Earlier this summer, I met with author Noy Holland to discuss her wonderful novel, Bird. I was a big fan of her collection, Swim for the Little One First, so I jumped at the chance to read her first novel ahead of its publication date. We spoke at a coffee shop in Northampton, MA. Bird comes out in November 2015, but you can read an excerpt right here at Numéro Cinq.
— Benjamin Woodard
Benjamin Woodard (BW): This is your first novel. How long did it take to complete? I ask because I’ve read that some of your stories have taken years and years to finish.
Noy Holland (NH): The longer stories took years to write, yes. I started Bird as a short story, and it took me a long time to know I was writing a novel. I’m embarrassed to tell you how long ago I started it. Not to say I was working on it continuously, as I wrote my third collection and part of my second collection while this was around. But I probably started Bird about twelve years ago.
BW: It’s funny, because when I read the book, I felt like there were some narrative shades and parallels from some of your earlier stories, like “Merengue” from Swim for the Little One First.
NH: This stuff lives with me for such a long time. I just finished copy editing Bird today, and I deliberately revised a sentence that was really close to a sentence in Swim to be a replica of that sentence. Because it was so close to it anyway. We tend to talk about a body of work, but we don’t think of it as anything bodily, as a repetition of the physical sensation of sentences. A repeated syntax; a tendency toward a repetition, across books, of a sound. I’ve stopped worrying about telling the same story. I’m not afraid of having some of the same images or people or colors. There’s something mysterious and beautiful about the persistence of these things.
BW: You see that all the time with filmmakers, who riff on one idea for multiple films.
NH: Right. They have favorite words, favorite cadences. Places, colors, women (laughs). So I stopped resisting repetition a while ago.
BW: Did you approach Bird differently from the stories you were writing at the same time?
NH: As I said, I tricked myself into writing it. Since I thought I was writing a story, I began as I typically do, with a sentence or part of a sentence, with a disruption, or a feeling. And when I realized I either had to throw it away or write a novel, I really had to rethink my process. I began again on a sentence level. At first the book was replete with modifiers, and since for years I had taken adjectives and adverbs away from myself, I had to talk to myself about this. Talk myself down some. I had to go pretty far out with that permission, toward something I gradually found too lavish, and then I scaled back. In places, I’ve likely scaled too far back, been suddenly strict, disgusted with the excess. My recent work is somewhat drastically compressed, and because the novel took such a long time to write, I felt often at odds with myself, and wanted to inflict the somewhat merciless swiftness of what I’m doing now on a book that needed, I think, a more ample linguistic terrain. Also, structure. My god, structure. This was the toughest knot. What a relief to discover the book would pass in a day, and to know I should begin at the beginning of that day. In my stories, I usually land on my first sentence pretty early. But Bird took me forever to decide where to start. I started it in a place that I became disgusted with. I wrote seventy or eighty pages, and maybe a few of those survived to this final version. I found I wanted the first pages to read as lived time, not recollection, wanted the past to feel as immediate as the present, and more pressing. So I started in the long ago, in what I thought of as a permeable state where the past and present could exist at once.
BW: It’s interesting that you’re speaking about language, because in the book, at one point, Bird thinks, “whilst, nobody gets to say whilst anymore,” and it made me think, “Maybe the author is coming through here a bit.” Your sentences are so precise.
NH: That happens, probably more than I recognize. But that kind of commentary does happen.
BW: It seems like in Bird every word is very deliberate and the narrative is incredibly lean, yet densely packed into 170 pages. It lends itself to rereading.
NH: It felt dense to me, reading it again today (laughs).
BW: Do you see a big difference in telling a novel-length story?
NH: Part of my impulse in writing a novel was to get over an apprehension about structure. I think you can write a short story without thinking much about structure, except for when you get into a longer short story, when you have to think of structure in an almost mathematical way. Just to have a sense of how the pattern emerges, or what kind of pattern you need to answer to. When the pattern gets long, the story gets long.
So I think writing a novel is quite different from writing a short story. The attention needs to be the same. Nobody gets off the hook, really. I don’t believe that if you have a lot of pages you can get away with not having to look at every word. The reader still has to read it from beginning to end, from sentence to sentence. Who wants to read filler?
I find the structure of things to be the most vexing part of writing. The most difficult part. For me structure is always retroactive, not an experience of deciding but of recognizing a patternedness to the impulses I’ve blindly recorded. I like the blindness, the search in the dark, the weird disorientation that comes of not knowing what’s ahead. I try, no matter the length of the fiction I’m writing, not to know too much. Or much at all. I hate the belatedness I feel when I know what is next. But how next is different. Structure is pattern, it’s how, it’s a notion of rules, a constriction that, as Yeats said, “drives the plow to original matter.”
I make it sound as though I knew what I was doing but really I fumbled around. The demands were so different. In Bird I felt I had to make concessions for clarity, for momentum. I really had to argue with myself.
There are two narratives in the novel and each is, temporally, pretty much smoothed out. There are ellipses in each, but they still more or less move forward in time. Is this the way we experience things, the way we remember things? No. But the confusion that came of entwining events and images that belonged to different eras was too much. I felt I was trading emotional resonance for what began to feel like an intellectual endeavor, a linguistic contortion that allowed me to bring the past and present side by side in the same sentence. I love when this happens—when a sentence evokes our lived sensation of time and experience blends and confuses. I tried to invite this confusion locally, while seeking clarity and differentiation globally, between the past and present.
