An Interview with Noy Holland
Interview by JUAN CARLOS REYES
Black Warrior Review: There is no particular way to get this started. I usually start with an icebreaker question… How are you enjoying Tuscaloosa so far?
Noy Holland: It’s good. I met a lot of nice people. Yeah, I like the trees. I like the trees a lot. I’m admiring the trees. And it’s been good to meet the students. That’s really what I’ve been doing. And to talk again about writing. I’ve had a little break from teaching and mostly, you know when you’re writing it’s more interesting to talk about writing and when you’re just teaching and not writing you kind of lose steam I think. So I feel pretty charged up. It’s good to be here.
BWR: Are you working on anything right now?
NH: I’m working on a story that I was hoping to read when I came here, and I think it’s not going to be ready. So I’ve been in the quiet time between other things, I’ve been looking at it and deciding against it. It’s a story that I feel pretty immersed in so I’m not worried about losing it or anything. I got started pretty directly with it when I was having some quiet, you know, some more quiet weeks down in Ecuador.
BWR: Is this a novel length story? Or a novella?
NH: No, it’s actually pretty short… it’s maybe fifteen pages. It’s a story I wrote a draft of. You know it’s the kind of story that you write a couple sentences down and you know you’re going to come back to it. I probably wrote the first sentences five years ago, maybe six sentences. And knew I’d come back to it and just fiddling with the first six sentences and then leaving it alone. So I got going on it really, I wrote a full draft of it maybe a year ago. It should be done! It should have been finished a long time ago.
BWR: Is it just timing that hasn’t allowed you to finish it or are there pieces of it that you still are specifically working on?
NH: I think the structure of it was vexing, so although I had a pretty clear sense of the voice, and the listener… there’s a very specific listener in the story. So that was enabling. But I was trying to move around in time and in and out of events so there was a pretty clear sequence. And that’s pretty hard to cure, I think. I mean, the beauty of writing linearly is things have to happen as they happen, but if you have a somewhat more interior structure, you know a structure that’s dependent on the crazy ways that your mind moves then there’s so many ways to put a story together.
BWR: Was all the thinking for this story done on the page as you were writing it, or were these little pieces here and there that you wrote and accumulated and then pieced together?
NH: I’ve never been able to work the latter way. I mean I know that people do. I listened to Dianne Williams talk about how she composed a story, and she’d write a page and then really cut it into sentence-length pieces, and rearrange all that and come up with a story, and in a way that makes sense to me. But no, all the thinking’s on the page. I wrote it all… I wrote it all in the wrong order. But that’s typically…that’s not unusual for me. I know there are writers who write the first page and then they write the second page and then they write the third page and it’s enviable, it really is, but I can’t seem to manage that.
BWR: What are you looking for in this story, in particular?
NH: This particular story or just any story?
BWR: Well this story. You’ve gone through so many years of just drafting it. What were you looking for? I guess, the voice that you were not only making appropriate for the story, but what makes for that writing to be yours, or specifically Noy Holland’s story? Is that a quality you’re looking for or is it just more faithful to the story?
NH: Well, I think that quality’s hard to get away from. You know, the sense that you want to step out away from yourself and write a story that’s different from the stories that you’ve already written, and so you adopt a voice that’s – you can very deliberately adopt a different voice, but then somehow your self asserts and you end up with a, you know a Juan story or a Noy story because you’re the person who’s writing it. So I think probably the hardest thing about it’s been how the structure affects the tone of it. There’s an event, a suicide in it. I think both the wanting to reveal that event and also the desire to avoid that event are in tension with each other. So that has a lot to do with when things should be spoken of and when the scene should be committed to the page.
BWR: What are your tendencies when you’re writing that you’ve noticed that you may not like or that you’d like to do more of?
NH: My tendencies are to be elliptical, and I both recognize that as a characteristic that’s…I think it’s a strength if I manage it. But…I think it’s also [sighs] it’s a crutch. You know it’s easy to become too mysterious. Or to imagine that you’re being clear when you’re not being clear. So it’s often surprising to me when I give my work to a reader, where and in what regard I’m not being clear. Because you know the story. You know the background to it. You know what you mean that it’s easy to assume that other people know what you mean or what the references are.
