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Between the Covers JoAnna Novak Interview

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David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Cleo Qian’s LET’S GO LET’S GO LET’S GO, a collection of electric, unsettling, and often surreal stories that explore the alienated technology-mediated lives of restless Asian and Asian-American women today. Says Raven Leilani, “LET’S GO LET’S GO LET’S GO is sharp and unprecious about the sticky aspects of having flesh. This collection is riddled with outsiders of different shades, of people who stand back from their realities with secret and burning questions.” Ling Ma calls the collection, “Perfectly askew,” and adds, “The stories in LET’S GO LET’S GO LET’S GO thrum with restless questioning and acute longing, shot through with tart, knowing observations. It seemed to vibrate in my hands as I read it.” LET’S GO LET’S GO LET’S GO is out now from Tin House. I’m realizing that for me, there is a particular appeal to be learning two things at once in preparing for an episode. Sometimes the second thing is historical such as the history of Palestinian theater with Isabella Hammad or something philosophical, looking at various feminist positions on the portrayal of consent in the Verhoeven film Elle starring Isabelle Huppert when I talked to Chelsea Hodson. Then sometimes it’s the pleasure of exploring the work of another artist while also exploring the work of the upcoming guest, doing a deep dive into Pessoa’s poetry in anticipation of talking with James Hannaham and with today’s guest JoAnna Novak, exploring the singular life, paintings, and writings of the abstract expressionist Agnes Martin, an artist whose writings and paintings influence a writing regimen and retreat that Novak constructs for herself, a regimen that produces the first draft of the book that we discuss today. Because of this, today is a deep dive into Novak’s writing life, a writer who writes in all three genres as well as her writing techniques, alongside the writing and painting life of the person who inspired her during her pregnancy and her struggles with prenatal depression, Agnes Martin. Today’s conversation is about memoir but it’s also about poetry and about visual art. It is a conversation that may, at one point, be about mental illness or eating disorders and at another, about positive freedom and inner perfection. It is a conversation, much like the book, that is full of generative contradictions. For the bonus audio, JoAnna reads the odd and funny children’s book Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, which is a favorite of her four-year-old son. The ever-growing bonus audio is only one of many possible benefits of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. There’s also the Tin House Early Readership subscription receiving 12 books over the course of the year months before they’re available to the general public, rare collectibles from past guests, and a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. But every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter gets the resource-rich email with each episode. In this case, all the Agnes Martin and JoAnna Novak material I either explored in preparation for today or that we explored together when we talked. You can find out more at Now, for today’s episode with JoAnna Novak.

These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”

David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest JoAnna Novak earned a BA in Creative Writing from Knox College, an MFA in fiction from Washington University in St. Louis, and an MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She’s also the co-founder of the literary journal and chapbook publisher Tammy who have published many great writers including past Between the Covers guests Brian Evenson, Sarah Gerard, Diane Williams, and Rosmarie Waldrop. Up until now, Novak’s books have, like her two MFA pursuits, been either fiction or poetry. She is the author of the novel I Must Have You of which Sarah Gerard says, “Novak’s characters hurdle toward the painful pleasure of self-destruction, uninterested in stopping themselves, determined to find the next prick to make them feel alive. It’s a visceral process like picking off a scab. A necessary book.” Her next two books were poetry, the book-length poem Noirmania described by Johannes Göransson as, “Part hellish fashion shoot, part necro glamorous memoir, part grotesque diorama. Noirmania explores the politics of the female body with a no-holds-barred intensity.” Dara Wier says of her second poetry collection Abeyance, North America, “Maybe what Novak offers is an ink-sputtered, blood-marked, chewed, dog-soothed, mutter-fluffed, shoe-bored, convertible couch on which to lie around and dream up seeking and satisfying appetites,” and Sandra Simonds adds, “Where is desire located? Is the body a ledge, a bookshelf, a devil, an animal? Like Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, these poems invite us to understand that the erotic is frantic, pulled in multiple directions, that it doesn’t know if it wants to climb a forty-foot date palm or soak in a hotel’s hot tub. But perhaps like language itself, in the end, desire has no true home and in order for it to stay alive, it has to keep moving and these poems give us beautiful glimpses of that movement.” Novak’s 2021 follow-up, her debut short-story collection Meaningful Work won the 2020 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest. “Devouring, yearning, erasing, grabbing,” says Aimee Bender, “These stories pulse with intensity and Novak’s scalpel-precise prose cuts to the core again and again. A startling and exciting collection that does not shirk from pretty much anything.” Joanna Ruocco adds, “In Meaningful Work, JoAnna Novak shows us what this world makes us swallow: shit jobs and Hostess Snowballs, the nuclear family, our own fulvous tongues. Language-glutted, her starveling girls and hollowed mothers gag on everything and nothing. Novak spreads it: a mangled smorgasboard of harms. This is a book of jagged mouthfuls, of candy-shell sentences with hot, gloppy cores. There’s no purging it. Read and the stories stay with you, like cuts rubbed with Sharpie in the fat of your heart.” Her third poetry book New Life came out shortly after with Sabrina Orah Mark asking, “Am I reading poems, I wonder, or am I reading their glorious bones? Here what nourishes is also what captures. Reading Novak is like eating a ‘mousetrap sandwich’ on the edge of rapture.” Joyelle McSweeney adds, “New Life is an exquisitely rendered, naughty book, a tipsy affair of pregnancy poems in which each poem tips ever closer to its tipping point. The plane has crashed in the mountain; the ferry approaches and never arrives; and yet our speaker finds herself again and again in a series of glamorously induced isolations, each as vivid and pleasing as a sonnet or a handbag–close to hand, clasping and unclasping, and containing many choice, illicit terms. Here splendor and captivity are indistinguishable, and everything can be described, embroidered, adored, cut close–But what’s in the next room, the next trimester? What’s that, up there, behind the sky?” As if that were not enough, this largesse of books across fiction and poetry, Novak has also written creative nonfiction for many years, her work appearing everywhere from The Paris Review to The New York Times to The Atlantic to The New Yorker and her essay My $1,000 Anxiety Attack was anthologized in About Us: Essays from the Disability Series of the New York Times. We are thus lucky to have her here today for her debut book of nonfiction, her memoir from Catapult called Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood, a memoir, according to Lindsay Hunter, “That unfolds like a thriller, a taut, explosive self-examination from an artist trying to simultaneously forget and remember her body. There is sun-bright truth heating every page. As a writer, as a mother, I inhaled this quest for a knowledge that doesn’t consume, but reveals.” Finally, Danzy Senna says, “Contradiction Days is that startling and rebellious work we see too rarely—a portrait of the female artist, pregnant with a baby and ambition, with rage and desire, who remains preoccupied by questions of philosophy, aesthetics, and abstraction, as her body grows. Novak’s writing in these pages is as sublime, precise and arresting as the Agnes Martin paintings that transfix her.” Welcome to Between the Covers, JoAnna Novak. 

