Interview: JoAnna Novak

JoAnne NovakBy: Ali Ünal

JoAnna Novak is the author of I Must Have You (Skyhorse Publishing 2017) and Noirmania (forthcoming from Inside the Castle 2018). She has written for publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, Guernica, and BOMB. She is a co-founder of the literary journal and chapbook publisher, Tammy.

Rougarou: Thank you for joining us, JoAnna. It’s an honor and pleasure to have you here at Rougarou. Why don’t you tell our readers about yourself?

JoAnna Novak: Hello! I’m a writer from Chicago who lives in Los Angeles.

Rougarou: Congratulations on your fantastic debut novel I Must Have You! It’s been published this year and has already received some rave reviews. Could you tell us about how the book came to fruition from the inception of the idea to the eventual printing?

JN: A couple years ago, I was walking to a yoga class and the phrase “my first girl” came to mind. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, cursed myself for having a super heavy yoga mat, and made a note on my phone.It was a little after that–winter 2015–when I began the first draft of what would become I Must Have You. I finished it in a few months: I thought it was just Elliot’s story. Showing the draft to readers, I realized the story wasn’t big enough. Not enough was happening. So I took four or five months (the summer) and then I began revising. The revision was actually a total rewrite. The character of Elliot stayed consistent, as did her occupation (preteen diet coach), but the lives of the other characters grew and grew.

I finished that rewrite in the fall and gave it to my agent, Noah Ballard, who’s a great editor. There were some small changes, but within a few months he sold the book.

Rougarou: It’s really interesting that you’ve started with a phrase. I’ll come back to that, but first I’d like to ask you about the revision process of this novel. You said you took four or five months off before starting to revise. I’m wondering if this is somehow related to the “writing happens in the subconsciousness” school of thought. Why did you think you needed to take that break and did you work on something else in the meantime?

JN: Taking time off helps me get over the preciousness of my sentences. Because that first draft was really very … stylized, even more so than the novel in its final form. When I give myself distance, I can stop worrying about syntax and rhythm and the felicity of the words and just focus on the characters and the story.

I can’t quite remember what I worked on during my time off. Probably some of the more … popular writing I’ve done, like listicles for Bustle. Maybe a short story? Mostly, I just remembering reading To the Lighthouse.

Rougarou: Let’s get back to the novel. I Must Have You follows three female characters—two teenagers and one adult—whose lives have been affected, with varying degrees, by different types of eating disorders. But it would be an oversimplification to say that your novel is only about eating disorder. Rather, it is an exploration of an illness as a cultural phenomenon and its at times brutal impact on womanhood or girlhood. Would you agree to that?

JN: I can see that, but I’m a little uneasy about the word “brutal.” It has such a negative valence. One thing I’m sort of allergic to is judging the role mental illness plays in a life–a person’s or a character’s. I worry “brutal” might do that.

Because the eating disorders are really accessories, in some ways, for the characters. But they’re signature accessories, you know? Like that person who always wears sunglasses–the sunglasses become synonymous with that person. And that can be great–you’re recognizable–but it can also be limiting: you’re sunglasses guy.

One question I’m definitely interested in is why eating disorders are so fetishized. And why are we, culturally, so averse to that particular fetishization?

Rougarou: Elliot uses the exact same metaphor. Towards end of the book, she says Lisa didn’t care about her eating disorder because “her anorexia had been a phase, like slap bracelets or glow-in-the-dark pacifiers,” something that ends. Do you think there is a connection between what Elliot says about Lisa and the overall stigmatization of eating disorder in society?

JN: Yes, definitely. There are many mental illnesses people are “comfortable” integrating into their identities. Think about anxiety or depression–you hear all the time, “I have anxiety” or “I get depressed.” Even if those illnesses are managed, they’re accepted as … almost personality traits. That rhetoric doesn’t really exist around eating disorders, when, if you think about how body-obsessed we are as a culture, it maybe should.

Rougarou: There are many misconceptions regarding eating disorders, as you pointed in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books. I’m wondering if setting the record straight was ever a factor in deciding to write this book?

JN: More repositioning the camera than setting the record straight.

Rougarou: In the same interview, you say you’ve had an eating disorder for the last 20 years. To what extent did that experience help you shape the story? Was it an hinderance or an advantage in creating totally different female characters of the book?

JN: Having a chronic eating disorder, for me, has been like driving through an entire country, one with markedly distinct terrain. The drive is long. Sometimes the landscape’s beauty asserts itself, other times it’s just scenery on the way to the next rest stop.

Living this long with anything–a person, an illness, a belief–will train you to see and appreciate the mundane. Out of the sheer fact of its duration, my eating disorder has been more straightaways than switchbacks and hairpin curves. I think this let me shape a story that doesn’t problematize the eating disorder. It’s not the villain. It’s not the antagonist. It’s just the country they’re riding through.

Rougarou: One thing that really captivated me as I read the novel was how you subtly established the connection between sexuality and eating disorder. Just like Yoda’s famous mantra, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering,” you seem to offer your own thesis about how desire could be utilized as a tool for self-exploration and even defiance: “Envy leads to fixation. Fixation leads to love. Love leads to desire.” Can you talk more about this?

