Burn Down Your Life: Idra Novey and Darcey Steinke in Conversation
"Surprising and beautiful," "kaleidoscopic," "amazing," "a lush page-turner," "exceptionally witty and heartfelt," "funny, poignant and profound," "upends all the misleading memes about magic realism," "playful and chilly," "impossible to put down," "elegant and blazingly smart." That's just some of what other writers have to say about Ways to Disappear, a marvelous story from poet, translator, and novelist Idra Novey.
It's no surprise, then that the booksellers on Barnes & Noble's Discover Great New Writers committee picked this beautifully written and deceptively slim, multilayered novel, part darkly comic noir, part family drama and love story, part meditation on the nature of art, for our Discover Great New Writers program.
Earlier this winter, Idra Novey sat down in front of a live audience at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble for a conversation with Darcey Steinke, the author of five novels, most recently Sister Goldenhair, and the memoir Easter Everywhere, a New York Times Memorable Book. Her books have been translated into ten languages. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Spin, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Guardian, among other outlets, and her Web story "Blind Spot" was part of the 2000 Whitney Biennial. Miwa Messer, Director, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Darcey Steinke: I read this book in manuscript about two years ago. Right? Maybe? I loved it. I was like, "Oh my God, this is great." But then, when I just read it to prepare for this, I thought it was even better. You'd worked on it and it was just amazing. You'd made it a lot better. It was really good.
Idra Novey: I'm glad.
DS: No, but it was always good, but now it's incredible. I have some questions based on the beauty of the language. But I wanted to start . . . The thing, reading it this last time that really impressed me, is how it was sort of a High-Low mashup. The first time I read it, I don't think I really got that. But this time, I thought you were using so many different modes: There was some Detective Noir stuff, there was some Romance stuff, but all in this beautiful, poetic language. There's a lot of plot, which for a poet I just was shocked that you could have it move so quickly. I didn't even know what to say about it. I have a lot of trouble making things happen in my books. Also, there's a lot of energy around this there's a lot of literary High-Low energy, and I've often thought, particularly in America, if you can make that smash happen . . . Even with Cormac McCarthy's book The Road, which is basically a zombie novel with a high literary novel, a lot of energy, a lot of energy is released . . . People get a lot of joy . . . That's how I feel.
I also think it's something that most writers do at the end of their career, because I think it takes a long time to get there. And guess what? Your first novel, you've done it. So I wondered if you could talk about this idea of the High-Low mashup. I realized that I know a lot about you as a translator, as a lover of very literary texts, but I don't know you very well as a lover of genre texts. So I wanted to see if you could talk about that a little bit.
IN: My dad loves mystery novels, and he was always reading mystery novels and always talking about mystery novels. So I just grew up with somebody . . . We always watched Agatha Christie on TV. We watched Murder, She Wrote. I just grew up always watching those shows, and talking about them, and he was fascinated by them. He also is a child abuse expert and was always talking about the cases he was working on. So I was always around these things, both in real life and also in his interests. It was actually most of what he talked about these subjects. So I think that's probably where it comes from.
I would mix that with my own interest in I think the playing with registers was fun for me, because I never formally studied fiction, so I never was told what I had to do or not to do so I kind of made it up. I think that helped.
DS: That's so interesting. Most first novelists have only written their first novel, but you come from having done translations, having written poetry. Can you talk about how, through translation and through poetic endeavors, how the language and the sort of endeavor of writing a book . . . how was that for you, and how do you think it was different from other writers?
IN: Well, I didn't tell anyone I was working on this book. I just did it. It was my pleasure. It was the thing I went to, to sort of cheat on my life, in a way. I had a translation due, I was turning in a book of poetry, and this was the thing I was working that I didn't . . . there was no one waiting for it, there was no one expecting it. So I played around and took risks. I think that I wasn't taking in anything else. And I missed my voice when I was translating. I missed being myself. So I think I was sort of myself in a way that I hadn't been before, because I didn't tell anyone I was working on it. I did it as a complete covert action. I didn't tell my sister. I didn't tell anyone, and . . . until it was done. I think you were one of the few people I told.
DS: I remember we had lunch, and you were a little bit ashamed of it, which was weird.
IN: Yeah, I didn't know that was going to happen.
DS: I've known you for a while, and I know that you are this wonderful translator. You translated a book I love, Clarice Lispector's work is so incredible . . . But I also know that you sometimes have mixed feelings about translation, that you feel maybe translators aren't always . . . how do we want to say it . . . appreciated enough, maybe.
