Leave what you can, take the rest: An Interview with Idra Novey


When I first came across Idra Novey’s Take What You Need, I was interested firstly by the title and, then, by the cover. There was something mysterious and inviting about the call to action paired with the pinks and blues of a sunset. Wandering into the novel, I took an immediate sense of comfort in the voices of our two protagonists, Leah and Jean. Both mothers, both artists, neither completely self-assured.

Take What You Need is a book about perspective. The narrative is shaped by the parallel lives of Jean—welder, artist, ex step-mother to Leah—and Leah—a wife and mother who has chosen to leave her past behind. Jean lives alone, erecting metal sculptures in her living room, battling the overt sense that her relationship with Leah refuses to ever be what it once was, and determined to reunite with her daughter. Jean seeks redemption in a relationship with the boy-next-door, a gangly kid named Elliot. Their neighborhood provides the landscape for the novel, weaving the overwhelming sense of displacement provoked by class and cultural conflict into the relationship between two women divided by a critical moment in the past. We begin our story in medias res: Jean has died and willed her sculptures to Leah who makes her skeptical journey homeward.

When reading Novey’s writing, you are likely to forget that what transpires on the page is not in fact transpiring in reality. I looked up occasionally to glimpse a hand-wrought sculpture by Jean and was met with the whiteness of my wall. Similarly, having recently become familiar with the Southern landscape myself, I could easily imagine the roads and the gas stations, the natural scenery that made me let out a long breath and the neighborhoods that could make me hold the next in tightly, wanting to call the least amount of attention to myself. Novey straddles the fine line between depicting the world we live in and finely illustrating her own.

Novey is the writer of six additional books, three of which are poetry collections including, Exit, Civilian, chosen for 2011 National Poetry Series. She is a recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and Poets & Writers Magazine, among others.


The Rumpus: Let’s talk first about how much research went into this novel. It’s heavily laced with references to artists—specifically sculptors. How much of your personal knowledge were you bringing to the page versus how much research did you have to do, and what was that process like for you?

Idra Novey: I learned to weld boxes in order to get a lived sense of Jean’s choices as an artist. Over several years, I welded boxes with various metal artists, Julia Murray, Norm Ed, and also with Dan Denville at the Center for Metal Arts in Pennsylvania. I visited various scrap yards to get metal for the boxes, including the Novey scrap yard that has been passed down among the men in my maternal family for over a century. I have no material connection to the Novey century in recycling but I feel a strong connection artistically to my namesake, Ida Novey, who started the scrapyard in 1906.

Louise Bourgeois entered the novel after I found a beat-up book of her writing at Bull Creek, the flea market that Jean goes to in the novel. Bourgeois’s insights on sexuality and power, on her father, aligned potently with how I imagined Jean’s artistic drive. Bourgeois recognized the libidinal forces that compelled her to keep experimenting and taking new risks with her art. Agnes Martin’s writing aligned with Jean’s process in other aspects. Martin, like Jean, felt a strong need to retreat and work in complete solitude.

While writing Jean’s chapters, I immersed myself in the writing of Anne Truitt, Celia Paul, Hilma af Klint, and many other women artists, too. They were all repeatedly dismissed and written off, and yet somehow still found the conviction to keep taking their art seriously. One of the most deeply joyful and rewarding processes of my writing life has been figuring out how to convey Jean’s nerve, creating the scenes with her on the ladder, stacking her Manglements [sculptures] as high as the ceiling of her living room allowed.

Rumpus: There are two female protagonists presented in your novel. We meet Leah first. The stepdaughter/mother relationship is a very specific breed entirely its own and is often only understood by those engaged in it. We learn that Jean abandons Leah at ten-years-old. Why does Jean choose not to leave a note? Is the burden of abandonment what compels Jean to become so fixated by Elliot (her next-door neighbor turned pseudo-mentee)?

Novey: I agree the stepdaughter/mother relationship is a specific dynamic that people frequently misunderstand who haven’t experienced it. I’m close to both my stepmother and my mother and talk to them both often. I haven’t come across many novels about adult women relating to their stepmothers, and as so often happens, I ended up writing the scenes I longed to read and couldn’t find.

What happens to Jean when she leaves Leah’s father, the loss Jean has to assume of her role as Leah’s stepmother, is a loss I’ve seen a number of women consider, and take. Whether the stepdaughter/mother relationship will last is never certain, and in Leah’s case, at ten years old, she’s beholden to the good will of her father. I’d like to leave it up to readers to intuit why Jean doesn’t leave a note for Leah. Your insight is quite astute about Jean bringing some of her truncated experience of mothering to her relationship with Elliott, and yet she also brings to Elliott her truncated experience of marriage and sexual self. All that messy chemistry is there at once.

Rumpus: Jean is an artist through and through and driven by the compulsion she feels to weld with a freedom her father never allowed himself to have. How does Jean parse the freedom she finds in art with the ever-growing complexity of the world around her?

Novey: I think this is the driving question of the novel, how any of us make art given the ever-growing contradictions of the world around us, and also the complex past we inherit. The epigraph from Louise Bourgeois at the start of the novel addresses this question head on, and how art in itself can be a way to answer it, as it was for me, through the process of writing this novel: Every day you have to abandon your past or accept it, and then, if you cannot accept it, you become a sculptor.

