Photograph of Annie DeWitt by Jerome Jakubiec

An Interview with Annie DeWitt

Annie DeWitt’s work represents a sort of minimalism comparable to such writers as Amy Hempel and Christine Schutt. Her writing has appeared in Tin House, Granta, NOON, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere, and her short story collection, Closest Without Going Over, was shortlisted for the Mary McCarthy Prize. Her newest novel, White Nights in Split Town City, is about a twelve year-old girl named Jean in the summer of 1991 who is leaving adolescence and discovering sexuality. It is out in August from Tyrant Books. We spoke via email.

—Brandon Hobson

BRANDON HOBSON: I know you spent a long time working on this book, but how long exactly? What was the process like?

ANNIE DEWITT: It’s been seven years total from the day I penned the first page to just now as the book is arriving in the world. I started it in 2009 in a workshop for Ben Marcus. Originally it was a short-short about a light rail system run by a pre-pubescent girl which crossed the U.S. In total the story was literally 1.5 pages. Those pages are long gone.

I wasn’t one of those kids who wrote a novel in MFA school. My thesis when I graduated was primarily short stories and short shorts. The novel was something I started during research arts year. Ben Marcus had recommended Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life to me in a conference once. I was reading that and Christine Schutt’s brilliant short novel Florida when I decided this was a novel that needed to be written. I think I always knew this story about the rural road where I grew up needed to be told. It was boiling in my blood somewhere. Waiting to come out. I just didn’t know when.

BH: You wouldn’t expect the writing to have taken so long, given that the book itself is pretty short.

AD: A factor was time and money. I worked during all seven of those years, sometimes three or four jobs at once, and still do. In the beginning I was working freelance for The Princeton Review, penning short descriptions of various colleges for their Best Colleges and Best Law Schools type guides. I lived in a seven-foot wide studio with my partner, a photographer. We waited for the salad bar to go on sale after 7pm to eat dinner. I kept salt and pepper packets from the to-go places in an empty tea box in our one cupboard. Sometimes I walked the thirty blocks to work just to save money on the subway. Often, I would have to put the book aside for some freelance assignment. One year I was working a full time job from home in Brooklyn on top of that. There are literally photos of me with two laptops open: the one the Princeton Review gave me to run student surveys of their colleges and then my Mac next to it with my writing (which wasn’t progressing much then).

I think it’s important to talk about the reality of being a writer. The glossy author photos don’t really speak to that. To the sacrifices that are made. And the times when you watch your family and friends who have chosen other paths make money, get married, move up and out in the world, have kids. You wonder what direction your life is truly going in and have to grapple with some difficult choices, all without knowing whether or not you’ll succeed. That’s, to date, the hardest thing I’ve had to face. My own self-doubt.

BH: Not many jobs have a seven-year waiting period before someone tells you if you’re any good. Did self-doubt play a different role back when you were just getting started?

AD: The beginning was an oddly hopeful and difficult time. I was besieged by a strange twist of luck at the start. I signed with an agent before leaving Columbia. I read the first three pages of my then “novel” at thesis reading. An agent heard them and signed me on a thirty page spec. I thought this was it. It turned out the relationship wasn’t a good fit. My one regret is not being honest with myself about that sooner. I was so scared of not finding another agent that I hung on despite knowing from the long waiting periods between emails and her notes, that each draft was taking me further from the book I originally intended to write. I took a year at one point and rewrote the entire book in the third person.

In some ways I am glad for this—it allowed me to see the interiority of all these characters. And yet, ultimately one night once we had moved to Brooklyn and could finally afford a one bedroom off the Franklin stop (far before any signs of gentrification started there), I was walking down the street with my friend Maya, also a writer, who is partially psychic. She said, “I had a dream. You were at a podium giving a reading. But you were singing.”

After that I realized the book needed to be in the first person. It had always been Jean’s story. Her voice was so essential to that. I went all the way back to the original draft and started again from there.

BH: Jean’s voice is terrific throughout the book, and one thing that I find particularly fascinating about her is how mature she is toward sexuality. For instance, early in the novel she hears her parents having sex and, strangely, describes it as something sad in her mother’s voice.

AD: One of the challenges with the book has always been that we don’t have access to the key character, the mother’s, interiority. We don’t know why she leaves—beyond what Jean observes or witnesses of her parents’ interactions and how they are reflected in the adult world and relationships around her.

I’ve always admired how writers like Schutt and Salinger accomplish so much through the use of the unsaid. As a child, you have so little of the world explained to you. Your perception of events colors everything. So much of what you know is defined by the perimeter of what you don’t know, which is always expanding. While you don’t yet have access to adult sexuality, you understand that it is a powerful tool—much like money, or the lack thereof—in shaping human interaction. I also watched a lot of nature documentaries on PBS. Anything you need to know about sex, you can pretty much learn from there. Beyond that, I grew up at an early age on a road inhabited primarily by elderly. My sister and I were the only young girls living there.

Being that I was an audacious young reader and rather introspective from a young age, I really reveled in building an interior world while observing the environs around me. These old wrinkly people were fascinating to me. I felt like I was one of them.

BH: You mention two writers I love—Schutt and Salinger—and this idea of the unsaid, what’s implied, is something I’m very interested in regarding my own work. Sometimes people tell me that too much of it can make things ambiguous. Especially when you have a first person narrator. But you do it so well.

How does leaving something undetermined affect the rest of the narrative? And do you think there’s anything to be said for purposeful ambiguity?

