The Rumpus Book Club chats with Idra Novey about her second novel, Those Who Knew (Viking, November 2018), its unconventional structure, and how becoming a parent changes the ways we write.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Esmé Weijun Wang, T. Kira Madden, Maylis de Kerangal, Nicole Dennis-Benn, and more.
And, thrill any and all readers on your holiday shopping list with a Rumpus gift subscription—we have 6-month and 12-month subscriptions to our incredible Book Club, and 6-month and 12-month subscriptions to the equally awesome Poetry Book Club! (And if you’re really out to impress a reader in your life, sign ‘em for both clubs here.) All subscriptions come with a PDF you can print out and slip under the tree!
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Idra Novey!
Idra Novey: Hello!
Eva Woods: I loved this story so much! I’m really hype to talk to you about it.
Idra Novey: Thank you, Eva! Happy to take questions.
Marisa: Idra, you’ve been on book tour. I’m curious to know what readers are saying and asking about the book—is the reaction what you’d expected?
Idra Novey: A curious thing that I didn’t expect was to hear from many readers at events who said Victor reminded them of people they had worked for, that they recognized Victor as a type of leader in a number of professions.
Idra Novey: And that response has come from both women and men. I was thrilled to hear from one male reader in Seattle who said he was hoping to read Those Who Knew with his book group, which is all fathers. That was really moving and beautiful to hear.
Marisa: Wow, that gives me chills to hear (the good kind). I hope this book reaches as wide an audience as possible.
Idra Novey: Thank you, Marisa.
Eva Woods: Victor totally reminded me of an ex! He was so well-written. I love a juicy bad guy.
Idra Novey: Ha! Yes, I think Victor is a composite of many exes…
Eva Woods: One of the big themes of the book that I loved a lot was the characters’ various relationships to money. Can you talk about that a little bit? There are some really wonderfully complicated things about families and money in there.
Idra Novey: Yes, I became increasingly focused in this novel on class and the role it can play in the bedroom and can be leveraged to shame and silence others. And likewise in friendships—for Lena and Olga, money is a source of continuous tension in their friendship.
Eva Woods: And internally in Lena, you see a lot of struggle with her family.
Marisa: And even within Cristina, with regard to her family. I felt Cristina and Lena mirrored each other in so many ways, some obvious but others more subtle.
Eva Woods: There are so many levers of control abusers use to maintain their power! Shame is a powerful one here. Charisma, also.
Idra Novey: Yes, thank you, Eva, for recognizing that thread of the book. Much of the coverage of Those Who Knew has focused on the ways it speaks to the issues driving the #MeToo movement. And that is certainly a significant part of the book. But the sense of complicity that drives Lena into silence has to do with actions and choices that her family took and made before she was born.
Eva Woods: Victor finally meets a consequence when he hurts a man. Can you talk a little about the process of choosing Victor’s downfall? I imagine it was satisfying to write.
Marisa: It was certainly satisfying to read!
Idra Novey: What a great question about Victor’s downfall. I saw the suspense in the novel as what consequences would come for Victor, not whether he had committed a crime.
Idra Novey: Those Who Knew isn’t a thriller or even a novel centered on a crime. It’s a novel about living with silence and knowledge and a fear of retaliation.
Marisa: I wondered whether consequences would come at all, actually. I wasn’t certain we’d get that satisfaction.
Idra Novey: Thrilled to hear you found the ending satisfying. It certainly was satisfying to write as well!
Eva Woods: That absolutely came through. I found myself fighting against my own expectations a lot while reading it—the expectation being that nothing bad happens to bad men. I was so glad when the buck finally stopped.
Idra Novey: Yes, I rewrote the ending many times.
Eva Woods: It would have been so realistic if he had just been awful and fine forever! I like this ending so much.
Idra Novey: Ultimately, I decided that what would be emotional true would be to track how the lack of consequences would lead to horrible consequences for somebody else.
Eva Woods: Oh, and can we talk about Olga? I stan a weed-smoking lesbian legend.
Idra Novey: I have received such emphatic responses about Olga and her role in the novel.
Eva Woods: I would love to hear about the inspiration behind her character.
Idra Novey: I really enjoyed her company as a character and I suppose when there is joy for the writer it often leads to joy for the reader, too. Olga was that rare character that arrived whole. I had such a vivid sense of her from the first draft.
Eva Woods: Something I liked a lot that was also an interesting choice was the way the setting was never named or fully defined. We understand how the government and society works on the island, but we are never told where it is located.
