Translators as Action Heroes: A Conversation With Idra Novey About Ways to Disappear

With two poetry collections (Exit, Civilian and The Next Country) and numerous translation credits under her belt, it’s no surprise that Idra Novey’s first novel is penetratingly addictive and written with laser-sharp precision. But did you expect a literary translator to tango with murderous loan sharks? Messing with expectations while exciting the reader through the process of chase and discovery, Idra Novey’s debut novel, Ways to Disappear (Little, Brown & Co, 2016), isn’t just a literary rumination on the nature of art and identity: it’s also literary blockbuster which reads like a heist movie and a poem had a really cool baby. I sat down for vegan sandwiches with Idra Novey recently to get her thoughts on the creation of her fascinating firecracker of a debut novel.

Ryan Britt: It’s weird to say a book like this is fun. But it is really, really fun. The first thing that struck me about the book though is there’s a brevity to it. I wondered if it was always this brief, quick novel? Or is that something that happened during revision?

Idra Novey: I wrote the chapters and if they didn’t surprise me in some fundamental way, I deleted them. So I think I probably wrote probably or even three times as many sections as appear in the book. I wanted each section to function almost like a prose-poem. If a section didn’t forward the novel in a surprising way, I just deleted it. and took things in some other direction entirely until I found something that was pushing against the conventional. And then I knew that was the way to go.

Britt: You just said “prose poem” right off the bat. “Poem” is telling, since this is your first novel and your previous books are books of poetry. The obvious question here is: what was it like being someone with a poet’s background, writing a novel?

Novey: I definitely write off the ear and in response to certain images. I’d ask myself “what does this image mean?” and if it didn’t reveal something crucial to the story I took it out. Which is probably why I was so incredibly inefficient writing this book. It took six years although when you write with noir-sh aspects, they create this taut line and you can kind of hang your images on it. Once you plant the notion of the chase, you create a taut line and you can hang any kind of wet laundry on it you want! [laughs]

Britt: I was nervous to ask you about this…

Novey: About my laundry?

Britt: You just said “noir.” And I don’t want to trivialize sex and violence or debt. BUT, you have a loan shark in this book. There’s a chase in this book, as you just said. Can you speak to ways in which a sensationalist narrative informed this book?

People say “write the novel you want to read,” so I did. The novel is very much a love letter to translation.

Novey: Well, I hadn’t found any novels where there was a translator hero. Where translators where shown to be these incredibly worldly, generous sort of restless spirits, which I’ve found all the translators that I know to be. And I wanted to write a book to show a translator you could really root for. I couldn’t find a novel about a translator that resembled any of the passionate, fascinating, adventurous translators I know. People say “write the novel you want to read,” so I did. The novel is very much a love letter to translation. But it’s also about how none of us see each other in anything more than slivers. We don’t see who writers really are, we don’t see who our parents really are in their professional lives. After having children that lapse of understanding really fascinated me and the book gradually became a meditation on partial vision and willful invisibility in general. Once I came up with that notion — how we choose to appear and disappear to each other — I just kept writing toward it.

Britt: Okay. So this is the novel you wanted to read and it’s about a translator superhero. Now you have to convince me that Emma [the translator protagonist] is not you!

Novey: She is not me! I was a writer long before I began to translate. And I’ve never lived in Pittsburgh!

Britt: I guess that settles it!

…I see this as sort of a mystery with manifestos or a thriller with theories

Novey: I’ve also never translated more than one book by any one writer. [Interviewer’s note: in the book Emma translates for only one author.] So, it was definitely based on other translators I know. I mean all the protagonist’s theories…those are certainly mine. I think of the book as a mystery with manifestos or a thriller with some theories. [Laughs.] Maybe the adjuncting experience in the book is a little close to the truth. I have, in fact, shared a keyboard with a Dorito-eater.

Britt: We get an idea that Emma (the translator) has an intimacy with Beatriz (her subject), but then the reader is invited to think that maybe some of that is BS! That maybe the intimacy is pretentious or put-on. What were you trying to say about that? Does a translator know the person they are translating?

