The Step­moth­er by Ger­hard Munthe on Wiki­me­dia Com­mons, edit­ed by Alex Lezberg

Once upon a time” is one of the first phras­es we come to asso­ciate with sto­ry­telling. It con­jures up a long-ago past, a world unlike our own. But, as authors Idra Novey and Sab­ri­na Orah Mark know, fairy tales can also par­al­lel our present-day lives.

Such is the case in Novey’s Take What You Need and Mark’s Hap­pi­ly. Set in Trump-era Appalachia, Take What You Need is a nov­el that fol­lows the sto­ries of Jean, an artist resid­ing in an under­served town, and Leah, Jean’s estranged step­daugh­ter from a for­mer mar­riage. Hap­pi­ly is a mem­oir-in-essays that often dips into the sur­re­al. Among oth­er things, it chron­i­cles Mark’s expe­ri­ence in the Amer­i­can South as a moth­er and step­moth­er in a mul­tira­cial Jew­ish family.

In this con­ver­sa­tion, Novey and Mark dis­cuss reli­gion, race, inter­gen­er­a­tional ties, and belong­ing in Amer­i­ca. They also con­tem­plate writ­ing itself — and how fairy tales help them intone the for­bid­den like a spell.

Kyra Lisse: Both of you are authors of poet­ry as well as prose. What are your thoughts on mov­ing between genres?

Idra Novey: Each nov­el I’ve writ­ten so far emerged out of a scene or moment I’d pre­vi­ous­ly explored in a poem. The first scene I wrote for Take What You Need came from a poem I wrote sev­er­al years ear­li­er, about a group of teenagers on the bank of a creek in my home­town. The voic­es in that poem, the con­sol­ing humor of the speak­ers, helped me fig­ure out the sen­si­bil­i­ty I was writ­ing toward in the novel.

I return often to the sto­ries of Grace Paley, who also came to fic­tion from poet­ry. Paley didn’t adhere to main­stream expec­ta­tions for plot or char­ac­ter, which is why her uncon­ven­tion­al sto­ries have endured. She had bril­liant instincts for how to pare a scene down and trust images and inter­ac­tions to con­vey larg­er social ten­sions, the way a poem would. When I was work­ing on the first drafts of Take What You Need, I’d go back and read Paley’s open­ing lines. They helped me clar­i­fy, over numer­ous drafts, what I need­ed to leave implic­it in the nov­el about the chal­lenges of mak­ing art in Appalachia.

Sab­ri­na Orah Mark: Many years ago I met a poem, but when she opened her coat, she looked like a sto­ry. And when she spoke, she spoke essay, though her first lan­guage was poet­ry. She spoke with a beau­ti­ful accent. And she moved like a nov­el in the evening, but in the morn­ing she moved like a line of ancient verse. Which is to say, she is the poem that I wish all my writ­ing would be.

KL: Near the begin­ning of your book, you express skep­ti­cism about the age-old advice for writ­ers to tell the truth,” as if there is only one kind. What does truth” mean to you, beyond the con­ven­tion­al fiction/​nonfiction bina­ry? How does that play out in Hap­pi­ly?

SOM: Truths reveal them­selves to me when I fol­low an image past the bor­ders of my sto­ry. So, for exam­ple, in one chap­ter, I fol­low a shard of glass from my sons’ bro­ken iPad to the beak of a crow. Fol­low­ing images as far as they can go, and then even fur­ther, and then fur­ther still, allows me to access an imag­i­na­tive land­scape where uncom­fort­able truths, beau­ti­ful truths, hor­ri­ble truths, and impos­si­ble truths all grow.

KL: Fairy tales are cen­tral to each of your books. In Take What You Need, they act as a kind of salve, help­ing Leah cope with the news of Jean’s death. Idra, what inspired you to include fairy tales in your book?