BWR: Do you ever talk a story through to someone?
NH: No. No. In fact, even when it’s finished, I find it very hard to talk a story, you know, just to go from… partly because the story happens really in an image or a couple of recurring images. So to say, you know, I’ll tell you what happened in the story… that’s a little… you know that gather around the campfire and tell a tale, which is so enticing, but it’s not a way that I can tell my stories. Orally, they’re not very interesting. [Laughs] You know, what are your stories about, what is your work about? Those are tough questions.
BWR: So how do you work through it when you’re stuck?
NH: I look for…I look for resonances. When I’m stuck, I think, you get to the end of a… a paragraph even, and you have a sentence at the end of the paragraph and from there you have to move… somewhere. And I just look for what’s in that sentence… I mean, any sentence says… for me there are 12, 15 any number of ways to move. And sometimes it can be as simple as a vowel sound that will allow you to move from one sentence to another. Or from one paragraph to the beginning of another paragraph. So a lot of it’s by ear, which again, is both a liability and a strength I think, because you can become so infatuated with your ear and with the way things sound.
And so the balance between sound and sense, I tend to overrate sound, which is partly why when I give my work to people sometimes the reaction is ‘I don’t get it, what are you up to?’ So I’ve disciplined myself to write and read aloud when I’m writing. I read it aloud after I’ve written it. I read the sentence as I’m writing. You know, I mumble, I kind of hum into the… It’s ridiculous, I mean, I’d hate to see myself doing all this. But then I get to a certain point where I have to make myself read the story without even moving my mouth. Because I think you get so accustomed to the cadences that you can’t even see it another way. I mean, I can rewrite a sentence and the way I wrote it initially two years ago will still be troubling me, because when I come to that sentence that’s been revised, I have almost a physical memory of the way I wrote it first and maybe liked it better. So it’s kind of, a really stubborn resonance, that happens. But that’s also what gets you from one paragraph to another.
BWR: Is there an advantage to being married to a writer, I mean, that you sort of have an audience there already at home?
NH: My husband is a great reader, and he’s the only person I’ve shown my work to for years before I have the nerve to send it out. So it is really great, in many ways, of course the… there are troubles that go with it. You don’t always get your books published in the same instant and reviewed by the same people. You know everything’s…even if you’re having success or your man is having success at a time when you’re not, or you’re struggling with a story and he’s getting a review in the New York Times, then those things are hard to manage, because…they just are. You know? And you’re intimate… your life is built together. And so if I give Sam a story and he hates it, then I still have to make breakfast. [Laughs]. So it’s good. It’s really really great to have a reader you trust. If he thinks I should throw something away, he’ll tell me to throw it away.
BWR: What’s your writing space like? The physical space of the desk and the room? Or not the desk and just a table?
NH: Well, I have this beautiful writing space in Massachusetts. It’s three times bigger than I need it to be with three windows and a fireplace. You know wide pine floors… and it’s not the best space that I’ve been in to write. I really need a tiny little space. A tiny little dark space far away from people. I’m very distractible, but I’m also sort of adaptable. You know, I’m living in a single hotel room with my two children and my husband and I’m working on a cardboard—fiberboard table that when I’m not working on it gets filled up with everything else; kids homework, bran muffins and everything. So I have to clear it every time I want to work, and then I have to let it get messed up after I’m finished. So it’s certainly not an ideal… I don’t right now have an ideal workspace.
BWR: Is there, besides the one story that you’re working on, is there a collection that you’re working to put together soon?
NH: Yeah, I have several stories that I’m happy with, and I’m probably three or four stories away from another collection. My stories have tended to vary so greatly in length that it’s hard—I probably have nine stories right now, and you’d think that’s enough for a collection, but some are quite short and others are a bit windy. But I think with the story that I’m working on and maybe a couple more I might have a collection.
BWR: How does teaching get in the way or inform what you do?
