Few writers can assemble a sentence with the elegance of Annie DeWitt, whose work I first fell for in the pages of NOON a couple of years ago. To be more accurate, my admiration arrived in the ear, as I listened to DeWitt read from the magazine at the Center for Fiction. Her rhythms carried a dreamy quality, and characters were beautifully observed. I knew I’d follow her prose anywhere.
DeWitt’s debut novel White Nights in Split Town City evokes the crushing beauty of a small rural town, as she traces a pivotal summer in the life of a girl named Jean. Hers is a world of gleaming mystery, full of horses and wild grass, fresh farm stand vegetables and night swims. It is also a world fraught with danger, where freedom and desire and dreams can careen toward terrible consequences.
On a June night, I spoke with DeWitt after she returned to her upstate New York home from riding horses. I wanted to discuss the moral ambitions of the novel, her sense of the cruelty and wonder of the natural world, the 1990s, and most of all, whether in the end Jean has become a cynic.
The Rumpus: In some ways, one of the most unique aspects of this book was, to me, your depiction of the sexual lives of adults who aren’t twentysomethings. These are parents and elderly people and retirees getting boners and inviting sexual advances and desiring. But we don’t see that very much in literary fiction. Why was it important to you to show this aspect of adult life? And, should we view the book as one about the sexual education of a young girl?
Annie DeWitt: Growing up on a dirt road in a small rural town, my first encounter with sex was in understanding that it was something people chased after because virility (both physically and metaphorically) had abandoned them in some way. They had either lost it, due to age or lack of desire, or (in Wilson’s case) lack of education/an outlet), or lack of a job or divorce, or alcoholism, or an aging partner. I remember categorizing people in my mind by who was still physically affectionate with one another. My sister and I were the only two girls on a road of elderly people and, yes, a brood of neglected/abandoned boys, so the sex lives of the elderly occupied an interesting place in my conscientiousness at a young age. I remember being really intrigued by the way bodies morphed and changed. The way skin sagged and aged. How someone like Wilson could be both youthful in his demeanor and yet so very aged in his appearance. I think he was the character that somehow embodies that conundrum which Jean is simultaneously feeling of being both old for her age in some ways, and yet too young to really understand the traumas she’s asked to experience in life that summer.
Rumpus: You capture that too-young-yetness so succinctly and poignantly at various points in the book. “Twelve going on thirteen, I’d grown four inches that year. My chest was still flat. I hadn’t yet embodied the weight of the world, as Mother said,” is one. Another is, “Here was the boy who smoked cigarettes on the playground still sleeping between spaceships and stars.” So my question is, do you view the book as a coming of age story? Is this even a worthwhile way to think about narrative? And what is it about this time of life that interests you?
DeWitt: I’ve always been a little shy about the term “coming of age” because as a newly minted thirty-five-year-old I still feel very much like I am still growing into my own skin. And in many ways I hope that’s what life continues to be, that age isn’t something you suddenly grow into but are constantly chasing, like an art project. In some ways I think my life has been a reverse evolution. I was an extremely serious child beset with a lot of anxiety. The only place I had to retreat was really books, which I viewed as an inculcation into an academic/adult world that I very much wanted to be a part of. I still bristle at the term “coming of age” because it feels like such a quaint marketing term which is supposed to somehow codify various stages of life. It makes me wonder what age are we trying to get to? At what age are we past this crisis? Is there a finish line? I certainly hope not. That said, the age of this narrator has always been a huge implication in the book. This was actually something bizarrely fixated upon by various agents. Is she twelve or thirteen, or maybe fourteen? “Can she literally physically have sex yet?” one asked me. It was important to me to keep Jean not yet a teenager because I wanted it to be clear that she is still a child and that the adult things asked of her summer are really beyond her purview. In a way I want these things to confront her through the lens of naïveté, i.e. she still thinks windows from the outside at night would look dark and hasn’t yet encountered the idea that they actually lend more clarity to their interiors.
Rumpus: Oh my God. Did you have to explain anatomy to that agent?
