Marina Crouse: You’ve recently published your first novel, I Must Have You, which is about a young girl named Elliot who has her own “dieting via anorexia” coaching business. This novel, set in the 90s, touches upon themes that are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, but almost always relate to what girls and women deal with on a daily basis. Which writers influenced you most in writing this book, or in your writing overall?
JoAnna Novak: When I started writing I Must Have You, I was originally thinking about JD Salinger and Catcher in the Rye because, in my mind, it’s a perfect novel. It seems to me that if I was writing about an adolescent, I was writing a coming of age novel, and Catcher in the Rye would be a useful model. Salinger was really important to me, and has been for the last 20+ years. I’ve always been inspired by Mary Gateskill. Junot Diaz inspires me in terms of style and a sort of stylistic excess. His novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is hyper-charged with allusion, Spanish, and slang. There are so many different languages in the book and when I was considering how to write I Must Have You I knew I wanted to write about the 90s and had to figure out how I can load up the text. In between my first and second drafts I took some time off and I don’t remember what I did other than read To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Some part of her writing or structure was important to me in that revision process though it may not show in the novel.
MC: What do you think about a writer owning his or her voice. Is there a level of comfort you have to achieve?
JN: I think you do both - as a writer you have to kind of be aware of what your natural voice is or the voice you’ve cultivated. I’m constantly working to build up that voice and tear it down so I’m not relying on tricks of voice to make the work easy. If my default is pretty stylistically weird and imagistic, and I could write like that all day but I wouldn’t grow if I wrote that way. I am constantly thinking about how I can modulate my voice to accomplish different things in my writing. It happens more in poetry and fiction—though I’ve written lyric essays in the past my nonfiction voice is a bit more stable. I think a writer does own their voice, hopefully, some aspect of it, but having the humility to know that it can and should change and having other mindframes to approach is important.
MC: Revision is often one of the most difficult aspects of finishing a piece for new writers. What advice do you have for us?
JN: Revising is cutting away and rewriting. Recently, I’ve been rewriting short stories that I drafted in the spring. For both stories I had completed them in the spring and edited them and cleaned them up immediately, but in this last month I’ve completely broken them down and asked myself “what is the central conflict, what are these stories doing, what is pleasing to me in the writing.” I’ve found a lot of the time that if I get distance from my writing I’m not as happy with it as I first was. So, I look for that place where I can be a good critic. Even if I know I don’t know what to do, I can tell where something is wrong and I will do something better with it. One test for me is the cringe test. If I'm afraid to look at a piece of writing, if I know I'm going to cringe, that's a good indicator that something needs revision. That’s really hard, actually. If you think about all the ways things can feel overworked or trying too hard, it's a challenge to work on something in a very deliberate way that isn't over-working. Because when you’re revising you’re really consciously trying to shape something and refine it, but you also don’t want to take the life out of it. You have to work it enough.
MC: What is the most terrifying (if anything) about writing?
JN: I can go through a day like a human and get a lot of things done, eat healthy, work out, and it’s a totally functional day, but I feel dead inside if I haven’t written. I’ve started to think about that as “as a writer you need to know what your needs are from the act of writing.” Do you need it every day? Do you need it every other day? Second may be the moment between a draft and figuring out how to revise it and when you will revise it. That in-between space is needed but then again the terrifying thing about it is that you’re not writing. If I’m not writing, I’m not living the life I want to live. I’m not making space for the way I think is most valuable, important way to spend my time
MC: Wow. That’s inspiring. I was more expecting you to say that bad writing is terrifying, because that is what I face as a newer writer: fear of badness.
JN: I never worry about writing something bad, especially in a first draft because it can always be changed. I just keep going because I love that I can throw it all away and start over. Seeing things through also gives you confidence, and you grow from that as well.
MC: OK last question, and it’s an important one: If you could only eat one dish or type of food for a year, what would it be?
JN: One dish or type of food that I could eat forever? Seaweed salad, salmon avocado roll, and one medjool date. I’ve never felt bad after I eat these, I just feel happy. Every time I eat a medjool date I feel like the world can change.
MC: What about that meal specifically is so special to you?
JN: That meal requires no prep. I really love cooking but I also really love writing and cooking takes time and so does writing. At the end of the day, if I have to live off something for a year, I’m cognizant of my time and will pick writing over cooking any day.