NH: Well, I think different ways at different times. I think teaching and reading a lot of other peoples’ unfinished work, on the negative side of things, it’s very… I spend a lot of energy trying to help other peoples’ work get better. And I have a kind compulsive editorial kind of line-editing… I can’t seem to stop it… so I will edit… even when people don’t necessarily want it.
I’m sure that it’s embarrassing in some ways to get a page back and say ‘I didn’t really want that much help.’ You know, I think sometimes students don’t want that much help. And I can remember that when I was a student, I would get help that I wasn’t really interested in. And I’m probably committing that same little sin with some of my students, where they want a broad read and what they’re getting is this apparently nit-picky, close reading.
But I do believe that the story resides in its sentences and that there is no separation really between language and story. I mean that seems like a really cornball thing to say—that the story resides in it’s sentences—but then you hear people, you know, writers say that ‘I’m really not into that language thing’ and that’s baffling. You know, what are you going to use? It’s like a painter saying I don’t like paint. So I do pay really close attention, because I think often that the story emerges from one sentence, and when the work is unfinished, it’s easier to see that one sentence than at a later stage.
So, I hope I’ve gotten OK at helping other writers to see that sentence. Last night it came up that Rikki Ducornet said that you write right toward the heat of the story. And I often think of the sentence as being a kind of kernel or a seed sentence and really everything else around it has become irrelevant because that’s the place that you wrote yourself into that you didn’t mean to get to. So, you know, hopefully, occasionally, I can find that. I can help another writer see that sentence. You know then the story really becomes something more… more important than it would have been. And sometimes, you know, you’re just wrong but it’s just a feeling that you have, just an intuition. But I trust my students to know when I’m wrong and to discount my council.
There’s a kind of muckiness, murkiness, that happens when you read stacks and stacks of unfinished work. And there’s an awful lot of reading to the job I have now at U. Mass, you know, between admissions and thesis defenses, but always, always there are amazing students who teach you more than you can possibly teach them and so that’s really invigorating. And the lit classes that I teach, because I teach them to writers are enormously invigorating and the only thing about them is that you get a book in there and then everyone’s kind of responding in their fiction to the book and its sometimes hard to find enough time to use the energy you have that’s been stimulated by Rikki Ducornet or Virginia Woolf or whoever it is that you’re reading and you think, ‘oh god’ and you want to read everything they’ve written, but you know for me the best book is the one that you want to throw against the wall and go over there and clear off your little cardboard table and say, ‘I have to write’. And so that’s—teaching takes up a lot of the time that could have been spent exercising yourself.
BWR: Who’s your biggest literary motivator?
NH: Literary motivator. That’s a good way to put it. Probably Virginia Woolf. You know I can turn to her. Her sentences are just the… the nimbleness of her mind and the … she’s very… there’s something so longing in her, you know, and her sense of time passing and the tragedy of time passing and the preciousness of moments, so you know, she’s the one for me. There are other s but she’s the… Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse are really… you know, if you had to go to your little island with two books only or one book, she’d be mine.
BWR: How has your process changed over the years from the way you first wrote a story to how you write a story now?
NH: Well it changes unsteadily, depending on the circumstances of my life. That’s what really affects your writing process, right? Well, your own discipline, I think, affects it too. But I used to have a much more regular life before I had children, but I had, even when I was married, Sam and I had an agreement we would get up and we wouldn’t speak to each other until noon. I’m a morning writer. I’m better in the morning. I get up and have that just out of a dream kind of animal clarity. So I was quite steady. I went from longhand and gradually gave way to computers, and closed myself up in a quiet room pretty much every morning of the week, for years. And then, things got a little more broken, and then I went to, pretty much even now with my children getting older, grabbing time as I can. But I think it’s useful in some ways to be forced to write in different circumstances. I’m a little soft in the head about that, partly because I want to have mobility. And I want to take pleasure in my children growing up, and I want to take pleasure in being alive, and that sometimes the regularity required of writers is…unwelcome. You know, you think ‘I’d rather go try to surf a wave,’ you know. You give into your baser impulses. Sometimes you want to enjoy yourself. I’m afraid I’ve been enjoying myself a little too much.
