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February 14, 2018 | Interview

GOODNIGHT, BEAUTIFUL WOMEN by Anna Noyes

Michael Deagler

GOODNIGHT, BEAUTIFUL WOMEN by Anna Noyes photo

Everything in literature takes a long, long time. Writing necessitates years, editing demands months. Publishing can require decades. Reading is the fastest part. I’ve found, though, that the good books resist quick reading. They encourage you to take them in slowly. To linger in their unhurried suggestions. To dawdle in their complexities.

GOODNIGHT, BEAUTIFUL WOMEN by Anna Noyes is one such book. Published in the summer of 2016 by Grove Press, it was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and one of the most memorable short fiction collections of that year. Each story follows a woman of coastal Maine, where the ruggedness of the landscape—and the populace—turns these characters inward to confront the ambitions and frustrations of their deepest selves.

True to the deliberative processes of fiction, this interview was conducted over the course of seventeen months. Noyes’s answers proved worth the wait, however, as she eloquently discussed writing women, writing Maine, and figuring out how to write a novel.

I read in the Portland Press Herald that you wrote the title story of this collection (which is a very good story, demonstrating a lot of control and maturity) while you were in high school. Is that true? How much does this published version resemble that original draft?

It’s true! I think I peaked at 16. The early draft was shorter, about 7 pages. It was the longest thing I’d ever written, and my first attempt at a short story. Most of the original material is still hidden in the middle of the published version, more or less intact, though I’ve feared the seams of redrafting might show, and struggled to keep the voice consistent (it was easy to write in the voice of a high school girl when I was a high school girl). The published version of “Goodnight, Beautiful Women” is probably flashier - those earlier sentences were clipped, the scenes thinner. Sometimes it’s hard for me to dip back in without bloating things, or veering from the proper course. The original draft has served as a good guidepost of the story stripped to its essentials, and the voice at its most raw and plainspoken, unencumbered by too many tricks and tics.

I had a wonderful teacher in high school who told me to stop protecting the hearts of my characters, and to stop protecting my own heart. Up until that point I’d found delight in language and in collecting details, but I had never written towards a place that made my heart really ache, or explored what it felt like to threaten those bonds—of love and family—that I most wanted to stay intact (on the page, and in life). Subjecting the things I held most dear and sacred to upheaval, even harm, felt like dangerous terrain, a dark secret. Not much has changed since that first story. I’m still writing to break my own heart. Writing more hasn’t made stirring up sadness any easier. My heart is sore!

Did you take to short stories immediately, back then? Short fiction seems like an unappealing genre for a high schooler. It’s so much about patience, nuance, subtlety. That seems like a mismatch for a sixteen-year-old. Even what you’re describing about breaking your own heart—and creating characters, and breaking their hearts—that seems like an advanced craft concept for a high schooler. Were you drawn to short fiction from that first attempt, or did it have to grow on you?

In high school, and before that, I wrote and read lots of forms: poetry, fiction, non-fiction, plays, a novella. Through college, a lot of the writing I did was homework. But I always felt like stories were accessible to me. My mom is a writer, and she wrote stories, and I read them. Maybe because of that, stories were on my radar, and I thought of them as something I could write, too.

Even though I worked in other forms early on, and enjoyed many of them, I think short stories were the first place I got it somewhat right. If stories did feel less important in high school, maybe that served me. It has always felt natural to use a plainspoken voice in my stories, to feel like my own way of seeing and articulating things will suffice. I’m not trying to heighten things to a loftier place, or to mimic the voice of some wiser creator. I’m not thinking too hard about themes or craft. When I write poetry, for instance, I am stripped of a barometer. I’m unsure what should go unsaid, what is melodramatic, what is vague. I’ve tried to sneak lines of poetry into stories, only to have them circled in red ink. I actually struggle similarly with novels. Certain forms always seem to come out like they’re aiming for grandness. But I don’t feel so much pressure to write the next Great American Story Collection, and that’s freeing.