DeWitt: Yes. She literally went as far as saying she had had an editor friend look at it and had discussed it. At that point, I knew it was a no go for us. I knew this book was risky and I was not willing to surrender that. Jean is twelve going on thirteen, not fourteen or sixteen. She is still someone’s little girl with a flat chest.
Rumpus: Yes, and I think one way that you really subtly convey that is by foregrounding this story in time. At the beginning of the book, you collage together details so evocatively to create a sense of the early 1990s that also somehow captures the fright and excitement of that older child or prepubescent or adolescent phase of life. I’m thinking, for example, of Jean’s mother’s description of AIDS. Do you view the nineties as a time when the country retained some of that naïveté or is that just the benefit of hindsight?
DeWitt: Definitely. The book takes place in that final moment of solitude. The Internet has not yet infiltrated most places. The television is really the only mode of communication. The physical phone in the kitchen still rings for the wall. There was a part of the novel which I ended up putting something like, “My soul’s position on the earth wasn’t located by GPS satellites but by how far and how long I had peddled on my bike towards the farm stand, how far away from home.” I wanted to capture that last moment of innocence, if we can call it that, that we experienced as a species. And yet too, I wanted to capture the dark side of that innocence. As you say, the mother is afraid of AIDS. One of the very first lines in the book is when she says to Wilson, “Infectious—it means you give someone something happy.” Without the Internet, there was lack of access to information, less of a sense that the world was global place. And in many ways this lends itself to the mother’s obsession with the news and the Gulf War coverage. Some of the little research I did for the book, having actually lived through the time, was ordering old back issues of TIME magazine from the outbreak of the Gulf War. I wanted to see how the media talked about it. And it was fascinating. The issue literally had a full page color spread of an average middle class American family sitting in their wood-paneled living room watching TV and eating TV dinners and “watching the war on screen.” The Gulf War was the war which made CNN as a news channel because they were the only ones that didn’t lose coverage when the first bomb were going off. So in some ways, we were still protected and innocent, and yet for the first time war and death was in our homes 24/7.
Rumpus: There is such a lushness to the physical details of nature in White Nights, a real sensuousness that made me want to run my fingers through grass and get my feet muddy. But later in the book, Margaret says, “Nature is brutal. It’s our circumstance. Sometimes all you can do is turn your head and look the other way.” To me that seems connected to “the dark side of innocence” you were discussing. Can you talk a little bit about this tension in nature? In the story? Will innocence always imply darkness too?
DeWitt: I think nature is brutal and yet it is clearly our most innovative architect. I grew up understanding nature’s brutality at an early age when my family’s cow, coincidentally (or not?) named “Sweetmeat,” was butchered before we moved. I remember a blue trailer pulling into our drive with “Bloods Butcher” written in red on the side (in my mind the font the name was painting in was actually dripping blood, but I’m sure that’s just an invented detail). Sweetmeat came back in little white packages marked with the various “cuts.” It was then that I realized that nature was brutal, that humans were brutal. Beyond turning me onto vegetarianism at the age of six or seven, this highlighted an important lesson for me. Nature is both fragile and prophetic. For example, the flies in this novel are both symptomatic of the spread of “awareness” and yet too of the spread of disease/infection. In some ways, the mother has the strange conflation in her mind between the flies and other viruses like AIDS/cancer, which is why she washes the clean silver in Otto’s house before eating off of it. She wants to be sure it’s not “infectious.” Too, I think that the false innocence of war, which was first exposed during our parents generation with Vietnam, was exposed even more plainly with the advent of the Gulf War as we could literally survey it happening. I remember watching the news with my parents and hearing about the men coming home with “Gulf War Syndrome” and wondering what it was and if it would spread.
Rumpus: There are moments when man-made technologies of violence crop up in the novel, and every time I was petrified. Ray has his gun in the car, and he seems also buoyant with its power. Jean’s father has a minor freak-out over the gun being in the presence of his daughter, and yet later, he is seen being taught to shoot. Is violence also a contagion in the book?
