A Conversation with Nora Boydston
Kate Partridge: A Woman Alone was selected as the winner of the Gazing Grain Press Prose Chapbook Contest this summer by judge Lily Hoang. Can you tell us a bit about how this collection of short pieces took this form as a chapbook manuscript? Is this a component of a longer work?
Nora Boydston: These stories began as completely unrelated pieces and were written over a period of a few years while I was living in New York City. After I finished the MFA program at The New School, I had a lot of short pieces and saw a common thread linking many of them—an unnamed female character navigating the world on her own. I originally put these pieces together for a chapbook contest at a different press where it was a semi-finalist but didn’t win. Being both encouraged and discouraged, I put the collection away for a time while I pursued my teaching career and when I came back to it, I made significant revisions. This resulted in what I think is a group of individual stories that clearly speak to each other in interesting ways, and became something greater than the sum of its parts. KP: One of the things I find striking about this work is the way you foreground the discussion of different iterations of sex and desire. The narrators have an incredible range of experiences, from complete, assertive agency to a scene in which a character believes she has been drugged. I am also interested in how the narrators have a remarkable ability to observe their own bodies in a way that seems very influenced by realism. What interests you in writing about women's bodies and sexuality in this way?
NB: I think about and write about the body a lot. Bodily functions, sensations, pleasure and pain—the little everyday experiences as well as more monumental ones—these are common themes in my writing. Especially the point where one’s inner psychological/emotional life intersects, and influences, and is influenced by, one’s physical reality. I don’t necessarily set out to write about sex or sexuality, but it is one of the many things that happens in this space of overlap between the mind and the body. I think these stories are about loneliness, confusion, curiosity, desire—and the varying degrees of satisfaction and understanding that come from the exploration of these human impulses. In this way, I did end up showing different levels of agency a woman can have in her experiences: a moment in which she can reject a potential partner on an intangible whim, to feeling objectified yet complicit in her own objectification, to an incident where there is an obvious lack of consent. However, these are not just abstract ideas young women must grapple with, but real everyday experiences they must live through.
KP: Another idea that takes precedence in this manuscript is observation. Your characters are aware that they are being observed, and especially that they are being observed as women, in every circumstance; I love how your style of narration demonstrates how consuming the experience of being a constant subject can be. The characters are also aware of their own power to see and evaluate the river of people around them, and then engaging in a complex series of responses aimed at collapsing or creating that distance. Can you elaborate on how you view these interactions, and why you've chosen the title A Woman Alone?
NB: When you’re alone for long periods of time, you become very keenly aware of not only yourself, but the world around you. A Woman Alone is an observer; she possesses a heightened consciousness because of her aloneness. So, she is constantly observing and interpreting—her body, her emotions, her experiences, her relationships to others, her place in the world. The stories in this collection play with the idea of A Woman Alone’s role in the world—and by “A Woman Alone” I mean an unpartnered, or “single” woman. I write about this because there are a lot of stereotypes and baggage about unpartnered women in our society, and I wanted to explore and break apart some of those accepted ideas. First, that A Woman Alone is vulnerable – the world is a dangerous place – and that idea is given some attention in these stories. But a different concept that I love and really wanted to celebrate in this book is that A Woman Alone is, herself, dangerous. A Woman Alone is considered an aberration; she is strange, unpredictable, and inscrutable, perhaps even to herself. What is A Woman Alone for? What is her role in society? What is she capable of, and what is she entitled to? This is something I joke about in the titular story. However, being alone can also distort reality and this is something that is shown through the narration and in the characters’ interactions with others. This distortion can heighten (or dull) the senses, feed compulsions and obsessions, or have a dissociative effect. So, the title refers to this status or state of being alone, being an unpartnered woman in the world, but also points to the idea that while these experiences are not unique to one woman, they are shared across womanhood, and they are specifically women’s experiences.
KP: Some of these pieces are invested in a sort of associative revision of themselves and their initial positions, in my mind. For instance, one narrative operates at a direct level while the narrator prods the story further in footnotes; in another, the narrator ends a sexual rendezvous by handing a hat to her lover through a now-chained door. I particularly liked reading "Story," only to find an assertion at the end of a subsequent story that the narrative offered "no lesson to be learned." How do you think about contradictions and re-positionings operating in this manuscript?
NB: Some of these pieces are experimental in form and I played with different points of view and ways to tell a story. The two pieces you mention were specifically about stories—what details do we include, what’s the moral, what stories do we tell the world and what stories do we tell ourselves? I think the obviously metafictional moments accomplish a number of things: they remind you that this is a story, a constructed reality, which in turn might remind you that although it may be fiction, similar events are all too commonplace in real life. But they also comment on or question the nature and purpose of storytelling. These are some of the ideas that were rolling around in my head when these stories were written. They came from what I was reading at the time, but also my experiences in graduate school and writing workshops. I was frustrated by the accepted ideas of what a story is, what a story should contain, and what must happen in a story. I felt an unease and uncertainty but also a possibility. So, I wanted that contradiction of yes, these are fictional stories, but they are also very real things that happen to women all the time. In addition, I was asking, what’s the point of writing these stories, and what’s the point of reading them? What do they accomplish? Clearly, I don’t have any easy answers, but I think it’s valuable to begin by asking the questions.
KP: As you, of course, know, Gazing Grain is an inclusive feminist press. What about this manuscript do you think of as feminist? How has your work and thinking been influenced by feminist writers?
NB: I’m very excited to work with Gazing Grain because I strongly identify as a feminist. It’s hard to put a finger on how my work has been influenced by feminist writers specifically, other than the obvious fact that simply being able to write openly about women’s lives and issues is a debt I owe to those who have come before me. What I believe is feminist about this manuscript is the honest exploration of what it’s like to be a young woman in a society that is at best skeptical of you, and at worst, openly violent towards you, without completely losing a sense of humor.
KP: Can you tell us what you're working on now?
NB: I used to write a lot of short pieces, like the ones in this collection, which come quite quickly. But now I’m working on some longer stories—ten- to twenty-thousand words. They take more time to come together and my process includes a lot of unstructured, unhurried writing and then revision. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those very productive and prolific writers. My stories become like a home I live in, and sometimes I dwell there a little too long.
Nora Boydston is a writer, editor, and teacher. She earned her MFA in Fiction from the New School. Her essays and book reviews have been published in The Curator Magazine, Publishers Weekly, and The Collagist.