Randon Billings Noble values form as much as content. Her new book of essays, Be with Me Always, is a collection about heartbreak and memory, and, in her words “hauntedness.” Consider an essay called “Vertebrae,” which is shaped like a spine, and another, “The Heart Is a Torn Muscle,” written as a cardiologist’s report. Noble does wonderful things with form; she is a beautiful writer, fully in control of her craft. Her essays cover a wide range of subjects—a near death experience, a relationship read through the catastrophic romance of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Stonewall Jackson’s amputated arm, pregnancy, reunions, and silences. Her words are lyrical and, yes, haunting. Among the many pleasures of this collection is Noble’s take on situations that look ordinary to an outsider, but, for the individual experiencing them, are life changing. Noble is not scaling Mount Everest or courting self-destruction; she’s living a life that is as recognizable as it is engaging. And that, perhaps, is the book’s greatest allure: an intimacy that is both welcoming and enveloping.
I had the good fortune to catch up with Noble by email to talk about her process, the impact of form on her writing, her influences, and more.
The Millions: Readers are always interested in process. As we get to know you, can you talk about your writing trajectory?
Randon Billings Noble: I’d always been interested in essays and found myself looking for subversive ways to liven up college research papers. But I didn’t really know that essays could be their own thing until graduate school, and not through the classes I was taking, but the classes I was teaching while getting my MFA at NYU.
NYU taught expository writing (aka freshman comp) in a way that valued personal experience as a form of evidence. You could do research at the library, or interview subjects, or crunch numbers, but you could also use something that happened to you as a child, or an odd experience you had on the subway, or a conversation you had with your best friend to support and explore your thinking. Finally! A name for that thing I’d been doing my whole writing life; I was an essayist.
TM: Many writers have a difficult path to publication. Can you talk about yours?
RBN: With individual essays, getting published was fairly smooth. So I wasn’t prepared for the challenges of publishing a book, which was more like playing “Chutes and Ladders.” My third published essay was in the Modern Love column of The New York Times. A fancy New York agent wined and dined me so I could be her literary passion project. Over lunch at Nobu, we had what I thought was a very frank conversation about who I was (an essayist) and what I wrote (essays). I was over the moon when she signed me! I felt propelled up that one big ladder that launches you. But then came the revision requests. She didn’t want an essay collection; she wanted a memoir. I tried to rearrange the essays more chronologically—but ultimately I couldn’t —wouldn’t—tear out the structures of my individual essays to make a full-length memoir. So my agent and I broke up. Then I was down the long chute that dumps you back to the start of the game.
At the time I was heartbroken. But it turned out to be a very, very good thing. I kept writing essays. I grew as a writer. I reshaped my collection. All the shorter chutes and ladders, the successes and rejections, made Be with Me Always a better book. I submitted it to independent and university presses and was thrilled when the University of Nebraska Press accepted it.
TM: The essay is an art form, and you’re very interested in form. What kind of impact does form have on your book?
RBN: I love traditional essays—if there is such a thing—essays that use narrative, that bring the reader along a consistent if sometimes meandering train of thought. I started writing in different forms without realizing this was a practice. My essay “Ambush,” published under the title “War Weary from a Dangerous Liaison” in Modern Love, started out as a segmented essay. It’s about letting the love of my young life go by telling him that I had married someone else, which felt like an ambush. Each short segment was introduced by a quote from the Army Ranger’s handbook with information about how to construct an ambush—or a counter-ambush. Late in the drafting process I took all the quotes out and the sections fell together perfectly. I didn’t need the trellis or scaffolding anymore.
Later, after my twins were born and my time became extremely limited, I started writing in shorter forms. Then I started to play more intentionally with lyric essays—essays that rely on intuition more than exposition and borrow more from the traditions of poetry than fiction. I love the way constraint paradoxically confers freedom. Robert Frost, lover of metrical poetry, said: Writing without meter is like playing tennis without a net.
TM: To follow up on that, some of your work borders on poetry.
RBN: I don’t consider myself a poet…but that doesn’t mean I don’t strive to be poetic. Lyric essays often borrow more from poetic traditions—image, metaphor, rhythm, but especially form—than from fiction traditions, like scene, dialogue, etc. Traditional essays can use these techniques as well. And why shouldn’t they?
TM: That’s a great point. What would you say is the thread through your collection? You call it hauntedness; memory seems to be a through-line as well.
RBN: Memory is certainly a through-line, but that could be said for nearly all creative nonfiction. As I wrote, I became more interested in the memories you don’t necessarily want to invoke—memories that have a will of their own, that follow you, that haunt you. I started to ask: What is the value of being haunted? Many of the essays in this collection try to answer that.
TM: How did you decide to organize your collection?
