At home with her newborn son, the protagonist in Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch is starting to feel like a dog—that is to say, she’s turning into one, literally. It isn’t a fairytale or a dream. It’s her life. In turns equally dark and funny, violent and satirical, Yoder’s debut novel doesn’t follow any expected route on its way to uncovering what it means to be a mother, to have a relationship, to raise a child. The turmoil, the vastness of the experience, it roils in this edgy, weird, and brilliant book.
Coming to feel more and more akin to her canine alter-ego “nightbitch,” this mother learns to embrace her instinctual nature: the need to paw the ground, to sniff the air, to roam the streets under the moonlight, chasing and snarling. Her husband is rattled but vapid, while the community around her full of mothers who might also be more than they appear. But her son loves this new side of his mom, how she ignores what the world wants and gravitates instead toward what she feels.
Nightbitch is as unexpected as it is poignant, as quirky as it is well-crafted. To start with such a simple and surreal premise and yet create depth and significance at the same time is truly fantastic. This novel snaps at the heels of art and motherhood, of female power and autonomy, of finding your inner instinct.
The Millions: Is being a mother a joy, a curse, or something else entirely?
Rachel Yoder: Being a mother in a society that praises and encourages mothers’ absolute abnegation of the self is the curse. Imagine being told from an early age that it’s right, holy, nice, and proper to abandon your own needs, emotions, and desires. We are conditioning girls and women to believe that psychological and emotional self-harm is correct. That’s the curse.
Motherhood itself is power. Women understand this power in their bodies, especially during unmedicated childbirth. You truly feel how much of a full, vibrant, and uncompromising self you are as a child tears out of you. You are in touch with a profound creative force. I have to wonder if the entire structure of patriarchal control is a fearful reaction to women’s singular power of creation. “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” sure is a convoluted and roundabout way of getting to the much more fitting metaphor of Mother.
So then, how do women move from self-denial into power? This is Nightbitch’s central question.
TM: The toddler escapades—the eating, the sleeping, the pooping—are rendered with the exact right frenetic energy. How did you go about committing those scenes, that vibe, to the page in such a faithful manner?
RY: I hadn’t written in two years when I embarked on this book. Those two years also happened to arrive after my son was born. So we might say there was a lot of material to draw from. I went to the coffee shop for small chunks of time and wrote as fast as I could. It poured from me.
TM: Were other motherhood-centered books a part of your reading and writing practice? I’m thinking of novels like Kristen Arnett’s recent With Teeth, Makenna Goodman’s The Shame, and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. Or do you abstain from reading anything connective or near your own subject matter during the writing process?
RY: I was incidentally reading books about motherhood in the time leading up to writing and then writing Nightbitch, but it was by no means a concerted effort. I had no plans to write a “book about motherhood.” If anything, I had plans not to write that book because I had accepted the messages that motherhood is boring, unimportant, only of interest to women so not worth writing about, etcetera.
Looking back at my Goodreads, many of the books I read from 2014 when my son was born to 2017 when I began writing had to do either with motherhood or child-rearing in some regard, or else were literary psychological horror or slipstream. I think that Han Kang’s The Vegetarian has as much to do with Nightbitch’s emergence as, say, Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors. The strange postapocalyptic book The Rending and the Nest, in which women give birth to inanimate objects, is definitely a part of the subconscious of Nightbitch, as is Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk.
TM: Where did this novel start? What was its smallest seedling?
RY: I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation years before I began writing this book, and her “art monster” line I consider the very earliest sparkle of Nightbitch’s magic. I copied that passage down in a document on my computer, thinking I would write an essay about it. I eventually wrote Nightbitch instead.
TM: Though there is tension, suspense, and devastation in Nightbitch, there are also frequent pops of humor. How do you manage fun and comedy in your writing?
RY: Comedy is a survival tactic. You can’t let the rage burn bright all the time or else you’ll burn up, too. The comedy comes in to cool you off, to provide a bit of relief. I am reminded of the narrator of Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, another book I read as I was writing mine. (And, it should be noted, a book by a writer raised in the Mennonite tradition, like me.) That book, its story, is full of such deep darkness, heavy sadness, and repressed rage that the only way you as the reader are able to keep your head above water is the relief that Toews offers you via the voice of the narrator. While not a conscious choice on my part, Nightbitch operates in a bit of the same way, I think.
TM: So the violence—the cat episode in particular—showcases some of this blending, mixing the visceral with the comedic. How fun was it writing this character who could pivot so instinctually toward the ferocious?
RY: I was very scared of my anger in early motherhood. I didn’t know how to relate with it. I was afraid of it getting out of control. I used to joke that anger is not part of my genetic or cultural heritage, since I was raised Mennonite, and perhaps this is why the mix of rage and comedy comes naturally to me: It’s the most acceptable mode in which a Mennonite woman can be angry.
The cat scene is where Nightbitch touches the abyss so to speak. Her anger has become unwieldy, and she suddenly and horribly wakes up to this. She must find a way to wield her rage that’s not destructive but, rather, creative. Her anger certainly has an origin in the forces acting upon her, but her greatest anger is at herself, for the ways in which she has abandoned herself, so she must come to terms with her power, and her capacity for creating the life she wants and needs. She must take responsibility for her own story.
It was immensely gratifying to have a female character who was able to be ferocious and violent. There are so few stories in our culture that show women expressing rage, and I was interested in how a female character might write her own story of rage. What would it look like? How can women perform anger so it doesn’t stay trapped in our bodies?
TM: For as much as art and family are in conflict for the mother protagonist, they are also often in service of one another. Is the crux of art built on or made from relationships?
RY: The crux of everything is relationships! Consciousness is a tool for wielding metaphor, which is just another way of saying that we make meaning by actively and seriously negotiating our relationships. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with curiosity and bringing a spirit of curiosity to troubled relationships, and that really does seem to have cracked something open for me, the process of asking earnest, open-hearted questions in the face of relational dysfunction. And isn’t this truly what storytelling is, an exploration of the relationship of characters, of themes, of ideas?
TM: From a craft point of view, you made an interesting decision to keep most of the characters in the novel unnamed. What led to that choice and how did it shape the book?
RY: The only reason I started out this way is because it felt right. I didn’t interrogate the decision too much. I don’t think I ever considered giving the characters names, or if I tried to, it immediately felt incorrect. Now, it seems to me that I wanted to keep these characters as close to archetypes as possible because I was more interested in the ideas they were animating rather than the specifics of their knowable realities. Certainly they do have socioeconomic and historical and racial contexts, because the book is being written from within those frames, but I wanted the main character as Mother and Artist/Creator and Wife to be front and center, because these features are most salient in regard to the ideas I wanted to explore and animate.
TM: In the mysterious tome your protagonist reads—A Field Guide to Magical Women: A Mythical Ethnography—the “aga” or second life is referenced as passing from “the world of the known to that of the unknown.” What do you think your second life will be? Or has it already happened?
RY: Oh, I think this book was largely about my challenges in coming into a workable motherhood and womanhood. I knew how to be the black sheep, the truth-telling adolescent, the prodigal daughter, but I didn’t have a way of being, or an image for, a wife and mother and a fully-emerged woman in a way that didn’t stifle or oppress. I knew I didn’t want to be a “good Mennonite wife” and I knew I didn’t want to be a “self-sacrificing mother,” but what were the other models for these? I had to write them. How can I be fully myself while also being a mother and a wife, these roles that will absolutely take over if you give in to the scripts that have already been written? So I suppose my “aga” is that I feel I am moving into the world of metaphor and, hopefully, a deeper understanding of the metaphors animating and controlling our stories.