AD: I also love the use of the unsaid in your work, Brandon. I too have been on the receiving end of the criticism that my work is somehow “ambiguous.” The phrase I often get is “hinted at.” To me this type of criticism is too easy. Though I agree that things should never be intentionally left unclear in fiction—as that causes the narrative to lose authority—I think there is a vast difference between lack of clarity and a purposeful use of the unsaid as a way of heightening tension. To me, allowing the viewer to understand subtle cues is a respect I always want to afford my reader—the acknowledgement that I don’t need to explain everything to him or her.

Life is not always explained. When I used to teach summer classes at Columbia, I would often take my students to the Hungarian Pastry Shop on the Upper West Side. I would ask them to bring a notebook and to surreptitiously document, word for word, all the conversations they overheard. When we came back to the classroom we read these aloud. What we heard was fascinating. People never talk directly at one another. They seem to always talk in circles.

BH: So for you, leaving things unsaid is less a technique or a trick than an attempt to reproduce real life, real conversation. When you put it that way, it seems in line with a lot of the rest of the book, which was inspired by the place you grew up. Do you think of your novel as a realist work?

AD: To me, “realism” is a false way of codifying the messiness of lived experience into a kind of plainer, easier to digest, version of reality that just doesn’t capture the truth of human interaction. We are constantly reading bodily clues, understanding tone and atmosphere, and allowing memory to distort the present. Time does not unravel like one consecutive fishing line which you cast out into the water to create a cohesive arc. That’s just not been my experience. It would be untruthful for me to write life that way. My own understanding of narrative is a lot closer perhaps to what Didion talks about in her essays. I’ve heard these called a “mélange of vignettes.” To me, this is bull. Didion’s “vignettes” (a perfectly unsuitable term, in my eyes, as it somehow genders her work and implies a kind of slight or feminine tone) are a reflection of life. It is the fractured, misaligned, recombinant quality of life that makes it so full. In that sense, this passage of Didion has always struck me as God’s word: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ideas with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria of what is our actual experience.”

I’ve always been interested in writers who refuse to impose that narrative line. Who refuse to still life. I think Sontag embodies a similar kind of message in her essays in illness—she says that illness breaks up experience. It questions our understanding of the body, what is whole, what is truth. And of course we see this in the work of writers like Anne Carson (who I adore) and, more recently, the brilliant Maggie Nelson. To me, fiction which tries to impose narrative, while perhaps popular in the moment, doesn’t last. It lacks the kind of transcendental quality that literature which defies generations and time, has. Russell Edson once said fiction should aim to capture “experience made into an artifact formed with the logic of a dream.” Lutz said it this way: “I once later tried to define this kind of sentence as an outcry combining the acoustical elegance of the aphorism with the force and utility of the load-bearing, traditional sentence of more or less conventional narrative.” If I could do that, I’d be happy.

BH: It’s much harder to pull off than people realize. Amy Hempel is another one who comes to mind. She’s just brilliant with every line. And in this book you do it so well through Jean’s voice. I’m thinking particularly of the scenes when she’s around Fender Steelhand. Does she understand her feelings toward him?

AD: Fender Steelhead is the character in White Nights I’m always rooting for. I think we all knew someone like him once. A person who is teetering on the edge of a brutal path which life seems to be pushing him or her down at an age when all your want to do is to root for him or her to turn the other way. To turn the other cheek. There is a line at the beginning of White Nights in which Jean is watching Fender tumble down the hill on the top of his brother’s Jeep and she says something which explains both his situation:

I had the feeling this was the moment in life I’d heard Uncle talk about, the one in which fate comes to a halt in the middle of the road in front of you. In such a moment you were outside of your body watching yourself step over a thin white line that represented a wide unforgiving chasm, but in reality looked so small an inkling you almost mistook it for some fissure the wind had drawn in the sand.

The book is ultimately an exploration of that moment which we all face in life—when you’re presented with some fate which circumstance has dealt you—and you have to choose whether to reject it or surrender. What Jean doesn’t realize in this moment as Fender come hurtling down the hill toward her is that she too is going to be faced with that thin white line that summer.

BH: Yes, and what a great payoff that is for the reader. The last scene I feel I need to mention is the sex scene between Jean and Otto. While trying not to spoil anything, I have to ask if that encounter is maybe the result of an active campaign against our expectations. How difficult was it to write this scene?

AD: It was the most difficult in terms of precision. I omitted writing it until the very last minute. I felt as though to have enough authority to carry it off, I needed to literally track Jean and Otto’s bodies in the room. To nail each of their movements with a kind of explicitness that it almost takes place in slow motion. To allow the reader to want to go with me to where I end up taking him or her. It needed to be explicit, in terms of being well drawn, in order for a reader to believe what I was asking him or her to believe about the legitimacy and the motivating forces behind what transpires between Otto and Jean that evening. However, this precision needed to be juxtaposed by a kind of competing force. I needed to invite in a sense that in the moment of trespass itself, there is some confusion as to who initiates what happens next—i.e. there is the line:

“Just lie back,” I said.
Or, maybe he said, “Just look out the window.”

It was important to me that this scene erupt in its full moral force—i.e. that we understand that in the background his Helene is watching as she dies, she is seeing yet another young girl come into her house who usurps her role as wife and mother by commanding the gaze of her husband and yet who wants to “play the notes in good conscience.” In the background on the TV, America is talking about euthanasia machines—i.e. the right to die. Which begs the question: is this something Helene would have chosen? Is that her moral right? And too, and perhaps saddest of all, Wilson is watching through the window, not fully understanding what transpires between Otto and Jean but knowing that he is once again outside of his own family looking in. Watching his father give his love to someone other than him.

I’ve always believed about fiction that you never want to judge or condemn your characters on the page. Instead you want to reveal what they do in direct light and allow readers to come to their own conclusion. Literature isn’t about presenting a moral condemnation—rather exploring the complex feelings of human life.

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