Also, the way I think may lend itself to story writing. Thinking large—about concepts, ideas, plot lines, themes—can make me feel baffled and drained. Though I respect advanced craft concepts and find some comfort in studying them, I’ve never felt guided by them. Learning to break my own heart was about feeling an ache in my chest, and rooting into that ache. That process may have gifted me structure, and aided me like a concept would, but it wasn’t experienced that way. I’ve always felt my way moment-to-moment through stories, and proceeded intuitively, associatively, emotionally, bodily. The sensory world is the best vehicle I know to convey nuanced emotion, subtlety, mystery. I’m more comfortable letting the surface of things stand in for the depths that I am writing straight towards the depths, Certain details from life glimmer, and these have always been the building blocks for my work. Even my youngest students, the ones just starting out, have an eye for these details. All of them, when asked what is memorable in a piece, will find the glimmering thing. An entire class of high school students, workshopping one of their own, will say, “I remember the girl with the red popsicle stain around her mouth.” That feels magical.

Your book does seems to fit within a certain tradition of short story collection. The stories are naturalistic, socially conscious. Plainspoken, as you said, but not minimalist. Interested in emotional connections, which isn’t true of plenty of short story collections. Were there certain books you thought about when putting this one together, or certain authors whose work you found instructive?

I used to think that the writers I loved didn’t influence my work, though of course they did and they do. I loved Stephen King and Shirley Jackson very early on. Shirley Jackson, especially, is a writer I keep coming back to as I’m working on my current book. I wasn’t specifically thinking about her as I wrote the story collection, but I think some of the New England gothic seeped in anyway, the sense of menace, a certain foreboding nightmarish feeling. Sula by Toni Morrison and Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid were two books from my mom’s bookshelf that I read when I was young, complex stories of girlhood and womanhood that made a mark. My mom read Alice Munro right after I was born - late into the night, sleepless and nursing. I didn’t really come to her work again until college, but I like to think that I imprinted on her as a baby.

As for conscious influences, they came later, and mostly influenced the work because I was trying so hard not to mimic their style too terribly in whatever story I was work on: Ann Beattie; Amy Bloom; Andre Dubus, whose sentences and confessional narratives (especially “A Father’s Story”) were stuck in my head as I wrote “Drawing Blood.”

When I had to describe my stories to editors or agents, I thought back to a beautiful collection by Molly McNett called One Dog Happy that I was assigned in college. We read a story called “Bactine,” about a ten-year-old girl whose baby brother has died and whose mother is deep in a depression. The girl starts to fantasize about rapists who might come to her house, and in preparation for their imagined arrival she develops a ritual of wiping herself with antibacterial Bactine. The class was so shocked and revolted that discussion of the story was derailed. I had loved the story. I think this was a turning point, when I started to consider how little we see the bodily experiences of women—and especially of girls—portrayed in complex, strange ways on the page. Of course, there was recoiling. Material like that is so unfamiliar. More familiar are bodies of women and girls as seen from the outside and acted upon, sexualized, abused, objectified. Those are the stories you grow up inundated with, so much so that perhaps they lose some of their capacity to shock. The influence of “Bactine,” and the reaction to it, only came clear in retrospect. But somewhere along the line I started consciously considering the embodied experiences of women and girls as I wrote.

So, in the “Bactine” case, that recoil from the reader is attractive to you or unattractive? There are moments of frank brutality in the book that hit me pretty hard, and I’m sure that had to do, at least in part, with the embodied female perspectives of the stories. Perspectives that I, as a man, don’t normally inhabit. Do you see the underrepresentation of bodily female experiences as a relative asset (for you, as a writer looking to get a reaction out of readers) or simply as something that needs to be righted?