JoAnna Novak: Thank you for having me, David Naimon.

DN: [Laughs] So Contradiction Days, not as a primary focus but among many other things, is the contention with the way your body is changing like it never has before with your pregnancy. But your body is also a long-standing focus in your work. In an essay that you wrote for Lit Hub called On the Literature of Eating Disorders, you say, “Because I’ve lived with some permutation of an eating disorder since 1998 (roughly as long as I’ve identified as a writer), some of my work deals with, explicitly or implicitly, the body: its hunger, its satiation, its habits, its weights, its expansion and contraction, its bones and its fat, its movement or stalling in space. Food, too, and clothes and exercise and the bodies of other women.” Your latest book opens with you pregnant, your body radically changing because of it, and you trying to find your moorings emotionally, not wanting to have a pregnant body and sometimes wanting to forget that you have a baby on the way on the one hand, but on the other, also trying to find a framing with which to usher in this new never-before-experienced life, one that won’t just be body-altering but also irrevocably life-altering. The framing you find is the art and writing of the painter Agnes Martin who inspires this intensive self-directed pilgrimage and writing retreat in New Mexico where she lived and where this book was written. Given that you juxtapose the beginnings of your writing life with the beginnings of your issues around eating, I was hoping you’d speak to us about this pairing also of the connection between the solitary artist Agnes Martin and you being on the verge of motherhood, or in other words, I think it’s easy to imagine how pregnancy-induced body changes intersect with these themes that you listed in the Lit Hub essay. But how and why did Agnes Martin become the artist and figure you felt was, if not the remedy for your fears and anxieties, perhaps an organizing principle for a way to move forward? Why was she the artist that most seduced you at this time on the verge of this transformation?

JN: I think that I felt very cluttered as I embarked on my self-designed experiment, cluttered emotionally, cluttered physically, cluttered psychologically. I’ve been feeling that way throughout my pregnancy. I’d been feeling really aware of the constellation of feelings that seemed to be ever-present and maybe intensifying. Agnes Martin’s writing, before I’d even seen a single painting of hers, was so soothing to me, so stark, clear, seemingly simple, and just really distilled. That was incredibly nurturing or it felt like it could be nurturing. Then when I began reading about Martin’s life and I started to learn about the very unsimple life she’d led, the very complicated life she’d led, I was wonderstruck by the fact that she was able to set that complexity aside and create the art and the writing that she made. I wanted that for myself, so I thought I should probably pursue it as totally as I could.

DN: I imagine though, I don’t want to presume, that some of the desire to translate your fears around pregnancy and motherhood into a writing retreat might have been fears about what motherhood might do to your life as a writer to perhaps want to write more to assert the writer in you as you were about to become a mother and hopefully a mother writer. Is that off base?

JN: It’s not off base. When I was going into my several-week-ish period in New Mexico to think about Agnes Martin, and like Agnes Martin, try my best to live a little bit like Agnes Martin, I really had this fear that I might never write again after the baby is born. A switch might flip and it might be over. Sometimes I would have moments of thinking like, “I guess that would be what it is.” I had a grim acceptance. At other times, I thought, “There’s no way that that can happen. How would I survive if I couldn’t write? Or if I wasn’t writing anymore, who would I even be?” There’s a little bit of turning to Martin and devoting myself to her and the way that I did that I really see as being like a last-ditch total effort to really give myself to writing and to being more disciplined, more focused, more devoted than I’d really ever been for a concentrated period of time, which isn’t to say that I wasn’t incredibly focused, devoted, and diligent as I was rewriting I Must Have You or something like that. I remember those days of rewriting being incredibly, incredibly like tunnel vision in a wonderful feeling way. But there was just this different pressure on it in 2019 when I went to New Mexico, so I don’t think you’re off base at all. 

DN: Well, I was hoping we could hear the opening to the book.

[JoAnna Novak reads from Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood]

DN: We’ve been listening to JoAnna Novak read from Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood. There’s a focus both in Martin’s writing and her geometric abstract grids on the ideal and on perfection, which she doesn’t see as something out in the world or something in the eye but something located within. With regards to the ideal, she says, “I would like my work to be recognized as being in the classical tradition (Coptic, Egyptian, Greek, Chinese), as representing the Ideal in the mind. Classical art cannot possibly be eclectic. One must see the ideal in one’s own mind. It is like a memory of perfection,” and in explaining what classical means she says, “Classicism is not about people and this work is not about the world. We call Greek classicism ldealism. Idealism sounds like something you can strive for. They didn’t strive for idealism at all. Just follow what Plato has to say: Classicists are people that look out with their back to the world. It represents something that isn’t possible in the world. More perfection than is possible in the world. It’s as unsubjective as possible.” Finally, these lines, “Being detached and impersonal is related to freedom. That’s the answer for inspiration. The untroubled mind. Plato says that all that exists are shadows. To a detached person the complication of the involved life is like chaos. If you don’t like the chaos you’re a classicist. If you like it, you’re a romanticist.” I quote all of this so people can get a feel for her vibe but also at least at the beginning, it feels like your impulse for this trip has a classicist element to it and aiming for a perfecting impulse. You set up rules for these 18 days aspiring to achieve what Martin calls positive freedom: no internet, no phone, your husband stops drinking, goes on fasts. You excessively exercise and skip meals by implementing a popcorn strategy. All of which feels not simply like a retreat but almost like a series of purification rituals. I don’t know if that feels like a fair characterization of them. But I wondered if you see them connected to this inner idealism of Martin, this notion of looking out with one back to the world, and if you don’t, maybe you could speak a little bit to the rules and restrictions that become part of creating a pressurized space in this writing retreat.

JN: There’s definitely a Martin-esque impulse in implementing the rules. I felt acutely when I was pregnant that there were lots of ways one was supposed to be perfect as a pregnant person that were super superficial. There’s this perfection that one is supposed to attain in pregnancy. I feel like that’s like you’re going to have the right stroller on your registry, you’re going to wear the right maternity clothes, or you’re going to eat the right way. I found that really depressing. I found that really limiting. At times, I felt almost disrespectful to this incredible, profound thing of a new life, that one is pregnant and one is thinking about getting, I don’t know, baby Burberry or something like that. It felt so deeply superficial to quote Andy Warhol. I really hated that impulse, yet I also found myself sucked into it a little bit. You use the phrase purification ritual. My obsession with Martin was like an extended purification. It was like, “Can I cleanse myself of these cursedly impulses?” That’s putting a lot on her, like that’s making her into quite a lot. [laughs] But that was definitely part of my aim in setting up rules was to just see what happens if I forgo some of the creature comforts, such a silly phrase but creature comforts or ways that I let my mind be lazy or unfocused or the ways that I get sucked into forgetting to prioritize making art and get attracted to buying the thing or looking the way. I was trying to turn my back to the world. Writing feels to me always like this way of accessing something that’s more perfect than anything I can encounter, except maybe within someone else’s book or someone else’s painting or a film. Even the struggle of it feels more pure and perfect than any experience that’s external. 

