Michael: Ok, here we go, first question:
How do you start a piece of fiction—with an idea, a word,
phrase, a feeling, a story, a plot, a character, or something
Noy: Now this is a question I have answered
carelessly, if sincerely, for quite a while. Because I always
thought I started with a sentence, or a sound, a mis-statement
or a mishearing—as if such a thing arrives out of the blue.
I still believe this, sort of. I have a little story in which
a boy cannot say his l's. Those l's, the y's that replace
the l's, are the animating oddity of the story. But grief
or pity or love—some emotional state—precedes the sound, the
sentence, or at least arrives at the same time. Emotional
porousness, susceptibility—I think that’s what makes me listen
and wish to speak.
Michael: So let’s talk a little bit about
the misspoken here. How did you find that different way of
speaking and what is the feeling that precedes or accompanies
the different way that the boy speaks? I’m also curious to
know how you use that feeling, and the different way in which
the boy speaks, to drive the story.
Noy: I happened upon the oddity in this
boy's speech at our little school in the hills. I had never
heard a child speak who could not say his l's, and when I
heard this boy, I had to work, in that awkward dumb-mother
way, to decipher what he meant, his speech sounded so strange.
And he didn't look right. He was so horribly fat he seemed
in pain. This boy was treated tenderly, though, and lived,
in school, among four- and five-year olds, in a pretty sweet
and protected way. The other children had no trouble understanding
him, and seemed to have no sense that he was even speaking
differently. Nobody had remarked it. Nobody called him fat-boy
names, but I knew they eventually would. He'd be teased, shamed,
eventually. He was four years old and he had it coming. I
pitied him, wanted to mother him. I pitied him in advance—a
wasted feeling. But it wasn't exactly pity, or wasn't only
pity, that made me write the story. It was my shame at being
disgusted. This boy came running across the schoolroom one
morning, holding out his hand. He was beaming. He wanted to
show me something. I don't know what they fed that boy. He
wasn't loved. He had lost a tooth. "Yook, yook, I yost
a tooth," he announced. He had lost maybe four teeth
and collected them in a baggie. They were completely black
with rot; they were falling out of his head. He so wanted
to be happy, this boy. He wanted to lose teeth happily the
way other children did. His desire was pure and pressing.
I couldn't begin to answer it. I recoiled, recovered, and
faked it, and walked around that day starting the story.
Michael: I am, as you know, interested
in different ways of speaking in fiction, so let’s talk about
the different narrators in your fiction and the different
ways they speak. Nearly all of your narrators have particular
ways of speaking. I’m thinking particularly of the narrator
in “Orbit” from your first book, The Spectacle of the Body,
but also the narrator from "Rooster, Pollard, Cricket,
Goose" in your new book of stories, What Begins with
Bird. Would you talk a little bit about those different ways
of speaking and how you created original pieces of fiction
Noy: Here's one way to think of it. A
narrator makes a bait-ball and that bait-ball of kinds of
sentences moves through the stuff of the world. It feeds,
obedient to its fears and appetites. The images, sensations,
feelings that come of this are peculiar to the narrator—an
exhibit of her perceptions, her manner of perceiving. The
people I write through are like me, I suppose—they hope to
be permitted not to see too much of the world. They are hiders,
not high-noon people. My boy Orbit was at large, looking elsewhere.
The narrator of "Rooster, Pollard, Cricket, Goose,"
in my new collection, is looking elsewhere, too. She claims
the pastoral dream, the great fecund cyclings—for a reason,
and at a price. She is lushly, I think, evasive. Her way of
speaking effects a piling-up; she buries herself in appositions.
This mass—this impediment, really—combines with her skittishness,
her want to look away. Together these prevent her, as she
wishes to be prevented, from seeing the grievous difference
between what she is and what she hopes she will be.
But these are funny matters to speak of, yes?
I know they are for me. Because I don't know what I'm doing
until I've done it. I find a sentence that feels right. It
isn't until much later that I look about to justify why.
Michael: I try to know very little about
my narrators when I begin a new piece of fiction. I try to
let them tell me what is going to happen through their particular
way of speaking. But I always find it difficult to know if
I am working with something worthwhile. I am always questioning
myself and, it isn’t clear what I have done, if I have done
something, until later. I guess I have two questions here.
Do you struggle with this uncertainty too? And how do you
know when the work is right, that feeling that makes it feel
Noy: Yes, yes, exactly, me too. I don't
want to know too much. Things flatten for me and die away
when I know too much about them. I get to pursuing, and don't
like it. I get tidy and resort to a timid, unwarranted faith.
I think I know am on to something when the particular
way I am telling a story keeps generating messes. It keeps
landing me in the soup of what I didn't know I knew. I get
a nice high bottomless feeling—good days—as though I could
write the same story forever. The story creates its own imperatives.
I can doubt it again and again, and do. But if I'm lucky,
and attentive, I'm already hooked by the hope of what I can
learn simply by keeping at it. The fact and prospect of the
unknown sustain me, not faith. Hopefulness does, and curiosity.
Also fear. As to illuminating the feeling that makes a sentence
feel right, shit if I can. It's in the body, somewhere between
the brisket and the chin.
Michael: That bottomless feeling—I have
never thought of describing it that way, those few days when
the story seems to write itself, when it seems that all you
have to do as the writer is to let the pen write. I often
think that that is the feeling and that those are the days
that I write for. But I’m curious about the adjective “attentive”
that you just mentioned. Would you mind talking about what
sorts of things you are attentive to when you are working
on a piece of fiction, what your considerations are, what
sorts of things you are revising when you are making revisions?