IN: My rela­tion­ship to fairy tales shift­ed after read­ing them aloud, in Span­ish, to my chil­dren. My spouse is Chilean, and every year we vis­it rel­a­tives in Chile over the hol­i­days. They have giv­en my kids many hand-me-down books of fairy tales in Span­ish. When I read them to my chil­dren, some of the trans­la­tion choic­es would strike me as wordy or awk­ward, and I would rephrase what I read aloud, replac­ing what one of the dwarfs said, or Gretel’s ques­tions to her broth­er in the woods. I knew I would even­tu­al­ly write a nov­el that touched on the inti­ma­cy of recon­fig­ur­ing fairy tales for a child. I need­ed some dis­tance from those years of moth­er­ing small chil­dren before I could write about that time with inven­tive­ness, two nov­els later.

KL: Sab­ri­na, for you fairy tales are like fun­house mir­rors, exag­ger­at­ing real­i­ty so that we can see our own lives reflect­ed back at us. I won­der if you could talk more about how fairy tales func­tion in your writing.

SOM: I have a ter­ri­ble mem­o­ry, and I want­ed a place (oth­er than my brain) to store the beau­ti­ful, strange things my sons say to me. Like, Don’t wor­ry, Mama, I’ll teach you how to but­ton your sweater for when you’re small again.” Hap­pi­ly began as a desire to record, and the desire to keep my sons safe. As if writ­ing down every­thing they said would cre­ate an armor for them to wear. Rais­ing Black Jew­ish boys in the Amer­i­can South, so far away from where I was raised (emo­tion­al­ly, phys­i­cal­ly, and cul­tur­al­ly), felt like putting togeth­er a puz­zle with half the pieces miss­ing. Instead of going all the way back to the world I grew up in, back to New York, back in time, back to where I could and couldn’t return — I decid­ed to turn to fairy tales, a place even old­er than child­hood. Through fairy tales, I was able to tell sto­ries I had been too shy, or afraid, to tell before. The fairy tale held my hand and assured me that every­thing I felt had already been felt and would be felt again.

Fol­low­ing images as far as they can go, and then even fur­ther, and then fur­ther still, allows me to access an imag­i­na­tive land­scape where uncom­fort­able truths, beau­ti­ful truths, hor­ri­ble truths, and impos­si­ble truths all grow.

KL: On the top­ic of par­ent­ing, your works inter­ro­gate the role of the step­moth­er, both in fairy tales and in prac­tice. As an arche­type, the step­moth­er is impos­si­bly cru­el to her stepchild(ren), and some­times even mur­der­ous, can­ni­bal­is­tic. In real life, being a step­moth­er can be — to use your term, Sab­ri­na — grim work.”

Sab­ri­na, your inter­pre­ta­tion of the step­moth­er fig­ure in lit­er­a­ture could be viewed as a sort of midrash. You read the stepmother’s desire to ten­der­ize, serve, and cook the child as a way to replant the child into the body of the fam­i­ly.” Could you talk a lit­tle more about this desire?

SOM: At the cen­ter of so many fairy tales is the ques­tion of belong­ing. Who will inher­it the king­dom? Who will be aban­doned in the for­est? Mir­ror, mir­ror on the wall,” as I write in Hap­pi­ly, who is the moth­er­est moth­er of them all?” My step­moth­er midrash — I love that you called it that — came out of the truth of my step­moth­er­ing, which is filled with love and despair and anger and hope. It led me to under­stand that the stepmother’s mon­strous­ness in fairy tales might in fact be the stepmother’s desire for these chil­dren to be her own flesh and blood — to belong to her so she can belong more to them.

KL: Idra, Leah recounts that when she was a child, Jean would assure her that she wasn’t like the step­moth­er in Snow White,” who attempts to eat Snow White’s liv­er and lungs. All I want is a lit­tle nib­ble at your heart,” Jean would joke. She also likens her­self to the wolf in Lit­tle Red Rid­ing Hood” — a fig­ure who eats Red’s grand­moth­er and then pre­tends to be her. How might these moments be respond­ing to the fairy-tale step­moth­er trope?

