The Stories of Devil-Girl (Modern History Press, 2008)
What are some of your favorite novellas? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a novella of your own?
While along the way I have read some extraordinary novellas, I realize I never really thought of them as novellas, just long short stories that had muscular bulk and dense language, and somehow came to a sense of wholeness in the way that longer works of fiction do. The Metamorphosis by Kafka, for instance, is so iconic for me, that I realize I have never thought of it as other than itself. How deeply one can enter a work/a world of fiction never really seemed based on its length for me. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad perhaps was so easy to enter because of the quality of writing, the narrator that grabs us, but also because whenever I read it, at every point there were powerful ties to the moment the planet was living, that were, and are, bloody and exposed. Except that these and other fine novellas affected me at some deep strata of understanding and resonating with the complexities of human beings, and taught me things about language and narration, the novellas I had read didn’t birth some desire to write a novella; indeed, that was never what my desire was. Instead, Devil-Girl was something that found its form after a very long time, and through a process that had everything to do with the silences in my life, the difficulties of it, and experiences which tied me to many others on this planet. The book came from working out something that could have stopped me as a writer, but instead pushed me to follow the road of language into its own solutions; it was a bridge for me between fiction and non-fiction, and between poetry and prose. This was the form that the material found, after a long road of fragmented work.
What’s the oldest part of your novella? Is there a section or passage that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the novella? What do you remember about writing it?
There are a number of pieces written around the same time, including the first five pieces, and then a gap in my writing of it, until something happened that was quite important for me. The stories were narrated in many different voices, and actually a lot of the pieces began as poetry. I had originally thought this would be a mixed genre book, but at a certain point I was working like mad to develop as a fiction writer, and suddenly, aha! I wrote “The Birthday Girl’s Requests,” which helped me understand that I wanted this to be a prose collection, and, even more importantly, helped me crystallize something about the voice of the narrator, of Devil-Girl herself, that would be useful in pulling the whole book together. That Devil-Girl would be present throughout the book, and even though she would change, the voice of that character/narrator in that piece opened me to working with the coherence of the whole book.
What’s your novella about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
When people cannot really parent, for so many reasons, the children become the dumping ground of nightmares. And we see globally a world using children as slaves for work and for sex, as child soldiers, little beings there to receive the angers that adults themselves cannot organize into resistance that can make positive change. The novella is about this and about one soul’s response to this. Devil-Girl is one of these children who are cursed by their parents, people who have been damaged themselves, very badly. It is, I guess, a coming-of-age story, a story of abuse and homelessness, and various violences, but much more so a story of someone who comes to deal with what she has had to deal with, and comes out of it all with deep connection to others.
While I had written short stories before, this work was the first sustained narrative I had written, since I had mostly worked as a poet, or at least published as one. The narrative voice and the language were freed into story, and able to be sustained for longer than a poem of a few pages, and with that opening of space, and that new patience, as intense as the language might be, a kind of mythic presence entered the story. A bigger story structure than I had been able to work with before was born.
How did you decide on the length and title of your novella? What were some of its earlier titles?
The book was always titled The Stories of Devil-Girl, as soon as I realized that it would grow to hold many little stories that belonged together. Its length was not a decision but I believe a kind of working out of the intensity of the language — which needed its end, its calming. It was also a coming into voice from silence and suffocation, and when that goal was reached, and there was room to breath into a space of liberation from its own story, it was the end of the book.
Did you submit your novella to contests, open reading periods, or both?
Not to contests, but I had an agent at the time who submitted it to various presses. No takers for quite a while, until the very wonderful and bold Modern History Press accepted it. I won’t even tell you when I began writing it, but I will say that interest in it remains, as you can see from this latest example:
I would like it to be used widely in many situations, because it is a book that is honest, that admits the complexity of what people do to survive, and it works with language in a living way that seems to spark storytelling and help bring forward vital language from others.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your novella?
Quite a lot! A brilliant artist and designer named Terri Micco did the cover. She had me bring all kinds of things that meant something to me, photos – mine, and one by Lewis Hine of a child laborer, a hilltop village I’d visited in Morocc; a friend’s painting, an earring, a keychain, an Indian cloth. We talked a lot about it, then I left her to work, and I think that what she did was extraordinary. She is a beautiful painter, and she used the technical medium in a way that layered and layered what was put into the final image, and made it magical and evocative.
What have you done to promote and publicize your novella?
The very wonderful Victor Volkman, publisher of Modern History Press, has done a great deal, such as getting review copies out, setting up interviews, promoting this book on the press’s website, making sure it went into electronic publication, as well. I promoted it on my website, and have done readings from the novella and discussions about it in various parts of the country, and on many radio shows. I still hope to see more Devil-Girls out in the world, as I think it is a work that could continue to be of use to many people, in the schools, in programs for the homeless, in creative writing and literature programs, etc.
What are you working on now?
I am in the middle of writing a novel called History Artist, centering on a young woman in Boston, born in Cambodia of a Cambodian mother and an African American father at the moment the U.S. bombing of Cambodia began; a short excerpt was published last year in the wonderful Gargoyle Magazine. Ethelbert Miller interviewed me about it in Foreign Policy in Focus (a publication of the Institute of Policy Studies) some time ago. See http://fpif.org/interview_with_anya_achtenberg/.