Idra Novey: Thank you, Eva. It’s been rewarding to hear how many readers enjoyed the parable-like world of the island and how it allowed them to think about patterns of power imbalances that have played out between the US and many countries where the US government has intervened.
Eva Woods: Yes exactly! I liked that you could tell it was somewhere we specifically fucked up and then left a power vacuum, but that could be a depressingly large number of places.
Marisa: Can you talk a little about the process of writing this book, especially as it relates to including sections of Freddy’s plays and Olga’s transaction logs interspersed with the main narrative?
Eva Woods: Oooh great question Marisa; I also loved the texture that added.
Idra Novey: As for her transaction log, I like formal variation. When you mix up the forms in a novel, you create opportunities to mix up the way you approach the themes and what they mean for each character.
Idra Novey: I’d be curious to hear what other books you’ve both read that came to mind while reading this one.
Eva Woods: Marisa is a big fan of Jesse Ball, so that’s a low-key huge compliment.
Eva Woods: I read very few thrillers, which I think I’m going to change now and seek them out more.
Idra Novey: Funny, I went to grad school in poetry with Jesse Ball.
Marisa: He’s one of my favorite writers, it’s true. I tend toward poets who venture into prose.
Idra Novey: And Eva, I don’t read thrillers either. I think Those Who Knew has been described as a thriller to widen its potential readership… but it’s literary fiction.
Idra Novey: And Marisa, I tend toward poets who write fiction as well.
Marisa: Idra, are there specific books you felt Those Who Knew was in conversation with? And, are there books that work with formal variation (which I love) that you’d recommend?
Eva Woods: I just read a book called Suicide Club, by Rachel Heng, that had a lot of the same feelings—the complicated family feelings and tense setting and suspense felt similar. I highly recommend that one, too.
Idra Novey: I haven’t read Rachel Heng, but will look for her work.
Marisa: Oh, I love Suicide Club! I did an event with Rachel here in NYC in the summer when she was on book tour. It’s a really wonderful debut novel. You can also find a phenomenal essay she wrote here.
Idra Novey: As for books I see this one in conversation with, I read Shirley Jackson obsessively while writing it. And also the Portuguese writer Goncalo Tavares.
Eva Woods: I’m the biggest Jackson fan in the world; I love that so much.
Idra Novey: Yes, me too, And in Jackson’s lifetime, as happens with many female writers, the literary merit of her work was underrecognized.
Marisa: I haven’t re-read Jackson in at least ten years; I need to.
Eva Woods: Marisa, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is still a perfect text.
Idra Novey: I agree, We Have Always Lived in the Castle has retained all its power.
Eva Woods: Marisa mentioned earlier you have kids. Do you think parenthood makes writing family relationships easier? I’ve found the opposite.
Idra Novey: Yes, I have kids, and like you, Eva, I find it does complicate writing about family relationships rather than making it easier. I don’t write from the perspective of someone’s child. Once you have children, you have to inhabit the adult perspective in a family. Shirley Jackson writing her books surrounded by four children, and crafting such gorgeous layered sentence work in her novels, the degree of focus that must have entailed…
Eva Woods: Idra, that is exactly it! It got harder for me to move through how I imagined other roles could be once I knew how much being a mother was.
Marisa: That’s very interesting to me, because I’ve had a different experience. Having a child has changed how I write about family, but I think it’s made it simpler for me in many ways. Because I understand more about parenting, and am able to come at it as an adult and not a child. Maybe that speaks to how complicated my own childhood was, that being an adult parent feels simpler.
Idra Novey: I find the muchness of being responsible for a child every day, the emotional complexity of it, has deepened my thinking about families.
Marisa: Yes, absolutely. And especially about mothers, and motherhood. I feel like it’s changed and deepened how I think about sexism and the patriarchal systems we live within, too.
Idra Novey: I feel acutely aware while writing of what sort of parents my characters had and how those relationships shaped them as adults. And also what kind of parents they might become.
Idra Novey: Yes, I didn’t set out to write a novel about patriarchy, but we live in one. And, I think there is a twenty-first century crisis happening with masculinity in this country and also in many other countries.
Eva Woods: Very very true!
Idra Novey: To write a novel about power abuses is to write a novel about patriarchy. They are irrevocably intertwined.
Eva Woods: And so many stories are about masculinity and its effects on people, but from the point of view of toxic men, so they don’t get called that. They get called The Road by Cormac McCarthy (sorry, I just really don’t like his books.)
Marisa: There is so much presented in this novel that felt less like I was being hit over the head with it and more just that it was an accurate representation of real-life power structures the characters live within and navigate.