DN: You say at one point that you wanted to write sentences that achieve the grace and balance of Martin’s grids and one of your restrictions that I particularly love to hear about is inspired by her trademark six-foot by six-foot canvases, so six-foot by six-foot geometric grids and you did your own writing in six-by-six text boxes. I was hoping maybe you could talk about the why, the how, and the effect of doing this.

JN: I didn’t want to write about Agnes Martin, I didn’t want to write through her or I didn’t want to describe her. I wanted to write beside her I suppose and I didn’t know what that would look like. At some point, when I was reading about her and learning more about her before the trip to Taos, I discovered this detail about the six-by-six foot canvas which eventually shrunk when six-by-six foot became too unwieldy for her in her older age. But I just thought, “Oh, look, that’s so manageable. If nothing else, I can make a text block,” because as a poet, it’s not uncommon to make a text block. I’ve read a poem in a text block often because it’s aesthetically pleasing to have the tidiness of the edges of the lines. I’m always interested in these constraints and containments for writing, and like you said earlier, the way that creates a pressurized space and the text block was the ultimate pressurized space. At the same time, I wanted to give myself some degree of race or freedom and thought, “I don’t really care what goes in these text blocks actually while I’m in Taos.” If I come to my desk every morning and fill them up one after another, after another, after another, that’s the work. I really was guided by something I read about Martin. I think it was a Vogue profile where the profiler reports that Martin might paint 500 canvases in a year and keep 10, something like that. It reminds me too of the Russell Edson mythology of basically typing as many prose poems as you can in an hour and maybe you end up with 20, maybe one or two are good. That’s not always the way I work but I thought for this period of time if I want to really just try to do something different that’s in touch with Martin, that would be a good way to go. The very first morning that I woke up in the Casita in Taos, it was like 5:00 AM or something, it’s very dark and I went to my little office which was the children’s bedroom in the Casita. It’s a little rickety table and some bunk beds next to me. I opened up my laptop, I made sure my Wi-Fi was turned off, I opened a new Word document, and I drew a six-by-six inch text block, then I pressed insert pagebreak and I copy-pasted the text block. I did that 60 times and I thought, “If I can read 60 of these while I’m here, that would be a success.” I didn’t start with this blank page either. I started with this document that already had 60 spots to fill, then I just set about typing within them and that was my boundary. I would type whatever I was thinking about considering, remembering, puzzling, and when it got to the end of the text block, that was that. I had to move on. It forced me to keep going. I might write 12 of them in a morning and that would feel like something had been accomplished. Even if I had no idea what was really useful, interesting, or articulate in those text blocks, I was filling them, so I was amassing pages. Then at some point after a week, I was like, “Oh, that’s close to 60 already. I guess I should add some more text blocks because I’m clearly going to keep doing this every morning that I’m at the house and just see what happens.”

DN: Well, when you wrote your book-length poem Noirmania, you took 80 pages of poems and put them through a series of Google translations, then randomized the resulting text, then you used Find and Replace functions on one word for another, enlarged the font to 20, then print it out the resulting 200 pages, which had started as 80. Then over the course of a long weekend, you wrote Noirmania from these 200 pages by largely sharpening out text, then retyping it, then creating a nine-line form to contain or constrain it. Thinking of that and thinking about these 60-grid boxes, it made me wonder more about constraints and experimental conceits, whether that was something that characterizes your writing process across books or not, and also how you see constraints in relationship to freedom. I wondered if you were like the writers of Oulipo who argue that following one’s impulses is actually the unfree position that adopting constraints and then the discovery within them is the true freedom. But either way, I’d love to hear about whether these two examples, the grid boxes and the more extreme Noirmania example are symptomatic of your process generally speaking when you write, then maybe you have some philosophical or craft-oriented insights around what constraint means in relation to experiment and writing.

JN: I hate to start my thoughts on the philosophical implications of this with a Seinfeld reference but I really am thinking about that one episode where George Costanza just decides that he’s going to do everything against his own impulse and see what that yields. I think it yields good things mostly. [laughter] I do think there’s a little of the Costanzan impulse in my self-annihilating tendencies when it comes to generative process or editing process. For a really, really long time, I’ve been aware of the fact that when there’s some kind of condition, constraint, or rule tied to a piece of writing, it comes out of the often extra hot for me, I’m mixing metaphors. But I remember being really like starting college, I had a boyfriend at the time who was also a writer, and I was trying to write a short story and he was like, “Well, write a story that has the color green and a badminton racket, and this word and this word in it.” I was like, “Oh, okay, I will.” All of those little conditions, they’re so minor to the story. No one would notice them. But having those conditions really made me feel like I had this extra purpose, I had this greater mission to accomplish I guess. I was happy with what resulted from that experiment and other people in my life were happy with what resulted from that experiment too. I was like, “Oh, this is interesting.” I was 18, so I hadn’t really read a lot of the Oulipo folks that I’ve read at this point. I was just starting college. But very shortly thereafter, I started reading a little bit of Robert Coover and feeling like there was something very exciting and scandalizing about bringing some chance, randomness, and postmodern instability to the text or to the writing process. I also think like with Noirmania particularly, that was a kind of angry act because the 80 pages of poems that I decimated, that book had been accepted by a press that folded and folded for some reasons that were particularly unsavory, then the book kept being like a finalist or a semi-finalist and I was just like, “What? I hate this. I really hate this. All of these poems have been published and the book is a fine book, and now I’m just tired of it,” whatever. I just thought, “I’ve got to do something with this material.” Destroying it and then transforming it felt like a really good thing to do. It was like a productive use of my anger. It was like anger that was not even very alive at the time. When I spent that weekend reworking that material, it had been a couple of years since I found out the book was accepted, then the press was closing. It wasn’t like I was living with a lot of rage over that but it would bother me sometimes. I would think, “I had that manuscript, it was all ready to go and now I’m so sick of these individual poems but there’s something here,” so I’d end up doing that not infrequently with writing where I draw on some alternative generative strategy. It’s not like I want to totally eradicate my subjectivity, I want to dismantle part of it. I just moved, so I’m thinking about drywall. I think I want to crack through the drywall and see what’s behind there.

DN: In your teaching statement at Mount Saint Mary’s, you quote Agnes Martin who said, “You can’t draw a perfect circle, but in your mind there is a perfect circle that you can draw towards.” From there you talk about how you help students to work towards the perfection in their minds. Like the word constraint, perfection, at least, to me feels like and sounds like the opposite of freedom when you first hear it. Yet in your statement, you talk about how you’re helping students move toward their internal perfection not by polishing an economy but via experimentation and play, both in the drafting and in the revision stages. I wondered if you could share anything if anything comes to mind about favorite exercises or techniques that have been particularly successful when you help people move toward their inner perfection by doing things that might seem, at least it sounds in this statement, messy or outside-the-box.

