Fiction author Novey shares writing secrets

Fiction writer and translator Idra Novey visited the college on Monday Feb. 27 to speak about her first novel, Ways to Disappear. The novel, which centers on the disappearance of and search for a Brazilian author, examines the ways in which we long to be understood. (Ash Dean/Photo Editor)

Poet and translator Idra Novey treated the Geneseo community to a reading from her widely acclaimed first novel Ways to Disappear on Monday Feb. 27.

The novel won the 2016 Brooklyn Eagles Prize for Fiction, earned a spot as one of National Public Radio’s Best of 2016, The New York Times Editor’s Choice and The Paris Review’s Staff Pick, among other honors. She has had two collections of poetry published in the past and has also had other short stories and poems published. 

Novey herself cuts an impressive figure; she has taught at Princeton University, Columbia University, New York University, Fordham University, the Catholic University of Chile and in the Bard Prison Initiative. She is currently the Visiting Distinguished Writer in the MFA Program in creative writing at the Long Island University in Brooklyn. 

She has translated the works of many prominent Brazilian writers, such as Clarise Lespector’s The Passion According to G.H. With her own writing, however, Novey wanted to write the book that she couldn’t find, and for her that included a character who did not conform to stereotypes of a translator.

Ways to Disappear is set in Rio de Janeiro, and it follows the story of Brazilian author Beatriz Yagoda, who disappears after accruing gambling debt. In her absence, a loan shark attacks her children and editor and American translator Emma. Emma then teams up with Yagoda’s children to solve the mystery of her disappearance. 

“They are all looking for her, but none of them is looking for the same person,” Novey said. 

The novel explores translation, the ways in which people long to be understood and how we confine each other to certain definitions and expectations. Novey said that with Ways to Disappear she wanted to push fiction forward a little bit by working between genres and at times between languages, which she said she believes invigorates a writer’s work. 

She admitted that her book incorporates instances that are autobiographical in nature, but it is mostly fictional. During her reading, Novey reminded the writers in the room that you don’t need to have lived the exact situations that your characters are in—but you do need to have experienced the same emotions as them. 

When asked how she maintains motivation to write, Novey recommended that writers maintain a sense of urgency about why a book needs to be written and why they need to be the one to write it. She keeps herself motivated by finding new ways to re-enter her own work, such as through empathizing with characters that do not warrant empathy upon a first reading, or through considering her characters’ different points of view. 

Above all, though, Novey is sure to continuously ask herself whether or not she’s taking each scene as far as she can emotionally. 

On the other hand, when translating a work, Novey has different priorities based on whether the work is poetry or prose. With poetry, she can let the music of language take priority; with a work of prose, other factors must take priority—notably the images that the work creates in its original language versus those it would create in another language.

Novey encouraged a room full of young writers to stick with their craft, offering up this critical piece of wisdom: the writing you throw away feeds whatever you write next.