DeWitt: One of the most interesting books I read right before starting the project of writing this was Lydia Millet‘s My Happy Life. Ben Marcus recommended it to me during a conference. It’s an INCREDIBLE book because violence is literally a buoyant force, i.e. the more abused the narrator becomes the more happy she becomes. She literally goes on this Conradian Heart of Darkness type journey into the jungle with a man who beats her, and yet Millet somehow subverts the term “happiness” to mean a kind of false anesthesia. (If memory serves, the book starts with a girl enclosed in a cement room with only a pencil drawing on the walls. And yet she claims “happiness.”) I think Jean suffers from a similar type of buoyancy. There is the strange conflation with the term “rake a girl” which Wilson talks about in the barn while spinning about and feeling so elated after having a crush on a “girl” at camp. In this moment Jean sees him as being so happy he could almost transcend space and time. And indeed Otto is proud of him in that moment. It’s the only one in which he can relate, he says, “to his son as a man.” I think in rural places there is somehow a more direct relationship with violence. It’s a part of everyday life. People carry pistols to ward of the coyotes if they have cows, etc. And yet there is an inherited respect for violence too, a sense that life is fleeting and precious.
Rumpus: First of all, I’m so happy you mention Lydia Millet because I’m a huge fan, and she deserves a large, enthusiastic audience. Secondly, you touched on one of the many ways that you suffuse the narrative with a foreboding sense of sexual threat. This is experienced in myriad ways by the various characters. What is it about sex that makes it so dangerous in this world?
DeWitt: I agree. Millet is a national treasure and should be regarded as such. Her fiction is rare in the sense that’s it’s also somehow an art of activism which always traffics in deeper moral or social questions, which I deeply admire. I think that’s what I meant earlier about White Nights being a risk. I feel like that’s perhaps what sets it apart from some of the other coming of age novels we’ve seen in this summer so heavily beset with books about “girls.” I wanted it to be clear that in White Nights, Jean is a bit of a reverse Lolita character—she is not yet a teenager who has left home and is not yet in control of her own sexuality. She says that when the girl in the barn teaches her how to touch herself “all I felt was doomed little squeeze.” She is not yet able to enjoy or prosper from her own sexuality and yet she knows it is a weapon in that others are able to enjoy and prosper in their image of her as a sexual being. I think this is what made Nabokov’s Lolita so revolutionary. He wasn’t afraid to make Humbert Humbert’s trespass of Lolita both enticing and wrong. We, as readers, understand why Humbert is attracted to Lolita and yet we feel repulsed and morally affronted by his actions. This might make for “difficult fiction.” And yet Lolita went on to become very well-read, a classic, taught in schools across the country, etc. So, clearly there is some basic platitude in it to which we all can relate.
Rumpus: It’s interesting you bring up the summer of girls or the girls of summer. In some ways, so much of what’s been discussed, it seems, has to do with whether we are living in an age in which the reclamation of girlhood is being performed by female writers, but we really seem to be talking about young women and using the term “girls.” Anyway, one moment in the book that you finesse so perfectly to get at the complexities of actual girlhood in many ways turns on the use of the conjunction “or,” which destabilizes our sense of what is happening and what Jean, the narrator, knows is happening with her much older neighbor Otto. The section reads, “‘Just lie back,’ I said. Or, maybe he said, ‘Just look out the window.’” What is your sense of the role of uncertainty in the novel? How did you arrive at the use of “or”? Was this one of the most difficult scenes to write? And why did you break my heart this way?
DeWitt: Funnily enough this was actually one the most exhilarating scenes to write, and yet I delayed it for quite some time. I remember sitting at Diane Williams’s kitchen table with an early draft that she had marked up and when we got to this page she just said, “If you’re going to write it, you need to really write it. Make us see it. Does she have sex here? What happens?” Previously a lot of the physical action had been sublimated in metaphor, a clunky repeating image about a light rail which Heidi Julavits, rightly pointed out when I only had thirty pages of the book. I had never really wanted to write any kind of “realistic” fiction, or fiction steeped in realism, and yet I realized they were both right. If Jean is having sex here it needs to be clear to the reader and hit them like a dead arrow. However, too I wanted to capture some of the ambiguity and confusion of what was happening to her with the word “or,” i.e. is Otto the one egging her on, or is she? Who is “in charge?” Who is the instigator? Ultimately, I think that is the final question in the book, who is responsible for Jean and what is to become of her? Or, is she responsible for herself?