JN: I have to give credit where credit is due here. I’ve been really lucky to have mentors and teachers who have taught me a lot of these things. I don’t know that there’s anything so novel about what I suggest but when I was at UMass for my poetry MFA, a really common move in poetry workshop would be like Peter Gizzi reading somebody’s poem backwards. I can’t tell you how many times I suggest to a student like, “Let’s look at this paragraph backwards,” or “Let’s look at this poem backwards. How does it work?” Similarly, what happens if you look at this poem and consider every other line or decide on a word or a phrase that just is not going to exist in the work anymore? We’re not quite cutting out the letter E but let’s see if the word feeling or feel, some version of that word just isn’t allowed anymore. What happens? How does this get stronger? How does it change? I think those little things are almost always successful. It’s almost eerie to me how often I can look at somebody else’s poem or my own poem and read every other line or read the poem backwards and not find a poem that I like more, that’s more startling, more arresting, and less belabored. That’s the perfection I think, and Martin’s art I feel like evinces this. It’s like there’s this sense of something that’s not belabored. It seems effortless. I think sometimes the effortless is lurking within the effort.

DN: One of the constraints you adopted while you were in New Mexico was a boycott on looking up anything about Agnes Martin. Why this constraint, which seems the most counter-intuitive on the surface?

JN: I had some books with me and I was not avoiding looking up information about Agnes Martin in the books. But I believe the internet rots my brain and I didn’t want to rot my brain while I was trying to write about Agnes Martin. In some ways, that’s enough. That’s enough of an answer. I really just feel like that was important to me to keep my brain and my concentration pure. I don’t feel like using the internet is a way to enhance one’s concentration.

DN: You also mentioned, as another reason, Martin’s aversion to facts and you quote her as saying, “I’m very careful not to have ideas because they’re inaccurate,” then I went and looked up some other quotes of hers in this vein like, “Our ideas – deductions made from observed facts of life, are of no use in the unfolding of potential.” “The great and fatal pitfall in the art field and in life is dependence on the intellect rather than inspiration. Dependence on intellect means a consideration of observed facts and deductions from observation as a guide in life. Dependence on inspiration means dependence on consciousness, a growing consciousness that develops from awareness of beauty and happiness. To live and work by inspiration you have to stop thinking.” Nevertheless, outside of these 18 days, you did do a lot of different sorts of research for the book beyond reading her and beyond looking at her paintings, including taking art history classes and conducting interviews. I was hoping you could talk about the research process, some of the discoveries particular to it, and also who you were interviewing, and how that went. I guess partly I asked the latter one because I know she had lifelong friendships but she was also a difficult person sometimes let’s say. I wondered how interviewing people, if it’s presuming you were interviewing people that knew her, how that went also.

JN: I interviewed a few people who had known Agnes over the years. I spoke with Ann Wilson who lived with Martin at Coenties Slip, I spoke with painter Pat Steir who was close friends with Martin, and I spoke with Kim Treiber of Taos who was a good friend of Martin in the last couple of decades of her life, then I also talked with Lizzie Borden, the filmmaker who, before she was a filmmaker, was a young journalist with Artforum who was sent to the mesa to report on Agnes. Talking with those people made Martin feel real in a way that she hadn’t been before. I was so aware of the fact that we’re all people living these very mortal lives and she was a friend to this person or that person at one moment in their very mortal life. I think sometimes when researching somebody or something from the past even though Martin only died in 2004, there’s this way that time seals over, smooths over, and makes a person seem less dimensional than perhaps she really is. I don’t know that there are any particularly huge discoveries. I did really love that Lizzie Borden remembered Agnes Martin having a very large pot of soup that just simmered and simmered and simmered all day long, non-stop and she would add stuff to it, and that’s what was eaten. I like those little details or the fact that Ann Wilson remembered Agnes Martin making muffins or things like that. But mostly, it was just like hearing these women talk about her as a friend and as a familiar. That was really important for me in figuring out how to bring everything I’d been reading and learning about her to life in the book. I felt a real imperative to animate that material to portray her as roundly as she had become to me over the years that I was learning about her. Then I write about this in the book a little bit, I don’t think it’s really giving anything away, a couple of years after I was in New Mexico, I had this experience of going to the Video Data Bank at the Art Institute of Chicago and they have video footage of interviews with Agnes from 1974 and 1976 I believe. It was a really quite intense experience just sitting in this little viewing room alone and watching very, very grainy footage of her and hearing her voice. When I was in New Mexico, I purposefully avoided watching any documentary footage or interview footage with her because I didn’t want to hear her. I was afraid to hear her. Then when I finally did hear her voice, it was so different than I expected it. It was so much more approachable and she was so much funnier, down to Earth a little bit. That was really pretty profound. Then after I watched the video interviews at the Video Data Bank, the staff gave me a big folder of all their material. Inside this big folder was just her last address in Taos. It was written on a piece of paper with her phone number. I just had the thought, “Wow, what if this had happened 25 years earlier?” I used to write fan letters to celebrities all the time when I was a child. I probably would have called her, written her a letter, or something like that. I got goosebumps at that moment thinking the connection to people is actually often so much closer than we really think it might be.

DN: Well, I like your impulse to complicate a smoothing out of a person’s image, like the detail of her simmering soup pot but also the way her voice sounds or her demeanor, and it may not be exactly matching up with her as a symbol. I loved a lot of the trivia that you unearthed in passing in the book and also things that I discovered on my own listening to some Agnes Martin-focused podcasts in anticipation of today. But she was an Olympic-level competitive swimmer, she was a chauffeur for John Houston before living in New Mexico. Another one that I loved, this was recounted by the head of the Tate Modern museum, was that when she moved to New Mexico in the late 60s and she said no to the New York Art World, she was having a lot of success then already, so the no wasn’t, “This isn’t working for me,” I mean it wasn’t working for her but she was leaving a world that was already starting to celebrate her in significant ways. She leaves the grid, finds this remote land outside of Taos, and then builds her own house, which is amazing. [laughs] But then when people go looking for her in town and asking people, “Do you know of this woman painter who’s living alone off the grid?” the answer that was often given was, “Oh, you mean the lady who acquires and seasons our bearskins for us?” which I thought was just so hilarious. I don’t know if she’s killing the bears but who knows? Maybe she is killing the bears. Does that spark any other minutia, like little details that get squeezed out of the narrative like that?

