A Conversation with Rachel Yoder
BY JOSHUA D. GRABER
Rachel Yoder is the author of Nightbitch (Doubleday). She is a graduate of the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program and also holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona. Her writing has been awarded with The Editors’ Prize in Fiction by The Missouri Review and with notable distinctions in Best American Short Stories and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is also a founding editor of draft: the journal of process. Rachel grew up in a Mennonite community in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Ohio. She now lives in Iowa City with her husband and son.
Joshua D. Graber: Nightbitch is as original a novel as I’ve read in a long time. It was a total provocation to my thinking as I read this week, and scenes and sentences are still bouncing around in my mind now that I’ve finished it. I’m curious about the genesis of this idea. How did the story begin to coalesce in your mind? How did you go about first drafting it?
Rachel Yoder: I hadn’t written in two years when I began to write Nightbitch. I was a stay-at-home mom, afraid that perhaps I just wasn’t a writer anymore, despite the previous 15 years I had dedicated to the craft. I had entirely lost myself. What had previously given my life structure and propulsion—a job outside the home, a writing practice, a social life—had been decimated and with it went that thing inside me that needed and wanted to create. I was depressed and angry at this life I hadn’t planned for and didn’t want, though at the same time I felt incredibly lucky and happy to be with my son during his earliest years. Being home with him was what I wanted, but not the way that I had it. It was a conflicted, confusing, hard time. During this time, I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and took note of the passage that goes, “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead.” I thought I would write an essay about this concept of the “art monster,” but instead it became a sort of daily meditation on motherhood and monstrosity, on ambition and biology. Then, after the 2016 election, my rage ballooned into something that I couldn’t contain, and the writing began to spill out of me. This was Nightbitch. She had so much to say. I drafted the book very quickly, in concentrated writing sprints, most notably taking part in Jami Attenberg’s #1000wordsofsummer in 2018 and again that winter with a few writing friends I had met on Twitter.
JDG: I’ve written a lot of horrendous, maudlin stuff over the past five years or so out of my own rage at the blatant cruelty of Trump and his movement. How did you channel and focus your rage? Or did you just let it come out messy and revise later?
RY: There was no reining it in. I had to let it rage its way out of me. The constraints of the book gave me a way of usefully shaping the rage, along with opportunities to play, which I desperately needed during that administration.
JDG: One of the most interesting parts of this book to me is that it questions everything American culture commonly holds about motherhood. The main character’s name is never revealed. She is mostly referred to as “the mother” in the beginning of the book, and by the end, she’s become Nightbitch. While still a mother, she has become something more wild, containing human dignity, as your narrator says, while also drawing from the deep well of her animal self. It’s not either/or. It’s both. I loved that. Was this something that drove you to write the book? Something missing or incomplete about how our culture views womanhood and motherhood?
RY: When I was very young and growing up in a large first-generation Mennonite family (my father as well as all his brothers and sisters had grown up Amish), I saw very quickly that I did not want to grow up to be a woman, making casseroles and washing the dishes. I wanted to grow up to be a man so I could sit around, drink coffee, and tell stories. The men got to have ideas, and the women got to have babies, and I very clearly knew which one I preferred. But biology has a way of, I don’t know, taking over your body? And I eventually did, very much, want to have a baby, in addition to my ideas, but it seemed like a big risk. (Spoiler alert: it was!) Nightbitch was an exploration of how to keep alive that fierce, vital part of the self even as you move into these historically patriarchal institutions of marriage and motherhood. Nightbitch, at her best, is reconfiguring how we might conceive of the “domestic(ated) goddess.”
JDG: But it’s not just motherhood, to me, that you’re complicating here. At the beginning of Nightbitch, the mother and the husband are emotionally estranged even as they live under the same roof. The mother wonders, early in the book: “Why couldn’t her husband say something kind or comforting, I’m so sorry or Thank you for all you do.” By the end of the book, the husband/father, too, has come to a point where he refuses some of the emotionally distant masculinity that he’d previously inhabited and, in several tender scenes, lovingly accepts Nightbitch for who (and perhaps what) she is. Is there a lesson for men here, too? That the hegemonic masculinities practiced by many American men might be doing harm not only to women but also to the men who practice them and the boys they parent?
RY: Absolutely. I think men and ideas about masculinity are a huge piece of the puzzle. It’s been my experience that, in general, men have not been acculturated and taught how to be good partners, how to live outside of themselves, in a context that includes others’ needs and sensations. They have not been encouraged to look inward, to develop the self, to develop skills of relating, cooperating, emoting, caring. I am hopeful for the next generations who still have the chance to learn how to be different men than their fathers and grandfathers were.
JDG: Is there something of this lopsidedness of emotional labor in the way Nightbitch realizes that she is parenting her own son to expect unequal dynamics of care in relationships? And is your hopefulness for the future related at all to changing attitudes around parenting?