RBN: I knew I wanted to begin with “The Split” [about near death experience] and end with “Devotional” [also separately published in a gorgeous edition by Red Bird Chapbooks]. I knew my essays are written in a wide range of forms and didn’t want the reader to be shocked to come across, say, “Vertebrae” (in the shape of a spine) after half a book of more traditional essays. So I made sure that some of the weirder forms happened early.
I printed out a title page for each essay that had its first and last line on it. And then I spread them all out on my dining room table and moved them around, thinking about form, thinking about content, and thinking about how the last line of one essay might resonate with the first line of the next. The essays grouped themselves into different sections—“Whatever Bed,” “Biologies,” “The Red Thread,” etc.
TM: From the references in the collection, it seems clear you read in many genres. What, if any writers, have influenced your work?
RBN: Anna Karenina is one of my favorite books. I reread it every few years and identify with a different character, a different set of circumstances, a different life stage each time. I’m sure it’s influenced my writing, although I haven’t written directly about it (yet).
Years ago, I went through a Proust phase ushered in by one of my teachers, André Aciman—long sentences, rich nostalgias. I think my writing has gotten a little shorter—and a little sharper—since then, but that desire for slowing down, for reminiscing, for expansiveness remains.
Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” was a vector for my own essays. I read it in graduate school 20 years ago, when I still believed you could stay at the fair for as long as you wanted.
And Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life” was another vector. It showed me how you could write with rawness and honesty without being apologetic or self-deprecating or diminishing.
TM: What essayists do you admire today?
RBN: Lacy M. Johnson. The Reckonings knocks me out with its sharp intelligence.
Kiese Lamon. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America grabs me from its very first sentence and holds me in thrall to his voice and rhythm and story.
Eva Saulitis. Leaving Resurrection strikes me as a near-perfect collection. The essays range widely in subject (from playing oboe to dissecting a dead killer whale on a beach) but the way her mind works, the way she combines the thinking of a scientist with the beauty of a poet, makes me strive to be as observant and as descriptive in my own work.
Claudia Rankine. If you haven’t read Citizen yet, get your hands on it today.
Elissa Washuta. The essays in My Body Is a Book of Rules tumble thorough a variety of forms to explore sex, race, identity, doubt, and self-knowledge.
Rebecca Solnit. After reading The Faraway Nearby, I wanted to structure my writing life to have room to think thoughts like hers.
TM: What great reading suggestions! It’s hard to talk to any writer today without asking how their art form fits into this current political moment.
RBN: Essays are more important than ever! By “essays” I don’t mean anecdotes or hottakes (although those are important too). I mean writing that slows down, deliberates, ruminates, and examines its own beliefs even as it states them. Writing that shares experiences of people from different backgrounds. Writing that explores the myriad ways we have of being human. Essays subvert a common narrative that those in power try to impose on all of us. Essays think and wonder and probe and argue and speculate and reveal. We need more deliberate thinking about how we choose to live.
TM: So true! Do you feel a feminist angle in your work, and if so, what?
RBN: Someone at a conference once told me that the only way I’d get an essay collection published was if I wrote fun feminist essays. I thought, what if I write rather un-fun, obliquely feminist essays? Which is what I wound up doing.
TM: What are you hearing from your readers?
RBN: I just got an 18-page letter from a writer I admire that was about Be with Me Always and the way some of its essays led her to think differently about her own work. Wow. I can’t wait to write back—I love a literary correspondence! Others have told me at readings that my stories about longing—especially “The Heart as a Torn Muscle”—have helped them through their own heartbreaks.
These comments are enormously heartening. Writing can be a lonely process. So many times you send work out into the world and hear nothing back. I’m so grateful when my work reaches people, touches them, and in some cases makes them think about their lives in a new way.
TM: What’s next for you? Do you have another book in the works and can you tell us about it?
RBN: Yes! I’m working on two books. The first is an anthology of lyric essays to be published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2021. The second is my next collection, which is about women, shame, and desire. An essay in Be with Me Always got me thinking about it—“69 Inches of Thread, Scarlet and Otherwise. ” There’s so much more to be said…
I started the year by finishing Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which left me, as Anne Carson memorably put it, in “the Desert of After Proust.” I would start other novels, but nothing held my attention. Instead, I read a lot of magazine articles, worked on my own fiction, and developed a mild jigsaw puzzle addiction.
The malaise finally lifted with a streak of memoirs and novels that I later realized were all about being in your 40s, or approaching them. I’m 39, so I guess I come by my interest in this subject honestly. As I read them, I felt a little like a middle school kid reading books set in high school, hoping for some insight into what was immediately ahead.