JN: I don’t know if I write about this. Kim Treiber, who ran a non-profit in Taos that supported youth in crisis, was good friends with Martin and she told me about how it was not uncommon to go driving in the afternoon with Agnes. They would do things like try on silly hats at the thrift store, that detail is funny to me, or the fact that she had Chianti and steak for lunch every day in town in Taos or that she had a photo of Bill Clinton in her room from when she was awarded a presidential medal of honor or like one of those awards. I don’t know, all of it is delightful. I like that she liked Agatha Christie novels. I like that she liked Beethoven, liked to sing show tunes and things like that, or that she was a Gertrude Stein fanatic and would recite Lifting Belly. I think that a lot of that is the clutter that I was afraid of when I was pregnant. [laughs] It’s not in her paintings and it’s not in her writing but it’s part of her.

DN: Well, you have another book that is shaped by your pregnancy, your last poetry collection New Life. In talking about that book you say that you fell into a bad depression, one that frightened you after you learned you were pregnant. Your go-to way to mitigate the dips in your mood had always been running, which was now forbidden because of the pregnancy, and that you felt ashamed at feeling depressed because everyone around you was so happy for you that it was from this place that you wrote New Life. Before we talk about the ways writing about and into your pregnancy differed when you were writing poetry versus Memoir, I was hoping first you could talk about one way that at least to me, the two projects feel similar. In the case of New Life, there’s a certain movie that was an inspiration to begin writing because it had to do with a remote island and a sense of banishment or isolation, and it got you into a regimen for two months of writing two hours a day about preparing for this new life, but preparing for this new life by looking at it through the lens of isolation. I was hoping you could talk about this movie in relationship to the poems but also thinking of New Life in relationship to Contradiction Days about this attraction to banishment, whether it be to an island or to the desert, for instance.

2.. Well, the movie was Castaway, it was not the Tom Hanks Cast Away but rather the 1986 Nicolas Roeg movie. It’s a movie based on a true story about a middle-aged man who places an ad in the classifieds asking for a companion, a female companion with whom he can spend time on a remote desert island and a woman answers that ad. The two travel to an island and everything that one might imagine ensues ensues. That movie, it was fantastic to me because it inverted or broke a few different tropes. Trope is not even the right word. I like the way that plays on like what’s one thing you could take to a desert island or the whole desert island paradigm I guess. I was also really interested in the arbitrariness of expedition in some ways like being at a place in life as this young woman was where one just answers an ad and does something like this and is taken away voluntarily and surrenders a degree of control. This goes back to the conversation about constraint. I’m interested in what happens when there’s a degree of control surrendered, especially in art. When you surrender control, there’s a way that you’re agreeing to be banished to this place, you’re agreeing to be sent to this place without something, without a degree of agency, or without a railing to hold on to or something. The film spoke to a lot of what I was feeling in the first trimester of pregnancy where I was in a way excited to be pregnant. I was happy when I found out I was pregnant and I was also petrified and dealing with really horrible prenatal depression, like really horrible and so I didn’t have control over it. I didn’t feel like anything I was doing was affecting a change in that orientation toward myself or the world. Even writing it off to hormonal fluctuations still didn’t make it better. It was so scary. I really did have this moment where I sat down and wrote in my journal, “You have to make yourself write every day, read every day, and take a walk every day. Let’s see if you can get yourself better by doing those things.” What I decided I would write every day was a poem and the first poem was based on that movie Castaway. Then after like a month of doing that, I really did feel better and so it was just another reminder that I shouldn’t abandon my writing when life gets difficult or when my mind is in a place of unrest. But maybe I’m being too hard on myself, I’m not sure.

DN: Well, how do you think the ways you depicted pregnancy differ between the two books and how much of that do you think is because of a difference in form? In other words, do you feel like a different persona is created in one book versus the other? A different mood, tone, or orientation to the baby to come? If so, in what way?

JN: New Life, if it’s like a horror movie, it’s like Rosemary’s Baby meets Shutter Island meets Castaway meets something else. It’s got those kinds of horror notes to it. The speaker in New Life is imperiled I’d say and seeking, but negatively seeking. If we’re thinking about Martin’s idea of positive freedom, I think there’s a certain negative freedom in New Life. There’s a little bit of haughtiness, there’s a little bit of searching with the sense that there’s no answer to be found, feeling lost in a fertile land. I don’t know that New Life is particularly optimistic as a book. There might be some notes of optimism but not a lot. I love poetry because I can write a book, a poem, or a series of poems that explores that sensibility or that nexus of feeling. There’s language, there’s form, and there are myriad poetic devices that make that explored affect something more, something beautiful perhaps, something like sensual, rhythmic, or whatever. I don’t know if that works as well in a piece of prose. I feel like it could be really dreary and so I think, back to your question, the narrator in Contradiction Days, she wants to attain that positive freedom that Martin espouses. She wants that kind of lightness. She wants to step beyond the appeal of darkness or the ways in which disorder and unrest have served her. She believes, I think, that there is something beyond that beauty and self-destruction. Agnes Martin represents that and so she’s chasing it.

DN: You have a couple of Roland Barthes epigraphs in the poetry collection that I love that are not on their own about pregnancy until they appear in your poetry collection and then they suddenly are. One is “What in the straining body can be immobilized?” Later in the book “I come out. It is ecstasy.” I was hoping we could hear two poems from New Life before we return to Contradiction Days just to get a sense of this other way into the same place in your life that feels very radically different. I was hoping we could hear Cock: Anamnesis, 04.19.19 and Tides.

[JoAnna Novak reads from New Life]

DN: We’ve been listening to JoAnna Novak read from her last poetry collection New Life. As you were reading that last piece, I looked up inselberg, which I didn’t know, intriguing as an inselberg, and to go along with what we’ve been talking about, about banishment and isolation, it’s an isolated hill as surely you know. But I’m thinking about intriguing as an inselberg. I don’t think the word inselberg is in Contradiction Days but you do encounter words like inselberg that I think are partly there for their sonic qualities. I wanted to talk about maybe the influence of poetics on your sentences and on your prose. In an interview at Hobart, you relate that an early writing teacher told you there were two types of writers: formalists and stylists, and that you were a stylist and that whether that’s actually true, that pronouncement gave you permission to lead with the sentence and then to push the limits of narrative to accommodate the sentence rather than have the sentence accommodate the narrative. Then interestingly you say, “This sometimes feels almost like painting to me.” In that spirit, I guess I wanted to mention your interview with Garielle Lutz, the author of one of my all-time favorite writing essays, The Sentence Is a Lonely Place, which I think gives the most incredible view of a Gordon Lish-ian poetics for prose writers. It’s an essay that I discussed with Diane Williams and Christine Schutt when they were on the show. In that Lutz interview, you call that essay a guide to reading and writing that leads with style. I guess I was hoping you could talk more about leading with style or the poetics of the sentence for you and the method, if there is a method, of how you intend to syntax and music when writing in sentences.

