Idra Novey’s novel Those Who Knew, about a corrupt senator who’s gotten away with serious crimes for years, speaks so directly, so intensely to our ongoing reckoning with cultural misogyny and abuses of power that it can feel either cathartic or overwhelming — depending on how you’ve been taking the news lately.
That goes especially for the post-Brett Kavanaugh moment. Those Who Knew is narrated largely by the silenced, those stripped of power, and traces their valiant, emotionally charged attempts to bring the sleazy politician down after a woman close to him winds up dead. Amid Christine Blasey Ford’s piercing testimony during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, Novey (Ways to Disappear) felt stunned — nauseated, even — by how closely it reflected the story she was trying to tell. “It was excruciating to watch,” the author admits. “For four years, I’d been living with somebody in my head who was grappling with a similar kind of silence.”
Novey conceived Those Who Knew before the dawn of the Trump Era or the #MeToo movement. Now it reads too presciently to believe. We spoke to the author about how the book reads now, what she hopes readers take away. Read on below. Those Who Knew publishes this Tuesday and is available for pre-order.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: With everyone I talk to about this book, its insane topicality is the first thing that gets brought up. What’s your read on the extent to which this book speaks to the present moment?
IDRA NOVEY: I saw this as a novel about a deeply divided country, and how the tensions of living in a deeply divided country play out — in sexual relationships, in friendships, in power dynamics, in all the ways that people get pushed into silence. Who gets shamed? Who gets to leverage that shame? What seems to have really impacted readers so far is hearing Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and how much her fear of telling everyone what happened to her — all the mechanisms in the patriarchy that’d lead anyone [who] heard about this to find her the one who’s culpable for whatever excuse. How it impacted her marriage and her life.
I read the book before the hearings, and it was remarkable the extent to which I was thinking about your book as I was watching the hearings unfold.
It was excruciating to watch. I’d been living with somebody in my head who was grappling with a very similar kind of silence by a powerful man whose name and face was in the paper all the time. My character Lena looks away from the sight of [senator] Victor in the paper. And there was Christine Blasey Ford living her life and taking her son to school — and seeing Kavanaugh’s face in the paper. Some of those aspects that mirrored each other, I felt in a really visceral way.
It took you four years to write. How did your process work, especially where the culture’s moved over that time?
So many of these things are clearer in retrospect. My instinct to place the story at a parallel reality to my own was [about] me being freer — telling this story about power imbalances and who’s pushed into silence. It’s not set in Western Pennsylvania, where I grew up, or in New York City, where I live now. [The book is set in a fictional island country.] I hoped readers would feel freer to think about how long these kinds of imbalances have run our planet, if it was placed on this island where you could recognize aspects of your life — that you would be among “those who knew.” I think that was present in my mind, how hopefully it’d be freeing for the reader as it was for me, to just think about how many times these patriarchal forces would give primacy to one narrative over the other.
You experiment with form here. In addition to the various narrators, there’s a characters play which at times takes over, as well as — which you already mentioned — news reports.
When we talk about who’s silenced and who gets heard, it often has to do with the media. It’s so imperative to have clips from the news, knowing whose face is in the paper and whose wasn’t.
So for you, what’s the power of fiction in talking about silence, as you put it?
Fiction allows a kind of nuance and an opportunity to inhabit the experience of somebody’s emotional journey over a period of time. One of the things I really wanted to capture in this book was how important camaraderie and intimacy and joy with other people is, to get oneself out of a place of resignation and silence. Within the world of a novel, you have that room to show all these different emotional experiences — how, at one moment in the novel, it’s about somebody being pushed into silence. Then five, 10 years later, if that’s what it takes, when they have a sense of community, where they stand up and say, “F— this. We’re going to do something about the lack of consequences for this man who could potentially be the president of the country.”
The novel is propulsive, with a real sense of rolling tragedy.
I wanted to show the suspense of a lack of consequence. We all have the sense that if you commit a crime, it’ll come back to haunt you eventually — something will manifest to bring justice. We want to think that it’s true. It’s not always true. People get away with things all the time! That was an inherent element of suspense in the book: How long will Victor be able to get away with this? In this country, we have that sense of suspense now. How long will this administration get away with what they’ve done? When you see people in power getting away with serious crimes, there’s a sense of suspense in the air. How long will they get away with it?
The book is largely told from the perspectives of people not in power. What was the emotional significance, for you, in inhabiting these characters and telling the story through their lens?
The title “Those Who Knew” comes from a line towards the end of Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez. It’s about how the patriarch doesn’t know things, and there’s a “we” who do know. The novel is all about the patriarchy and its ignorance; I was interested in the people who “do” know, the understory of the people living under the patriarch and how you cope with what you know and what you can’t do anything about.
Did your relationship to the book change as the Kavanaugh stuff started happening, and as readers started drawing these connections so directly?
With Kavanaugh, I received a number of texts from friends, and emails from people who were reading the book and found there was something cathartic about [it] amplifying what this administration was dismissing. Seeing Kavanaugh’s nomination go through, to know how many times that has happened — but ultimately, social progress and the collective worldwide fight against misogyny is going to go forward anyway. That’s in some ways why it was sort of consoling. The book said: These stories are not unique to our country. There are women and writers and people all over the planet who are pushing for this story to become obsolete.