Rachel Yoder answered our questions about her acclaimed and wholly original novel Nightbitch.
We are thrilled to have a conversational exchange with Rachel Yoder, who is the author of the widely lauded novel Nightbitch (Doubleday, 2021)--a truly unique story about motherhood. The novel has also been optioned for film by Annapurna, with Amy Adams set to star. Pam is especially pleased to reconnect with Rachel, who was a fabulous Georgetown student in her 1999 Class Fictions course (could it really have been that long ago??).
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.
Elizabeth and I sent a raft of questions to Rachel about Nightbitch. Here are her responses:
When did you begin writing serious fiction? What spurred it?
Rachel Yoder: I began writing in my early 20s, after my life exploded. I was in my last semester of college, in an intensely abusive relationship, dropped out of school, and went to Arizona where I checked myself into an extended residential treatment program for, I guess, life. It should also be noted I was a poor kid from rural Ohio, and Mennonite, and on a near-full scholarship to Georgetown, so dropping out that last semester meant I was feasibly destroying a future that I otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
I had also always secretly wanted to be a writer, so once I re-grouped and finished up that last semester of school in Arizona, I started writing. It was a really desperate time for me. My relationships with my family and friends I’d known before Arizona were profoundly troubled or obliterated. I felt completely alone, completely lost. I took a few creative writing classes at the college where I was working an administrative job, and I started writing short stories.
When I think back on that time, I remember this writing as physical labor, like chopping wood. I could feel it coming out of my body. It was arduous and left me exhausted. I had to sit down every day and write myself into being, because otherwise, I was afraid I might actually disappear, might die — of loneliness, of a broken heart, of fear.
Writing, when I began, felt like a survival tactic more than anything. It was “serious fiction” not only in that I was devoted to the art of it, but it was also essential to my development as a self.
The New Yorker reviewer of Nightbitch cleverly writes, “The DNA of ‘Nightbitch,’ it turns out, is more Angela Carter than Rachel Cusk. It sees the past decade’s cerebral fictions of motherhood and raises them several murdered forest creatures, a shit on a lawn, and a pack of M.L.M. moms stoned on trippy drugs watching another mom scarf raw steak. Writers like Cusk, Sheila Heti, Elisa Albert, Lynn Steger Strong, and Heidi Julavits have kept within the bounds of realism in delineating maternal experience. … [and] form the contemporary canon of white urban motherly malaise. The mother in “Nightbitch” doesn’t mention them, but I imagine she read them and appreciated their candor, right before she found four extra nipples growing on her abdomen.”
Did you read those novels and decide to produce a motherhood narrative that does a 360, veering far and wide from that template? Or have you largely ignored them? Something in between? Elizabeth and I teach Cusk and Albert in our Reading Motherhood course, which most--but not all-- of our students tend to love even as we air our concerns and critiques…
Yoder: I was definitely reading some motherhood or motherhood-adjacent books before and as I wrote Nightbitch—Jenny Offill (Dept. of Speculation), Rachel Zucker (Mothers), Sabrina Orah Mark (Wild Milk), Cherise Wolas (The Resurrection of Joan Ashby), Cusk (A Life’s Work), etcetera—but I never planned or wanted to write a motherhood book. If anything, I wanted not to write a motherhood book. But I do think that the literary climate of 2015-2019 in which many of these books were coming out made Nightbitch, when it emerged, feel like it was more possible because these other women had already opened the conversation. While I didn’t read many of the intellectual mom books, I had a keen sense of what was in them. This is to say, I knew that they were confronting the topic with admirable intellect and big brain approaches, but I knew that wouldn’t be my approach. I also knew most of those books would be very triggering to me in those early years of mothering, too much to read as I myself was going through my own darkest mothering days. In my own writing, I needed something that was searing and embodied and not careful. I avoided being careful at all costs. That seemed important.
Both of us admire the way that you ride a fine line in presenting motherhood as an inherently feral experience: a powerful relationship that can be equally creative and destructive; ‘natural’ and performative. Your unnamed protagonist, like many a maternal feminist character, is an artist who thought she could continue her ambitious career but instead has realized that giving birth and mothering her son had become “her only project” (24)--work is deemed a labor of love but, in terms of capitalism, appeared valueless. Her transformation into “Nightbitch” is astounding yet, in your hands, by the end, almost … second nature?
Can you tell us how you came to imagine this shapeshifting, ferocious figure who discovers how to recover the most rewarding parts of her former self while finally embracing motherhood as “a wild, complicated woman with strange yearnings. Stubborn and angry--soft and sweet, though, too. She was creator and then also the dark force that roamed the night. She was part high-minded intention and part instinct, raw flight” (219)?