JN: I love that essay so much.

DN: Me too.

JN: Leading with style. It’s funny because I don’t know that in Contradiction Days, I particularly led with style, at least in the final revision of it. I actually think that one reason I really like creative nonfiction as a genre is because I feel a reprieve from style or I feel like there’s something else that seems to take priority, which I roughly consider articulating something clearly and vividly enough for a reader to come away persuaded, maybe not have their mind changed or their politics shifted but to be persuaded. I cannot get myself in writing a poem or a short story to believe that that’s important. I just feel like those are forms for me that are almost always about—it’s interesting that I said this already—about painting with language, about putting language together in a way that creates an evocative experience that may or may not make narrative sense, that may or may not be logical in fiction. It has to do with a little bit of my taste for surrealists like Leonora Carrington or like I mentioned, Robert Coover earlier. I do have this appetite for writers who, in their fiction, prioritize style. Put Virginia Woolf in this camp too. I don’t know that I have a particular way of attending to language when I’m writing. It feels almost automatic and trance-like as I’m doing the writing. But I realize it’s not just like I sit down and there’s some divine transmission where I just type something and/or write something and it’s torqued in the way I want it to be linguistically. I’m a baker too and it reminds me of making croissants or some kind of laminated dough where you’re folding something in, sealing it, rolling it out, turning it, folding something in, sealing it, rolling it out, refolding it, turning it. That’s a little bit what it feels like to work on the language in a piece of writing for me. There’s this constant attention, a regular attention that needs to be paid and yet there also needs to be a lightness of touch. Otherwise, the material or the dough is overworked, tough, or your butter melts out and leaks everywhere and that’s no good. I feel like it’s this really delicate and strong thing at the same time because it requires some degree of endurance. That’s the strength but again, it has to be delicate. But in writing nonfiction, especially as I was drafting and redrafting Contradiction Days, I really just kept trying to be less encumbered by that concern for style with every draft because I felt like it was impeding my ability to tell this story in a way that’s persuasive.

DN: Given that you’re using this metaphor of baking and kneading, which I hope this is going to be a future essay, kneading the words I think could be the sequel to the sentence of [inaudible]. I wanted to return to this way you’ve paired the origin story for you as a writer and the origin story of the issues you’ve had around eating. In a lot of your books, there’s a story about their creation that feels like it involves a regimen and also an obsessiveness and Martin shared this. She felt like self-imposed restrictions kept her mind clear and gave her more energy for the art itself. For instance, one winter, she only consumed walnuts, hard cheeses, and preserved tomatoes, and another she only ate a concoction of gelatin, orange juice, and bananas. When she was in a period of intense output, she would default to a banana and coffee diet. This combination of constriction or restriction and then the maximalism of the obsession itself, in this case, your obsession with Martin, is something that you explore in Contradiction Days. You say you have a fear of debauchery if you’re alone at the residency of losing discipline and control. Part of the constriction and restriction is in response to an imagined state of being if you don’t have the restriction and you explore obsessive books like J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, books that are mono-focused, in this case, on hawks in a way that you say, “In its obsessive specificity, the book achieves something universal.” In a Los Angeles Review of Books interview about your story collection you say, “The pull between minimal/spare/restrictive and maximal/baroque/indulgent in my writing on the level of the sentence, perhaps even the word — this stylistic tendency echoes something of starving and bingeing and purging.” Your therapist within the memoir is convinced that anorexia is a disease of self-enclosure and that self-enclosure, the way Martin was able to keep the outside world out of her paintings, was what drew you to her. I wondered about this when you say that you don’t like how so much of Agnes Martin’s life is often viewed through the pathologizing lens of mental illness, not that you would want to ignore—I think it’s remarkable we haven’t actually mentioned that she was a paranoid schizophrenic—not that you wanted to ignore this fact, it was significant. She had countless electroshock treatments. She went into states of extreme Catatonia, sometimes was only persevering because of her friendship circle that would help her through these episodes, but that you didn’t think this could or should explain everything or that it should be the only portal or main portal in which to view her through. I guess I wondered if you were doing the same for eating disorders in some way trying to take them out of their frame or totalizing way of explanation and showing how they can affect your sentences and your artistic output, for example, as something that complicates them.

JN: Yeah, in some way definitely, and not as some masterminded scheme. It’s just something I think that you can hear me talking, you can probably hear my Midwestern vowels. I feel like you can also probably, in my sentences, I grew up in Illinois, you could also read that I grew up with an eating disorder. I just feel like there are experiences we have in life that are so imprinted on us that they’re unavoidable, especially if one is sensitive to them. It’s not like I’m trying to de-pathologize eating disorders or anything like that, but many times, I’ve had the experience of reading a person’s work and the work might have nothing to do with eating disorder, like zero, and I’ll feel this tingle of recognition about how appetite, desire, hunger, or something is depicted and then I will discover that the writer also has had experience with eating disorder. I don’t think that I’m unique in my work reflecting in my style, reflecting some of this experience. I might just go ahead and make a big statement like I feel like eating disorders for me have been a lot about a really convoluted relationship with longing and satisfaction and how does that not express itself in one’s language? At the same time, the narrator in Contradiction Days is living her best to not be in an eating-disordered place. She’s doing her best to not be eating disordered. It’s not perfect but she’s trying because she does not see that as a productive place because for all the ways that there are these traces of the eating disorder on language or sense of narrative, time, or even obsessive focus as a subject matter, I think the eating disorder is connected to all of that. There’s also the knowledge that stepping into an active eating disorder eradicates the possibility of that creative output. Being sick with an eating disorder, I was unable to read clearly, I wasn’t really writing a lot. I was not well. Getting over my eating disorder, I’ve been able to read and remember books that I’m reading, have meaningful relationships, concentrate on my writing, develop my craft, and all these things, and yet at the same time, it’s like I don’t disavow having had an eating disorder for 20 plus years. It was related to me creating myself as a writer. Having an eating disorder was a way to say, “I’m going to be this kind of person,” and that kind of person was a person who was a writer or an artist of some kind. I wish I could go back in time and save myself some of the pain and unwellness and I could undo some of the damage that I did to relationships in the midst of my illness but I would be wrong to, again, say that there wasn’t some kind of creative or artistic benefit as a result.