In no particular order, these Books of Midlife were: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg; The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy; Hourglass by Dani Shapiro; Between Them by Richard Ford; Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer; Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam; The Weekend Effect by Katrina Onstad; Vacationland by John Hodgman; The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs; and Still Here by Lara Vapnyar, which includes the memorable piece of dialogue about the perils of age 39:
“That’s a crazy age,” he continued with the hint of a smirk. “Kind of like puberty for adults. When you’re forty, you’re branded as what you really are, no wiggle room after that—you gotta accept the facts. People do a lot of crazy shit right before they turn forty.”
Some may quibble with my list, wondering how Richard Ford’s portrait of his parents or Nina Rigg’s memoir of dying of cancer count as Books of Midlife. Another odd choice is The Weekend Effect, which is borderline self-help about how to reclaim your leisure time. All I can say is that to me, three hallmarks of getting older are 1) coming to a new understanding of your parents; 2) feeling your own mortality; and 3) wanting to make the most of your free time.
After a year of breaking news alerts, I also found myself drawn to nonfiction that helped me to put our political moment into a larger context: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon; Ain’t I a Woman, by bell hooks; Future Sex by Emily Witt; And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy by Adrian Shirk; We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates; and Somebody With a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill.
Most of these books are essay collections, and most of the writing contained within them was completed well before the 2016 election. It was fascinating to see the way that many of these writers anticipated our current political situation. Their blind spots were equally interesting.
I feel bad for the new fiction I read this year, because I was always comparing it to Proust, and nothing could really stand up to that epic reading experience. However, there was one novel that swept me up with its passion, intelligence, and spiritual reach: Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, which will be published in January 2018. I look forward to reading it again next year.
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“For every book I publish,” a writing teacher once told me, “there’s one book I don’t.” At the age of eighteen, armed with a truly bad novel and a rather absurd sense of optimism, this line did not exactly resonate. But as I amassed rejection slips of every size—and once my first novel was rejected by a pantheon of New York publishers—I realized that nearly every writer has a novel in a drawer: a manuscript that, due to any number of reasons (rejection, timing, chance, diversion) never quite becomes a fully-formed book.
By the time an author’s debut hits bookstores, it’s very likely been preceded by a string of books that weren’t: doomed half-novels; slivers of inspiration that curled up and went to sleep; baggy short stories that grew into novellas, then stubbornly refused to grow any more. Some become first drafts, but never find the right agent; others find an agent, but not a publisher. In general, Novels in Drawers are an unruly breed, prone to shape-shifting and border-crossing. Some NIDs lie prone for years before being resurrected and, miraculously, finished; others have their characters or ideas recruited to breathe new life into a different manuscript.
What are we to do to with our books that weren’t? How can we learn from them, and when should we let them go? Below, five fiction writers on the story they still haven’t been able to tell.
Kiese Laymon, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America
When I was in grad school, I wrote this five hundred-page novel about a round runaway character. I was sure that book was going to change the world. When I finally published Long Division, a book kinda-sorta about a round runaway character, it had literally three paragraphs from that five hundred-page novel that I knew was going to change the world. I needed to write every word of that novel but in the end, only a few paragraphs of it needed to be seen. The sad thing is that some people told me that way back then. I didn’t really listen.
Laura van den Berg, The Isle of Youth
Six or seven years ago, I drafted a story called “What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us” and turned it in for workshop. Amid the usual critiques, much of it helpful, were comments about how the story seemed “novelistic” and like it was “part of something larger.” Which, in hindsight, was a gentle way of saying it was way too fucking long and I had made some truly confounding choices in structure. But I did not have that hindsight back then, so I started thinking maybe this story could be “part of something larger,” that I should write past the end and see what happened. I made it about fifty pages before I realized I was on the verge of Death by Boredom. Though the story itself I would grow to love, I knew then that it was not “part of something larger,” but a shaggy dog of a short story searching for its final shape. I was reminded that the story is a very particular and singular kind of art—not a warm-up for the novel. When I began Find Me, my first novel, due out next year, it was never anything but a novel. For years my draft was messy and misguided and floundering, but at least I was always certain of one thing: I was not writing a short story.
Karen Brown, The Longings of Wayward Girls
I hate to give up. If I start a novel, I finish it, which is why I have stacks of three-hundred-page manuscripts, all purporting to be books, all maintained in dark storage, queued up like records in an old jukebox awaiting their turn to play. Sadly for them, I’ve learned that a book isn’t finished simply because it’s finished, that it enters a stage of being we call a draft—a term I’m now quite familiar with—and that this has the potential to multiply, to become draft six, possibly draft seven. These abandoned novels might always be first drafts, but even in their rough, elemental state their characters still enact their complicated lives in various towns and houses, in relationships with various others. In them it is winter, it is an island in the Caribbean, it is a night club in South Florida in the 1980s. I am aware of their presence—miniature worlds in stasis, pending transformation into draft five and draft six—but I’m also cowed by the work required to get them there. It takes a certain bravery to dive back in, especially if you are the kind of person who hates to give up.
