Lucia Nevai is a debut novelist with an impressive writing history: short stories published across the board, including in The New Yorker. Her work has also garnered the Iowa Short Fiction Award and the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, not to mention some glowing critique. Here, Salon’s Jonathan Miles reviews one of Nevai’s short-story anthologies, Normal, a compilation of 12 tales:
Certain stories close so perfectly that their endings are almost audible — a sudden beauty or truth reveals itself with the delicate click of a jewel box. You think of James Joyce, or perhaps Raymond Carver or Tennessee Williams: To exit their stories is to walk from a warm bath into cool night air, to feel knowledge or sensation as a sudden and real thing. At least two of the stories in Lucia Nevai’s first collection, “Normal,” achieve that dizzying level: “Monsieur Alle” and “Close.” These two stories are jewel box-perfect — piercing, often stunning works that portend a promising new voice in American fiction.
Here’s the thing: YES, Nevai has an amazing way with words that translated exceedingly well to novel-length fiction. Salvation is proof of that. But Salvation didn’t begin as a novel idea; its roots are also in short story. But I’ll let Nevai explain her journey, and her unique voice and POV choices. And be sure to read the excerpt of Salvation at the end of today’s post.
Part 1: Interview with Lucia Nevai
Q: Salvation began as a short story. How did it evolve into a novel?
LN: Salvation began as a three-page short story, “Cannibals,” published in a literary quarterly. It portrayed the experience of children playing ritualistically in a sand box on a hot summer day in a Middle-Western lake community when the man next door kills himself. It didn’t fit in the collection of stories I was putting together with my literary agent, Denise Shannon. She was intrigued by it and wondered if it could be longer. Her instincts about my fiction had proven dead-on in the past. I had time. I decided to give it a try. For this brief story to evolve into a novel, I had to figure out who the children were to each other, to the community and to the man next door.
Q: How did your experience as a short-story writer prepare you for the broad work of Salvation? What were your strengths, and were there any growing pains with this new medium?
LN: My experience as a short-story writer left me with a high standard for how paragraphs should sound and work — both on their own and in sequence. There can’t be a wrong paragraph in a short story. But that same hyper-attention to the paragraph left me without any experience in how to relax and let the events in a novel unfold for characters in a life-like way. As a result, for a long time, Salvation had too many episodes of equal weight that made the same emotional point.
Q: What inspired Salvation? Were the characters fully formed for you when you began writing?
LN: Salvation was inspired by the voice in the short story, which took advantage of the fact that up until a certain age, children have an innate ability to see the hypocrisy in adult behavior and work around it without judgment. As a result, it took a long time to flesh out the strengths and weaknesses of the characters in the novel.
Q: Did any of the characters give you difficulty as the story evolved? And, if so, how did you overcome the challenge?
LN: Yes. The characters who I had the most difficulty tracking as the story evolved were the three parents, Big Duck, Flat and Tit. To help me imagine the futures of these people, I wrote full histories for each of them.
Q: Do you think doing this helped prevent you from creating black-and-white antagonist characters? What might’ve been the other benefits of delving into character history that you didn’t actively show?
LN: Yes, I absolutely do! Especially dealing with such overused American types as The Over-Sexed Preacher, and The Borderline Religious Fanatic. The great invisible benefit was the empathy I gained for characters I didn’t like and hadn’t wanted to know better!
Q: Let’s talk about your POV choice: first person, omniscient. Is it common? Was it difficult to use? How did it help to shape the novel? How did it free you, restrict you?
LN: The first person omniscient point of view is difficult to sustain, but I stuck to it because it seemed best suited to express the things that interested me: the innate insight of a child, the painful human truths unique to a deprived child, the way the world looks to an illiterate child, and the scientific truths my particular narrator was fortunate enough to intuit. The POV was difficult to maintain with precision because the scope of what’s being known has to remain consistent.
Yes, the POV totally shaped the novel! This POV ruled out the more conventional insertion of chunks of background information. It forced me to choose hard-working adjectives and adverbs that would hint at that information. At its best, the point of view helped provide an immediacy to the book; it let the reader see the world the way the narrator sees it. At its worst, it kept the reader from having questions answered as those questions arose.
Q: Would you care to provide a short excerpt that includes some of those smart word choices?
LN Yes. When Sam Fanelli, wins the gravel pit and the shack they are squatting in a poker game in Chicago, he rolls into the world of the three little kids on a backhoe with an excavator sitting at his side — to develop a community of lake homes. To suggest decades of crime history with links to the construction industry without departing from the innocent child’s first person POV, the excavator is described as, “a middle-aged, lard-legged, low-IQ killer.”
In order for you to get a better feel for Lucia Nevai’s voice and style, she and her publisher, Tin House, have graciously allowed us to reprint part of her prologue here. Enjoy!
With abject, slavish desire, with off-hand, sloppy curiosity, with gratitude, with sedation, I was accidentally engendered. Never say the word rid around me. My mother tried to get rid of me. My face to this day is deformed, my forehead bumpy, puffy and white as mold. Her attempt was half-hearted; her method unknown. Where do I feel it? In the lungs. It comes back in winter when I wheeze. It comes back when I feel cowardly. There’s pressure, slight at first, and frontal, then heavier and from all sides, as if I’m in a crushing machine that will reduce my mass to a minus number. Through it all, I’m hyperventilating, sucking oxygen as hard as I can, turning and twisting in my close, red space, inhaling all the Os I can find. Oxygen, that cool, sweet, slender thread of life I love. Oooooooooooooooo.
She failed. She let me live. With my big head softened up like that, I tried to go easy on her when I was born. Now, I failed. She pushed me out to the tune of a thousand and one blue curses. Given a choice, I would have stayed inside. She was glad I was out of her life and on my own. She put on lipstick and left the hospital.
It was an unpleasant interval. Where was her smell? I missed the sound of her voice echoing down through her innards to me. I’d grown used to its tone, its twang. Sometimes she sang. I missed our drugs, whatever they were. The rubber nipple held begrudgingly by the nurse delivered squeaky clean nutrition. I refused it at first, looking for whatever it was I was used to. The nurse felt miffed and cut me off. Lacking our tranquilizers, disgusted by formula, I could have used a cigarette. No luck there either. People to the right and left of me were bawling. I gave it a try. Out came half a coo. I didn’t have the lungs for bellowing, thanks to you-know-who. I gave up wanting anything. That seemed to work. My first successful approach to life! I would remember it always.
Sunlight was entrancing. Neither too simple nor too complex. It was substanceless, yet it filled up the four pink nursery walls, entering the room in shafts, structures it accepted from the windows interspersed along the wall. Motes and flecks suspended in the air were illuminated by it as if they were valuable. There seemed to be more than enough of it outside the window. Sunlight: warm, silky, intelligent, unlimited, impartial, kind, unfathomable. I waved my fist in it, stirring it up, introducing a new smell that wrinkled my nose, the smell of bleach. All around me, people were wailing. I blew one bubble. I felt inadequate, envying their freedom, wondering what it would be like to throw back your head and let loose, test-driving a pair of healthy, new, red-blooded lungs.
Come back next week for part 2 of my interview with Lucia Nevai, when we’ll talk more about Salvation and some challenging revisions.