Idra Novey: Thank you, Marisa, I hoped to address patterns of power and the millions of small civic actions it will take to dismantle the patriarchal systems in which we are entrenched.
Marisa: Yes! For me, the hopefulness in the book lives there, in the idea that small civic actions do matter and carry weight.
Eva Woods: Idra, you were so good to gay people in this book! Can you talk about Freddie and Olga’s sexualities a little bit? I was very happy to have them there, because books are so depressingly straight unless it’s a coming out story.
Idra Novey: Thank you, Eva! Freddy and Olga just ended up being who they were the same way the other characters did.
Eva Woods: That’s dope. I wish more characters were allowed to be gay and have that not be the only thing about them.
Idra Novey: Yes, well put. No character should be just one aspect of their identity. We are all so much more than that.
Eva Woods: It was really important to me that the letters Olga wrote kept her from being neutered in the book. Older lesbians get that treatment a lot and it’s maddening.
Idra Novey: Thank you, I’m glad you recognized that role of the transaction logs for Olga, how they offer entry into understanding her as more than just a neutered older woman.
Idra Novey: Eva, how old are your children?
Eva Woods: I have a thirteen-year-old daughter. How about yours?
Idra Novey: I have eight- and six-year-old sons. The teen years remain a bit off in the distance.
Eva Woods: So far I’m really loving it. She’s a huge reader and our book conversations have gotten super interesting.
Idra Novey: Yes, the older the kids get, the more rewarding conversations about books together has become!
Marisa: My four-year-old just started really reading about a month ago, and it’s a game-changer. For him, of course, but also for me and our relationship. His love for books has intensified and it’s amazing to watch and be part of.
Eva Woods: Idra, what books have you read lately that you’ve loved?
Idra Novey: I just finished Alina Bronsky’s Baba Dunja’s Last Love. Bronsky is a Russian-born German writer translated by Tim Mohr, who is a superb translator.
Eva Woods: I haven’t heard of this but I’ll put it on the list. Translation is so tricky and good ones are gold.
Idra Novey: Yes, Mohr captures the voice in this novel so well. It’s set in Chernobyl.
Marisa: I’m curious what poets you love to read?
Eva Woods: Follow up on that one Marisa, I would also like to know any other poets-turned-story writers you both love. I’m behind there.
Marisa: Sally’s forthcoming collection, Oculus, is a must-read, too, Idra. Just stunning and sharp.
Eva Woods: I love this part of chats because I always have a month of great reading. Thank you!
Idra Novey: Yes, second the recommendation of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First.
Marisa: Also, of course Maggie Nelson and Eula Biss, although I’m cheating because they are poets turned creative nonfiction writers.
Eva Woods: I love Eula Biss so much!
Eva Woods: What do you have coming up, Idra? Are you working on anything now?
Idra Novey: I am still mid-book tour. Off to Detroit to read at Pages Bookstore this Tuesday and then to Chicago to read with Cristina Henriquez at Women and Children First.
Idra Novey: I have written the first page or so of a new novel over and over for about a year. But it’s still not there. How about you, Eva? what are you working on?
Eva Woods: That sounds thrilling and exhausting. Are there any non-writing things you’ve been loving lately? I know what I’m listening to really gets into what I’m writing.
Idra Novey: I fervently agree about listening to music as a way to get a sense of rhythm for prose.
Eva Woods: I’ve been writing a lot of really short stories. Lydia Davis kinds of things. I don’t know why, but my attention span isn’t there anymore. And it’s really fun to finish things in a couple days!
Marisa: Lydia Davis is amazing, and I want to read these stories!
Idra Novey: Oh fascinating. Flash fiction. Yes, I want to read them as well. Are you a fan of Diane Williams? She is an excellent guide for fiction that length.
Eva Woods: I know most of it’s bad, but when it hits I love it so much.
Eva Woods: I can’t believe we didn’t even touch on Oscar, you guys! This book has SO MUCH INSIDE IT.
Idra Novey: I met a bookseller named Cosmo today.
Marisa: It does; I have questions and thoughts about every character.
Idra Novey: Thank you both, this has been such a beautiful exchange!
Marisa: Idra, thank you very much for joining us tonight, but even more so for creating this world and these characters. They will live in my mind for quite a while.
Eva Woods: Idra, thanks so much for your time and for the book!
Marisa: Have a good night, everyone, and Idra, safe travels this upcoming week!
Idra Novey: Thank you both! Not just for reading but for connecting with the characters and being receptive to reading the unconventional structure of this book on its own terms.