I definitely see it as something to be righted. I think it is crucial—it was crucial for me, growing up—to see complex versions of girlhood portrayed on the page. Resonating with fiction was essential to recognizing myself as a complex being, a way to plumb depths in myself that I didn’t know I had and that the world didn’t always acknowledge or encourage. I’d love it if girls were raised on a steady stream of stories that truly depicted the whole of girlhood experience, and that placed complicated women and girls at the center, not at the periphery. I think in part we learn who we are and our own capacity by taking in who the world tells us we are, and then if we’re lucky we can shake off some of that, because so often it’s damaging. In much of what I read early on, in much of what I read for school, the reality of women’s bodies (and minds) was diminished on the page, nearly nonexistent; the way those bodies can be transgressed upon but also their own agency, complicated yearnings, needs, functions, transgressions. I am still struggling to root out and purge portions of the narrative of womanhood that would make me simple and small. This goes beyond womanhood and girlhood, of course, and beyond recognizing yourself. When the narratives we take in and the narratives we’re raised on are simplified or limited or diminishing of any part of the human experience, I think that’s harmful and dangerous.  I think we all need to be articulated, vigilantly and honestly and widely.

How important is place, to you, as a writer? Coastal Maine figures pretty prominently in these stories.

I think my real interest lies in detail, less so in place. I actually felt pretty resistant to the idea that the book centered on Maine, initially, maybe because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a regional writer, or to have my stories packaged as Maine stories in the romanticized sense, as any kind of beach read. I dreaded having a lobster boat on the cover, receding into a sunset. A number of my stories weren’t set in Maine, and those didn’t make it into the final collection. And quite a few of the stories are set in places that could be Maine, given the context of all the other stories, but it isn’t explicitly clear. But by this point, I love that it’s a book centered on Maine. Like stories of women and girls, for me it’s been challenging to find stories of Maine that don’t romanticize it; either its light or its darkness. Romanticizing Maine is very seductive; even though I grew up there, I have to beware. I’m a romantic. I have to fight the impulse to romanticize places everywhere I go, and I fight it also in my writing, with each new setting.

I do think the details of Maine are especially evocative, and they’re embedded in me, and when I go back home they’re very immediate. I’m finding I’m more moved by the natural world than I am by cities. Maine offers itself up to me, as a writer, right away: the fox screaming in the woods outside my cabin that truly sounds like a woman, the rock quarry I lived beside for a few months in an airstream when I was little where people really would dump their cars. The colors of the landscape wake me up. On the island, the pale green goat’s beard moss and the startling burnt orange of lichen on rocks. I find the natural world channels emotion, threat, sensuality, all of the ephemeral things I’m trying to find containers for in the tangible world. Of course, cities contain an overwhelm of beautiful details as well. When I’m in Brooklyn, which is where I lived until very recently, I try to pay attention to them—to my neighbor who kept a grocery cart full of loom kits locked to his stoop—but I find I often don’t feel quiet enough in a city to be attentive in the ways I want to be.

I also think place, for me, is more about mood, about a dream space, about the ways my memory or imagination warp reality, transforming it into something other. My next project begins in Sweden in 1848. I’ve never been to Sweden, and though I’m doing a lot of research, I’m also letting that place and time percolate imaginatively. The landscape is emotional as much as it’s literal. In some ways, the places I write are more reflective of that imaginative, emotional, moody space then they are of real geographical truths. I find I’m often working within a certain, limited palate. A particular tenor. The characters in my Sweden in 1848 will always be eating plum preserves, never peach preserves. I can’t quite articulate the distinction, and I don’t yet know if farming Swedes in 1848 enjoyed fruit preserves, if peach and plum even grew in that region. I will learn. But the process certainly begins in a place apart from research, where I’m just haunted by the color of canned plums.

Do you find that writing historical fiction has any peculiar demands, compared to writing stories set in the present day? “Drawing Blood,” for example, is set in the early 20th century, but it felt very much of a piece with the rest of the collection. You didn’t seem to approach it any different in terms of linguistics or pacing, the way that some writers of historical fiction do. What is appealing about historical fiction, for you?

I find I have to be very alert when writing fiction set in the past so that I don’t slip into a softer, romanticized tone. This is a constant challenge for me. If I write historical fiction, I want it to be tonally and energetically similar to the fiction I write set in the present day. I want it to have a certain edge, and to be as clean and sharp as a contemporary story. This challenge creates a kind of dissonance, because I find with historical fiction I am pulled toward longer sweeping sentences, grander ideas, and also I know I am relying—consciously or unconsciously—on movies I’ve seen and books I’ve read and iconic images to inform my sense of the past.

