Alanna Schubach’s debut novel The Nobodies, out June 21 from Blackstone, tells the story of Jess and Nina, two best friends with a secret: by touching their heads together, they can swap bodies. This supernatural power allows them to inhabit each other’s lives; self-conscious Nina can enjoy Jess’s bold and assertive persona, while Jess revels in the safety of Nina’s stable family. But the ability to body-swap also brings to the fore questions of intimacy, trust, and betrayal and puts the mechanics of female friendship under a microscope.
Schubach’s short stories have appeared in Shenandoah, the Sewanee Review, the Massachusetts Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. We caught up with her ahead of the publication of The Nobodies to chat about composite characters, the drafting process, Elena Ferrante, how to juxtapose the magical and the mundane, and much more.
The Millions: This is your debut novel, so I’d love first to start by asking you about your path to its publication. What was the novel’s genesis, and how did it come into being?
Alanna Schubach: The novel began as a short story, specifically the section that takes place when the main characters, Nina and Jess, are in high school. The story began at a point when they’d already been using this secret power to swap bodies and building up a lot of baggage around that for some time, and ended with a rupture between them. When I shared the story with my writing group, the reaction was unanimous that there was a lot more to explore, enough for a novel, which I had also sensed but felt intimidated about, so that gave me the push I needed.
The writing of the initial draft took about three years; I was juggling multiple freelance writing and teaching gigs, so I had to carve out little snatches of time and sometimes it was a struggle to stay motivated. Doing a writing residency helped, and so did the encouragement of my writing groups. I was very lucky to be connected with my agent, Robert Guinsler, who wholeheartedly believed in the novel and was not deterred when quite a few publishers passed on the initial submission. I was also fortunate to win an emerging writer fellowship with the Center for Fiction, part of which included being paired with a professional editor, Meg Storey. I asked her to evaluate the manuscript, because the feedback from publishers who passed was all over the map. Meg understood what I was trying to do with the story, both practically and thematically, and came back with a really insightful and thorough developmental edit. I did a substantial revision based on that, and then Robert took the novel out again, and finally, a few months later, it found its home at Blackstone. My path to publication is a story of both my perseverance (or stubbornness) and very good luck in finding the right people at the right time. And also of the support of family and friends, without whom I’d have thrown up my hands and given up at some point.
TM: The storytelling device of the body swap been explored by such writers as Anne Rice, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, H. P. Lovecraft, Mary Shelley, and Julio Cortázar. Did you read any body-swapping stories while you were writing the novel? Why did you feel this device was vital to telling Jess and Nina’s story? Did you at all want to turn it on its head?
AS: Funny you mention Anne Rice—I had forgotten about her body-swap novel, but I did read it years ago. I was a huge devotee of her Vampire Chronicles series when I was a teenager, so it’s possible that was in the back of my mind. Speaking of vampires, there’s an episode of Buffy—which I was also obsessed with—in which Buffy swaps bodies with her nemesis, Faith. I remember being really affected at the time by how Faith reacts with rage and horror when she’s confronted with her own image, Buffy in her body. Something about that rang true to me, that if we could perceive ourselves from the outside, closer to how others perceive us, it would be very destabilizing.
I didn’t read any body-swapping stories while I was writing the novel, but I did read the work of a lot of writers who blend or defy so-called realistic and genre fiction, like Kate Atkinson, Ted Chiang, Brian Evenson, Kelly Link, Helen Oyeyemi, and Karen Russell. Also Kobo Abe, Italo Calvino, Shirley Jackson, and Ursula LeGuin. They all opened my eyes to the capaciousness of fiction and its ability to exist outside traditional categories. I think by not reading fiction specifically about body-swapping, I wasn’t preoccupied with adhering to or defying its conventions and could focus on what made sense for my story.
TM: The conceit of The Nobodies feels very much in the tradition of magical realism, in that the narrative is very realistic, with fully fleshed out interpersonal relationships. Yet this supernatural element is organically woven into that narrative. Can you talk a bit about where you situate the novel within—or outside of—the constraints of genre? Was magical realism at all on your mind?
AS: I try to avoid thinking much about what my place might be within a larger tradition—ultimately that’s out of my hands. And during the writing process, I had a lot of uncertainty about whether I’d finish at all, let alone how I’d classify the novel. What I did consider important to the story was that Nina and Jess’s power be limited—that it be a miraculous, incredible secret, but also a closed system. They can only swap bodies with each other, and no one else ever seems to notice when they’ve done it. It was also important that they wield their power within an otherwise recognizable setting. This contrast seemed to me the way to capture that feeling of sharing a private, magical but also claustrophobic world with the person you’re closest to. And I found there ended up being some drift between the supposedly “magical” and “mundane” elements of the novel. The more the girls use their power, the more matter-of-fact it felt; the more I dug into the book’s “realistic” settings and situations, the stranger they became to me.
TM: The Nobodies is set against the vibrant backdrop of New York City, as so many great contemporary novels are. It’s a cliché now to say that New York City is basically a character in the story—but it never fails to be an interesting character! How does the city factor into your novel, and how did you want to depict it within the vast canon of literature set in New York City?