JN: I might shuffle the terms around. Is envy first? I’m not sure. Maybe envy is just buried. Because I don’t know that we can always say that we feel envious of another person. But fixation–which I think of as obsession, especially when I think of I Must Have You, which is set in the 90s, when Calvin Klein made a perfume called Obsession, when there was this big wave of stories about stalkers (obsession)–well, I think this is something that is pleasurable to claim. It’s like admitting you’re … I don’t know, under a spell. Bewitched. Possessed. But by a force that you can dose out. For me, obsession is both devastating and ecstatic. Especially when the obsession is with a body. The body can be your own. It can be another’s.

At a glance it seems less terrifying, less pathological to use the word “crush” instead of obsession, but I think that idea is just as intoxicating. Good-scary. Crush comes from the French cruissir, a verb that means gnash (teeth) or crack.

And “crush” really lets the fixation or obsession drift toward love and desire. I read this article recently in Psychology Today that makes a distinction between “identity crushes” and “romantic crushes.” I suppose my novel works to dissolve the distinction between those things.

Rougarou: Now that you’ve mentioned the ‘90s, let’s start talking about nostalgia. The novel, as you said, is set in 1999 and there are myriad references to the ‘90s culture you said you have a longing for. In what ways does this specific setting provide a context for the characters and the story you are telling?

JN: There was a fear of anesthetizing in the ‘90s, exemplified by some very disparate cultural forces that matter to me: the heroin chic look in fashion, the grunge movement in music, a sort of outre popular literature like Fight Club or American Psycho. Politically Correct Bedtime Stories was published in 1994. That book poked fun at the notion of being too sensitive, too precious, too insistent on handling with care. The characters in I Must Have You–especially Elliot and her mother Anna–are pretty drunk off that Kool-Aid.

And the story itself is really about indulging the sort of obsessions (and crushes and bad habits) that people were a little more willing to say “whatever” to in the ‘90s. (I mean, can you imagine if someone started talking about heroin chic as a fashion trend today?) There was a kind of jaded, irreverent ambivalence–you really hear this in alternative music from that decade–that’s very much thematically sympathetic to IMHY.

Rougarou: Anna, the mother of Elliot, offers a list of memories connected to tin and then, as if using the material to count time, she says, “Twenty years ago, twenty tins. Now everything is frozen or plastic.” I found this really fascinating because it sort of confirms that every era creates its own nostalgia. You long for the ‘90s and Anna longs for the ‘70s, and someone in the ‘70s probably longs for the ‘50s. What’s your take on this stratified sense of longing?

JN: It goes back to fixation. Crushes. Longing. I actually love that nostalgia can manifest as a physical longing. It is one of the most tragic and beautiful parts of being alive. I hope I’m longing forever.

Rougarous: In that sense, “the ‘90s” emerges as another character in the book in such a way that it complements the eating disorder. They are neither villains, nor heroes, but the setting.

JN: I like that–the eating disorder as a setting.

Rougarou: On to your forthcoming poetry book, Noirmania. I’ve had the privilege of reading it before it’s published, so thank you for this precious glimpse! Your prose has already been imbued by your poetic voice, but it has been another level of satisfaction to experience how your pure poetry performs its power in Noirmania. When will our readers be able to get their hands on your book?

JN: That’s very nice. February 2018.

Rougarou: It occurs to me that food/eating is integral to your writing. “Old honey,” “empty cellar,” and “moon at the kitchen table” are some of the most vivid images that repeat throughout Noirmania, which made me believe that eating as a cultural event transforms into a poetic image in your poetry (Noirmania) and a narrative power in your prose (I Must Have You). What would you say to that?

JN: I love ceremony and ritual, and eating is one thing most people do every day that invites both of those things. It’s also this total sensory act that is also, ultimately, completely utilitarian. You know? You have to eat that … whatever. Against my better judgment, I eat protein bars. And when I eat one, there’s a taste and a smell, etc., as well as this little narrative I create about myself: I’m tough, no-nonsense, gnawing on a hunk of fuel.

Rougarou: Let’s talk about the writing process in general. You are both a novelist and poet, and you also write non-fiction. Therefore, you are what I’d call an author in every sense of the word. What would you say are the similarities and differences in your approach to writing in these different genres?

JN: I write about fixation, obsession, crushes, and longing–a lot. Because of this, I think I feel like my writing is more erotic than it actually is. Like, it feels sort of erotic to me to write about … AOL Instant Messenger, which I just did, twice, last month.

Rougarou: Which reminds me of that lone phrase – “my first girl” – which brought out I Must Have You. There’s an erotic connotation to that phrase (forgive me if I’m reading too much into it), so I’m wondering to what extent your prose and poetry are primed by these erotic images or evocative phrases?

JN: Very primed! But I think much is erotic. Mashing a raspberry to the roof of your mouth with your tongue is erotic. The feeling of gravel hitting my calves when I run. And then, of course, the incantations of language.

Rougarou: What projects are you working on now?

JN: I’ve been writing and revising short stories. Putting together another poetry manuscript. The occasional essay. But what I’m really looking forward to is revising a novel. I have a first draft finished and I’ve been trying to keep my hands off it for a month. I have to make myself keep waiting. But hopefully just a little longer.

Rougarou: We are looking forward to reading them. Thank you for taking the time, JoAnna. We really appreciate it.