BWR: [Laughs] I think it was last night or the night before you mentioned something about a story that you could write when you were first starting out is not the story you could write later on. Do you find that’s the case with you—the stuff that you’re writing now you couldn’t have written back then and vice versa?
NH: Yeah, I think different things matter to you at different times in your life, and that’s what I meant when I was saying that. I think your style changes according to what you write, not so much according to your experience or you’re a better writing now. You don’t—strangely enough—you don’ t necessarily get better at writing the more you do it. I mean if you ride a bike ever day, you’re going to get better at it, at least up to a certain point, and then you to start breaking down. [Laughs].
But it’s too frequent that you look at the body of a writer’s work and the great stuff happens in that five year period, that five year post-war period. Or their great stuff happens when she wasn’t uh, she wasn’t taking opium and living… or in some cases you’ve got that youth and vigor or whatever it is. So you’re—you change and what matters to you changes. The story, or the demands of the book, or the story necessarily alter how you go about writing.
But yes, I think things have an urgency. And they have an urgency that’s based somewhat on your experience. What matters. What’s pushing at you. I always think you just write what’s pushing at you. That’s hard to say why, why things push at you at a certain time. And it’s not always proximity of the experience. I always find it very hard to write about a place that I’m in and an experience I’m in the midst of having. So it’s not just how recent it’s been, but somehow… I don’t know, some other confluence of circumstances that makes it really matter to you at that time. And I think when things matter to you there’s some kind of agitation in you and turbulence in you that allows you to find things in yourself that you wouldn’t otherwise find. And the other thing too is that if you invite that turbulence, that allows the work to happen, then often you are separating yourself from your life, from the people you love. You’re a crank, you know. When you’re writing that story and you’re really immersed in it and your child needs a peanut butter sandwich, it’s… it’s infuriating. Or, whatever else it is. Somebody needs something from you. That’s the thing. I mean people really… It’s easy to feel needed.
BWR: Do you like to focus on short fiction for that reason?
NH: Yeah, yeah. My fiction…I’m much more inclined to write shorter 3, 4, 2 page pieces than I ever have been. I have a novel that’s been underway for quite a while and um, it started as a short story in a trick, a little trick my mind made. I don’t think I would have started it if I’d known I was starting a novel. In a funny way, it’s not the novel that I want to write. But it just kept opening up. And I’m not sorry to be writing it. But I find that I can’t come in and out of it the way I can come in and out of a story. I mean, a story you can hold in your mind all at once. I don’t see how people hold a novel in their mind all at once. So if I’m really going to work seriously on it, I need to take myself out of my life altogether. And I have no trouble being alone, and I have… the last time I worked very seriously on that novel and got a draft of it, I had 3 weeks across the country and away from my people in a very remote place. I could work six or eight hours a day. I could work in the morning and then go for a walk and come home and work through dark. And to me that’s really the way to work on a longer piece.
BWR: How have you kept it in your mind this whole time? I mean, it is really difficult to do as compared to a short story… but how have you been able to work through that?
NH: Well, I haven’t. I wrote a draft and I put it aside, so it’s not really… I don’t have it in my mind. I think about it, occasionally. I don’t know what the difference is between thinking about it and holding it in my mind. But I’m not holding it, I’m not carrying it. You know how when you’re really in something you walk around and everything seems relevant to the story. You’re really seeing your… you’re moving through your days with an eye inward toward the work that you’re doing. But that hasn’t been true of that novel. I think it’s so easy to start books, to start stories. And I think you.. it’s not a good sign to not finish things. I think you can write yourself into a place that’s hard and that’s discouraging to you and you step aside and write another story or you step aside and knit a scarf or something. Do something else, and that’s a mistake I think . I think when things get hard, that’s really when you ought to stay in your chair. I don’t always practice that but I believe it.
BWR: In this trip to Tuscaloosa, have you been dabbling in your own flash fiction and whatnot while you’ve been here?
NH: No, I don’t think I’ve had the clarity to do that. I’ve really been trying to work on this story while I’ve been here. And it’s also a story that involves my father and my father lives here in Tuscaloosa. It’s invented but some of it comes from the emotional turmoil of being part of a family. So I have a chance to see him while I’m here and I think also that’s part of the reason why I’m compelled to keep working on this story rather than move aside and be tempted by the pleasures of a shorter piece.