AS: My perspective on New York City may be a bit unusual as far as NYC-set literature goes, because I grew up on Long Island, about 30 miles from Manhattan physically, but light-years away culturally and temperamentally, it often seemed to me as a kid. New York City was not so much a glamorous, fantastical, far-off dreamland but a real place I traveled to on the Long Island Rail Road and was desperate to get to permanently. And when I did get there, it felt like I’d made the right decision, but it wasn’t like the city had just been waiting for me to arrive. I had plenty of fun, but it was a slog for years to just scrape by, and there was also the strangeness of living there in the aftermath of two disasters, 9/11 and then the financial crisis. It was important to me that the slog of it came through in the novel, and the sense of being totally unremarkable in a remarkable place. Nina and Jess share an incredible power, and they expect that it’s going to unlock the city for them, that they’ll rise to power within it, but they don’t. They don’t have money or connections; they’re not part of any exciting scenes. They muddle through, too. And there are other settings that are also significant to the novel, which jumps around in time and space: Long Island, where the girls grow up, and Japan, where Nina moves at one point. I hope these locations also feel real enough to be like characters unto themselves.
TM: The relationships in the novel feel so authentic, so fully fleshed out and lived in. Did you draw any aspects of the novel, or its central relationships, from your own life or experiences?
AS: Another way in which I’m very lucky is that I’ve known my two closest friends since junior high and high school, and we’ve maintained a bond with enough room to allow us to grow individually and together in all kinds of ways. A relationship is like a life, in that it goes through many phases. Fortunately whatever periods of tension we’ve weathered together have not been nearly as dramatic as what Nina and Jess go through, but the ups and downs, and some of the ways my friends have challenged or encouraged or surprised me, did serve as inspiration. I drew upon my experiences for probably all the relationships in the novel, with parents, teachers, boyfriends, co-workers, et cetera, but they’re never as simple as one-to-one analogues for real-life ones. Characters are composites of aspects of many people, real and imagined. And there’s probably at least a bit of me in every character, because I don’t see how there couldn’t be—they all came from me, my particular lens on events, interpretations of behavior, and imagination.
TM: In recent years, the subject of female friendships has finally been treated as worthy of literary attention and exploration, thanks in part to authors like Sally Rooney and Elena Ferrante. How would you describe your approach to writing about female friendships—what, for instance, makes them different from other kinds of friendships?—and how do you feel about the long overdue literary attention now being paid to them?
AS: For a period of my childhood I was only friends with boys. I had a falling out with some girl friends and decided girls were too complicated and unpredictable. Of course boys are too, which I eventually learned. But generally, I think women are better at maintaining relationships long-term, because they’re allowed access to a broader range of emotion and a deeper intimacy with each other than most men are. This may be changing; young men now may feel more able to be vulnerable and confide in each other than they used to. But when I was coming of age, it was way more common to see (ostensibly straight) girls in intense entanglements with each other that were not quite the same as heterosexual romances.
I think the shadow side of that infatuation is jealousy. There’s the external pressure of male attention, as both a potential threat and something to compete for. And there’s the belief you can easily succumb to: that your friend already has whatever seems to be missing in yourself or your life. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels loom large in terms of depicting this, as does Sula by Toni Morrison. What I wanted to do in my novel was take that jealousy and apply it to this magical device of body-swapping: what would happen if you could step into your friend’s skin and take what she had for yourself, literally possess her? Would that finally make you complete and worthy?
I’m glad female friendships are getting their due now. There’s way more to explore. I hope that we can also honor, in literary and other artistic depictions, the positive role female friends continue to play in each other’s lives as they age. Even if you’re married, have kids, whatever, those relationships remain unique and important, and there is room in our lives for them.
TM: In the novel, you explore the depths and gradations of betrayal, which is often viewed as quite a cut and dry action. How does the story of Jess and Nina complicate common notions of betrayal, and how did you approach writing about betrayal with nuance?
AS: In a workshop, another student who read an earlier draft of the novel told me she saw Jess as evil. I was horrified to hear that! I hope at this point that isn’t the takeaway. To Nina, Jess often feels challenging and antagonistic, but Jess probably feels that way about Nina at times too. From each of their perspectives, they’ve been disappointed, failed, maybe even betrayed by the other. But even the most straightforward villain doesn’t believe they’re the villain. They have elaborate systems of justification in place for their actions and, if you look close enough, comprehensible reasons for their behavior, as we all do. The person I am when reading or writing feels like a better person than who I am moment-to-moment in the everyday. I’m able to extend to characters a level of understanding that’s difficult to deploy with real people in real life, who I can’t observe in the way that fiction allows.
TM: Last year, you were a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, where you worked in a cabin previously occupied by such writers as Ann Patchett, Karen Joy Fowler, and Lynne Tillman. What was that experience like? Did you work at all on The Nobodies while you were there?
AS: I had already finished final edits on The Nobodies by the time I got to MacDowell and was working there on a second novel. MacDowell is so legendary that I kind of couldn’t believe I was there, among very seasoned artists and writers whose work I admired. After an initial period of feeling out of my depth, being in that cabin helped me locate the faith in myself that I could do this again, finish another book. A friend recently shared with me something Neil Gaiman said about how writing a book only teaches you to write that one book. So each time you start a new one, you once again have no clue what you’re doing. But the fact that MacDowell seemed to believe I was capable made me think that I could figure it out.