Interview with Noy Holland
by Michael Kimball
his bio
her prose

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 else?

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 through them?

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 right?

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 my life.

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.


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