Noy: I'm looking for places I have skidded
over, for signs of hurry and wrong-headedness that signal
trouble below—places to give in to, hot spots, shifting plates.
It is attention, some quality of attentiveness, that makes
me see such a place one day and not another. Which is daunting.
If I show my work too soon, somebody will want to fix these
places for me. Or I might instead open them up and find that
the trouble there belongs elsewhere—to another story, or to
Michael: When a writer lets go of his
work seems to be a nearly universal problem. Sometimes I hold
things too long and sometimes not long enough. So tell me
then how you knew when these stories were finished. And maybe
also talk about the title story, “What Begins with Bird.”
It is a long short story at 40+ pages, and it seems to me
as if there could be a novel there if you wanted to open up
some more of its places.
Noy: I know what you mean. I have often
felt that there is a novel—maybe two—in and among the stories
I have gathered. There are other episodes, other versions,
other complications to unearth. There is always more. I suppose
what made me believe I was finished with "What Begins
with Bird" was the suspicion that, if I prolonged the
story, the feeling—I mean both sensation and emotion—would
begin to flag. The story has, I think, two alternating movements;
to open up into other movements (maybe other times and places)
would, I was afraid, diminish the emotional intensity that
had guided me in shaping the story. As for knowing when to
let a story go—it's a good and difficult question. It is much
easier for me to know that I have reached the last line than
to know I have finished the story, as my work often swells
from back behind that last line. I try to look at any work
I suspect might be finished at different times of the day,
and in different moods, to see how well it fares. I reach
a point where I am glazing over, or replacing, one day, a
comma I omitted the day before, and then I let the story go,
for better or worse, and move on.
Michael: Ok, let’s move on then. I’d like
to ask about the publishing aspect of this book. Your first
book of stories was published with Knopf, you recently received
an NEA fellowship, critics love you, and all sorts of famous
writers—William Gass, John Edgar Wideman, Christine Schutt,
Padgett Powell, Frederick Busch, etc.—have said wonderful
things about your work. Your second book of stories is coming
out with FC2, a wonderful press that I am often thankful for,
but I’m wondering how this comes to be. How does a serious
writer who is so well thought of go from a major commercial
house to a small university press? Could you talk about the
literary fiction market in general and then maybe about your
book of stories in particular?
Noy: A friend of mine had a book recently
picked up by Vintage, and he seemed pretty pleased to be out
of what he called "the ghetto of small presses."
The ghetto designation casts an unfortunate, and unwarranted
shadow. Small presses are poor, yes, but not everybody, after
all, wants out of them. I had a fatter check from Knopf, it's
true, and true that, among many readers, the commercial imprint
is a validating mark. But these are likely not my readers,
nor yours. These are readers seeking guidance, looking for
efficient ways, understandably, to get their hands on a good
book. They look for the market to sort out what's worthy.
Often enough, a person decides that what cost more must be
worth more. What's bigger must be better. Old story, proven
wrong again and again.
Possibly, it's worse now. People are hurrying
harder, and going off to the movies, and what we like to call
"free time" is likely more and more pinched. Maybe
people are more inclined to believe in the power of the marketplace,
in the rights of the consumer. The consumer says, “If you
want some of my free time, you're going to have to come over
here and get it. Look at me," he says, "entertain
me. These are my demands." Random House calls Barnes
& Noble to find out what that guy wants. Well, okay. But
what if he wants to watch the baseball game at the same time
he is reading your book? It's discouraging, sort of. On the
other hand, remember, he never was your reader, and the prospect
of your converting him is negligible. The market is the market.
It's no gauge of anything but itself.
A book is an exchange between human beings.
If we come to the exchange humbly—both writer and reader—if
we come with the groping, humble desire to understand one
another, to be understood, to feel less alone, the imperatives
of the marketplace fall away. Serious, innovative, independent
presses like Dalkey Archive, New Directions, FC2, Coffee House,
Graywolf, Soft Skull, Four Walls Eight Windows, Black Square,
3rd Bed, operate (or want to) beyond the imperatives of the
marketplace. They take chances the good editors at commercial
houses are not at liberty to take.
The risk a small house takes with a new book
extends out over the years. They only have a little puddle
of money and yet they are committed to keeping books in print.
(The first book FC2 published some 35 years ago is, for instance,
still available.) That's a great boon for writers. My first
collection (Knopf) was remaindered within a year.
Gordon Lish, as you know, was my editor at Knopf.
He was amazing, and he changed my life. I will never quit
being grateful to him. But Gordon was frustrated with, and
then gone from, Knopf, and that pretty solidly swung the door
shut, for me and for others. I wish it were otherwise.
But the truth is, I love being at FC2. I am
more and more devoted to them, and to the many excellent writers
they publish—Kate Bernheimer, Susan Steinberg, Brian Evenson
among them. FC2's publisher, Ralph Berry, is an extraordinarily
smart, courageous, joyous man. I loved having a say in my
cover and book design (Lou Robinson and Tara Reeser, bless
them, re-designed the whole thing to suit me.) And Brenda
Mills, the managing editor, she's a whirlwind—diligent and
inventive, happy to be of help.
What if fiction writers more often took their
cues from poets, who seem to work underground? Poets have
projects, prizes, tributes, a whole Poetry Month—why not?
We could quit worrying over the commercial houses and make
trouble someplace else. Help each other, make things happen.
You did this with taint. You're doing it now.
Michael: A book is an exchange between
two people. I don’t want to ask any more questions. Let’s
just leave it there.
Noy: Good by me. Leave it open. Because
it’s private, and bottomless, too, the nature of that exchange.