IN: From the age of eight, I was aware that my step­moth­er had a strong aver­sion to the word step­moth­er.” She didn’t want to be asso­ci­at­ed with the vil­lain­ous fairy-tale tropes from Snow White” and Cin­derel­la.” She was uneasy about stand­ing out as a step­moth­er in our small con­ser­v­a­tive town, and she did stand out. She expe­ri­enced decades of what the writer Leslie Jami­son iden­ti­fied, after becom­ing a step­moth­er, as the par­tic­u­lar lone­li­ness” that comes with dwelling out­side the bounds of the most famil­iar sto­ry line” of moth­er­hood. I want­ed to read a con­tem­po­rary nov­el about that par­tic­u­lar lone­li­ness, about a step­moth­er and her grown daugh­ter who live in stark­ly dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try and no longer speak, but who miss each oth­er tremen­dous­ly. Since this nov­el didn’t exist, I did what writ­ers do: I start­ed imag­in­ing char­ac­ters and the mis­un­der­stand­ings that would estrange them from each other.

The scene took years to write, which is why I knew it was worth writ­ing. Every ver­sion of it made me deeply uneasy. If there’s no risk in a scene, no larg­er ques­tion that feels impos­si­ble to resolve, why write it?

KL: I’d like to turn to the rela­tion­ship between race, reli­gion, and region­al­i­ty in the US. Sab­ri­na, you grew up in New York and now live with your fam­i­ly in Geor­gia. You write about rais­ing two Black Jew­ish sons in the South — about how, in the midst of racism and anti­semitism, they won’t ever be grant­ed a bub­ble” of safe­ty. In Take What You Need, Leah, who lives in New York, returns with her hus­band and young son to her child­hood town in the Alleghe­ny Moun­tains of Appalachia. While they are parked at a gas sta­tion and con­vers­ing in Span­ish, a white woman directs a racist com­ment toward Leah’s son.

Could you talk about the impact of mov­ing one from part of the US to anoth­er, and how that tran­si­tion affects your narrator’s expe­ri­ence with racism? What about antisemitism?

IN: For two decades, I’ve been mak­ing the long dri­ve between where I live in New York and where I grew up in the Alleghe­ny High­lands of west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia. On my many trips back and forth, I’ve felt an increas­ing urge to write about the phys­i­cal and psy­chic space between them.

Leah is an invent­ed char­ac­ter, and that scene at the gas sta­tion is not based on any­thing I’ve expe­ri­enced. Unlike Leah, I’ve nev­er lied to a stranger about hav­ing a hatch­et in my trunk. The scene took years to write, which is why I knew it was worth writ­ing. Every ver­sion of it made me deeply uneasy. If there’s no risk in a scene, no larg­er ques­tion that feels impos­si­ble to resolve, why write it?

While this is not the first book in which I’ve writ­ten about anti­semitism and racism, it’s the first in which I’ve exam­ined them as foun­da­tion­al aspects of where I grew up, and of Appalachi­an real­i­ty today. In my pub­lic school, it was not uncom­mon for class­mates to use jew” as a verb. Peo­ple con­tin­ue to graf­fi­ti swastikas on the syn­a­gogue in my home­town. In the nov­el, Jean has nev­er left the area and feels resigned to anti­semitism and big­otry in a way that Leah, who now lives in New York, finds atrocious.

In a recent pod­cast inter­view with Bar­bara King­solver, Ezra Klein ques­tions Kingsolver’s fram­ing of landown­ing Appalachi­ans as the real, essen­tial Amer­i­cans” who pro­vide food for city-dwellers.” Klein points out that Kingsolver’s real” Amer­i­cans own land because oth­er Amer­i­cans, who are not white or Chris­t­ian, were threat­ened and pushed out. Klein brings up his once-rur­al Jew­ish rel­a­tives as an exam­ple. There are also many rur­al Jews, like my great-grand­par­ents, who start­ed scrap­yards because they weren’t wel­come in agriculture.