BW: And, in a way, the character of Suzie bridges that. She’s an interesting character, because she’s just a voice, and yet it feels like she’s sometimes acting as Bird’s conscience and alter ego. She’s a link from present to past. How did you come about using the character as this kind of device?
NH: I’m glad you saw Suzie as an alter ego, since she emerged from Bird thinking fitfully about herself. So, yes, Suzie’s another version of that singular character. When I disentangled these aspects of Bird’s sense of herself, her longing for herself, I ended up with Suzie, and gave her a name and a device to speak through. [note: throughout the novel, Bird and Suzie only speak through telephone conversations]. I needed her as a counterpoint, as antagonism. I found Suzie could make declarations and ask questions and report weird findings in natural science that I find fascinating. Suzie made room for this fascination in me, and she expressed the common wish for an unbound life. She’s selfish and she’s promiscuous. She can indulge her fascinations. She can go where she wants. By the end of the book, she’s decided against having children permanently. She’s that free spirit, you know? The free range human.
BW: Another counterpoint is Bird’s mother, who exists through all of these missives sent into the ether by Bird. These letters feel like a confessional for Bird, a way for her to speak about the things she normally can’t speak about to anyone else. Again, here’s a character that doesn’t really exist as a tangible being, but by the end of the novel, she feels real to the reader.
NH: Yes, absolutely.
BW: Bird, as a character, has quite a bit of anxiety in the present day narrative. Is this a result of her past, or is it a reflection of the many things we can feel anxious about in our present day?
NH: I don’t know any mothers who aren’t anxious, who aren’t deeply anxious about their choices, about the difficulty of being a mother. I don’t know anyone who, committed to the task of being a mother, doesn’t find it the hardest thing she’s ever done. So, no, I don’t think Bird’s anxiety is a function of the things that have happened to her. I think it’s simply an extension of mothering, of putting lives out into the world and not knowing what their destinies are. The great mysteries of your children’s destinies have not yet unfolded, and there’s not very much you can do to keep them safe. Mothers are hyper-vigilant, super-charged worriers, but vigilance is insufficient, even laughable at times. You hold your hands out while your kid flies off the swing. Like that.
Bird had a turbulent past, and this informs her friendship with Suzie. The two answer the life that the other did not choose. They mirror one another, and they rebuke one another.
BW: Is Doll Doll, who a younger Bird meets while traveling west, representing another potential life path?
NH: I don’t think I want to draw causal links between Bird and Mickey falling away from one another to their experience with Doll Doll. I think they were going to lose each other, no matter what. But I think Doll Doll is there because the angst and the anxiety of a middle class, white woman living in a real house, in relative security, cannot be compared to the angst and the anxiety of a girl who is going to become a mother, who has become orphaned, who has tied her life to a man who can’t read or write. The precariousness of these lives makes Mickey and Bird’s troubles seem ridiculous. Doll Doll is there, in part, to undercut Bird’s dramatic sense of how difficult things are. She’s self-indulgent. Bird’s difficulties in the present day, by comparison, are normal difficulties.
NH: I don’t remember what I said then (laughs). A listener is different from an audience, of course. To think about an audience while writing a book is disabling, falsifying. But a listener is intimate and also kind of strange. You picked up the confessional mode in Bird’s correspondence with her mother. The mother is the listener in this book. To imagine Bird imagining that her dead mother is listening—well, this was a deep murky impulse but I’d say it enabled the book. Sometimes the listener is the beloved to whom we can no longer speak, because she’s dead or she’s unknown to you or lost to you somehow. It’s a way of keeping loved ones in being—I think Eudora Welty gets credit for saying that. We all go through these anxieties and losses, no matter how blessed our lives are. There is grief in it, and maybe the sense of listening is to speak to the object of your grief.
I’d like to be a happier writer (laughs). I’d like to be a sad-funny writer, or to write with greater levity for the joys of being.
BW: But I do find there’s always some little detail in your writing that’s so strange, you can’t help but smile, even if there’s not much going well for the people involved. A lot of your work revolved around the idea of perseverance. Is that something you think about in your writing?
NH: Of course, it’s true. I come from a very long line of stubborn people. I married a stubborn man and I have stubborn children. You have to bully your way through things, in a way, and you have to be both patient and kind of disgusted by yourself. You endure and sometimes you prevail. You show up, and you stay at your desk, waiting. There’s so much discouragement in being a writer. We know this. There’s very little recognition, very little money. And it can be wrenching to write yourself into the mess of what you know and feel. It can make a mess of you, you know?
And then to have people say, “Why does it have to be so difficult, or so dark?” Well, it’s wounding. It’s dismissive. But readers are also grateful, they feel seen by your seeing, and this keeps you going, no question.
You persevere. Unless you’re going to live a narrow life, in which you avoid trouble, you avoid danger, you’re going to have to be resilient. In order to have a full expression of your being, you have to be brave. And if you’re brave, you’re going to screw up. You’re going to find yourself in trouble. And you’re going to have to be resilient to live through it. Love is dangerous. The most cautious life is still fraught with danger, and you don’t know what to be afraid of. So you must live by plunging forward.
— Noy Holland & Benjamin Woodard
Noy Holland is the author of three story collections, Swim for the Little One First, What Begins with Bird, and The Spectacle of the Body. Recipient of fellowships from the NEA, the MacDowell Colony and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, she teaches writing in the graduate program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Revolver, Maudlin House, and Cheap Pop. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his nonfiction has been featured in, or is forthcoming from, The Kenyon Review Online, Alternating Current, 5×5, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.