Yoder: My husband once made an off-handed comment that I had been a “nightbitch” the night before. Our son was maybe 3, sleeping in our bed, often waking up multiple times a night, and had been doing so for years. It follows that I had rarely slept for longer than 4 or 5 hours since he was born, so when awoken in the night, I became unhinged. I became even more unhinged when my husband rarely woke up when our child fussed and instead blithely slept through whatever nightmare or need presented itself at 3 in the morning. I often felt like a feral monster in the middle of those nights, and while I certainly sometimes became externally angry, most of the time I was only raging on the inside. My anger felt like a terrifying creature inside me, whipping and snapping and screaming to be let out, to exert a physical force. Nightbitch began as a funny idea, and I don’t think I knew at the outset she would be this beast, animated by her rage. I viewed the story of a mom turning into a dog as a vehicle for me to unleash all these thoughts and feelings I had in motherhood. But the anger of Nightbitch which immediately emerged when I wrote is what delivered me into Nightbitch’s transformative magic. Anger can be and has been for me so transformative, to unleash it instead of letting it snarl and fight inside me. Nightbitch’s anger demands she make a choice: destroy yourself or transform. And I refused to write another narrative about a woman’s self destruction. We need shapeshifting, magic, narratives of transformation.
I know that you grew up in an Ohio Mennonite community, and some of that story emerges in Nightbitch’s memories of her mother and their family farm. Why was it important for you to craft that maternal portrait, and childhood backdrop, into this narrative?
Yoder: I almost took that part out! It was so (too?) specific within a story that felt far more general, with its nameless characters and somewhere-in-the-middle-of-America setting. But understanding Nightbitch’s upbringing begins to illuminate why she is having this extreme experience of motherhood, why she is reacting so violently to being caged in a domestic space. She saw what happened to her mother’s dreams and has been trying to outrun this her whole life, only to find herself back in the kitchen with her son. This backstory sets the stakes. If she cannot write a different story for herself, if she cannot find a new narrative that redeems her mother’s narrative too, then she will descend into profound generational tragedy.
Some of the theory that we read in our Reading Motherhood class imagines that motherhood can transcend the daily care and labor that it requires and become something else. Your character actually makes art out of the lived experience of mothering, and with this book, you have done the same. Can you talk about this transformation of “motherhood” into art?
Yoder: So there is the experience of mothering your child, of being with your little creation, which is wonderful. I never disliked being with my child and being a mother in this sense. I loved and love being a mom. But then there is this other thing, which perhaps is what we are calling “motherhood,” which is a situation you enter into as a woman with a child in which your identity as a woman and your role as caregiver for young child begin to lock you into gendered scripts and financial quagmires and workplace inequity and you see that this “motherhood” feels very different than mothering. “Motherhood” is a status that begins to limit you in so many societal arenas, and I guess Nightbitch’s art arises as a response to this limitation as well as from her fierce mothering and love of her child, but they are two different impulses. I do feel that the love Nightbitch has for her son is what makes her a stronger person, and that this motherly love is what makes her brave enough to create art that says no, I should not have to be limited by this “motherhood.” I will transform motherhood into something that is as strong and brave as this amazing love that I have been given by my son.
We were struck by how your character’s friendships with other mothers evolved.
It seems to be a trope of many current books about motherhood that the protagonist is always the “odd woman out.” She often feels both superior and inferior to other mothers. (Especially those in a “mommy” group.) But you offer these other mothers interior lives, and Nightbitch forms close connections with them. Was this an important choice for you to make?
Yoder: “Both superior and inferior” is such a great way of phrasing it. Nightbitch longs more than anything for connection, but her own pretension, introversion, judgment, what-have-you keep her from seeing these other “mommies” as viable friends or support. She is reluctant to befriend women who have embraced motherhood and placed it as a central pillar of their identities, because she is resisting this so strongly. I did want to find a way for Nightbitch to connect with Jen in the book because Jen couldn’t only be a joke. It was important for her to have her humanity, too, because that’s what Nightbitch was denying her. Nightbitch viewed her as a mere cliche, and that felt uncomfortable as I was writing it. I spent a lot of time thinking about women like Jen who I knew and, even though they are so incredibly different than me, they have these amazing capabilities and gifts that I lack.
In our class, we often show a scene from I Love Lucy where Lucy and Ethel gleefully destroy Lucy’s living room. It makes me anxious (this is Elizabeth talking) whenever you fill domestic spaces with dead animals and blood and bones. These scenes feel liberating and necessary, but at the same time, a little voice inside of me is asking, “Who will clean this up?”
Yoder: I would counter with: Maybe it doesn’t need to be cleaned up. Maybe that’s exactly where the mess goes.
This last question is very short: have any readers commented on the violence done to animals in the book? We have discussed this, and one of us isn’t bothered at all, and one of us keeps thinking about that cat.
Yoder: Absolutely. It comes up a lot. I am still bothered by the cat scene and don’t know if it is written correctly, though I do think it has to happen, both for Nightbitch and for the reader.
Have a response to this post? Share your thoughts!