JoAnna Novak is the author of the novel I Must Have You and two books of poetry: Noirmania and Abeyance, North America. Her short story collection, Meaningful Work, won the 2020 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest and will be published by FC2. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, The Atlantic, BOMB, and other publications. She is a co-founder of the literary journal and chapbook publisher, Tammy.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I Must Have You, my first book, is a novel about sex and eating disorders and growing up in the '90s. Publishing that book let me live and breathe the decadences and deprivations of suburban adolescence in a way that still excites me.
Noirmania, my first book of poetry, is a death march for the self, dressed up in all manner of goth couture. It was so different from the novel, formally, obviously, but there's a common fixation with the death drive, I think.
My latest book, Abeyance, North America, translates that drive to desire and longing, those little deaths. Looser, steamier, more urgent: this work feels freer.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Poetry can be made of gasps and phrases and images, a making that comes more naturally to me than building plot.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Quickly for initial drafts, especially with poems, and I sometimes think because they come so quickly I should work more like Russell Edson, drafting a big batch in a sitting and then sifting through from there. As it is, I write poems fast, in a notebook, and then type them up, editing as I go. Once I've got a manuscript together, I do another, bigger edit, often with the aid of readers or tools (i.e., feeding the whole document through a translator (like Google Translate) to destabilize the language); I rework and sharpen from there.
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I work on individual stories. For the last couple years, I've worked on poems with ideas for book titles in mind. I guess that means I'm working on a book from the get-go.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy them the way I enjoy going to the dentist: I feel refreshed and clean afterwards, or maybe mildly chastised; then I'm happy to not have to return for another six months.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Time, sex, the body, decadence/excess, recklessness/responsibility, drive and abstinence, consumption, minimalism, negating and/or/vs thinking ...
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
She has one, I believe that. Does she illuminate the bridge between here and there, then and now, want and need, right and wrong, extravagance and utility? I think so.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential and exciting and a privilege. I love working with outside editors. I think all writers need them.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I am an advice hoarder. Right now, in my notebook I've starred: "Experience the joy of doing," which David Lynch writes in Catching the Big Fish.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Very easy, as easy as having a good stretch after a run. I like the movement between lyric/associative thinking and more narrative logic; I like, too, creating voice and then creating character. I like how differently concrete fiction and poetry feel.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
My best days begin at my desk, without talking to anyone for a couple hours. Notebook, laptop (no internet), dictionary, coffee.
I try to do that every morning, but I find it harder now that I have a baby. If those early hours get away from me, I try to force myself into that headspace later on, even if I only have twenty or thirty minutes. Taking notes while I'm reading or running is very necessary, too. I think I fill up one of those floppy Moleskines every five weeks.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Going to museums is good. And, of course, reading: something small by a writer I love almost always helps. For fiction, I turn to Leonora Carrington or Gary Lutz; for poetry, I revisit Anne Sexton and Ted Berrigan. Listening to Air, the soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides, also puts me in a dreamy, angsty mood that typically sparks something. I don't often seek out inspiration, though––I feel sort of perpetually "inspired" ... it's more a matter of whether I'm disciplined enough to act on the impulse.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Mozzarella cheese melted and splotched on a pan of lasagna, crushed red pepper, opening a box of pizza--that's my parent's home.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Culinary arts, visual art, music, film, fashion, yes––!
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Right now: the writings of Agnes Martin. Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Live in another country. Write a play and see it produced. Cultivate a quieter, less frenetic mind. Bake a flawless croissant.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
A fashion designer, a painter, or a pastry chef.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
When I was thirteen, I wrote a poem––four pages, all enjambments and line breaks like nothing I'd ever even read before––that Maureen Seaton selected for a creative writing award at Lake Forest Academy. This terrified and thrilled me, the fact that that came out of me and someone responded to it made me believe I'd found a way to put a lot what seemed unsayable in words ...
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Loosing My Espanish by H.G. Carrillo. Hache was my mentor, and he passed away this spring. His novel is built of the most stunning sentences about time and space and sugar and sweat and stories that one can imagine.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Editing a new poetry manuscript (90% prose poems). Editing a short story collection that's coming out from FC2 next year. Editing a book-length lyric essay. Taking notes for a novel.
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