It is a work I never chose, one which literally flew into me, or from me, when writer and teacher Kathleen Spivak asked me, What don’t you want to write about? I listed, “racism, prostitution, and the war in Southeast Asia,” and then I was writing without hearing a sound, or noticing anything going on around me.
What is your writing practice or process?
Eek! The one I don’t want to answer, but also think that I have included in other answers a sense of how organic writing is for me. This is the most difficult question, in part because of the amount of fighting, weeping, sleeping, walking, dreaming, being dashed in the world, not writing, aching to write, battling the economics of it, getting complexity headaches… that are part of the writing process for me. Many challenges with it, except when I am doing it, it breathes in another realm and I am just fine with what happens.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring novella author?
What I would offer is not so much advice about craft but concerns the heart of the craft. I would ask, what is the burning jewel you must write, that burns so much you cannot even begin to listen to advice about what the correct, pre-ordained structure is for story? Hear your heart and free your voice into what you deeply sense you must focus on intensely. Of course, in a shorter narrative than a novel, the focus on one character, one voice even if that voice grows and changes, even if this voice possesses elements that seem to transcend its particular name and being, that voice, simple or complex, can propel and organize that jewel of a novella. Maybe, simply, the growth in consciousness of one character and their small immense journey helps make for novella. The conditions may be complex, the historical and community context present, and how that growing consciousness moves through the world can make for novella. All will not be solved or resolved, but there will be the fire of growth and the arrival of something true, and urgent… perhaps. Perhaps it will unfold in a present tense way… or from the polished memory, well… I am reaching, and so shall the novella writer…
I would ask people, in regards to the form they choose or discover, what do you need to tell? How do you need to tell it? What space does your narrator need for their language (and their heart)?
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
I am going to skip this, because as a teacher of creative writing, who has created many courses and workshops, this opens a flood of possibilities. (I also hate the term “prompt” – it seems so single-note, so efficient, so un-creative, so unchallenging. I always use the term, writing exploration.)
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your novella? How would you answer it?
There have been some extraordinary responses to The Stories of Devil-Girl, and some extraordinary questions asked, but here are the questions I would love to hear, and actually have heard, but perhaps didn’t know how to answer!:
How can we help sell a million copies? How can we donate copies to groups that could really benefit from the novella? How can we get it into literature and writing curriculum?!!!
And another question I have heard and would love to hear again, “Can I do a one-woman show of this novella?”
What question would you like to ask the next novella author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Did you know you were writing a novella when you started the work? What did you think was coming forward, structurally? Why is the novella form perfect for this work?
If your novella wasn’t a novella — if it was in some other form — what would it be?
Former fiction editor of Multicultural Review, Himilce Novas, in her review of this novella, wrote “perhaps it should be called a poem that turned into a novella by virtue of its length and narrative.” In the introduction to The Stories of Devil-Girl, I wrote, “Once mostly poetry, it left the stutter of line breaks that would not tell what I needed to tell.” This is where the form came from. But it would not and could not stay poetry. Poet Fred Marchant, in an unpublished review, wrote that it was “as if the wider, more open canvas of prose has provided Achtenberg with an expansive vessel that might contain the explosive energies that would have otherwise blown apart a poetic line.” I think that it also could not be a novel, not in its present state of intensity, its process of brokenness and building.
But, it could be theater. It may indeed be theater, a one-woman show. I’d love it.
What role does emotion play within your creative process?
It drives language. It breaks into rhythm. It births images that cannot be reached cerebrally. It searches for voice, births narrators and characters, descriptions and dialogue, events and journeys. Emotion affects the language so profoundly that perhaps the slash of the world is able to communicate with significantly less mediation than if that engine were not fueled from the heart.
Anya Achtenberg, award-winning fiction writer and poet, is the author of the novel Blue Earth, the autobiographical novella The Stories of Devil-Girl, and poetry books, The Stone of Language, and, I Know What the Small Girl Knew. While at work on another novel, History Artist, she continues to publish poetry and short prose. Anya teaches creative writing workshops nationally and internationally, and online; including Writing for Social Change: Re-Dream a Just World; and Essential Elements of Story; and works with individual writers. Director of Arts Focus on Cuba, she organizes journeys to Cuba for writers, artists, filmmakers, educators, and others.
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Excerpt from “Devil-Girl Goes Home”:
Unemployed again, but I have work to do still, moving over the globe in a nightly ride. I transform myself into stands of trees, where each bruised prostitute can hide from the beating due her because of her sex, or his. No beatings tonight, no beatings. The snakes of my hair wrap the earth in their cool, continuous slither, as if all would wake early into the scent of flowers, the luxurious body of the mother, the shining craft riding us out to sea.
Night after night, I roll around the planet, stalking the marketplace, noting the vendors, whispering to the betrayed. I come to the place of windows or of stalls, where they sell god, sell goddess, sell children, eat the young, spin women into dance till they collapse in their places. I come to where no one is safe, and I know I am at home. Truth is everywhere, hanging, spinning, crawling, stitching, digging, flying, crouching, bearing itself on its own shoulders, swaying its burdens from the top of its head.
I remind the night what is hiding in its folds, and it bears down, and the stories yet unspoken begin to come.
The sun rising here means that child laborers on the other side of the world will see stars through holes in factory roofs above the bricks they bake and haul, while right here the jobless, cradling their worn foreheads in their palms, hunt the want ads in the still dark of morning.
Devil-Girl I am, and not for nothing.