The Appalachi­an we” that King­solver and J. D. Vance use with such ease while pro­mot­ing their books is not a we” that I would ever use. I’ve spo­ken with Affrilachi­an writ­ers who find King­solver and Vance’s use of this unqual­i­fied we” quite trou­bling as well. On Klein’s pod­cast, King­solver insists that she’s just speak­ing for the larg­er net­work.” She doesn’t acknowl­edge that white suprema­cy is the larg­er net­work. She doesn’t engage with Klein’s obser­va­tion, or the long his­to­ry of sun­down towns in Appalachia — like the one in which I grew up — where white landown­ers forced Black and Mex­i­can Amer­i­can res­i­dents out of town at gunpoint.

SOM: I think most writ­ers and artists are out­siders in one way or anoth­er. I nev­er exact­ly felt like I belonged where I came from, and now I cer­tain­ly don’t belong where I am. But if you add up all these not-belong­ings, they open a door into an imag­i­na­tion that feels like home to me. What is it that Gertrude Stein’s Ten­der But­tons always reminds me? Every­thing is in exile, and it is exile where every­thing belongs.

That said, when my chil­dren as Black Jew­ish boys, and my hus­band as a Black Jew­ish man move through the world, I know they are vul­ner­a­ble in ways many of us are not. But I also believe this vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is a lan­guage of pow­er and poet­ry. The four of us share some of this lan­guage, and some of it belongs only to the three of them.

KL: In addi­tion to the aspects of fam­i­ly we’ve already dis­cussed, your books also raise ques­tions about moth­er­hood on a broad scale.

In lit­er­a­ture as in life, moth­ers are often expect­ed to be per­fect.” In what ways do your books respond to this expectation?

IN: Both my moth­er and step­moth­er are high­ly uncon­ven­tion­al peo­ple. In my own par­ent­ing years, I’ve grav­i­tat­ed toward moth­ers who dis­re­gard main­stream guide­lines for moth­er­hood, even though they rec­og­nize that this can have a high social cost. That cost is some­thing I’ll like­ly write about for the rest of my life.

SOM: Ha. Oh, lit­er­a­ture — how wrong you are! I hope Hap­pi­ly asks what the rela­tion­ship is between moth­er and mon­ster and moth­er and mouth and moth­er and mut­ter and moth­er and more and moth­er and moth. Is Moth­er a lan­guage we speak? Is Moth­er a place on all the maps inside us? Is Moth­er the inde­ci­pher­able text? Or a Roset­ta Stone? Or all of these ques­tions lined up on this table like bones?

If any­thing, I think writ­ing is about giv­ing up con­trol. It’s about a kind of rad­i­cal lis­ten­ing. And moth­er­hood was very good at teach­ing me how to do both those things.

KL: In The Silence of Witch­es,” you state that so much of your writ­ing is shaped by your children.

SOM: Yes, moth­er­hood left me more porous. As if the skin between me and the world became thin­ner, more trans­par­ent. My insides, I’m sor­ry to say, began to show. At first I thought, shit, what a mess. Some­one, prob­a­bly me, needs to clean this all up. How could I write, I won­dered, under these cir­cum­stances? What I real­ized was that the give I felt, the sur­ren­der, I think I called it, was what I need­ed to become a bet­ter writer. For a long time I believed writ­ing was about con­trol, about shap­ing a sto­ry, but now I’m not so sure. If any­thing, I think writ­ing is about giv­ing up con­trol. It’s about a kind of rad­i­cal lis­ten­ing. And moth­er­hood was very good at teach­ing me how to do both of those things.

KL: In Take What You Need, Jean devotes her­self to her Man­gle­ments,” which is what she calls the sculp­tures she welds. The term man­gle” has com­pli­cat­ed con­no­ta­tions. Idra, how do those con­no­ta­tions per­tain to Jean’s rela­tion­ship to her art?

