Annie DeWitt’s debut novel, White Nights in Split Town City (due out August 9th from Tyrant Books), is as spectacularly seductive as they come. I am not alone in my opinion – Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Laura van den Berg and many others have been heaping fully justified praise on this slender storm of a novel. Annie began writing White Nights seven years ago, and she works with uncommon precision – every sentence here counts. What’s even better news is that the generosity of emotion and sweep of narrative are set at equal value to disciplined sentences of meticulous, almost muscular beauty. It was my complete pleasure to find time these past two weeks to engage with Annie in a conversation about a novel that began in the Upper West Side in a seven-foot-wide utility studio and is now on the cusp of gracefully opening up in our readerly hands.
Darley Stewart: Something that I find very intriguing about White Nights is the way in which it reads aloud. I often found myself reading passages aloud to sink into the music of the prose, as so much of it felt beyond the usual methods of contributing to elements of the narrative. To what degree does music play a role in how you craft, revise, and envision your prose?
Annie DeWitt: The only thing I know about “How To” write a novel is that it begins with voice. That’s not all there is to it. But, it begins there. My first understanding of voice came in 1990. Those nights my parents went out when I was a child, I stood in the large room at the front of our split level on the slight step-up where our baby grand piano sat and I sang. The room was oblong and ended in a large stone fireplace. My mother had recently painted the walls in Benjamin Moore’s White Linen. The floor was lined with a white rug. The whiteness of this room had a special glow to it in the evening hours, which made it feel rather grand to my ten-year-old self. To see what was left of the light from the day refracted at various angles. I stood at the edge of the stair overlooking the railing next to the piano, took a deep breath, and tried to fill the whole house with sound. Given that I was a shy child, I only did this when no one was home.
This experience repeated itself when I was in high school. I took voice lessons at my choral director’s house in the evenings one night a week. These evenings represented everything of freedom to me at the time. This was one of the first outings in which I was allowed to drive alone at night after I’d first gotten my license. I took my mother’s white Chrysler minivan out on Route 9, rolled down the window and could not have felt more alive. I smoked cigarettes too, then. That may have been part of it.
My choral director, Dave, lived in a small Cape in Framingham in a suburban neighborhood just off a major drag with the strip malls and the Dunkin Donuts and tanning salons and the Wendy’s and the sporting goods stores. His wife Lauren would greet meet and show me to the basement where Dave was already fiddling at the piano. I made my way down the unfinished pine stairs into the small sebaceous room and stood behind his back practicing my scales. No matter the season, Dave was always sweating. He was a tremendously talented composer and musician. He had a small upright piano against the near wall. Somehow the acoustics of the room worked despite every impediment. I remember the carpet as a 70s vermillion shag. I think perhaps there was a small woodstove.
It was in front of his modest pine upright that I first practiced my chords and learned how to use my mouth like a chamber – I learned the word soft palette and to understand how the space worked. The way, Dave said, to produce the correct sound, is to always think above the note. To land on it. And then open your throat and raise your soft palette to create as much space as you can at the roof of your mouth.
I think of crafting sentences in much the same way. It is these slight sonic and spatial adjustments which allow a note to go flat or sharp, to sound nasal or clear.
DS: I love this idea of crafting sentences in such a way, and although I think the manner in which you achieve this in White Nights is completely your own, I have been reminded of the musicality of prose through workshops with writers such as Christine Schutt. It is pretty mind-blowing and demanding, and I have seen very few writers pull it off in the long form as you have in White Nights.
AD: The other thing is, you need to support all of this with the breath—which in the case of writing I always think of as what Lish would call “consecution”—the act of letting one word discharge into another so that in the end you’ve created a “family of language.” Or, as Gary Lutz would say, “let the words rub off on each other, feel each other up.”
DS: So true. I’m laughing because I love how Lish and Lutz have explored this concept in such different ways. Lish sounds conceptual while Lutz sounds sensual. The end result is the same. I love them both. I see how the sentences have been breathing through White Nights. I think of how sound shapes the architecture of your work when I read certain paragraphs, and it’s no coincidence when Sam Lipsyte refers to the “lush precision” of your work:
A deafness gripped me as the train’s engine halted. The conductor threw wide the steel door and descended the tracks. A scream erupted at the back of my head and flooded my eyes in one weightless, arid rush. I found myself opening my mouth and forming a hollow at the back of my throat as if I were about to release a long vowel sound the way Mother would when she reached for the high notes at church.