Novey: I think it’s a knowing that’s as fluid as it is in any relationship. I think you can know someone in one moment and not know them in the next. It happens with friends. It happens with partners. You can know exactly what they’re going to say next, but then in another conversation, you’ll have no idea what’s going to come out of their mouths. I think that’s just the nature of human relationships. You can’t know anybody all the time. You may know them profoundly one minute and then that evening be like “have we met?” [Laughs] It’s very much a book about how you may not know your parents. We all have huge influential figures in our imaginations who we only know them in partial ways. The limited knowledge that we assume a translator is working with is true of anyone in any kind of relationship. We assume it’s more extreme with a translator and author. But, I don’t think it’s any more extreme than it is between parents and children, between editors and writers, between friends, between people who’ve been living together for years. I think that partial understanding is why people make art, right? What’s your thought on this?

Britt: Hey, I’m asking the questions!

Novey: I’m curious to know!

Britt: In short, I agree with you. So, speaking of reality versus fantasy: there’s this great thing you do with literary “celebrity” culture in the book. This woman is famous. Her disappearance is on the news. It’s in the gossip columns. At first, I thought this was maybe cranking up the volume on this sort of thing. But then I wondered, is that just an American perception? Is this literary celebrity — perhaps wish-fulfillment — as we would like to imagine it, or are you saying this is as it is in other countries?

Novey: Well, once multiple writers start disappearing, I think the news anywhere would pick up the story. But, there aren’t as many visible writers in Brazil as there are here. You think about how many publishers there are here in the United States and books come out all the time. But, it’s a much smaller world in Brazil. So, I can’t say for sure there would be this much attention — it clearly played into my shenanigans as a writer. I went to read at a poetry festival in India once and I was on the subway with a Bengali poet in Calcutta and people on the subway platform kept recognizing him. They stopped and said “Hello! How are you?“ I was shocked that a poet had that kind of facial recognition on the subway, in Calcutta, which would never happen here! There’s a little bit of that in Brazil with the few well known national figures there in the literary world, but mostly I was playing around.

Britt: Okay, here’s the big one. Is this book being translated into another language? And will you have any part of that process?

Novey: Yes. It is being translated into several languages and I did ask about being consulted on this process. The foreign rights agent was worried that that might scare some of the translators off, to have another translator meddling! [Laughs] So, I’ll get to consult but I wouldn’t want to be a hovering menace. I’d defer to the translator’s decisions.

Britt: Could you be on a panel with your translators discussing this novel about a translator? Or would that panel destroy the universe?

Novey: Oh, I think it would be the second-coming of the translator takeover of the galaxy for sure! It would be spectacular. I once translated a translator who later translated me; the Brazilian poet Paulo Henriques Britto. And we had the most thrilling e-mail volleys. I corrected him and he corrected me…and it was this beautiful reciprocity. One year we read together at a poetry festival at Princeton and after hearing one of my new poems, he said, “You know, you don’t really sound like any of the American poets here, Idra.” And I said “Yeah, I know.” And he said, “You know who you sound like? ME.” [Laughs] I’d set out to translate his poems because I admired them and eventually something of his sensibility fed into my own work. People have said Ways to Disappear doesn’t sound particularly American either and probably for the same reasons. My lasting influences are mostly writers in other languages whose works I’ve absorbed as a reader and translator.

Britt: What is next?

I like the gray areas between genres — prose that reads like poetry that moves like a thriller that falls over a reader like poetry…

Novey: Poems in the works! Novel in the works! Translations in the works! I find the more furtively I move between genres, the more I surprise myself as a writer. Moving between genres, you carry curious things over and also carry them away. I like the gray areas between genres — prose that reads like poetry that moves like a thriller that falls over a reader like poetry — to keep mixing it up, and hopefully in the process move the genre of fiction forward in some compelling new way.

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