DS: So as I was reading this book, I was so fascinated. I was like, "Oh my gosh, what she's doing is she's kind of pushing the actual writer away of the actual text and moving the translator into a place where she starts to write herself, she gets like the writer's son . . . I just thought to myself, it seems like such a translator's fantasy.
DS: Can you speak to that? That really surprised me as I was reading it.
IN: It was. I have to say, there was the fantasy in the book of a translator superhero that had a fold-up helicopter that she put on her back and could fold it into a suitcase on her back. But it was truly beyond the beyond. So I had to tone down the fantasy, because it really was driving me. I think I wrote the book I couldn't find. I wanted to read a book that talked about translators as artists in themselves, who are as adventurous and generous and passionate about literature and worldly as the translators that I know, and I couldn't find any books like that. So I think that often happens you write the book you can't find.
DS: But also, it just seemed like such a . . . I think the best books come out of that. There was something, like, reparative that you thought you needed to do.
IN: It was satisfying, I have to say. It was satisfying. But a funny thing was, I think although that was my motive when I started it, by the time I finished the book it had become something else entirely.
DS: Right, of course. But the seed of that is still in there.
IN: But the seed of that is still in there. By the end, it was really more about every kind of invisibility. I had started writing it before I had children, and I identified with the writer's daughter. By the time I had finished the book, I'd had two children, and I identified much more with Beatriz as a writer and a mother. So each time I rewrote it, I think I identified with a different character for a different reason, and I think it deepened what the book was about. Initially it just had this sort of fantasy motivation, but by the time it was done, I think it was about a lot of other things. It was about definitions in general how we get confined in definitions that we put on ourselves, how other people define us, how we break away from those definitions. I think it became about a bigger thing by the end.
DS: I completely agree with that. But from knowing you, it was so fascinating to see you sort of spin that out. I think it's a great way to know someone, to be stuck in traffic on the BQE for four years.
IN: Yeah, it's true.
DS: Yes. There's something about the voice that seems very contemporary and new, which is very exciting to me since I'm older than you. The voice of my generation was much different, and in some ways a little more melodramatic, which I like, in a way, but I think this is really interesting, to have this voice which maybe is a little bit more comic, and also the brain can come in more, I think, too there's a lot of brainiac-ness of it. I just wondered if you had any ideas of that idea.
IN: It's funny. A friend of mine said: "I think your book belongs to that wonderful tradition of 'woman drops a bomb and explodes her life.' " I was like, "Yes, I think that if there was a shelf, it would definitely be on that." Many of my favorite books would be on that shelf.
DS: Burn Down Your Life.
IN: Yes, burn down your life. Definitely.
DS: Which leads very well to my next question. I was really interested, too, in how . . . This is an idea maybe we can talk about . . . This might have to go to the car ride at some point. But the idea that . . . Miles was interesting to me, because he's almost like American Yuppie . . . I wouldn't say from central casting, but familiar American Guy obsessed with sports, wants things to go forward. And she, of course, is resisting this. I'm not going to give it away, but . . . I also thought of how Leo is complaining sometimes about Americans, "Ah, they're so aggressive . . . "
IN: They don't know who he is. We should tell them.
DS: That's her husband, who is very lovely.
IN: Not American. People have asked me, "Is it based on you?" but it's really not. Because I was a writer. I had written several books of poetry before I started translating. Emma is certainly based on my own theories about translation thrown in with, like, thriller elements, so yes, it's there. And I've never translated more than one book by any one writer. I was definitely drawn to just translating books by writers who I admire. So she's not me. Also, I speak Spanish at home, only Spanish at home, and I've been living with someone who is not American and living outside the country for a long time.
DS: The whole arc of the book is this woman, Emma, trying to get away from a certain kind of . . . not just American . . . but sort of running all the time, working all the time, trying to have a life that has more pleasure, more freedom, more love, more passion, and I was thinking that's a message that I think American women really like, but I think it's very hard for us to actually . . .
DS: . . . take. Yeah. I wondered if you had any ideas about that.
IN: Well, I wake up really early and get things done. I'll get home, and then, because I'm married to someone who grew up in another country, Leo will always be, "Oh, no . . . " He'll just make me stop. He just doesn't take my fervor seriously at all, and then I can't take myself seriously, because I realize how ridiculous and futile it is just to be running around all the time. So I just stop. Even before this, I was like, "I've got to get one more thing done before I go . . . " "Ah, no-no . . . " Then I just laugh at my own American industriousness.
DS: I think that's beautiful. It's also in the book. It's almost like a love letter to him in a way, that idea of what could be possible for you. Like, you're not there yet, but maybe you will get there.
IN: Yes. I can dream.
March 8, 2016