BWR: What kind of perspective are you usually inclined toward, first person? Third person? Which do you find easier or which do you find more comfortable?
NH: You know, to answer that question honestly, I’d have to go back and see. I don’t know. I don’t think that I find one easier than another. I think the demands are really different between each one. But I could surprise myself if I went back to see and in this collection there are nine first person stories and one third person story. But I think it’s fairly mixed up in my work, but you know, we are all guilty of being unaware of many things, so I could have written– it could be more imbalanced than I imagine it is, yeah.
BWR: How do you teach fiction? Or how do you teach writing fiction?
NH: I think the best thing a teacher can do is to help people get to their stories and I’m not sure… I talk to much in my classes, really. I talk a good bit. I’ll come in and I have a, you know disquisition, occasionally. I don’t know why I do it when I do it, but maybe that’s when I’m at my best as a teacher. It’s not specific to any specific manuscript, it’s not specific to issues of craft, it’s really about urging people to write what’s important to them.
You know, I think it’s really easy to both write the story that you know how to write and have the ease and the confidence of knowing what you’re doing. You know, who doesn’t want to know what she’s doing? But, to keep hoping for art, you know, and not succumb to commerce and to really be encouraging about how–just how terribly difficult it is to write one sublime paragraph. So I think… I hope I’m a cheerleader. [Laughs]. Cheerleader both in the– I think you can be a cheerleader and be soft– everything’s ra ra, everything’s good, just keep writing. You know that’s the only advice anybody needs–you have to keep writing, I’ll die if you don’t keep writing, that’s the only response to any story anyone needs to any story ever, right? But, no. Because, i think the difficulty of it has to be exalting and exciting for people. And you have to remember that desire is the only thing. You can write poorly forever. For months and years, days and hours. And if your desire carries you, you’ll be carried. You’ll have the prospect of art. Not competence. It’s easy to be competent. And sad. And, it’s cynical to praise competence, I think.
BWR: It’s funny that you mentioned ‘the more you write, the more you don’t necessarily get better.’ Have you found yourself changing for the better? Or just changing in a way that can only map that change and nothing else.
NH: I don’t know. You always hope the story you’re writing is the best thing you’ve ever written, and if you stop hoping that and maybe having the chance of believing that then you’ve sort of given up something. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know if anything in my second book is as good as anything in my first book. You know, it’s entirely subjective–not just subjective in that it comes from me, but I can entirely change my mind about it, so I don’t know. I just think every time you go out, it’s a brand new game–to use a sports metaphor since we’re in Tuscaloosa.
BWR: [Laughing] City of Champions, now officially it’s no longer the Druid City.
NH: I had the Buffet of Champions this morning. It was very pleasing. Yeah, I wish that I thought that what you know– you read more, you think about all the different ways that a sentence can be, you kind of school yourself… And I think sometimes that your education is really a burden. And really what you want to do is to get back to some kind of uneducated, unknowing fluid place.
BWR: When you read some of the things you’ve written before, what do you think about…you know what comes to mind when you think of that person or that writer who wrote that stuff before?
NH: I think in the way that you do when you look at a photograph of yourself at a certain place in your life…I mean, it’s an experience to write a story. When you write a story you can sort of say oh, I remember I was on a subway car when I wrote that line. Or I was sitting in a coffee shop or whatever it was, and these things were happening in my life at the time when I wrote that story. And so both when you try to look at yourself, you try to remember yourself–you see a photograph of that person and there’s something sort of mystifying about it, and you know you’re not the person. You’re not. We’re obdurately ourselves, too is the other truth, but the agitation, or the–whatever it was that you were living through or in at that moment, it eases. You become a little estranged from yourself, and sometimes the story is a record of that estrangement. So I often have that sense that I really couldn’t have written that story now. And so it must mean that if I can’t get to the experience I was so pressed by when I wrote that story ten years ago, then something has altered in me. And so often I’m mystified by–I don’t remember why I did what I did.
