Idra Novey: ‘I wanted to burn down the house of fiction’

The American author discusses her debut novel set in Rio, finding a comfortable place between cultures, the intersection of gender and literature and the freedom of invisibility

Photograph: Donata Zanotti

There are many ways in the English language to describe the act of disappearing without a trace or explanation — but none (not “going AWOL”, not fleeing, not taking off, or vanishing, or “going out for cigarettes and never coming back”) is as concise as the Portuguese embora, which encapsulates this very concept. Idra Novey explores this notion from all angles as she plays with languages in her debut novel, Ways to Disappear, which starts very much with an embora. In the first scene, a famous middle-aged female novelist climbs up an almond tree with a suitcase and a cigar and vanishes from the planet. But Novey is much more interested in the less literal notion of “disappearing”, in how we vanish from the definitions we impose on ourselves and others. The book examines how much we can really know each other through love, relationships, and art.

Her action-packed, tragicomic novel is set in Rio and features an American translator as a heroine. The protagonist, Emma, is a Portuguese translator of in her thirties, and the second she hears “her author” Beatriz Yagoda has vanished, she drops her frustratingly samey life in Pittsburgh to fly to Rio to investigate the disappearance with Beatriz’s children. The story is sensual and quick, suspenseful and subtle, full of well-documented aspects of Brazilian life, reflections on American double-standards and funny “American abroad” situations.

In writing this novel, Novey had set out to do lots of things. She wanted to investigate the tradition of American expat writers, from James Baldwin to Henry James, and see how she could fit in it as part of a new generation. A poet and translator herself, she wanted to experiment with genre. And she really wanted to make translation sexy. The first thing she had to do, though, was perform a disappearance herself to be able to write without feeling scrutinised as a translator-turned-novelist. “I didn’t tell anyone I was working on the novel for five years. I didn’t even tell my own sister until I sold the novel. I needed that privacy, because I didn’t want to have to redefine myself.”

Translation is a really joyous, beautiful life — getting to know the work of other people in this intimate way. And there’s nothing about it that’s inhibited.

Ironically, the book is full of mock definitions she made up, presented as dictionary entries and interspersed around the tense storyline — as well as radio announcements, emails from Emma’s boyfriend back in the States, and poems. “I wanted to surprise myself and burn down the house of fiction on every page, as much as I could.” She wrote every section in the book about five times: “If I was working on something and I didn’t like where it was going, I approached it like a poem and just erased it entirely and started again, and did something else.” And she didn’t want to have “filler” or sections that she had to write to get to the next one. “I was wondering, how can you write fiction that is as lyrical and sensual as poetry — and that moves to the next meaningful moment as quickly as poetry does?”

Unusual as it is to put a literary translator at the centre of an action-packed novel, Novey exclaims: “But we are the heroes of literature!” She explains that she wanted to write the book she couldn’t find: “I kept coming across books that had translators in them as characters, and they didn’t ring true to me. They were often portrayed as somewhat inhibited characters who wished that they were braver. And I actually find that translators are brave people who have lived all over the world, who speak multiple languages and fly all over and they’re just really big-hearted and adventurous people. I think it’s a really joyous, beautiful life — getting to know the work of other people in this intimate way. And there’s nothing about it that’s inhibited.”

Photograph: Donata Zanotti

Her life story and outlook are certainly not inhibited either. She learned Spanish young and then moved to Chile (subletting people’s vacant summer homes over the winter), and afterwards Brazil, to pursue her dreams; she met her husband on the New York City subway, and immediately knew they would get married. “I called my grandma to tell her, and she said to me ‘oh Idra, you’re so dramatic.’ Five years later we married, and two children, fifteen apartments and three countries later, we’re still together.” Living in Brooklyn, Novey only speaks Spanish at home, spends a month every year in Chile, and reads in Spanish and Portuguese every night. “At the end of the day, I like to get out of the language I’ve been living or teaching in.”

The fast-paced plot of Ways to Disappear is sprinkled with meditations on language and subtle but biting critiques of the publishing world and the media. As soon as Yagoda disappears, her books acquire a renewed interest, giving her longtime Brazilian publisher hope he’ll make ends meet for his small press with a print run of a newly discovered work. The story also features a loan shark who thinks the book will make millions in the American market — little does he suspect hundreds is a much more probable figure for fiction in translation.

What would the reception of Elena Ferrante’s work be if there were a physical body of a woman we associated with it? Without that body, we just deal with the work in a way that is so rare for a woman writer

Writing this novel as the Elena Ferrante phenomenon unfolded was a “curious coincidence,” says Novey. “It was kind of uncanny that I was writing about a woman writer whose books have new visibility when she disappears, and then with Ferrante it played out in reality.” The fact that no one knows who the Italian novelist is “allows us to read her work without imposing our expectations of what a woman, perhaps in a 50- or 60-year-old body, looks like. I wonder — what would the reception of Ferrante’s work be if there were a physical body of a woman we associated with it? Without that body, we just deal with the work in a way that is so rare for a woman writer.”

The whole idea of vanishing came to her from being a translator: “You sort of fade to disappear. You’re on the sidelines, not often interviewed. And yet every word on the page came from your imagination! I also think as a woman writer, we tend to disappear from the canon and from the record. Clarice Lispector was a peripheral writer until long after her death, when she has become more visible internationally.” That invisibility can also be liberating, Novey says. “You’re both at the centre of it and up against the wall. It’s kind of a beautiful freedom.”

And then, she had children. “I realised that my literary self would disappear when I was in my role as parent, and when I was a professor I would disappear my role as a mother and a writer. In every aspect of my life, I became aware of that single sliver people saw of me in one context or another — and how I only saw a sliver of them, which got me to this novel, exploring the consequences of the little slivers we know of each other.”

I do think we all have a desire to disappear — especially from our online lives, the online constructs we all have now. You log into your social media account and realise that even when you’re not on there, you’re continually visible. But also, we’re all going to disappear eventually, as mortals — vanishing is inevitable! Part of the thing about disappearing is that it’s almost a little death — and people say sex is a little death. And vanishing is like a little death as well, frightening but also desirable. To experience some brief form of disappearance can feel like preparation for the permanent vanishing we’ll all have.”

I can relax in Spanish in a way I can’t in English. Switching languages is a way to shed your skin

The new interest in translated literature in the English-speaking world — with initiatives like Women in Translation Month, this August — is nothing new to Novey, who since an early age, growing up in Pennsylvania, knew her sights were set on a global conversation well beyond American “MFA culture”. “I was very used to being an outsider. Because the rural American country where I grew up made me hungry for more, I always sought out writers who came to literature as outsiders. I wanted to read beyond what was happening in the US. I always knew I wanted to translate Clarice Lispector.” And it was the adventure of reading in other languages that made her want to be a writer: “It’s such an exciting relationship to the page!”

All these experiences have positioned her in a comfortable position between cultures. “Once you leave a strictly national context and think in a more global way, you can really never go back to thinking in a provincial way,” which also happens to Emma’s character in the novel. “You can grow up in a language, in a culture, but actually find that your sensibility is better suited to another culture and language. But to see that, you have to be quite open to your own intuition.” She adds: “I can relax in Spanish in a way I can’t in English. Switching languages is a way to shed your skin.”