And the lushly precise imagery here is primarily built out of a relationship with sound, which heightens the intensity of the passage and links so many disparate elements from religion to primal sexuality to the nature of perception itself. As a reader, I feel plunged into a world as though I were selected to be an explorer.
Walk me through more of your relationship to sound, voice, and growing up with those things as a writer in your formative years.
AD: One year I tried out for a choral group at the New England Conservatory. My audition piece was “O Mio Babino Caro,” a soprano aria from the Puccini aria in Italian. I sang it a handful of times in Dave’s small, dimly basement, which smelled slightly of mold. And then sung it again at the audition in Boston. I got in. I certainly wasn’t the best in the group. I never had a solo. But I remember standing in the bleachers in Jordan Hall for our final recital that spring. The wave of sound I heard roused from the collective bodies beside me, at my front and my back, and to all sides, completely drowned me out. That was the point. A united sound which seems to ebb and burst, erupt and decay, crescendo and go silent all with the small wave of the conductor’s hand.
That united sound created a kind of static electricity which gave me goosepimples and roused my corporeal body into an ecstatic buzz – fleeting though it was. This too is what I think of when I try to create a “family of language” on the page.
DS: I feel that particularly in your descriptions of nature in White Nights. Tell me more.
AD: The second time I encountered the idea of narrative voice was again in relation to music – this time at the piano. I’d played classical music since I’d been a child. I was trained in the Suzuki method. The idea being that you not only learned to read music but you listened to tapes of the music being played by professionals and then developed an ear. This method was not about learning chord progressions – something I now sorely lack and wish I’d learned back when I still had the brain-like-sponge of a child – but rather on hearing the music as a story with certain passages and refrains which occurred much like motifs in literature, though I didn’t know that then. Instead, I heard these classical movements as movies in my mind. In each section, the protagonist of the piece was doing something different and the role of the pianist was to try and tell that story.
The third example I have when it comes to voice relates directly to literature. I was taking a class the year after graduate school with Diane Williams at the Center for Fiction.
DS: I love them both, the Center for Fiction is just the best, I owe them so much. Diane’s work is singularly masterful. I would expect her teaching to be wildly original as well.
AD: Diane does not often teach and the opportunity to get into the class was something we were all very excited about. I didn’t know Diane well at the time – only by reputation – but I adored her work and was curious to know how she produced it. I remember one evening she drew a small triangle on the blackboard. At the top of the triangle was the word: “News.” Then “Voice.” Then “Authority.” She said that in non-fiction the triangle is usually inverted – i.e. the news, the Who, What, Where, When, Why – is not only the most important, it also occupies the most space. But, in fiction, in her view, while the news was still at the top – i.e. it had to be pointed and specific as hell – the triangle was right side up again. The news occupied less space. Voice was the next thing to develop. Authority – the biggest section at the bottom of the triangle holding the whole thing up – was the final stage.
DS: I’d like to talk about your narrator’s voice. Jean’s voice is tonally unique. A passage that really struck me was her description of hearing her parents make love. It pushes us to think back to a time when sex was a foreign concept, something beyond our own visceral experience of it – as something experienced in glimpses of chaos and incomplete knowledge:
After a time, the rhythm was punctuated by a loud calling out. Mother’s voice erupted into the darkness. Its pitch reminded me of the high notes I’d heard her reach for in church. There was something sad about this noise. I used to imitate it on the walks I took to the marsh after she left. In the woods, it sounded lonely, the sort of call a bird would make to her young to signal her return to the nest with her kill.
Can you tell me more about this passage? To link sexuality to loneliness and bird calls is provocative on some level. It catches the reader off guard. I think of passages I have read about the female orgasm in all the fiction of my lifetime and I haven’t read one quite like this.
AD: To me, sex is our first crisis as a human. Not only in the sense of actually having sex ourselves but in terms of figuring out that indeed sex is the act which spawned where we come from. Your identity is literally created in the moment your parents’ biologic materials fuse in this private moment for which you are both bodily present and yet emotionally absent. I used to study psychology. My first job out of college was working for a psychological institute. I spent a summer in Spain translating a study called “The Effect of Trauma on Children.” There is something violent about overhearing your parents have sex. I remember some of the children’s responses recounting the act of overhearing the intimacy between their parents: “It sound like Mom is hurt.” I’ve heard this is a common reaction. There is a violence to these sounds which is scary for children to encounter as we don’t yet understand the sexuality of it.