The world I’m trying to write now—rural Sweden in 1848—has, for me, its own easy correlations: a cold color palette (whereas stories I write set in the sixties exist in my mind in sepia tones), cold early mornings, lots of sheep and pickled herring, mist and barnyard noise and wool undergarments. To some extent I can work with this (as I alluded to in my last answer) but I also have to be wary of it, to press each detail and see if I can’t find a way to make it more particular or surprising, to shift from a generic set of images and assumptions (sometimes false ones) about the past into the singular, and to explore what might be discovered by deeply inhabiting a character’s skin.

Initially, this shift is done imaginatively, though I also hunt for particular, strange details in my research. In research, too, I’m looking for the simple, everyday details—the proper names for flora and fauna, and for the kind of tools that were at hand, or the liquor people drank, or the side dishes served at breakfast. This isn’t a new challenge—this work of resisting the generalization, the easy assumption. Of course, this is the challenge in writing stories set in the present also, in trying to write compelling characters, or dialogue, or settings, or whatever else, especially when these elements are not already intimately familiar.

I do think there’s something appealing in historical fiction because it keeps me alert, but I don’t necessarily feel drawn to the past over the present. When I write historical fiction, it’s because there are stories or kernels of stories that I discover and know I need to use in my work, and when those stories are rooted in the past then I have to go there.

How are you finding the process of writing a novel, compared to writing short fiction?

The novel feels like a very different beast. With stories, I have a sense of their shape, I can see the parameters. With each sentence, almost with each word, I can feel the tension slackening or building. And I find there’s some sort of tension present throughout, a hot center. The novel is much more unwieldy. I don’t know its larger shape, or I can only just sense it. The stories, even when I’m midway through writing them, feel of a piece. The novel doesn’t cohere in the same way, though I’m hoping that sense of unity and wholeness will come later. I don’t feel tension infusing each sentence of the novel, at least at this exploratory stage, because I’m not sure yet where the central tensions lie—in the rough draft everything’s a bit loose, and I’m eager to compress it.

Also, I think I find tension in a story through what goes unsaid—subtext, subtlety, details as vessels for the emotional interior. And I tend towards writing moments, as opposed to longer scenes. My sense is that in a novel the reader craves a little more to grab onto, especially if the story is epic or plotty. Writing the novel, or at least the first draft, I’m more inclined to come out and explicitly explore who these characters are and what they’re thinking and where they’re headed and what they mean to each other. This troubles me, because I lean towards subtlety in my tastes as reader and writer, but that’s just how it’s coming out. My hope is that I’ll tell myself the story in any way I can and then in revision find those moments of subtlety.

I think about structure and craft a lot more with the novel. In some ways, the material feels less personal and less emotional, more exploratory and curious. I’m still getting used to writing daily, when my pattern with stories was to let them build for months or years and then write them very quickly, often overnight.

The whole process of novel-writing makes me feel like a beginner, which is daunting, but also one of the reasons I’m excited to try.

You mentioned that you were living in Brooklyn until recently. Do you think living in New York is valuable for a writer, in terms of being at the center of American literary culture?

In my own experience, moving to Brooklyn (after a year of life in Maine after graduate school) was enlivening. It was a joy to feel the palpable energy of other writers working all around me, to be able to get dinner once again with writer friends (sustenance just to be in their presence), to go to local bookstores every weekend, to see my agent and meet editors I’d only known through email, to watch other people’s books launch regularly into the world—all of this felt essential for forward momentum. What other place can you just casually decide you want to see Toni Morrison read? It was a gift. For a few years, I loved the noise at night, the sense of the city moving around me at all hours, a counterbalance to my slow and steady nature. I’d been struggling to edit my collection for a year, and after two weeks hunched in my bed in Brooklyn it was ready to go.