RY: I remind myself on a daily basis that it’s my job to teach my son responsibility for domestic tasks and not to allow his own education to be subsumed by my over-mothering. I don’t want to over-mother and over-care for him, but of course I love him so much, so it’s this constant balancing act. I am here to care for him, but part of that caring is teaching him that there is work to be done in a household, and this work is something a man is as responsible for as a woman is.
JDG: One of the beautiful progressions in this book is the mother’s journey from feeling helpless and trapped in her suburban life—having given up her art and career to parent her boy—to becoming Nightbitch, who collapses the distinctions between art and life in the jubilant ending. Was this dichotomy, between powerless acceptance of the script and powerful refusal of it, in your mind as you started? Or did you find it as you were drafting?
RY: I think it was implicitly there when I began writing, but not as beautifully articulated as you’ve put it. And I knew fairly early on that there would be a performance at the end of the book, but I didn’t know what it would entail. I just went back through my files and poked around, and in one ending, Nightbitch receives a book in the mail called Nightbitch, authored by Wanda White. And there are other attempts in my files that didn’t work. I do remember that the ending of the book I wrote absolutely last, even after I had revised much of the rest of the manuscript.
JDG: One of my favorite moments in Nightbitch is the scene at dinner, during which Nightbitch sits with her old artist friends from school as they talk about their projects. One of them makes large-format prints of Instagram photos that sell for obscene amounts of money. The other makes pretentious video installations. Both of them get a lot of attention for their work, while Nightbitch has stopped working and so has been forgotten. She storms from the table, making a mess of it and the restaurant, without explanation. Later, the narrator ventriloquizes Nightbitch’s thoughts about art having become sanitized and careful, out of touch with the animal brutality of nature. Are you meaning to work against some of those notions here? To critique that sanitization?
RY: I do have a sort of allergy against work that is too careful, which I think was triggered by getting not one but two MFAs in creative writing. I absolutely hate snobbery, especially intellectual or artistic pretension, and there is plenty of that to go around in academia. I lost patience for the perfected, toiled-over, self-serious story or essay during my long graduate student tenure and became antsy to upset that, to work against it. What if I wrote a happy thesis? became the most provocative artistic question for me during my second MFA in creative nonfiction. No one was writing anything happy or funny that was concerned with the possibilities of literary playfulness. I was interested in cuteness and playfulness as rebellious artistic acts, and I suppose Nightbitch is also a project that has taken up a similar mantle because it is, at heart, absurd, even if there is also anger and pain and a deeply realistic angst in the story. I don’t think art has to be brutal to be meaningful, but I do personally love art that is taking big chances and making bold decisions rather than operating within some safe and established middle ground. That’s the sort of art I aspire to make.
JDG: Two MFAs! My goodness, I’m still recovering from my single MFA! Much is often made of the “MFA story,” the highly polished, highly workshopped piece that checks all the boxes of competence. The workshop imparts a certain set of expectations on the writer, that safe middle ground, as you say, which is often at odds with playfulness. Did you ever find yourself feeling the pressure to write yourself into that “MFA story” box?
RY: Oh, for sure. I’ve written so many MFA stories! So many! And they were incredibly instructive to write. I understood sentences better after worrying over each one, and the neuroticism that an MFA can inspire was in many ways helpful to embrace for a number of years. Nightbitch has been described as messy by some, and I tend to agree. It’s a mess of a book but it is messy intentionally (though it probably could stand to have one more big revision, but let’s not get into that). Mess as aesthetic was very freeing for me.
JDG: The refusals in this book are so interesting to me. Do you see Nightbitch as a sort of archetype of what power one might find on refusing expectations and inherited cultural mores? The sort of woman found in the book that she finds and that guides her throughout, The Field Guide to Magical Women?
RY: When I was talking to my therapist recently, she interrupted me and said, “Now that voice sounds like a teenager. Who is that who’s talking? It’s a rebellious irritated teenager, right?” And it struck me that this spirit of the teenager is what animates a lot of my work, this sort of bratty, reactionary, what the fuck persona who is unwilling to accept any of the absolute bullshit she sees around her. Maybe she’s a bit naïve. Maybe she is even a bit foolish, but she has a lot of courage and energy and hope for the future. She still believes that change is possible—her imagination, in fact, is one of her greatest strengths—and I think this voice has been what has animated me through the hardest parts of my life and the voice that continues to propel me into middle age. The problem is this voice or persona can also be quite destructive if she gets out of control. I think that the rebellious teen, as embodied in Nightbitch, is looking for a mother of sorts, and that’s why Wanda White, the author of the Field Guide, is so compelling. Here, finally, is a wise, seasoned guide as opposed to an adolescent trailblazer. There’s something safe and comforting about her measured reports drawn from years of travel and study. The rebellious teenager inside Nightbitch longs for this voice of the crone, longs to be able to find that voice for herself, to enter into her own womanhood.