The second human crisis is then one of differentiating yourself from your parents – i.e. an infant still believes him/herself to be part of the mother’s body as he/she is still utterly dependent on her to survive. The realization that indeed we are separate bodily organisms from our mothers, distinct bodies who need to encounter and explore the world on our own only comes later, sort of like object permanence. Small babies don’t realize that when something disappears out of their view, it still exists.
DS: And then of course we’re lead to the passages where Jean has some brutal experiences – for the sake of preventing any plot spoilers, I won’t mention anything too explicit.
What was it like to write those later passages in the novel, and as you approach building these kinds of sequences, do you build on a theme you wish to explore, or does the character become this force you have to control as you write, before the inner life of the character completely dominates what occurs?
AD: Sam Lipsyte once said to me – the act of writing a novel is akin to putting characters in a room together. Let them talk to each other. Bump into each other. See how they react. To me, this scene in Otto’s house is the natural culmination of that sequence. White Nights is a lot about perception. Jean desires to be “seen.” In the wake of her mother’s absence, she feels invisible. Her sister, Birdie, is the beauty which would “show up well on television.” Otto Hauser presents an opportunity to somehow usurp everyone else’s control and feel powerful again through feeling desired. Jean longs to feel loved, and desire is the model of affection she has to get there. The phrase “rake a girl” acts as a portal to her own understanding of sex. Wilson, despite his age, is at Jean’s same emotional maturity level. So, he too represents a “foil” or a mirror of our cumulative cultural understanding of sex at her age. He witnesses it happening but still doesn’t understand it. Though, on some level, Wilson understand the desire to be loved by his father, to occupy Otto’s full attention in that way, as Jean does here. He yearns for it. There is something sad about this “performance.” “The End of the World” is playing in the background on the hi-fi, which Jean imagines her sister Birdie singing, and the news screen on the television is talking about euthanasia machines . . . this passage is the death of Jean’s innocence.
I’ve always been interested in films which explore the link between family and sexuality, and perception and identity, themes which reoccur a lot in my work. I’m thinking here of movies like Cries and Whispers or Through A Glass Darkly by Ingmar Bergman – my favorite being his Autumn Sonata, which focuses on a prideful mother, a celebrated pianist, who comes to visit her adult daughters whom she neglected and never felt drawn to as children. In one of the most powerful scenes, the mother listens to her daughter, Eva (herself an amateur pianist) play Chopin’s Prelude No. 2 in A minor. The mother one-ups her daughter by playing her own “interpretation” of it. There is a kind of sexual and intellectual dominance and swagger to this mother, which is so captivating.
DS: I think there’s a good amount of swagger to your novel. And seduction – I spent a lot of time dwelling on and admiring the physical details of your sentences, the ways in which you handle light, sound, motion, often the elusive combinations of the three, the strange cracks in perception that slip in-between your senses as you observe a person or part of the physical world: Otto’s hands, how the shape of a coat drapes onto a specific body, rosacea on a forehead, how the fur and muscle relate to each other on a dying animal’s body. It’s all very physical and very beautiful and intense to read. I even love the way you describe stucco:
The exterior of the house was covered in a thick white stucco, a paint which, like the attitude of the house itself, retained a grainy, salt-and-pepper consistency. Occasionally, when you ran your hand over it, you discovered an unusually large blemish, a fly or two that had dried into the mix.
Can you talk about how the physical informs your work?
AD: I’ve always been interested in visual studies – works like John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which I’ve taught for years at various art schools. When I lived in Brooklyn and was teaching at Parsons in the city, many of my students were fashion or photography majors. They had this acute way of looking at the world which I absolutely reveled in. I found them to be so hugely talented. They weren’t necessarily drawn to the written word in the same way – so my challenge was to draw them into writing by showing them the connection between the visual and the written.
One of my favorite essays of all time is by the art historian Rosalind Krauss, in which she writes about the link between Sol LeWitt’s modernist cube sculptures – and the visual repetition in them – and then compares that visual repetition to Beckett’s Molloy, his passages about “the sucking stones.” She quotes Donald Kuspit’s “The Look of Thought,” which says of LeWitt’s cubes, “the viewer completed the incomplete cubes by mentally supplying the missing edges, and experienced the tension between the literally unfinished and the mentally finished cubes – between what Kant would call the phenomenal cube and the idea of the cube.” She counters his argument by saying:
The experience of [LeWitt’s] work goes exactly counter to “the look of thought. Particularly if thought is understood as classical expressions of logic. For such expressions, whether diagrammatic or symbolic, are precisely about the capacity to abbreviate, to adumbrate, to condense, to be able to imply an expansion with only the first two or three terms, to cover vast arithmetic spaces with a few ellipsis points, to use, in short, the notion of etcetera. The babble of a LeWitt serial expansion has nothing of the economy of the mathematician’s language. It has the loquaciousness of the speech of children or of the very old, in that its refusal to summarize, to use the single example that would imply the whole, is like those feverish accounts of events composed of a string of almost identical details, connected by “and.”