Which is not to say that the city was an easy place, for me, to be a writer—the ever-present fear of paying bills was ratcheted, sometimes I felt the temptation to substitute engagement with the writing community for close communion with the actual work (beyond editing the collection, I didn’t do much writing during my three years there), and I found myself thinking of consumption and appearance (what clothing to buy next, what new lipstick, where to eat next, on and on) more of the time. After my book came out, the intense energy of the city and the ever-present sense of the literary community surrounding me became a little overwhelming—maybe because so much during that vulnerable time overwhelmed.

There’s so much possibility and vitality in New York City for a writer, but like any place, it can be healthy for some and unhealthy for others, open you up one year and shut you down the next. I think the right place will draw you in, will keep you as long as you need to be there. I needed New York City for a time, but now I’m back in a rural, quiet place where writing isn’t at the cultural forefront. I don’t know what everyone’s reading, and I like following my own instinct. I’m not always thinking about what other writers are doing, or the next book coming out. If I can help it, I’m trying to think very little about what I’m doing, too. I need that long, hermetic winter, am so relieved and happy to tuck into it. There’s a kind of paring down to an essential, grounded life here that didn’t happen for me in New York City. I think it’s important to trust your own sense of where you should be, and to trust your instincts about how and why and if a place still serves you.

What have you been reading recently?

I just finished Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and it was stunning. Two story collections that have floored me lately are Are You Here for What I’m Here For? by Brian Booker and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. I read Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson on the beach this summer, and cried the whole time, and I’m still thinking about it. The best novel I read this summer was The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (so late to this party), which was a marvel. I have to add the last book I read, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin to this list. I think Shirley Jackson’s writing is perfect, and learning more about her life and process was gripping.

What advice do you have for writers who are working on their first book?

It’s not always easy to give advice, especially when you’re struggling in the midst of it. (I have googled “How to Write a Novel” probably once a month since starting.) My main advice would be to listen close for what you need, to tease out your own way. I wish it were easier and googleable. But here’s some advice I try to give myself, when I daily feel small and scared:

Trust the gestation process. Often you can’t sense the bigger picture when you’re deep inside a project—how it will knit together, deepen, and clarify in time. Have faith it will bloom—it has, it will. You can’t force open the bud. You cannot always see the ways in which you are growing. People from all corners will encourage you to work daily, to hammer it out, to tackle your laziness. They can’t see what’s happening inside you—the turning of the soil, the dark, secretive processes of fallow time. Cleave to bad plant metaphors, and have faith in the proper timing of your own unfolding. Your creation belongs to you, not to some wiser other.

When it’s time to tell the story, try to get out of your own way. Pretend you are taking dictation, if that helps. Cultivate a gentle, caring overseer to urge you on when you are afraid. You will be afraid so many times—distractible, hungry, antsy, aching, emails to be checked. (Sometimes, honestly, I’ll say to myself out loud, “It’s okay, Sweetheart, just keep telling the story.”) If you can quiet the dramatics—the doubt, the perfectionism—long enough to get to the story’s end without second guessing and tinkering, you might be surprised at the story’s ability to provide you with the pieces you need, although I find they don’t necessarily come in the right order. Plenty tinkering can come later, after you have told the story as plain and true as you can, piece by piece, start to finish. In the case of a novel, repeat this process daily for so many days, writing moment by moment. If it still isn’t coming, a deadline can do wonders.

Don’t forget those works or passages you have deemed failures. They may simply be failures of courage—the courage to see them through to their ends, to expose something vulnerable and dark and secret, some private strangeness you’d prefer to keep cloaked. They may need a little more time underground. They may feel so awful, so ugly, because you’ve risked something real and unpretty. They may need a second set of eyes, or to be rewritten once, or reordered. Or they may really be failures, but as you cast aside or dismantle, don’t hesitate to scavenge the good bits—it may take some time, but it seems like they usually find their right home.     

When guilt and stress about finishing or publishing are at your door, reconsider what makes you happy over the course of a day, and orient toward that. A portion of that happiness will hopefully be found in writing, but don’t hold back on living your larger life. Pare down what you don’t need and what drains you. Allow yourself what enlivens you—go outside, get off the computer, walk, swim, cook, read joyfully. Onward!

image: Michael Deagler


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