DN: Your desire to not negate the psychiatric label for Agnes Martin but to I think hold it at bay as a defining principle and also the way you complicate the portrayal of eating disorders both in your writing but also here just now, another example where I don’t think you’re advocating for eating disorders but where someone asks you what do people get wrong about them, you said, “They’re not these monastic prisons of piety and perfectionism all the time; they’re not always about control; they’re not sexless; they’re not desireless. Other things, too, because I’m assuming some people still think they’re about appearance and intake. Food is the knife you play with to see what kind of daredevil you are.” I guess this all makes me think of another aspect of Agnes Martin’s life that is super interesting to me and that’s her refusal of identity labels. She was fiercely protective of her homosexuality, not only never identifying as a lesbian but way beyond that. As you’ve already mentioned in your reading at one point, she said, “I’m not a woman, I’m a doorknob leading to a quiet existence,” which some people have probably over theorized as being related to the desubjectification of the self, the death of the subject, which she does write about, to becoming one with matter itself. But it also reminds me of the experience of standing before her paintings, which we haven’t really talked about yet. I was listening to a podcast about the Agnes Martin exhibit at the Tate Modern with the director of the museum who was talking about how to stand before one of her paintings, it refuses referentiality to other art. She wasn’t saying that Martin wasn’t influenced, she was by lots of things, everything from Zen Buddhism to Mark Rothko, but almost like the painting demanded your presence before it as a thing before you with everything else pushed away. In another podcast about Martin with Olivia Laing, she talked about how you couldn’t have a static relationship with the painting. There was no viewpoint from which you could take in the painting. If you were farther back, you didn’t see the grids at all, you just had this elemental feeling of the colors, the shimmering of the color. If you stepped forward, you saw the grids, and furthermore, if you step farther, they’re more complicated than you thought, often a double line, not a single line, the two lines having different pigments. You could keep doing that but both views were essential and yet neither define the painting. I wondered if this sparked any thoughts for you about definitions, labels, or identity. Was this part of the appeal that maybe the label of mother and the label of writer could be thrown off, that you could move into a different space in this writing regimen and maybe even in your future life as a mother and as a writer, that somehow would be able to not be reduced by the labels of either?

JN: I think a little bit about also how Martin said you shouldn’t spend very long looking at any of your paintings. A minute or two, tops.

DN: A minute or two, tops?

JN: Yeah. There’s something instructive about looking lightly and wearing our labels a little more lightly that I certainly took away from the last few years thinking about Martin and her work. While I was in Taos, I let myself read some books that weren’t about Agnes Martin. One of those was Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. In that book, Suzuki writes about the aim of being the swinging door and I pair that in my mind with Martin’s “I’m not a woman, I’m a doorknob.” There was something about this period of time to me that made the idea of stepping through or stepping beyond labels seem really enticing. Maybe that would be the existential cure-all. If one could just step beyond labeling, labeling the self or identifying too strongly this way or that way as a mother, as a writer, perhaps all of the dis-ease, concern, anxiety, and terror would fall away and then there would be this positive freedom. I would better have this ability to tap into the experience of happiness or beauty that Martin describes that I would better be able to live with or guided by inspiration, whether that inspiration resulted in writing or just right living like a eudaimonia. That was a big concern of mine because it felt contrary to how society in the United States wanted me to behave as a mother-to-be.

DN: Well, given that you’ve written many books of poetry and fiction and this is your first book of nonfiction, I would normally ask you what venturing into this new territory genre-wise is like for you, particularly what challenges or joys you found in representing you as you on the page. But you’ve written a lot of short nonfiction over the years for high-profile places and you’re very forthcoming about your own life in them that you went on your first diet when you were 12, that you’ve had anxiety attacks for 20 years, that you were anorexic at 13, which later became bulimia. Your novel follows a 13-year-old who is a self-appointed diet coach, and some of your short stories have a protagonist named JoAnna. So I want to presume that the transition to nonfiction might not be a transition at all. But then in your recent interview at The Millions, you were asked about the scene of body dysmorphia when trying on maternity clothes and you talk about how, if it weren’t for the book coming out, most of the people in your life would have no clue that you felt any of this while you were pregnant. Not that you hated your body or that you were depressed or suicidal, that there was an expectation in social situations to come to them with positive energy about it all. One of the most intense scenes in the book I think is where you’re seeing a doctor for a pregnancy checkup and he shames you for the thoughts and fears that you express to him. I also think about your piece in The Atlantic called Pregnant and Depressed that looks at both just how common prenatal depression is but also the special stigma and embarrassment it brings for the mother. Given that this book, in your own words, would be a sort of revelation to people in your life about your internal landscape of being pregnant, or at least part of the time you were pregnant, I did wonder what challenges, joys, anxieties, and anticipations you had about moving to a book-length book of nonfiction where you are yourself or more yourself than potentially the JoAnna in your short story.

JN: Yeah. The JoAnna in my short stories is like always such an auto-fictional confection, I suppose. There’s just something very insouciant. I’ve always written through my own life or with my own life but often altering it in huge, huge, huge ways because I’m writing fiction or poetry and that’s what one does. In reading nonfiction, I think I’ve said this already but I have the intention of being clear and being, saying honest makes it sound like I’m being dishonest in fiction or poetry but I don’t actually know that’s a bad thing, I do think there’s plenty of lying in fiction and poetry and that’s all for the good, but in nonfiction, I’m really trying to communicate and communicate something that’s beyond an aesthetic experience. In representing myself in the memoir, first of all, it was important to me to preserve the range of my experiences and feelings from the middle of my pregnancy, the period in which the book is set. The first draft of the book contained all of that energy. Even though those 100-plus text blocks didn’t have the same narrative shape, entire scenes, images, or sentences from the finished book had an earlier life in those text blocks. A challenge that I faced as I was rewriting the book and shaping it, giving it a structure and a stronger narrative was I really loved, and I really loved being a mother. I looked at these pages when I was working on them with just almost bafflement and a profound sadness that I had so little faith in what life could offer and what joy life could offer that I was so ready to believe that things would be abysmal. It just made me really sad for the limitations of myself. That’s not to mention any of the suicidal ideation or the really grave stuff that was going on in the early part of my pregnancy. As I was rewriting and rewriting and shaping the book, it was very difficult to keep encountering those feelings of what I would now call short-sightedness. They weren’t short-sighted in the time I was experiencing them, they were scared and born of real fear. It was difficult to encounter that material. It wasn’t difficult to preserve it because as I mentioned maybe in the passage that I read earlier, there were certain pregnancy books that were floating around in my life and I didn’t see myself or my experience represented in them really at all. I didn’t read much about prenatal depression. I also, on the other hand, didn’t read that you might enjoy sex while you’re pregnant, have a strong erotic life, or that it could be a really productive time artistically, which it ended up being. The fact that the two books we’ve been talking about were both drafted in about a four-month period in the middle of my pregnancy, to me, speaks to that. It was important to represent all of that in this memoir. I kept that in mind I guess as I wrote and preserved, enhanced, and clarified really uncomfortable scenes or moments that, without that material, the book was not true to what I’d experienced and that the title itself directly addresses this idea that pregnancy is a time of exquisite contradiction. Sometimes I think that’s frightening. I think I started our conversation by talking about how the clutter and chaos of my feelings in pregnancy was frightening to me and I think sometimes contradiction is really unnerving. Perhaps, that’s why Martin’s work is so appealing to us because it seems to be apart from all of that. It seems contradictionless. It seems almost essentialized. It’s just to say I learned a lot about myself in writing a memoir. I learned a lot about myself in a way that I have never learned about myself in writing fiction or poetry. I don’t think that writing a memoir is an act of therapeutic processing necessarily but writing this over three years, I got to see myself evolve, grow, change, and develop. That was a gift. I hope some of that is imparted in the narrative voice that there’s that sense of hope, or I don’t love the word wisdom but I can’t think of a better one right now in sight, guiding the protagonist.