Rumpus: Early in the book, Jean’s mother says something that she will later repeat, “The way you were looking at him. It’s not done at your age. It’s unsightly.” Is this kind of early sexual encounter what Jean’s mother is afraid of for her daughter or is it something different, something perhaps less acute but also devastating? I guess what I’m thinking of is that one of the saddest moments in the novel was, to me, when Jean’s mother says, “I figured if I couldn’t feel anything for a man like that then maybe I couldn’t feel for anything new.” Her sense of the scale of happiness seems so small.
DeWitt: I think the mother is deeply beset by her own sense of life having usurped her. In may ways I think this as symptomatic of a certain generation who came of age in the fifties, who felt that it was expected of them to have children, get married, etc., that that was the “scale” of life for which they were meant and then in 1990 Madonna came along and started singing “Material Girl” and women wore shoulder pads and pumps and were expected to work. In some ways, Jean’s mother is a surreptitious feminist who missed her opportunity. She doesn’t read Didion. She doesn’t vote for Kennedy. She attaches herself to the idea that “republicans were people who made good in their children and their investments.” Too, she is of first generation immigrant parents, so she expects life to deliver something “better” for her here in this country and yet is amazed when her first job out of college is at an addiction division of The Red Cross where she learns that “big government only organized people’s worst years.” In many ways, I think Margaret represents a foil for the type of woman Jane’s mother always wanted to become and yet was somehow afraid of embodying—liberal, libacious to a certain extent, outspoken, adventurous, without children, free even of a husband to tie her down.
Rumpus: Oh, Margaret! That afternoon she and Jean spend together swimming and eating wedge salad and hanging in the darkroom is so lovely, ideal really. But this idea that life has usurped the mother very much contrasts also with one of my favorite parts from the beginning. I love when Uncle Sterling says, “Out there you get a piece of sky bigger than the view from New Guinea. All you got to do is step outside and you feel like you could pull a bird down from the clouds with your own two hands. That’s how close you are to your own expectations. You don’t have to go climbing any mountains just to feel so small and alive.” Can you talk more about how expectations and smallness and aliveness conflate in White Nights?
DeWitt: I love Uncle’s take on life too. I think that when he leaves the novel, he leaves behind the last possibility that perhaps this family/these people will escape. Jean tries to “preserve” any sense of freedom he lent them by taking up with her “practice” at the piano, which coincidentally is how Otto first observes her. Her talent “nearly embraces him.” In some ways I think it is the smallness of life on this rural road that makes Jean feel most alive and yet simultaneously makes the mother feel so small. I wanted to try and convey that. The sense that life in small rural American towns is wild and yet self-contained, brutal and yet removed from the pace of city where you can’t halt in the midst of traffic or something will bowl you down. And yet I believe as a human that it is right and fitting to have expectations, as indeed this mother does. But the question then becomes, are expectations dangerous? Do they make us feel unsettled? Is life about constantly striving? Or, is it about standing outside and feeling humbled by the vastness of the universe that somehow you have to confront your own insignificance and be at peace with that?
Rumpus: That reminds me of another favorite sentence in the book, “It was only in the face of adversity that Mother was ever truly free.” What are the freedoms of adversity?
DeWitt: I think, for some people, they feel most engaged when they are striving in adverse situations. The mother has this habit of conflating adversity with action/agency. She wants to feel provoked/propelled by something in life. When things get too quiet it scares her. She doesn’t understand what anxieties exist in the country to be deflated.
Rumpus: The book begins with that sort of golden image of Fender. There’s something a little scary and wild but so shiny and romantic too. By the end of the book, much has changed, not least of all Jean’s relationship to or with Fender. I wonder if at the end Jean will ever be able to see someone in such golden light again.
DeWitt: I wonder too! Will she live the “High Life,” no pun intended? Or, will life for her/this town just explode like some cheap beer can over the road? I think all first love has that quality. It’s a real shot of adrenaline to the arm, until it bursts and fizzles and flares under the pressure.