens the book. When and how did you decide on the title?
IN: I came up with Those Who Knew fairly early on. As a result, the questions implicit in the title accompanied me as I wrote the book. In poetry, the title plays a significant role in setting up the reader’s point of entry into the poem, and that impulse has become my approach to fiction as well, to keep circling back to the title in new ways with each draft.
RK: I did not decide on the title! My contract says only that I will be “consulted” about the title, but it’s considered a marketing decision, like the cover. So, as in many marketing decisions, they overruled me, and they were right.
BK: Yes, publishing a book is a team effort, from editorial input to the text and story to cover design and publicity choices. Do you have any advice for authors navigating that system?
RK: I was extremely lucky in that whole process because my publisher is Tin House. I could not have been in better hands—they are an extremely smart, solid, passionate team. My only advice is this: first, be very lucky, and second, choose your battles. The battles not worth choosing will be outlined for you in your contract. Do your own job, which is writing and rewriting your book, and let them do theirs, which is selling it.
BK: Idra, I can feel your poetry background exerting itself in the beautiful sentences in this novel, and in your word choices. For instance, at one point a character describes the capital of the unnamed island as a “dilapidated bohemian labyrinth.” When I read that, I stopped and put the book aside to savor those words in that order, and to imagine a Calvino-esque city. In terms of process, do you move quickly through early drafts and do this kind of fine detailing later, or does it happen from the start?
IN: Thank you, Brian, for reading with such focus and for being attuned to the music I aimed to infuse into the prose. Anne Carson, a fellow writer-translator, has written about fixating on sentences so intently that they will arrive at night within the context of a dream. That has happened to me as well. Even if the sentence doesn’t make sense in the waking world as it did in a dream, it is still a movement toward some underlying unit of meaning. Carson says that even if the dream sentence is nonsense it can still provide a necessary key to another world. I can’t move forward with a scene until I get both the music and the meaning of every sentence just right. It is a tremendously inefficient way to proceed, but music is meaning for me, and that likely comes from many years in poetry.
BG: Rosalie, what inspired Vera Kelly as a character, and why did you place her in the 1950s and 60s?
RK: My starting point was my mom’s family. She was a genuine juvenile delinquent in suburban Maryland, and her father, who died when she was in elementary school, had been in the CIA. I scrambled those elements together, obviously, and I ended up shifting the time frame from my mom’s youth (which, as I’m sure she would appreciate my clarifying, was in the late 60s, not the late 50s) in order to be able to make the chronology line up. Once I decided I wanted to write a Cold War spy novel, I went looking for an incident that would work for what I wanted to do, and I found the 1966 coup in Argentina.
BG: Idra, while Lena feels like the central figure in Those Who Knew, you not only surround her with a fascinating cast of characters, you dip in and out of their perspectives, which gives the voice of the novel a choral feel. How did that decision come about? Were some characters easier to inhabit than others? I’m especially curious about what it was like to write from the point of view of Victor, a man who has committed so many atrocities in his political life and in his relationships with women who loved or trusted him.
IN: We all have blind spots, and I find something inherently democratic about fiction that shifts between multiple perspectives. When you inhabit more than one point of view, you grant the reader, and yourself as a writer, access to the radically different ways people process the same incident. Lena and Olga have a number of convictions in common, but they draw different conclusions about Victor given the kind of families they grew up in. They’re constantly gauging what the other is withholding in a conversation. Charting the arc of what goes unsaid in their friendship was one of my favorite parts of writing this book.
And although it may seem odd, inhabiting Victor’s perspective was one of my favorite aspects as well. It made me deeply uneasy to imagine how he might come to justify his crimes to himself, why he thought he deserved to get away with them. But what created the unease for me about those sections created a sense of urgency too.
BG: Both of these books tackle dark, distressing material. For example, the Maryland Youth Center, the juvenile detention center for girls where Vera is sent, gave me chills, and as I mentioned, Victor in Those Who Knew is a repugnant man to read about. What kind of work was necessary to tell those elements of the story?
RK: Sometimes these things happen by accident. Like I said, my starting point had to do with curiosity about my mom’s adjudication as a delinquent in 1968. Long after I started working on the book, I took a job in residential foster care, which meant working with adolescents who for various reasons couldn’t live at home. One pathway to residential foster care is to be a “PINS case”—“person in need of supervision.” This was the designation that replaced “incorrigible” in the 70s. My mom had been “declared incorrigible” for being truant when she was 15. She had used this phrase to me, in kind of a humorous tone, when describing what happened—and it is a funny phrase. I didn’t realize what it really meant, the whole system that it implied, until I worked in foster care. However, my mom was protected from the real brutalities of the system by coming from a middle-class milieu. When a judge decided she couldn’t live at home, her mother sent her to a boarding school. Problem solved.
