Idra Novey’s debut novel Ways to Disappear is a boisterously funny literary thriller in which noted experimental Brazilian author Beatriz Yagoda vanishes up a tree, pursued by her two grown children, her American translator Emma, an ex-publisher and a sleazy gun-wielding loan shark seeking payback on Beatriz’s online poker debts. I chat with her about her own work as a translator and poet, and about making this vibrant, inventive and profound switch to fiction.

MR: Did you grow up around different languages?

IN: I grew up in a family that only spoke English at home, but my Dad spoke Spanish and had worked in Spanish, and we had a number of exchange students who came and lived with us. We had a Brazilian student who came for a year, and another from Argentina, and the daily life and food and music of those places just became part of my family. Where I grew up in Pennsylvania is a very depressed region, it’s called the Rust Belt because there was a lot of mining there but then the coalmines went. In the town where I grew up, unemployment’s now around 50 per cent, and at the high school I went to only 30 per cent go on to college. So it was such a flash of wonder when these students came who were from other cultures and other languages, and I would come home from being at the school where a lot of people were very anti-idea, and we’d talk about what’s happening in Argentina, what’s happening in Brazil, and my house felt like a very different place from out there, and I think I kept seeking that.

When I got to college I studied Comparative Literature, so it was later on that I picked up extra languages. I lived in Chile after I graduated from college for a couple of years, and then I moved to Brazil. It’s easier to learn Portuguese if you know Spanish first, and I had studied both at college, so when I got to Brazil I was bilingual and then Portuguese became a third language on top.

Emma’s devotion to Beatriz is both admirably devoted and a bit reckless. Which of those traits do you recognise in yourself?

Oh, I think both. Devotion is always a reckless thing, it’s a good word for it. To risk caring about someone makes you vulnerable – in any context. When you care a lot about your own work people are fine with that, but when you give yourself over to somebody else’s art and vision, then we’re more suspicious. But for me there’s something really beautiful about saying I love this art and I will champion it and devote myself to it, even if it’s not my own – that act of generosity, just coming out of a love of literature and not of one’s own name emblazoned on the cover.

But Emma is not me, she’s very much an invention based on a lot of anecdotes I’ve heard from friends who are translators, and things I’ve experienced myself. I kind of took all the best stories and put them together into one character – as I think fiction should do. People assume that she’s some sort of simulacrum but she is in fact a concoction.

Translation’s a bodily pursuit. When I was translating Manoel de Barros, I had to close my eyes and really see the rose-coloured fungi crawling up the walls in the abandoned houses, to picture what it was like to be in that room.”

In your translator’s note to Clarice Lispector’s of The Passion According to G.H, you speak of “gradually, painstakingly, experiencing every word in this book” and carrying passages in your head like vivid memories. Emma’s like that too.

Yes, well I think translation’s a really bodily pursuit. When I was translating the poet Manoel de Barros, who’s from the wetlands of Brazil, I had to close my eyes and really see the rose-coloured fungi crawling up the walls in the abandoned houses, to picture the humidity and what it was like to be in that room. Translation helps you really immerse yourself. It’s a creative act, and I think I learned how to be a writer by translating writers that I admire, and that being immersed in their work helped me be a more reckless writer. I could give myself over to a scene or a moment in a distant place that I think I wouldn’t have been able to if I hadn’t done it with their work first.

Emma of course only translates ‘her author’ Beatriz, whereas so far you’ve only ever translated one book by any given writer. Do you think that’s always going to be the case?

I think so. Someone like Richard Zenith is a gorgeous translator, and has done an incredibly beautiful job translating a lot of Fernando Pessoa, and I think there is something that you gain as a translator when you are that immersed in a writer’s work. But I’m too restless to just keep doing a whole body of work by one person. I like playing around, and I like the freedom of knowing that I can. I don’t want to feel trapped.

Emma’s adventure in Brazil is in part an escape from her dull boyfriend Miles, and the limited worldview back in Pittsburgh. To what extant does Miles represent your view of typical Western values and lifestyles?