IN: Man­gle” is a word of uncer­tain ori­gin. It might come from the Ger­man­ic mahaign­er (“to muti­late”), which shares a root with may­hem,” or from the Anglo-French word mahangler (“to cut to pieces”). I imag­ined the weld­ing Jean does with dis­card­ed met­al as man­gling in all those sens­es. She isn’t afraid of may­hem and serendip­i­ty. She seeks it, smash­ing up mir­rors and work­ing with what­ev­er scrap met­al hap­pens to be avail­able at her cousin’s scrap­yard. What Jean wants from her art, and from oth­ers in her life, fluc­tu­ates over the course of any giv­en day — and this is true for me as well. What I want from art in the morn­ing is rarely what I’m crav­ing at night. Want is like weath­er and sim­i­lar­ly hard to fore­cast. When I’m in Brook­lyn, I crave qui­et, to write out­side unob­served by neigh­bors. But when I’m back vis­it­ing fam­i­ly in west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, the con­tin­u­ous qui­et out­side makes me rest­less. What I gen­er­al­ly want is to get away from myself, which is impossible.

She explains that this hap­pens grad­u­al­ly and painstak­ing­ly — even pass­ing through the oppo­site of what it approach­es.” To tran­scend the exist­ing con­fines of genre and gen­der requires a will­ing­ness to write beyond one’s ini­tial intentions.

KL: I want to con­clude by dis­cussing a theme com­mon in the fairy-tale genre: dis­obe­di­ence. In Take What You Need, Jean remem­bers how her father would refuse her entreaties to help him build things, call­ing her ideas girlie bull­shit” — which is one of the dri­ving forces that lat­er push­es her toward her art. Sab­ri­na, in Hap­pi­ly, you write about Blue­beard,” a folk­tale in which a man for­bids his wife to open a cer­tain door. 

Giv­en that the words genre” and gen­der” share a root, what do you hope your read­ers take away about sto­ry­telling, women, and the for­bid­den? As a writer, a woman, and a moth­er, what might you lose by dis­obey­ing? What might you gain?

IN: Art is a form of social dis­obe­di­ence. Jean knows she would be social­ly reward­ed for kneel­ing out­side and plant­i­ng bego­nias instead of plug­ging in her TIG torch and weld­ing sculp­tures in her liv­ing room.

I don’t like clut­ter on my kitchen counter. But if I con­tin­u­al­ly address the clut­ter, I’m not read­ing. I’m not rewrit­ing the next sec­tion of a nov­el, work­ing toward some­thing deep­er and less expect­ed. The epi­graph of the Lispec­tor nov­el I trans­lat­ed, The Pas­sion Accord­ing to G. H., offers a mes­sage about artis­tic obe­di­ence that has stayed with me through many books now. Lispec­tor doesn’t use the word dis­obe­di­ence” or art.” What she writes about is process, how dif­fi­cult it is for read­ers and writ­ers to go beyond what’s com­fort­able and famil­iar. She explains that this hap­pens grad­u­al­ly and painstak­ing­ly — even pass­ing through the oppo­site of what it approach­es.” To tran­scend the exist­ing con­fines of genre and gen­der requires a will­ing­ness to write beyond one’s ini­tial intentions.

SOM: I strug­gled with ver­sions of this ques­tion the entire time I was work­ing on Hap­pi­ly, and came to this: I might write as an act of dis­obe­di­ence, but I nev­er write as an act of revenge or to bribe or steal or be cel­e­brat­ed or feared. I write so I can have some­one to talk to. I believe inten­tion accounts for at least nine­ty-two per­cent of every book’s soul. Which is to say, my inten­tion was to write through my weeds and roots, through the whole dark scary for­est, even if that meant some­times cross­ing into the for­bid­den; I think my clos­est friends and fam­i­ly feel clos­er to me because of it — maybe because I now feel clos­er to myself.

Kyra Lisse is Jew­ish Book Council’s Edi­to­r­i­al Fel­low. She’s a grad­u­ate of Franklin & Mar­shall Col­lege in Lan­cast­er, PA, where she stud­ied cre­ative writ­ing and Latin. Cur­rent­ly, Kyra is a sec­ond-year MFA can­di­date and grad­u­ate assis­tant at Hollins Uni­ver­si­ty in Roanoke, VA, con­cen­trat­ing on cre­ative non­fic­tion. Her email is kyra@​jewishbooks.​org.