Exploring the art of prose


Hybrid Interview: Nora Decter

Image is the book cover for WHAT'S NOT MINE by Nora Decter; title card for the new hybrid interview with Rachel León.

In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re thrilled to share this conversation between Nora Decter and Rachel León, who also essays about Decter’s new novel, What’s Not Mine.  —CRAFT


Essay by Rachel León •

I met Nora Decter over Zoom when we were tasked to outline her forthcoming novel, What’s Not Mine. We were both fellows in Stony Brook University’s BookEnds program, paired to work together on our novels dealing with addiction. I’d recently read her current draft, as well as her 2019 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize in Literary Fiction winning debut, How Far We Go and How Fast, and without much preamble, we began dissecting the novel in progress. We graphed out characters, themes, and plot points in a colorful digital diagram in order to examine what was on the page. We created a map for the revision Nora would spend the next year working on.

What’s Not Mine tells the story of a teenager in crisis over one drug-addled summer. Bria is living with her aunt, cousins, and her aunt’s loser boyfriend. Her mom has been absent for a while due to her own addiction, and her dad is recently, albeit temporarily, gone, but has left behind a stash of pills—something to soften all Bria’s trying to forget. Add in a relationship with a sleazy older man, and Bria’s coping mechanisms (sex and drugs) are only worsening the dizzying confusion.

I’ve read this novel so many times I’ve lost count; I read the ARC alone twice. I’ve tried to remember that first draft I read and graphed, tried recalling what was missing and what Nora spent a year revising. The fact I can’t is proof of the novel’s seamlessness: the story holds its shape, and, despite a lengthy revision process, the sentences still crackle, the initial energy remains ever-present. That’s what I want when I’m reading fiction—to be in awe of how each craft element comes together seemingly without effort, to revel in the spark, how the novel shines without betraying any seams. I don’t reread many books. I like to keep up with current publishing trends, to keep a pulse on what’s coming out. But continuing to revisit What’s Not Mine makes me realize how rereading is the best way to study fiction. Even with slow, deliberate reads, we can miss the inner workings of a novel, but as we revisit the text we come to understand what the author is doing and why the writing works (or doesn’t). In that context, to say everything is working in What’s Not Mine, while true, would be lazy, so I’ll elaborate:

To begin, the depth of each character is astounding. Bria is young but already hardened by the world. And we can see what she won’t admit: under her tough exterior is a vulnerable girl who is hurting. The novel is told in first person from Bria’s perspective, and Nora could’ve fallen into the trap of focusing solely on Bria’s character development, but she spent a great deal of time in revision examining each character’s arc and backstory, a choice that conveys with clarity to the reader, even when ambiguous to Bria, what each person wants and needs.

But while as readers we talk a lot about character development, setting is the craft element I haven’t heard discussed much in classes and workshops. What’s Not Mine is a testament to what setting can do for a story—not only establishing the mood, but also forcing the characters into a complicated dance with place. Our environments impact us, for better or worse—where we live can limit our actions or cause unexpected obstacles. For the characters in this novel, negotiating setting means contending with worms and bears, offering a subtle metaphor for what’s happening to Bria.

And while the novel is very much character-driven, there’s a certain shape or structure to the narrative. I hesitate to use the word plot because the word can be loaded, but no, there is definitely plot here, even if secondary to other elements. While my focus when describing this novel is on the characters and how their stories are told, the narrative animates the characters. The plot offers them a platform, without being the primary focus of the story.

In the forefront is voice. I’ll forever read anything Nora Decter writes because of her keen understanding of how to wield voice. The voice in this novel is darkly funny, but that’s dialed up and down depending on the moment. I hadn’t considered how much calibration is needed to make voice pop, giving texture to different experiences and moods, until I noticed what Nora accomplishes in What’s Not Mine. Here’s an example in a single paragraph:

When Someboy finds out how old I am, he throws a fit. Throws me out. Asks me back in. Chases down my back when I refuse. Takes me home and silent. Rages at me. Falls to his knees and begs. Rubs up on me with his hard dick. Breaks down sobbing, like I’ve never in front of anyone, not even Ains. He says it’s my fault we’re in this mess. I led him here. Uses words like lure and vixen and masterplan. And maybe I am and maybe I did. What did I do again? Went out to meet a man who could provide me with some things. Mostly the chance to evaporate what’s going on. And it was him, he was the one, to make it serious, to make demands. I was in and out and easy, I made sure I was, but he kept requiring more and more of me until he got it and didn’t like it, and how is it my fault except for the fact it always is?