BWR: When you have a reading like the one you’re going to give later on tonight, how do you prepare yourself for that reading and then how do you frame things when you go up there and present them?
NH: That’s a good question. I prepare myself by reading whatever I’m going to read a couple of times and try to get a sense of how long it takes to read and all that. One thing about readings is–with all respect due–you’re in social circumstances before you read. People very nicely take you out to dinner. But often, for me, the anxiety of reading just builds the longer I’m among people and so for me the best thing is just to be quiet and alone and to try to find my way into the work, you know. I usually have to have a drink or two and calm myself down a little bit. And every once in a while I get up to read and I feel calm and ready and then I get up to read and I just feel like I’m going to fall over. And that anxiety has increased over the years, which has surprised me. And I think that if people know me well they recognize that I’m falling apart, but I haven’t done it entirely in front of people, so if you don’t know me, you might think that I’m OK. [Laughs] And as for framing and all of that–people are great at that. People are such great entertainers. There’s a better word than that, but they really can speak to the audience. I’m not very good at that. I try to be a bit lighthearted because I know that what I’m going to read will be a downer. So I try to get up there and be a little goofy.
BWR: What other places have you read? Other Universities?
NH: Well you end up reading a lot of different places. I’ve read a bunch of places in New York. University of Florida, University of Massachusetts. Places where I’ve worked. Oh, you’re taxing my memory a little bit. Davis, University of California Davis and out… Santa Clara. I have to get my CV to answer that question. You end up poking around, you know.
BWR: I think that’s pretty much it.
NH: I’m really looking forward to reading here, except I hope… if my father’s in the audience, I really don’t think I’ll be able to read. It’s interesting, you know, how you just…
BWR: Did you invite him and his wife?
NH: Well I told them I’m having a reading, but they haven’t said whether they’re coming, so I’m assuming they wont. You know there’s always somebody that you’re afraid to read to. And he’s that person for me. I mean, he’s many people for me. I mean, I really love him and I’m really happy to see him, but you know, it’s troubling.
BWR: Has he read any of your stuff? Or many of your things?
NH: Um, I don’t honestly know. I know there’s one thing he read because it had to do with irrigating and he said to me after he read it ‘You know I haven’t thought about irrigating for a very long time’. And I received that as the compliment I believe it was. I caused him to think about something he hadn’t thought about. You know, he’s not disinterested, it’s just intimidating for people to try to respond. My sister and brother have read my work, but it’s very hard for them to respond to it. I think you don’t have a lot of confidence–if you’re not a writer for some reason you don’t have a sanction to talk about writing and that’s a shame, because it’s not true. We’d probably all be better off if we gave our manuscripts to the gas station attendant than to someone who’s ambitions are more aligned with ours. So I’m interested in what they know. But you know I do write a lot about family and although it’s only obliquely related, I think people do pick it up and they have a response to it, an argument with it that’s different from a cleaner reader.
BWR: Can you describe the ripple that you made when you decided to be a writer in terms of your family? I’m sure it’s something that all writers go through.
NH: It’s sort of an imperceptible ripple. My mother passed away before I published my first story but she knew I was about to publish it and I think she knew at the time she was dying that I would be a writer, and I think it mattered to her. She was a great reader, and I think she wanted to write. And one of the things we did late in her life was she wrote a little memoir. Or she spoke it and I transcribed it. And that experience I think of remembering a loved one–you know, Eudora Welty says that the reason to write is to remember those that we love, and I think that was, without it being explicitly encouraging, maybe that mattered more than anything to me about the trouble I might cause. So I felt forgiven in advance for the trouble I might cause being a writer. I think my family perceives me as a kind of loose cannon. They don’t know what to expect of me, they worry about me, they want to give me gentle advice. It’s more like that. But you know, really, I have a relatively stable life, I’ve been married for 17 years I’ve got two healthy children. I don’t live like a renegade–well some people would say yes I live like a renegade, because, well I like to travel–as soon as you leave the country you’re dangerous, right. But I don’t think I am. I think I’m quite responsible.