JDG: Though Nightbitch has refused religion, she writes emails to the author of the Field Guide throughout the book—messages that she begins to think of as a sort of prayer. I know from having read your non-fiction over the years that you left a tight-knit religious community yourself. Do you see a sort of loss in such refusal? That without a god, we humans will find something or someone else toward whom to address our deepest longings?
RY: Oh, I think God is still around even though I have left the church and am probably an atheist. On a recent trip, my father, a former Mennonite pastor, said that he thinks God is a force that we move into as we go out into the world, which is a rather progressive way of conceptualizing God for an old Mennonite. And I am with him on this. God is a meditation, is human searching, is a way of being actively engaged with life. Writing is a pathway to God for me. It is my way of being engaged with humanity, both mine and others. It is my way of being a part of a larger community. And yes, leaving the Mennonite church was and is a monumental loss. I’ve ached to find my place in the world ever since, and I’m not sure the loneliness will ever go away.
JDG: That is quite a progressive conception of God! I also don’t think it’s a common one among Christians; it actually reminds me of some of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s ideas, funnily enough. But I think a lot of American Christians have traded “being actively engaged with life” for a sort of uncurious assurance in an after-life. What do you think it is that keeps people from such an active, questioning engagement in life?
RY: Evangelical America has taken rich, complex images and stories and, via base and corrupt readings of the Bible, simplified them down to hollow platitudes. “Personal Lord and Savior” and “Born Again” have the ring of marketing copy. Act now. You don’t want to miss this incredible offer. Evangelical Christianity’s direct-to-consumer salvation offers the same easy story that capitalism does. You simply need to believe, dedicate your life to the cause, and you’ll be rewarded ten-fold. Both stories are bullshit, of course.
It’s much harder work to deliberately question the givens of our society and seek something that feels genuine and authentic. Most people probably don’t have the emotional bandwidth or energy for it, and I can’t blame them. Modern life leaves little time for meaningful contemplation. Beyond that, we aren’t educated in America on how to ask questions and know ourselves. We don’t even really have a meaningful language for talking about this sort of education or facet of our lives. I remember what it was like to try and teach college freshmen basic skills of engaging with language and stories. It was astonishing how little exposure they had by age 18 to subtext and symbol and metaphor. Maybe it’s different now. It’s been surprising to find my “spiritual” community (for lack of a better term) in the writing community. Storytelling and meaning making is an exploration of the deep metaphors and profound images that animate us all, and nearly all writers are on a sort of spiritual journey, though I doubt most would put it in those terms.
JDG: Nightbitch, too, leaves a religious community that, though it isn’t named, reads to me like an Amish community. “Her parents, their religion, claimed pacifism, but there was violence in every day of their lives…” I smiled when I read this section of the book, because I recognize it so clearly in your description. I didn’t grow up Amish—I’m two generations removed—but the (more-)liberal Mennonites from my family also preach pacifism while slaughtering animals and accepting easily the mundane violence that farm work often requires. Do you see a disconnect not only between those beliefs and practices but also between urban/suburban life and the necessary brutality of rural life and the natural world? Have we in the cities become too comfortable? Too soft and disconnected from real-life blood and brutality in our lives and art?
RY: I don’t think I can make any generalizations about city life, but I can say that I admire the sheer quantity of skills that a person acquires growing up on a farm or working rural estate, even if many of those skills I find rather gruesome. But there’s a badassery that comes with knowing how to survive, and I think that’s where my slight disdain for city life might come from. Could these people survive if plunked down in the country? Could they fend for themselves? Well, they probably won’t ever have to, so who cares. But I really did grow up in awe of my parents and how fundamentally capable they were in so many different ways. There’s a sort of pride that comes in being able to make a life for yourself out of very little, and I still carry that pride with me, the pride of not needing much to be happy.
JDG: Even back in her school days, Nightbitch’s art uses dried bones and other techniques that involve varying levels of taxidermy. Just before I began reading your book, I spent several hours enthralled with an exhibit called The Museum of All Things, by Jennifer Angus, at the Mattress Factory here in Pittsburgh, that I found delightful for its employing of taxidermy animals in meticulously arranged dioramas and, in the center of the room, around a dinner table, where a bear and other animals are depicted in a wild scene of feeding themselves. I couldn’t help but think, as I read: did you draw from any contemporary artists in dreaming up Nightbitch?
