Anna Noyes on Sex, Guilt and Summer People
An Interview with the Author of Goodnight, Beautiful Women
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
It would be easy to call Anna Noyes’ debut collection, Goodnight, Beautiful Women (Grove Press, 2016) a “quiet” book. It has all the markings of this designation: realist stories with precise, luminous prose, domestic settings that cultivate epiphanies, and a cast of characters coming of age and covering — or uncovering — the truth.
But Noyes’ book is anything but quiet. Within these pages, love is cut with many poisons — paranoia, indifference, circumstance, violence — and the New England settings seethe with suffering and shame. Loosely connected, the stories create a web the reader walks into without realizing it: A woman carries memories of a girlhood love into her brutal marriage; a college student’s relationship with her boyfriend and his mother changes dramatically during a summer vacation; a woman meets someone who might be her mother on a bus to Boston; a teenager’s love affair with an older man comes between her and her young sister. Below the tranquil surface, these beautiful women — and the beautiful girls they used to be — are screaming at the top of their lungs.
I spoke to Anna about sex, guilt, and summer people in June 2016.
Machado: Guilt, and its suppression, is a prominent theme in these stories. Given how you center women and girls in this collection, do you feel like the production, sublimation, and obligation of guilt is gendered? Why does that emotion in particular capture your narrative attention?
Noyes: I find myself writing again and again about latencies rising to the surface — emerging desire, mental illness, sexuality, physical illness, subtle discomforts or sadness. Latencies that have the potential to threaten the connection between my characters and those who hold them dear. When meeting a character, I’m curious what it is they guard closely, what qualities might be submerged, what is unspeakable or unthinkable, how this might be brought into the light.
One of my favorite ways to tell a story, with intimacy and urgency, is when narration can serve as a kind of confessional (between the narrator and the reader, or another character, or God, or their own conscience). Shortly after reading “A Father’s Story” by Andres Dubus — a heartbreaking, tense confessional — I went on to write “Drawing Blood” and “Treelaw.” Those stories draw momentum from a similar attempt at unburdening through storytelling. “Werewolf,” written earlier, operates this way too. That story was sparked after I assigned my undergraduate students Gordon Lish’s prompt to write your worst secret, the one that “dismantles your own sense of yourself.” (I learned of this prompt through a great interview in The Paris Review with Amy Hempel, whose “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” was also born from this exercise). I made myself do this assignment alongside my students — not to explicitly expose my deepest secret to the world (“Werewolf” is not autobiographical), but to speak aloud something that felt unspeakable.
So, I am preoccupied with the secrets, and shame, and guilt of all my characters, regardless of their gender. The stories in the collection center on girls and women, but in my larger body of work my protagonists are sometimes male, and still I work to dredge up their shame, to explore and to probe it. This ups the stakes, and the stakes ultimately always fall, for me, somewhere along the lines of whether the world will continue to meet the characters (or whether they’ll be able to meet themselves) with love and tenderness at the story’s end, or in the story’s unwritten future. Or will they, in some way, become exiled.
I think women’s sexuality and shame come hand-in-hand in this culture.
That said, I do think that women and girls are hemmed in by a rigid set of expectations about what kind of behavior and emotion is acceptable, what roles we’re meant to fulfill, what it is to be a good wife, daughter, mother. I think we are often taught to apologize, and to nurture and tend to others, and to carry the weight of those perceived failures to tend and accommodate. Personally, it is still hard for me to shake off a mantle of shame that absolutely feels gendered: bodily shame, shame about the validity of my mind, a deep desire to remain “good.” I think women’s sexuality and shame come hand-in-hand in this culture. Girlhood sexuality, even more so. And narratives that really lay bare certain emotions in girls and women — lust, anger, jealousy, destruction — seem to me harder to come by. When we come by them, I’ve witnessed their larger capacity to shock the reader, to seem extraordinarily raw or explicit or dark, to be interpreted as extremes as opposed to nuanced examples of the human experience, even though we frequently encounter similar narratives propelled by men.
Machado: There is, rightly, ongoing pushback against the media’s use of the word “sex” when “rape” is the more accurate term — a desire to draw clear lines between criminal acts and consensual sexual activity. But many of your stories deal with the uncomfortable, liminal area between sex, budding sexuality, and sexual violence. (For example, one character describes what starts as brutality at the hands of her husband thus: “And I did need him, as though his body working into mine all night and every night after that for forty years performed some secret alchemy that made me crave him — he who should have been sickening, he whom I wanted to repulse me.”) What draws you to this difficult, dangerous space?