Rumpus: We get a sense of the current political fever within the first few pages of the book, however it’s evasive—Leah sees flags while driving through town, multiple people garbed in camo, a red hat on a woman’s head. Why did you choose to keep these things unnamed until the end of the book? The environment gives you the sense that this could be a town anywhere at any point in time: a town divided by those who are diverse and those who fight against diversity instead of for it.

Novey: In early drafts, I was ambivalent about how explicit to be about the slogans on the signs and flags. The deeper I got into the novel, though, the less necessary it seemed to name the slogans. I’m glad to hear it evoked to you a time of political polarization that transcended our particular moment. That was my hope and any reader living now will know what the signs and slogans say. Leaving the words unnamed added that timeless quality you described, and the novel is a fairy tale—as I suspect any novel attempting to dissolve even the smallest aspect of our current cultural divides, is a fairy tale.

Rumpus: Elliot is a character who got under my skin. He consistently demonstrates a quiet, but seething undertone: a man caught inside his own head, young only in age. I got infuriated with him a few times wanting him to do the right thing instead of being a passive bystander. Why did you make Elliot such a quiet character?

Novey: I heard Jennifer Egan speak once about attempting to take a new kind of risk with each work of fiction, and part of that risk-taking is creating a character who subverts stereotypes in a way she hasn’t written about before. With Elliott’s character, I wanted to subvert prevailing stereotypes about young rural men, who are often portrayed in reductive, demeaning caricatures. It isn’t in Elliott’s nature to be confrontational, and when he does finally speak up, he gets kicked in the face.

In all three of my novels, I’ve been drawn to write about power imbalances and how often people make choices based on the likelihood of retaliation. What causes people to resign themselves to inaction is a question that really fascinates me. Sevlick, the town in the novel, is an amalgam of various towns in the Allegheny Highlands of Appalachia where I grew up, and where parts of my family have lived for over a hundred years. I’ve known many quiet young men like Elliott, who have limited options and who work in situations where they don’t have the luxury of being able to speak their minds.

Rumpus: Take What You Need—the title felt illuminated by the end of my first reading. I read it as a plea—take what you need, but leave the rest (an oft-repeated quote in twelve-step rooms)—but also a reminder that the world will take, leaving very little for those who need it most.

Novey: It’s wondrous to hear you read the title as a plea. Over many drafts, I came to think of it as a plea as well, although my original reason for choosing it was the biblical proverb about binging on honey: If you find honey, eat just what you need, lest you have too much and vomit it up. We are a species prone to indulgences. When we find honey, it’s hard to resist taking just what we need, even knowing the likelihood that a lack of self-control will leave us hunched over, hurling, and feeling ill. In the beginning of the novel, when Jean tells Elliott’s mother to draw as much water from the spigot as they need, they both know there will be implications to this offer. It is about far more than just water.

Rumpus: The sculptures that Jean erected in her living room shrouds the story that is told by the two women, interlaced by both Jean’s favorite artists’ quotes and the fairy tales Jean told Leah and that Leah now interprets as an adult. Are the sculptures extensions of Jean herself? Dreams coerced in metal, balanced between found objects, and haphazardly perfected?

Novey: Thank you, that is a beautiful way to describe Jean’s sculptures, and the allure of art for many people, to coerce their dreams into forms that can be experienced in waking life. When art lacks that haphazard pursuit you describe, it feels overdetermined, a cultural “project” rather than an artwork that involved moral risk and getting uneasy and uncertain, following all sorts of murky impulses that lead to failure and maybe, after various years, to something worth sharing with others.

Rumpus: Storytelling is an ancient art, sharing stories to recall those things—events, adventures, people—passed down throughout the ages. What is Leah’s fascination with turning her relationship with Jean into a fairy tale?

Novey: The allure of revisiting a fairy tale, the writer Helen Oyeyemi says, is to shift “time and location, and see what holds true, and why or why not.” I wanted to revisit all the depictions we’ve passed down about stepmothers, about Appalachia, about women artists and rural artists. What doesn’t hold true and why those depictions have endured were questions that took on new light when viewed through fairy tales.

Rumpus: Can all of the characters in your novel be assigned a character in folklore? How deep do the ancient roots run in the town of Sevlick?

Novey: Sevlick is an invented town and only exists in my imagination. It’s an amalgam of various Allegheny Mountain towns in the area where I grew up. The characters in the novel are composites of people I interviewed over many years. I listened to their voices every day before working on the novel to keep the vibrancy and singularity of each character present in each scene.

Rumpus: One of my favorite parts of your book was your ending. I don’t want to spoil it for any readers, so all I will say is that it presents the idea of “what could” in an alluring enough way to believe the truth of “what is.” How do we differentiate between the two in art? In building characters from the ground up and a book from the pages?

Novey: Belief is a shifting, fluid endeavor. I found it quite daunting to sit down each day and write about cultural divides and familial estrangement. It’s a painful subject and my sense of “what is” kept changing depending on which character’s perspective I was inhabiting. This novel challenged me in ways that felt different from the novels and books of poetry and translation that came before it. I couldn’t have written this novel without living through other books first. Until I reached the middle of my life, I wasn’t quite ready to listen—with a genuinely open mind—to artists in the region I left about what compelled them to stay.




Author photo by Jesse Ditmar

Haley Sherif is a writer living in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Visual Verse, You Might Need to Hear This, The Rumpus, Hobart Pulp, and Gravel. In May 2021, her essay appeared in the anthology Fat & Queer (JKP). You can follow her on Instagram @Haleysherif for more bookish, writerly, and tarot news. More from this author →