Oh, I think it’s about American men. I’m talking about mainstream culture, not like where I live in Brooklyn where everybody’s making artisanal pickles and painting in the evenings, which is not I think representative of American male culture. Where I grew up in Pennsylvania there was a really narrow range of colours on clothing that men can wear, books they can read or talk about, activities they can pursue – basically just sports and beer. So I think Miles in a way is a victim of that. He just checks his pulse a lot – to make sure he’s still alive in there!

But of course that kind of limited outlook or opportunity also exists in other countries and cultures. In your short story ‘Under the Lid’, set in Pinochet’s Chile, the protagonist Gustavo longs to be “a man who approached a window knowing about the stars instead of the cost per yard of the curtains.”

Even walking here in London I was thinking the same thing, the range of colours in men’s clothing, and the range of careers that people are pushed into in order to be ‘practical’, it’s really limiting. It affects the kind of emotional relationships you have, your closest relationships are impacted by what you’ve been confined into in terms of your own identity. So I think of Miles as kind of tragic. He’s not a bad person, he’s just boring.

The_Passion_According_to_GH_290There was an existing English-language version of The Passion According to G.H. Why did you want to make a new one?

I think translation is like a radio frequency, and that you want to play a book at the frequency of your own time. The older translation was at a different frequency, and I wanted to write one that was more tuned to our era. Clarice Lispector is a figure I really admired and learned from as a writer, so I went into it really wanting to heighten the music. The novel has a kind of fugue aspect of certain repeated words – which I play with too in my own novel – and I think when you repeat things they accrue meaning, just in the mere act of repeating them. I learned a lot from that. I was also trying to see what she was doing in a writerly way, not just to get the meaning down, but how was she writing off the ear, how was she playing with certain words to get deeper? I found translating that book to be a really exhausting but illuminating adventure. She’s intense.

Another of your translations, of Tegui’s On Elegance While Sleeping, also influenced the writing of this book.

Absolutely. I think formally that book was the most similar, and it gave me licence to come up with the form I created for the novel, with the short sections and things that kind of veer off but are tangentially related. Tegui lived in Paris, and he was a friend of Picasso and Apollinaire, and though he was writing in Spanish he’s really much more aesthetically linked to that era of French literature and painting, and it was really fascinating to see how the sensibilities of surrealism played out in Spanish. Then I thought about how would I write a book in English as an American writer influenced by this Spanish writing that incorporated a kind of slippery realism. So I think from Tegui I learned how you can take something that you feel aesthetically connected to, and make it your own in your own language. He’s also very feisty.

That book is really strange. The narrator falls in love with a goat, he follows this goat in its herd with great longing, and then later he goes on to commit a murder. But he sets up this act of violence, which then allows him to play around because the suspense has been established. So the book’s really suspenseful, but there’s also a lot of playful scenes. I connected to that. He goes high, he goes low, he lets himself get away with everything, and I was like, well I would love to play with high and low, and write crazy scenes and also suspenseful ones. And I don’t know why you can only write one or the other, right? Why can’t you just throw them all in?

Did you spend much time in Brazil when you were writing this?

I went back, but for the most part I spent a lot of time in Brazil in my mind. I was working on this book while I was translating two different Brazilian writers, so in my mind I was spending a lot of time in Lispector’s Brazil, and Manoel de Barros’ Brazil. I was communicating their images on the page, and that was kind of where the book came from. I realised I wanted to write about my own perceptions of Brazil, and my own experiences travelling. Even when crazy things happen, it is a reckless joy to just get out of your own element.

The character I had the most fun writing was the loan shark. I highly recommend it, including a loan shark is really fun. Probably much more fun than interacting with one.”

Did the story come to you in these very brief chapters, jumping between scenes and characters, or was there a lot a paring down to achieve that?

Well, I came to fiction from writing prose poetry, and I think working in discrete sections, where you can really chisel the language and have it hinge on a couple of telling moments, that seemed to be where you could get something down to its essence. I had this plot involving the loan shark and the poker debt, and once you have a loan shark and some ransom notes, you have this very taut line and you can hang your scenes on it like on a laundry line. The character I had the most fun writing was the loan shark. I highly recommend it, including a loan shark is really fun. Probably much more fun than interacting with one.