Noyes: The current conversations about how the media talks about rape, and about consent, are vitally important. In writing about women’s bodies and sexualities, a range of experiences made their way onto the page. Many of these experiences were culled (indirectly) from life. It seems to me that in the course of women’s lifetimes, and in the course of growing into adult sexual beings, instances of trespass are common — large or small, violent or subtle. I have hope that our culture can become a culture of consent; that obtaining and giving consent will be an integral part of sexual education and practice. This is not the culture we live in now, or the culture of our past, and I think the stories reflect that.
In my fiction, my allegiance is to an attentiveness to the detail that is unfolding and an attempt to remain alert to the embodied experience of my characters. I try to keep my gaze narrowed to the particulate, even as I’m approaching topics that exist within a political or moral context, a context I may have strong opinions about. I try to inhabit the bodies of my characters, to feel my way through their experiences intuitively, and to allow room for a range of experiences and nuanced feelings to arise. I want to give my characters room to react in the ways I might expect, but also in ways that are surprising, or fraught, dangerous, self-destructive, if those responses also seem in some way true. Especially in a first person narration, I try to allow the narrative to articulate only what the characters themselves might articulate — keeping in mind their specific contexts, their denials or delusions, the things about themselves they may not be willing to address, or may not know how to address. There is a certain amount of elision in the stories. A character like the narrator in “Treelaw” may not know why she does what she does, or be able or ready to put it to words, but I think the larger story provides reasons for her behavior that the reader can glean, even if she relays her actions as though they’re arbitrary.
I’ve written and re-written the story you quoted from, “Drawing Blood,” in a number of different ways over the years. In its earliest form, it was narrated by the current-narrator’s granddaughter, and began, “My grandmother was raped on her wedding night.” I think that’s how a young woman, observing the events from the outside, observing the story in today’s context, might begin that story. I’ve also written a version of “Drawing Blood” where, after a year of ongoing brutality, the narrator Mary puts her new baby in the pram and tucks as many belongings as she can fit in around the baby and attempts an escape. In the final draft, the one that is in the collection, the moment when she confesses her need for her husband came as a surprise to me. Reflecting on that story, I can intellectualize in defense of this dangerous space, and say, well, she might be operating from a place of self-punishment, or self-destruction, or paying penance, or reenacting the brutality her husband inflicted upon her lover Eva, for which she feels implicit; or perhaps too her body has felt pleasure in the course of this 40 year marriage, in the ways it is designed to feel pleasure, but from a source she finds abhorrent, and that is a heavy, shameful, dark burden she carries; or perhaps her course is shaped by her historical and cultural context, and an alternative path wasn’t easy for her to envision. I could continue in this vein.
I resist, as a reader, those stories that seem to wink at the reader over the shoulder of their narrators…
But I don’t necessarily think it is my job, as the writer, to clarify behavior on behalf of the characters, or to carefully parse why they do what they do. I try to keep this part of my brain very quiet, very dumb, as I am writing. I resist, as a reader, those stories that seem to wink at the reader over the shoulder of their narrators, saying “they’re telling it to you like this, but we both know it’s really like this.” In those moments when the writing feels close to dictation, when I find myself pulled toward uncomfortable terrain, to reasoning and behavior and deeply recessed darkness that is somewhat murky, and mysterious, even to me, I try not to say, “Well no, I can’t have her feeling that, I can’t let her say that.”
Machado: The settings of your stories — small, coastal New England towns — are vivid and powerful, practically additional characters in their own right. You were raised in Downeast Maine. How has your perception of this region shifted throughout your life? (Or, has it?) How has it affected your fiction, beyond setting your stories there?
Noyes: I grew up on a tiny peninsula, with 250 year round residents, and no stores or stoplights; the only businesses are a post office, a lobster pound, and a dentist, and we drive 30 minutes to go grocery shopping. During winters you can walk down the middle of the street, never seeing another person or a passing car. None of this — not the startling beauty of my town, which stuns me when I go back home now, or the slow, contemplative pace to the days — seemed particularly special to me, growing up.
