Stories of Women and Girls
An exclusive Authorlink interview
By Diane Slocum
Goodnight, Beautiful Women, Anna Noyes, Grove Press – Joni’s husband drowns in a quarry, a dad fears for his daughter when another girl is raped, ten-year-old Collette learns of her sister’s affair with an older neighbor – Noyes’ debut collection follows women through times of change and discovery.
|“I didn’t have a theme in mind for the longest time – I was just writing stories based in my obsessions . . .”|
AUTHORLINK: What would you say the underlying theme of your stories is?
NOYES: I didn’t have a theme in mind for the longest time – I was just writing stories based in my obsessions, continually returning to tales of mothers and daughters, girlhood and young womanhood, women struggling to fit within their roles and to remain whole and beloved. Many of the stories were set in coastal Maine, the place I am from. The evocative landscape of my childhood haunts my fiction, and I can’t seem to escape it. When I started to articulate my themes (long after the collection was underway), I realized that in most of the stories some previously undiscovered latency is arising within the characters – mental illness, or sexuality, a strange urge or desire, a “badness” or wildness, physical illness, discomfort – that changes their dynamic (perhaps irreparably) with those who hold them dear. I am interested in discovering whether my characters will still be able to belong within their close circles, or whether they will be exiled. Also, at a certain point I realized I was trying to tell stories rooted in the female body. I think our bodies have long been approached from the outside – bodies acted upon (often violently), sexualized, objectified. Less common are stories of the body inhabited, with women and girls at the center as opposed to the periphery. These are the stories I love to read, and the kind of stories I hope to continue to write.
AUTHORLINK: How did you decide to use that line from one of the stories for your book title?
NOYES: The story “Goodnight, Beautiful Women” was actually untitled for the longest time. It’s the oldest story in the collection (and, really, the first full story I wrote). I finished the first draft when I was 17. When I was in college, I submitted an untitled draft of that story to a workshop. A wonderful teacher of mine, with a keen eye, sifted through the story for possible titles and wrote them in the margins. One of his suggestions, culled from the dialogue, was “Goodnight, Beautiful Women.” I immediately recognized this as my title, and I held to it, and never doubted it would be the title of a story collection, should I ever complete one. It served as a kind of guiding light for a book about women and girls. The line seems to me both tender, and – out of context – ominous. It signifies transition, leave-taking, transformation; it makes me think both of beauty and of a fall from beauty, or beauty’s opposite.
AUTHORLINK: Do you have a favorite among your stories or characters?
NOYES: My favorites shift. Usually, my favorite story is the one I’ve just finished, before I’ve shared it with anyone. At that stage, a story still has the capacity to make me nervous, to embarrass me, to give off a palpable energy. I have read the stories in the collection so many times that they feel less intimate and startling than they once did. But of those stories, my favorite might be “Goodnight, Beautiful Women,” because it is my oldest story, and I can see the trajectory of my writing contained within that early attempt – a preoccupation with fraught familial relationships, girls trapped in hometowns, women running away from their confining lives. I wrote that story after a teacher told me to stop protecting my characters, and my own heart. Eleven years later, the story still makes me very sad.
|“. . . though that first draft is born after months, sometimes years, of gestating. Almost always, the story comes out whole.”|
AUTHORLINK: Do you tend to write your stories long and then pare them down or do they easily establish the approximate length they wind up?
NOYES: I write stories quickly, over the course of a night, or a few days. Oftentimes, the first draft is not so different from the final draft, though that first draft is born after months, sometimes years, of gestating. Almost always, the story comes out whole. I don’t think I’ve ever rewritten some large element of the story, or at least I’ve never done so successfully. There’s a certain trancelike state born of writing quickly and without too much interference from my editorial brain that gives the story urgency and continuity. But I will sometimes cut out whole paragraphs, or cut the ending short (I have a habit of writing past my true ending by a few paragraphs, trying to wrap everything up). The one exception is “Treelaw,” which first appeared in the literary magazine A Public Space. When that story was accepted it was 30 pages long, and I worked with their patient, meticulous editors to cut it down to 15. I had to put every sentence on trial, which was new and unnatural and illuminating, a fierce training in editorial practice. I know the story was much better for it. But I wouldn’t want to do that for every piece; I think there’s an authenticity of voice, sometimes raw and a little messy, that might be lost when something more polished takes its place.
