Anna Noyes on Writing the Book That Keeps Her Awake

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In The Art of Subtext, Charles Baxter writes, “A novel is not a summary of its plot but a collection of instances, of luminous specific details that take us in the direction of the unsaid and the unseen.”

In 2017, I sold my debut novel on the basis of a sample, pitching a historical, multi-generational family saga. It sounded very novel-like. I celebrated. Then, almost immediately, things veered. I kept picturing the television adaptation—starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep. But I couldn’t make the story mine. I wrote spurred by an imaginary reader who I did not trust and who did not trust me.

This reader wanted lush, lovely sentences, grand ideas, sweeping plot, characters whose minds and motives were made heart-wrenchingly clear. She wanted abundance. I wanted to help. I liked her. I feared her. I typed as fast as I could, against mounting dread, until I had a 600-page draft. I culled it by 200, swiftly, helplessly, and turned it in.

It was dead wood.

With great effort, maybe it could have been a passable impression of a kind of novel I esteem, written for a reader I esteem, but who is not me.

I had to start over with the seed, my original sample, written in the dark. What I knew, without scrambling for dominion, was sparse. A handful of clues. I made flexible outlines chapter-by-chapter, generating no more than a few pages of text each week. My ambition shrank to the size of each paragraph. A novel had seemed too long—for writer and reader—to caretake each word. Now, I allowed the smallest gestures to matter. I read as I would the books I love most, not with my mind but with my body. My mind carried on in doubt. But in my chest, a deep, spacious center knew what it liked.

What emerged, increment by increment, was a story made for me.

And I want narrative propelled by questions, not by the need to provide each answer.

I want language with energy, over continuity, over beauty.

I want characters who are—as in life—complicated, half-glimpsed, harboring private truths. I think of Mary Oliver, discovering her partner of over thirty years was a “clear, dark, lovely whistler,” when she had never before heard her whistle. Let characters be like this: beloveds, and strangers. No matter how much time we’ve spent together, capable of surprise.

I read as I would the books I love most, not with my mind but with my body. My mind carried on in doubt. But in my chest, a deep, spacious center knew what it liked.

And, always, I want subtext. As Toni Morrison said, “What you don’t write frequently gives what you do write its power.”

My sentences would not come to life without room to breathe. The white space, the in-between, hums. Scientists say the universe itself has a background hum, the sound of gravitational waves.

My protagonist is raised on an island with a history of violence that carries from the past into her present. On the surface, there are things she cannot comprehend, but menace is understood by the body, and permeates her surroundings; her dreams and nightmares. Her subconscious knows what she cannot.

I had the creeping feeling this was a horror story, though it wouldn’t be shelved as such; the horror was insidious. Growing up a girl, in a place—like most—with its own violences, I was afraid long before I could name why.

The implicit requires my full presence. It is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, when Eleanor lies in the dark gripping Theodora’s hand, only to find the room suddenly lit, Theodora in her separate bed.

“God God—whose hand was I holding?”

Ultimately, I had to write the kind of book that keeps me awake. And stories that ask the most of me make me feel most keenly alive. They hold space for ineffable darkness, and dearness. The sacred and wild. Breath.

My novel took me eight years. Years spent learning to trust myself, the reader, the mystery.


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The Blue Maiden by Anna Noyes is available now via Grove Press. 

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