So the life I was living forced me to understand some things about the book I was already writing.
IN: Victor became increasingly fascinating to me the longer I worked on this novel, and especially on the scenes with his brother, Freddy. The difference in the ways they coped with the repressive actions of their father, first as children and later as adults, was so compelling to me. Freddy uses humor and art to cope with trauma. Victor is humorless and fears any form of expression but anger and ambition. The consequences of this difference, not just for them as brothers but for everyone around them, became a way to write about the 21st century crisis of masculinity we are in now.
BG: In both books, the United States plays a huge role, either symbolically influencing or literally affecting the politics of a South American country. I’m curious to know if these ideas were born of research, or came from something you experienced directly while traveling, or both.
RK: I learned about the specific historical incidents in the book through research, but I think that the general paradigm of US intervention was one that I knew already just from growing up watching the news, from having parents whose peers were sent to Vietnam (my dad was deferred due to the world’s best-timed slipped cervical disc), from studying Chile and Argentina in college, and from watching the hideous tragedy of the invasion of Iraq. I wanted to write a Cold War spy story, which meant talking about how the United States had this wildly narcissistic gaze that turned the domestic politics of basically any other country—but especially the Latin American ones, after Castro—into a US-versus-USSR psychodrama, regardless of what was actually going on. I’m not sure if I set out to write that or if it just would’ve been impossible to ignore it. As it is, I chose one of the milder cases—the United States has interfered much less in the politics of Argentina than in those of Chile, to give one tragic example.
IN: Like Rosalie, I had the histories of several countries in mind while writing this novel. I wanted to place the story on an unnamed island nation to allow readers to bring their own points of reference and knowledge of US interventions to the book. The appeal of the unnamed nation is how it allows a writer, and readers, to think about patterns of power imbalances that have repeatedly occurred in countries not just in the Americas but in other regions as well. So many of my favorite novels are set in unnamed or invented places, and I looked to them as guides—Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness, Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, and the example on everyone’s mind during this administration, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which she drew on histories from several countries behind the Iron Curtain.
BG: Now, in the aftermath of Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil, we see a different kind of American influence—Bolsonaro is clearly modeling himself on our president. These are scary, distressing times, and I find it hard to sit at my desk when even listening to the morning news upsets and angers me. How are you dealing with that, as artists and human beings?
RK: I wish I knew. Idra, I’m just thinking of something you said at your New York Public Library event—I think somebody brought up the idea that art can fight injustice, and you were basically like, “Ha, good luck with that!” Art fights injustice sometimes, but it is, generally speaking, one of the less efficient ways to do it. Community organizing and cash are, in my opinion, the more direct routes.
Fortunately, people who make art do other things too! We all engage with the world in a million ways—at work, as community members. Those are the places (my other job, my neighborhood) where I put my anxiety about the world and this country. Writing is just for me. It’s private.
IN: Thank you, Rosalie. I didn’t know what to do with that question at the NYPL event. And I fervently agree that collective action and fundraising are the direct routes for social action that are most needed here and in Brazil. Like you, I don’t see the many documents in progress on my laptop as an alternative to the urgent work of fundraising and taking part in collective action.
BG: Did our current cultural and political moment affect how these stories developed? And what has it been like, seeing them read as part of the larger conversation we’re having in America right now about gender, sexuality, and power? For example, so much of the coverage of Those Who Knew links it to Brett Kavanaugh and Eric Schneiderman.
RK: Since my book is set in another era, I’ll let Idra field this one, except to say that I think people are feeling especially excited about women characters and queer characters in this moment of retrenchment.
IN: “Retrenchment” is a great word for this moment, and I think it has caused a mounting sense of urgency to read and hear voices that the current administration does not want to hear. I started Those Who Knew four years ago, and the novel’s opening section takes place at the start of the new millennium. I initially saw the novel as a story of a deeply divided country and how the tensions of that divide play out in sexual relationships and friendships. The tensions that breed mistrust in a divided country play out in how Lena comes to conclude that no one will believe her if she speaks up.
After four years of writing about a woman’s experience with silence after assault and her continuing fear of retaliation, I had a visceral reaction to the Brett Kavanaugh hearing. When I first started writing about the level of hypocrisy the senator in the novel maintains between his public persona and his private one, I worried that maybe it was too extreme—but what occurred in reality with Eric Schneiderman was even more extreme. It is bewildering how unexpectedly art can mirror life can mirror art.