Translator as action hero is an interesting departure from the norm as well.

Yes, because I do think translators are the secret heroes of literature. They’re certainly not the villains.

How long was the actual writing process?

About five years, but I went away from it and came back, and each time I came back I saw different aspects that I went deeper into. I think it’s really helpful to get away from the book for a while. When I came up with the title Ways to Disappear, I started to think about how in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the ‘I’ actually referred to all the speakers in the book. And I started thinking how every character in the book comes to disappear in some way, and to explore all the different kinds of disappearing that can happen, in one character and another. Because I think we all want to disappear sometimes, it’s a human impulse.

There are few of your stories online; do you have any plans to publish a collection?

I have! You’re the first person who’s asked that. I have an idea down the road, of stories looking at what happened in Chile from the Pinochet era into the near future. I’ve been travelling back and forth to Chile now for almost twenty years and have witnessed the transition to democracy and the whole post-Pinochet era. It’s a place that’s become part of my life – my husband and children are Chilean, and I have a bunch of Chilean friends – but I’m also an outsider. And I think when it’s not your own culture – and I’m only there one month a year – you see changes kind of juxtaposed from one year to the next. It’s become an important thing for me just thinking about how what happens in your country changes what happens in your home. I just finished another one, and all the short stories I wrote while working on the novel have been about Chile. It was refreshing to do something else.

Your recent poetry collection Exit, Civilian is set among prisons, courthouses and hideouts. Where did those poems spring from?

I worked with the Bard Prison initiative, I taught in a women’s prison for three years, but I think I ended up doing that in part because I had been involved with a domestic violence shelter in Chile. And that played out in the novel too, because the novel’s very much about silence around sexual assault, and how not knowing about an act of sexual assault can have reverberations a generation or two later. In a women’s prison, a lot of the women there were sexually abused as children, or had been victims of violence that led to crimes of their own later on. So I think those poems are about that, how violence begets violence.

I think the translator of the book in Brazil is going to be a poet who I translated, Paulo Henriques Britto, so he will be translating his translator’s novel about a translator. It’s kind of meta.”

What else are you working on?

A mix of different things, but mostly I’m just running around doing events and readings, which has been really fascinating. This is the first time I’ve talked about the book for an edition in another country. And it’s coming out in Italian and in French and in German, and hopefully in Portuguese next year, which is really important to me. As a translator and as a writer I really want to be part of a global conversation. In the United States it can feel like the conversation’s staying within the country, and once you open it up and start talking about literature with people working in other countries and languages, it’s often fascinating. I think the translator of the book in Brazil is going to be a poet who I translated, Paulo Henriques Britto, so it’s kind of a beautiful thing because he will be translating his translator’s novel about a translator. It’s kind of meta.

Aside from the translator, have you had any other feedback from Brazil about this edition?

Yes, a review or two came out in Portuguese, and in the first review the woman who wrote it said that she assumed going in that it was going to be another American take on Brazil that was ignorant and trafficking in clichés, but she was surprised to find that I actually did know quite a bit about the country. Then the editor for the press said that he saw that I was poking fun at American notions of Brazil, but actually it goes much deeper than that. So overall the responses from Brazil have been pleasantly surprised at how nuanced it is – given that I am an American!

If you were told at gunpoint to choose between poetry, fiction and translation, how would you answer?

I’d say let me just write a great sentence, you can call it whatever you want with your gun in my face. I’ll just give you the best sentence I can, and you can label it whatever way you feel it deserves.

Idra_Novey_420Idra Novey was born in Pennsylvania and has since lived in Chile, Brazil and New York. Her poetry and fiction have been translated into eight languages and she’s written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Paris Review. Her most recent work of translation is Clarice Lispector’s novel The Passion According to G.H. In 2011, her poetry collection Exit, Civilian was selected for the National Poetry Series. Ways to Disappear, her first novel, is published in the UK by Daunt Books.
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Author portrait © Donata Zanotti

Read an extract from Ways to Disappear

Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer and a founding editor of Bookanista.