Now, when I go back, I find the physical details of this place overwhelming: complete darkness at night, deep quiet that keeps me alert to those breaches of quiet in the woods, the astounding palate of rust-colored lichen on the rocks and pale green moss hanging from the pines. When I return, I feel especially awake to the details around me — a state of mind I try, and usually fail, to invoke in Brooklyn, which is where I live now. Distance from my hometown, and from the surrounding towns, has given them a nearly mythological resonance, and this feeling has amplified each time I return to these settings in my writing. The landscapes of my childhood are threaded throughout the collection — the old rock quarry drawn from the one I lived beside with my mom for a season in an airstream trailer; the dark, silhouetted islands; the fox’s scream, which sounds so much like a woman’s. I find the details of this region freighted with meaning, as I imagine most people feel about the landscapes they come from, and love, and perhaps especially those landscapes they have (temporarily, or permanently) left behind.
Also, it must be said that I spent a lot of time as a kid hanging out in the mini-mall parking lot, going to Wendy’s — truly a lot of time with malls and fast food (one review referred to a “motif” of chain restaurants in the book, and I felt caught in the act. Indeed, there’s both a Denny’s and a Ruby Tuesday’s in the collection, and places like these still comfort me, and feel inexorably linked to home.) I didn’t just spend my days wandering through an evocative landscape, reveling in it. I am equally drawn to a town like the fictional Treelaw — with its dogs tied up in the front yards, and the kids walking down the center of the street chewing stolen Nicorette gum and spitting — as I’m drawn to a town like the fictional Alma, with its stately summer homes. These two worlds exist side-by-side in Downeast Maine, and I have intimate knowledge of both. I’m probably more interested in a girl hiding under a broken trampoline in her front yard than a girl gazing out at the water from a beach. In my stories, picturesque places and trouble often intersect. Maine’s details, especially the details of the natural world, I find particularly ominous; the everyday assumes a kind of menace. I think this impulse has bled into my wider work — I don’t think I could write any story where the physical details weren’t also emotional vessels.
Also, though I grew up in Maine, I still find its romanticism so seductive. When I was 25, I moved back to Maine with my boyfriend after two years studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I had an idealized vision of my life in Maine, a life that also included a hefty portion of romanticism about what it meant to be a good grown-up woman: buying a home, marriage, maybe, soon, children. I spent the year attempting to knit, roasting things. I’m a sucker for movies about Maine — the phony accents, the foul weather gear, the cheery banter. Sometimes, I pictured myself inside movie-set Maine, and felt weirdly soothed.
I was very unhappy, inside this lovely idea of a life.
I was very unhappy, inside this lovely idea of a life. I worked on my stories, which felt far away from being a book, without seeing myself in the narrators who fled their lives and people they loved. In my writing, I tried to complicate familiar narratives of Maine, of girlhood and womanhood; still I was trying desperately to make the familiar molds work for my own life, even when I felt miscast.
In the springtime, I left — the beautiful place, and the person who I loved. I was bereft to lose the life I had been building, but also, immediately relieved. It turns out, for me right now, a happy life is eating canned beans three nights in a row, living with my best friend in this big city, drifting; I had to break with a good romance, a good life, to restore my own power. For my characters, too, I hope some power, and strength, and momentum, however fraught, might be found in breaking away.
Machado: The transient presence of “summer people” — tourists who visit this region during the season, and leave when it’s over — feature throughout these stories. What interests you about these fixtures of New England life? How does their ephemerality (and the reliability of that ephemerality) contribute to this collection’s mood and setting?
Noyes: Though I was raised in Maine, my parents and grandparents were summer people. My grandparents were the first to winterize their summer homes; before that, my family summered in my town for many generations. As any true Mainer will tell you, this makes me an outsider. The grand homes that were once in my family have been sold off throughout the generations, and sit vacant through the winter. I’ve always felt like an outsider peering into that life, only a few generations removed from its opulence.
I’ve always felt like an outsider peering into that life, only a few generations removed from its opulence.
People who come to Maine for the summer, as tourists or because they have second homes here, have their own kind of intimate, sanctified connection with this state that is poignant and true, and that is something I respect. Many of these people are near and dear to me. But I also think this tourism and summering hinges on an idealized version of Maine that is sometimes superimposed over a complex reality. I am interested in who and what this idealized picture necessarily excludes; who feels protected by the safety and ease the summertime lifestyle assumes, and who does not. I am trying to depict what I know of this part of the world, which is so starkly lovely, and also so often beautified, seen as a “vacationland,” and a reprieve from real life, and to depict it with honesty, and care. There is darkness, and there is also tenderness, humor, strength.