DN: I was hoping we could hear one more brief excerpt as a preface to talking more about contradiction but also to go out with talking about my favorite aspect of the book, which we haven’t really talked about, which is related to contradiction.

JN: So exciting.

[JoAnna Novak reads from Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood]

DN: We’ve been listening to JoAnna Novak read from Contradiction Days. The contradiction in the title, Contradiction Days I think can be read several ways: one is, as you’ve alluded to, Agnes Martin’s own life. Nothing was more important to Martin than the ocean, for instance, but she lived in the landlocked desert. She was in many ways an aesthetic but she also loved parties, and as you mentioned, ate steaks and margaritas. She also drove fast cars. She said she woke up every morning to paint but sometimes that meant not getting out of bed until three in the afternoon if she didn’t know what she wanted to do yet. She hated the mythologizing of artists and yet she actively participated in her own. Her paintings were often untitled but had subtitles like Untitled: Ordinary Happiness. But the best parts of the book I think from its first pages onward are not the resonances between you and Agnes Martin but the contradictions, the unlikeliness of her as a model in so many ways. The most immediate difference being that your isolation or banishment is not really an act of solitude, it’s with your husband and your dog. But I think it runs much deeper. Martin says, I believe in living above the line. Above the line is happiness and love. Below the line is all sadness and destruction and unhappiness. And I don’t go down below the line for anything.” But I feel like you, for much of this book, are below the line and also below the waist. Whereas Martin says sex is just 15 minutes of physical abrasion, Contradiction Days is full of sex, of masturbation, of porn, of desire, of fantasy, of horniness. You say in the memoir that you’re aiming to make pain into something abstract and oblique like Martin’s paintings. But really the end result, at least for me as a reader, feels not abstract and oblique but carnal, embodied, and direct. In the review in The Washington Post, they call the book not well demarcated and gritted but messy, filled with rage and unabashedly sexy, which I think is one of the strengths and one of the enjoyments, this very weird juxtaposition of your inspiration by Martin and her life and your aspiration to enter that life in some way, but just the huge gap between Martin and you in so many ways. I guess I wondered if you could speak into that contradiction for us.

JN: First, I’m just glad that you asked me to read that passage of all the passages one might read that displays some carnality. For a long time from being a very young person like a kid, I would imagine what it would be like to be like another person and I would really want to be another person deeply. Often it would be like a different girl or a different woman. I really wanted to be that person. That person would embody to me some kind of holistic perfection in appearance and academic performance, in artistic pursuit or creative ability. I don’t find that this necessarily has gone away as I’ve aged. Maybe it’s gone a little bit away. Anyhow, never have I aspired to be like someone so unlike myself than Agnes Martin. I think that is part of what gave me the courage to write about her, this sense that I could never do it right, I could never be her. The silliness of trying to match her project in and of itself, I think it’s very silly, very, very silly. I am currently standing here with my dog who features in the book. There’s no way I was not going to touch my dog. Martin would never [inaudible] a pet.

DN: She said something like artists shouldn’t have pets, friends, or lovers.

JN: No, it’s just a distraction. We know she had lovers.

DN: Right, and friends.

JN: And friends. Maybe there aren’t pets so maybe she really stuck with the pets.

DN: She might have been friends with some of the bears before she skinned them. [laughter]

JN: Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. I think that gave me a lot of courage to fall in love with her and fall in love with her as deeply as I needed to write about her. You mentioned the carnality of the book or the sex in the book. It’s like that was one of the only preserving parts of my life when I was pregnant was the fact that I realized, “Oh, I’m not just a pregnant body.” The idea that one would then renounce that seemed absurd to me. Martin’s difference from me was so useful because it allowed me to see I think more clearly what I did and didn’t aspire to in her and perhaps to be more critical. I wish I had better badam-bam things right there. [laughter]

DN: The badam-bam is good enough. Thinking about the future, you’ve said that having a child has completely changed how you write, that you write closer to the body, closer to love, and closer to positivity now. You’ve also said, “I did not expect that being depressed during pregnancy could lead to wellness.” I know you have a fourth book of poetry coming out next year called Domestorexia and I was wondering what you could tell us about it and if it reflects some of these shifts in yourself since motherhood that you described.

JN: No, not at all.

DN: Not at all? [laughter]

JN: Not at all. It’s a totally [Bizarro Cornell] box of pandemic isolation. It’s a book that I think delights in unwinding the cuckoo clock a little bit. It’s really funky I think. It’s not necessarily happiness or joy born. It’s not necessarily conceived of in the deepest melancholy like the way Martin wrote of Tundra, one of the last paintings she made before she left New York in 1967. But it’s a little more adult than some of the prose I think I’ve been writing. I think the prose that I’ve been writing, short stories, some essays that I’ve been working on about looking at art with my son, those are closer to that love, positivity, and joy. The prose I feel like has more dare I say heart and flesh and blood to it. I also have another poetry manuscript that I’m working on that I haven’t figured out what’s happening with yet but that manuscript is a book-length poem that’s about the speaker’s long-term obsession with Andy Kaufman. That book isn’t particularly bleak or dark but it’s still a little bit critical let’s say and maybe a little below the line. Maybe in poetry, I am below the line more than I am in prose these days anyway. Again, I think a poem is a good size for being below the line. It’s a nice dose of below-the-line-ness. [laughter] Whereas a piece of prose, I don’t know if I love to read a book of prose that’s below the line. Maybe at one point I did it, but not always these days. Sometimes it’s really quite difficult. I don’t know if that’s the experience I want to create for readers with a book-length narrative.

DN: Well, I look forward to all those. Thank you for being on the show today, JoAnna.

JN: Thank you for having me, David.

DN: We’re talking today to JoAnna Novak about her latest book, the memoir Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.

Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find out more about JoAnna Novak’s work at For the bonus audio archive, Novak contributes a reading of the book Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, a weird and funny story illustrated some 60 years ago by Maurice Sendak. This joins supplemental readings by so many of our past guests, long-form interviews with translators, some craft talks, and more. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit from joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests. Every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources of each conversation, things I discovered while preparing for it, things referenced during it, and places to explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards from the Tin House Early Readership subscription getting 12 books over the course of the year months before they’re available to the general public to a bundle of books that are selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the Summer and Winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at