AUTHORLINK: Did you have other stories that you thought you would include that didn’t make the cut? Why were they excluded?
NOYES: My story “Becoming” (published by Guernica) was originally part of the collection. It’s about a chimpanzee who is raised by two psychologists as a human girl, as an experiment. Eventually she becomes too strong, wild, and sexual for her caretakers to handle, and she’s sent away to an island reserve, where ultimately she is poached. “Becoming” is based on the tragic, true story of a chimpanzee named Lucy. I wanted to retell it, and after I did I saw how it operated within the larger themes of my work: latency, wildness, sexuality, exile. Writing “Becoming” helped to clarify the ways in which the characters in the other stories also risked exile for unacceptable, untenable behavior. The story helped the collection to gel, but it was very different stylistically, and it would likely have been jarring for the reader to encounter a non-human narrator in the midst of so many tales told by girls and women.
The original manuscript also included a story about a local Maine legend named “Cling Clang,” a nightmare figure who walks on stilts and kidnaps children. At the story’s end, the girl-narrator runs away from her town, and becomes Cling Clang herself. This is another story that in my mind fit thematically, but was ultimately cut. It too was stylistically different (told as a fairy tale). Without those two stories, the collection was streamlined to stories of women and girls coming into their own in Maine and New England, and though strangeness lurks around the edges of the stories it does not overtake them.
|“I was never really tempted to turn these stories into something longer. I think my allegiance is to the story . . .”|
AUTHORLINK: As you wrote, did you want to stay with some of the characters, maybe turn their stories into a novel?
NOYES: I was never really tempted to turn these stories into something longer. I think my allegiance is to the story, and to telling the story completely. If the stories had needed to go on longer in order for them to feel complete, I would have made them longer. I was tempted to keep going with “Glow Baby,” but I think that was more about my desire to stretch something into a novel. I did feel attached to those characters though, and I continued to worry about them, and their futures, long after the story was finished.
AUTHORLINK: About 2/3 of your stories are in first person and the others in third. How do you decide which it will be? What are the advantages of each?
NOYES: That’s not something I consciously consider. I approach the story intuitively, and when I sit down to type, it usually comes out in the appropriate voice. It’s not a deliberate craft choice, though I know it could be. But I think the kind of story you want to tell necessities the voice. “Safe of Houses,” for instance, is in third person because I wanted to tell the story of a relationship in transition, between a father and daughter. Telling that story in close third allowed the narrative to explore how the characters are deeply connected to each other, and at the same time deeply isolated from each other. I think I tend towards first person if the story seems particularly confessional, or if the voice of the character is coming in clear and strong.
AUTHORLINK: How did the process of getting your book accepted and published go for you?
NOYES: I had been working on the stories for over a year, trying to edit them for placement in magazines. I felt frustrated and lost. Then a couple of my stories were published back-to-back, in Guernica and in A Public Space, and that stirred up some interest in the collection. Though I’d been struggling all year to edit individual stories, editing the collection for submission happened very quickly and with surprising clarity. I think the deadline helped, and struck fear in me. I was nervous about this process, especially as a debut short story writer (how often we’re told there’s little hope for us), but Grove’s enthusiasm and care has blown me away.
The publication process is longer, more disquieting, and emotionally taxing than I ever could have expected. I’ve felt totally unprepared, overwhelmed, raw, both joyous and freaked. All in all, this process has been a wild discovery, and I’m very grateful for it.
“I’m working on a novel. By “working on” I mean sitting with, thinking about, dreaming about.“
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
NOYES: I’m working on a novel. By “working on” I mean sitting with, thinking about, dreaming about. But I can’t seem to shake the idea. I hope, once the cacophony of summer dies down and the story collection is safely launched, I can hibernate for a bit and begin the book in earnest. And I’ll always be writing new stories – fervently, unexpectedly, every six months or so. I can feel another collection waiting in the wings, but I think the next collection – like the novel – will emerge slowly.
|About the Author:|
Anna Noyes was raised in Maine and graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has received the Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellowship and the James Merrill House Fellowship. Her collection received the 2013 Henfield Prize for Fiction and the 2016 Lotus Foundation Prize.
About Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.
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This post was written by Diane Slocum