I too am interested in how the use of visual repetition creates that internal sense of “psychobabble” or the “and” which Krauss describes.
DS: Please tell me more about your influences, for lack of a better term.
AD: Another huge literary influence for me has always been the French nouveau-roman – writers like Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, and Marguerite Duras (being my favorite). These writers tried to avoid psychological interiority altogether. Instead they used the visual as a way to access character’s internal landscapes.
At the start of the Robbe-Grillet novel Jealousy (translated from the French La Jalousie, which means the jealous window, and tells the story of female adultery), Robbe-Grillet literally draws a picture of the house that the couple lives in together, tracing all the windows and rooms. He creates a “blueprint” and then proceeds to write a novel “documenting” (quite literally) the husband’s visual “overseeing” of the wife (A’s) movements throughout the house – as a way of “documenting” her affair. All the narrator’s interior reactions are completely absented, as are A’s. What is created is a kind of psychological vacuum.
To me, this is genius. He puts the burden on the reader. The reader feels mounting suspicion and anxiety as we too “trace” the wife’s movements through the house as her affair with the neighbor, Franck, continues – we feel her guilt as well as the husband’s sadness, distance and ultimately rage. To me, though this is a slim book, it captures the full range of human emotion and is literature at its finest and most inventive.
DS: Both the beginning and the ending of your novel feel epic in poetic scope to me. Talk to me about how these unfolded as you worked and drafted away at different stages of the novel.
AD: Thank you! This is something I was actively working toward. I wanted the book to have a universal feeling. As though it could be set almost anywhere in any time period.
DS: You’ve achieved that universality. It feels electric.
AD: The narrative is specifically set in the early 90s, which the opening of the book recalls – the beginning of our awareness of the AIDS crisis, of people’s paranoia of a kiss being “infectious” as the mother says to Wilson in the opening chapter, of the Gulf War, etc. Infection, invasion, witness, and surveillance become recurring themes throughout the book on both a personal and national level.
DS: And that’s something we immerse ourselves into, but the novel reaches past any such setting. I’m still trying to understand how you achieved this in the span of a novel that has notably compressed structures.
AD: There is something universal / epic about the work of writers like Salinger that I’ve always admired. I was reading his Ten Stories a bunch when I first started this novel and then again in my early revision stages, specifically when I was looking at how to sculpt and punctuate dialogue for efficiency. If White Nights could capture that kind of universal longing, I would be so happy. There is a kind of lightness, a transparency, a poetry, to Salinger’s work that seems to capture a universal human experience. He understands the imprecision in the way that people communicate. I’m thinking particularly of his stories “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “For Esmé With Love and Squalor” (which the mother in White Nights quotes from saying of Jean, “a little love and squalor isn’t going to harm her”). I think this was why Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye was so successful and went on to be a kind of cult classic. Again, it was a rather small, compact book. However, everyone can relate to the experience of coming of age and the various turmoils which ensue, crosses and crises which we have to bear and which go on to shape us significantly as adults.
I think that’s why we return to these books as adults, in fact. We want to understand where we came from, why we love who we love and and how we love them. Why we see the world through the lenses we do.
Annie DeWitt it a fiction writer, essayist and critic. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Tin House, The Believer, Guernica, Esquire, BOMB, Electric Literature, Bookforum, NOON, The LA Review of Books, The American Reader, art+culture, and The Faster Times, amongst others. Annie holds an M.F.A. from Columbia School of the Arts where she now teaches.She was a Co-Founding Editor of Gigantic, a literary journal of short prose and art carried throughout the U.S. and abroad. Her debut novel White Nights in Split Town City is forthcoming from Tyrant Books in August. Her debut story collection Closest without Going Over was shortlisted for the Mary McCarthy prize. She is the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship.
Darley Stewart is a fiction writer and essayist based in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Brooklyn Rail, Battersea Review, The Ocean State Review, Flapperhouse, Five2One Magazine and elsewhere. She gives regular readings in Brooklyn.