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“Those Who Knew,” by Idra Novey, opens on an unnamed island. We are introduced to Lena, the novel’s protagonist, who is unnerved by the recent disappearance of a young woman and her connection to a powerful politician named Victor. The incident forces Lena to revisit her own history with the charismatic and popular politician.
Throughout the novel, which is Lily Lit Club’s January pick, readers consider the cost of staying silent and what moves us to believe or discredit women. “Those Who Knew” was released in November, just as a wave of women was elected to Congress and the nation was divided over the Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
Novey spoke to The Lily about how #MeToo and the 2016 election affected the direction of the novel, power dynamics and the books she is most looking forward to in 2019.
The Lily: Can you tell me about how the social and political landscape changed while you were writing “Those Who Knew”? Did it affect how you thought about the direction of the novel?
Idra Novey: I wrote the first two sections before the 2016 election. I was just demonstrating this very old issue of a politician who is a polished person but entrenched in hypocrisy. I’ve encountered this kind of hypocrisy in so many places, and so have so many other women I know. But then, the election happened, and I thought about how this will ripple through the country and all the places throughout the world where America has power, all the places and all the countries where we have chosen to put our own interests above the country itself.
After the election I decided I wanted to, in the third section, have someone run for office. So that these women who felt they had no choice saw some kind of retaliation. I wanted it to be about women stepping forward, and it was so incredible to see that in real life so many women were stepping forward. That was incredibly validating and at the same time I found it a little funny in that my reaction as a writer was to write about running for office in a fiction novel and then people who are far more practical than me actually got out there and ran. In many ways, what I needed to do in that third section was to demonstrate all the different ways we can respond to this hypocrisy we see everywhere from men in power.
TL: Where did you draw inspiration for the unnamed island in the book, and why was that an important setting for this book to take place?
IN: I wanted to show that this isn’t just taking place in one part of the world. It’s all over the world where we are seeing women speaking up. At school, at work, in public, it’s not a domestic issue. It is worldwide and I hope that there is power in showing that this is something happening all over the world. This is common ground for all women and it’s something that we need to work on all over the planet.
I also wanted to look at the power imbalances between countries. Those forces are connected. We need to talk about these two things together. The way that we have permitted certain countries to intrude the sovereignty of other countries is definitely related to the way some people feel way that they have permission to intrude on the sovereignty of other people.
TL: Your first novel, “Ways to Disappear,” also dealt with a missing woman. What about this type of narrative is interesting to you?
IN: I think what really fascinates me is this idea of silhouette and how you fill it in. Often we don’t see women or anyone around us until they are missing. Sometimes, when someone is missing, it gives us the occasion to fill the silhouette. What did I not see about this person before? What was missing about this person?
Sometimes — and this is something we see in both novels — the protagonist can find out something about themselves by learning about these women and projecting themselves onto them.
There are things you don’t want to see about yourself until there is someone around you who isn’t being seen.
TL: Why did you choose to intersperse screenplays written by Freddy, who is a playwright and Victor’s brother?
IN: Part of what keeps patriarchal forces going are the men who enable predators to stay in power. So, Freddy, who is presented as this very evolved man, is interesting, because he himself is very vulnerable and ends up being complicit. I wanted to explore what is going on in the mind of men who stay silent. For Freddy, it’s his professional profile as a playwright and his loyalty to his brother.
I also love novels that go beyond traditional chapter form. It’s exciting to experiment with other ways of working on a page. And we are living in a time that feels like absurd theater, so it seemed appropriate.
TL: Who was your favorite character to write?
IN: When days were really hard and the news was tough I would say to myself, “What would [Lena’s friend] Olga say to this?” She became this voice and sensibility that I found cathartic to turn to. I just found something in her voice that I craved. Just following the news can be so paralyzing and you just have to keep going, and Olga knows that, because she has lived through harrowing times. I was looking to her as a representation of a longer sense of history and how things cycle through. She is grounding.
TL: One quote that really stood out to me appears early in the book: “...grabbing a woman’s wrist for a second couldn’t implicate a man. It was the sort of transgression that, if mentioned as proof of anything, would sound exaggerated, oversensitive."
This is something that really resonates with a lot of women. What did you want to portray here with Lena’s awareness of this?
IN: It’s something that you internalize over a number of experiences you have over your whole life. As a woman, you are told that your responses are emotional, that you’re overdramatizing. It’s patronizing to have someone diminish the potency of your own truth. I was trying to show the way Lena is censoring herself because she has — as so many of us have — internalized these messages. It’s about all the ways that we are told that our version of the truth is less important than another person’s version of the truth. These are patriarchal messages we are been marinating in.
Watching what was happening during the [Christine Blasey] Ford testimony [at the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearing], I think this is a prime example. I had been waking up every morning for years writing about a woman terrified to speak up. And all of a sudden there was this woman taking this incredible risk. Our news cycle has moved on but her and her family are still suffering from backlash. She wasn’t wrong to be scared.
TL: Did you consider any alternate titles for the book that you can share with us? Or was this title one that was conceived early on?
IN: I did have it from early on. I think because I come from poetry and in poetry you often write back to the title. And I brought that to novel writing where I thought of this title and it allowed me to always bring back the characters to this idea. We all know things, and we are conflicted in things that disgust us but we feel incapable of addressing.
TL: What do you think the book can teach us about power dynamics?
IN: I see the role of novelist to present questions more than answers. I hope that eventually perhaps a novel like this — that is about this kind of silence — will become obsolete one day. Readers will come away with a question for themselves: What can we do about the relationships between those in public office and the media? What happens when we vote? What happens when we are silent?
My hope would be for readers to start asking what can we do in our homes, communities and schools to make stories like this rare.
TL: Who are three authors you are excited to read in 2019?
IN: “99 Nights in Logar" by Jamil Jan Kochai
“Mouthful of Birds” by Samanta Schweblin
“The Other Americans” by Laila Lalami