RY: I received an Iowa Arts Fellowship in 2017 from the Iowa Arts Council which provided me with the funds I needed to secure childcare and thus the time to write again after the birth of my son. I also went through a long weekend seminar with the other fellows, who were filmmakers and painters and musicians. One artist in particular, Lee Running, I connected with. She had most recently been taking roadkill from beside Iowa highways, meticulously cleaning the bones, and then using jeweler tools to carve them into beautiful filigree patterns. She also gilded the inside of the bones. In one piece, she had taken an entire skeleton and re-strung it together, creating blown-glass bones for the ones that were missing. I became obsessed with Lee’s strange and beautiful work, and she became the artistic inspiration for Nightbitch.
JDG: There’s also some significant secondhand grief on Nightbitch’s part, on behalf of her mother, who dreamt of moving to Europe and becoming an opera singer—and had the talent to do it—but instead followed the script, stuffing down her individual desire for the sake of the religious and familial collective. Her mother makes sure to encourage Nightbitch as a girl to leave, to go do her thing. Are you paying some homage here, to the mothers who weren’t able or willing to make their art, but who try to give their children a more expansive life and opportunities to pursue their individual talents?
RY: I realized while writing this book that perhaps my own mother’s demands of excellence from me were her way, conscious or not, of ensuring I would have a different life than she did or, at the very least, be able to pursue my dreams. And I saw what an epic gift this was from her, one that I didn’t even really understand until I myself became a mother. I also think a lot about the generations of Mennonite women (and non-Mennonite women, too) who were not able to be anything other than wives and mothers because of the culture and who were genius musicians, or writers, or would have been amazing scientists, etcetera. This book is calling out to them, a way of saying, I see you. I recognize how remarkable you are. I recognize your dreams.
JDG: Nightbitch thinks a lot about art, and uses many metaphors for it, but I particularly love her description of it as a secret, silent project, that forms, hidden away, only to emerge into the world in a surprising, significant way. She thinks of it like birth. But then, later in the book, the narrator describes birth—the trauma of it, the brutality of it—as being only next to death in terms of painful experience. Do you see art-making as an experience that requires enduring that sort of pain? And do you think mothers are, for having given birth, more equipped to make such gripping art as Nightbitch makes at the end?
RY: Art-making, at best, is a relief from pain for me. It’s a conceptual dreamspace in which you are able to dictate your dreaming and, in this way, possibly move from one internal place to another. Writing, even if topically not related to my life at all, usually is a way in which I am processing or working through something very personal, a feeling or situation, pain even. You are able to take ideas and animate them and then watch as they move about. It’s endlessly fascinating. Anyone who is very much awake I think has the capacity to make gripping art. And I do think that both pain and motherhood have a great capacity for waking you the fuck up.
JDG: You aren’t afraid of a long sentence, and I love that, given as many recent novels have been to the short, easily digested sentence. Are you refusing something by those long sentences? Insisting on a certain difficulty in your own art?
RY: The long sentences are me being a brat, yes. But they are also a natural, formal outgrowth of Nightbitch’s character. She is super-fueled by her rage, and her thoughts surge in these breathless, never-ending sentences. The sentences felt fated as I wrote them, as though they could not be written any other way. It was a sort of possession to write the book, especially the first 50 pages, like singing a song I knew by heart even though I had never sung it before.
JDG: I love that metaphor! And how did the process of revision and editing happen for you, after such an ecstatic experience of drafting? Did the first draft arrive more or less in the book’s final form, or did you do some re-writes?
RY: Revision of this book manifested mostly as either cutting over-written parts or fine line-editing. There wasn’t a whole lot of re-imagining once it was drafted. The most revised part is the deep backstory at the middle of the book, which got rearranged and cut and almost entirely deleted but, in the end, I allowed it to remain. I’m still not sure exactly why, but I did feel that the spooky German grandmother had a place in the book, so she’s probably who ultimately earned that section a place.
JDG: I also thought the structure of the book was interesting. It’s in three acts, without chapters, and each act almost reads like a self-contained novella. How did you find this structure? And was it surprising to you?
RY: I had no process for writing a novel, as this was my first whole-hearted attempt at one, so as I was thinking about how to move through it, I turned to screenwriting to give me some guideposts: something should probably happen about 50 pages in. And then at the midpoint. And then the ending should also have a shift. So I laid out these changes/plot points of sorts and wrote toward them. I was a little worried when I got to page 50, because it wrapped up as if the entire book were done. Had I merely written a very long short story?! I was worried this was the case, but soon saw that I had merely arrived at a complete manifestation of the situation that would then be explored in the rest of the book.
JDG: Nightbitch’s art piece, the performance that closes the book and brings her fame and renown—along with much criticism—is to me the perfect culmination of the themes you’re exploring in the book. From a writerly perspective, I’m curious: did you dream that up first and write toward it? Or did that performance grow out of the narrative as you wrote?
RY: I knew there would be a performance at the end of the book, but I didn’t know what that performance would entail. I wrote the performance last. I kept putting it off, because how was I supposed to write it??? It felt very daunting. I still think it could be better, more specific, but so it goes. You get away with what you can.