Since I now have a better concept of what “finished” entails I suspect the decision to revisit an old draft will depend on my sensibilities when I reread it—usually after years have passed. Maybe I hadn’t intended a certain relationship to carry much weight, but suddenly this relationship interests me, and I begin to imagine the story differently. I just finished a novel that involved several drafts (seven? eight?). I wrote it after a series of short stories set in a cold, bleak, upstate New York winter, and the focus had always been a love affair. Now, the story is about the relationship between two sisters—something I hadn’t even explored before—and this shift in focus has created an entirely new book.
Michelle Wildgen, Bread and Butter
Food shows up in almost everything I write. Aside from the way the culinary world pleases me aesthetically, food is one of those universals that can be employed to explore almost anything, from family to religion to class to love. So why has a nonfiction book about my favorite subject eluded me? I have drawn up notes, gathered my essays and looked for their common threads, and examined my upbringing top to bottom, but I have yet to figure out the personal story my food life might tell or to find the external food story I feel compelled to dive into. It’s tempting to blame my too-normal Midwestern upbringing (shouldn’t someone have been curing a pig leg in the garage, maybe, or serving meals so spectacularly terrible that I could be perversely proud of them? But no one was, and my mom is in fact an excellent cook). But the truth is, my favorite pieces of writing about food are not about extreme cooking. Laurie Colwin wrote beautifully, hilariously, and movingly about everyday, English-inflected nursery food, and MFK Fisher’s most luminous and insightful essays are about the relationships among the diners more than the amazing dishes before them. I haven’t pinned it down yet, and maybe I never will, but even now that elusive food book seems so, so close—I just can’t quite see its shape.
Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles
For a few years when I was in grad school, I kept coming back to a short story I’d tried to write about a modern day woman who starts wearing a homemade hair shirt like the ones people wore as penance in the Middle Ages: itchy, painful, and flea-infested. But I could never get the tone right. It kept coming off as more funny than dark, more ridiculous than bleak—and I wanted it bleak. It was liberating to give up on that story so that I could focus on others, and it helped me realize that throwing out a piece of writing can sometimes count as progress. It feels like backtracking, but it can ultimately be the way forward.
Image via Dan4th Nicholas/Flickr
By far the book I found most memorable this year was Alissa Nutting’s Tampa. The writing was so deliberate and satisfying, and I love when a writer fully commits to a premise. To wit: early in the book, Celeste Price marks her classroom with her vaginal juices, so she might better seduce one of the unsuspecting boys in her eighth grade class. As I read this scene, I literally gasped because I had never seen anything like it. The premise of Tampa, this chronicle of a relentless predator, is appalling but Nutting makes it possible to be appalled and entertained. Celeste is so consumed by her desire. She is so unapologetic. It’s freeing, as a reader, to engage with a character who does what she must to satisfy her needs. I found myself judging Celeste as much as I was intrigued by what she would do next. I was also impressed by the sly cultural critique Nutting offers throughout the novel, about the pressures and expectations women shoulder. Tampa is just amazing.
Meaty by Samantha Irby, was an outstanding essay collection. The essays are a winning combination of hilarious and tender and sad. Irby is not afraid to show the reader where she hurts and how but she does so with such energy and wit. The writing explores dating, living with Crohn’s Disease, losing both parents at a young age, race and class, and a great deal more, but each of these topics is approached uniquely and without self-pity or aimless recrimination. Irby is one hell of a writer.
I was also enamored by Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go. At first, I wasn’t quite sure where the novel was going. The first third is strangely given over to a man and his slippers. More is going on, of course, but it doesn’t make sense until you get much farther into the book. A man has died and his family must return to Ghana to mourn and to reconnect. Along the way, we learn how the family fell apart in the first place, and the price that is paid in leaving one country for another. The power of this novel lies in its completeness and the sweeping energy of the story being told. In the final pages, I found myself crying into the book as I turned each page and when I finished, I simply held the book to my chest.
Kiese Laymon had one hell of a year with two books — Long Division and How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. Long Division was such a strange book, but I couldn’t stop reading! Laymon has an audacious imagination and I admire the ambition of his novel and everything he tried to do. There’s so much cleverness, it could make you jealous if the book weren’t so good. His essay collection is hard but necessary reading because he tells the truth about race in America.
Other books I enjoyed include The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg, Alone with Other People by Gabby Bess, Love is a Canoe by Ben Schrank, The Book of My Lives by Aleksandr Hemon, Don’t Kiss Me by Lindsay Hunter, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, The Name of the Nearest River by Alex Taylor, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. I’m a bit mad about reading Revenge Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger because the plot was so ludicrous. The more I read, the angrier I got and by the end, I was, frankly, ready to write a letter. Andi would not make such choices! She just wouldn’t. What can I say? I get attached.
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