So much is packed here. Urgency. Bravado. Subtext. Poignancy. Propulsion. And while compression is a word we generally use to describe shorter-form fiction, particularly flash fiction, it’s very present in Nora’s novel.

Another loaded word I’m trying to avoid is masterful, but isn’t that the best description of work that employs craft elements to great effect? Isn’t that how we describe the books we continue to revisit, gleaning something different each time?

Because I do glean something different from What’s Not Mine each time I read it, it was nice to have the opportunity to discuss the novel with Nora for this interview. I admire how she tells this story of family, addiction, inheritance, trauma, and survival with honesty. And I’m in awe of her ability to make Bria’s voice so infectious that it crackles with a raw vigor that feels alive, even after, or especially with, multiple reads.

Rachel León: Let’s start with voice. I’m wondering how you maintained its energy and electricity throughout the lengthy revision process. 

Nora Decter: Hmm. Voice is so tricky to talk about. I tell my students that voice in writing is ephemeral, slippery, but you know one when you meet it on the page.

So, I must admit I don’t immediately know how to answer that question, but a distinctive voice was definitely something I was consciously trying to reach for with the book. An arresting, immersive quality. An urgency. I’ve realized lately I like writing that feels like an emergency. Bria is kind of ever-teetering at the edge of falling apart, and if that’s her mode of being, then maybe that’s what I was trying for—to maintain that quality from moment to moment. It sounds stressful, connecting to that kind of energy for so long, but it wasn’t really, because I get immense satisfaction from finding the right words to match a feeling. That’s what drew me to writing when I was just a kid journaling and that’s what makes it fulfilling now—matching exactly the right words to a very specific feeling.

Some might call me a very emotional person (read: everyone who has ever met me, even in passing) and I suppose translating emotion into words is a coping mechanism. The process calms me. So it wasn’t like I was sitting down at my desk and telling myself, “Okay, be electric.” Or even, “Okay, be voicey” (a description I’ve always disliked, even though I’m admittedly a pretty “voicey” writer). But just, what is Bria feeling, and how can I match that feeling in words.


RL: But there’s also sometimes a disconnect between what she’s feeling and reality. 

ND: Yes, a big disconnect, and I love to play in that space. I also love Bria’s bravado, which is what makes her the kind of girl you (me) might hero-worship but ultimately be scared of or intimidated by. This might be a bit tangential, but another thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how much I love to write the disconnect between a character having the worst day ever (Bria has a lot of those) and the world carrying on normally, indifferently around them. How trauma or crisis makes what would otherwise be ordinary suddenly strange.


RL: I think about that disconnect too. And about the issue of reliability with narrators and how trauma and crisis alone impact the fallibility of an account. Add in addiction, and you have really interesting complications to the storytelling here. 

ND: Yes, addiction adds in another layer of unreliability for sure. I used to feel guilty for writing predominantly in first person, like it’s boring or not as sophisticated or something. But as I get older, I realize I relish exploring how flexible a perspective it can be—narrative distance can be manipulated in so many different ways, memories and flashbacks can make the present feel less claustrophobic, and the lies we tell ourselves make first-person narrators inherently unreliable, even to themselves. The most complicated lie Bria tells is definitely the one she’s trying to convince herself to believe.

The topic of addiction makes me think of another challenge in writing this book—I didn’t want this to be one of those stories where the audience is almost being abused by the protagonist’s bad choices. There’s a TV show I won’t name that I’m thinking of—it pained me watching these people do desperately stupid things that escalated the drama endlessly, to annoying extremes. That’s not my jam, and neither is “torture porn” storytelling either—trauma without hope. So, I think writing a story about such a young person being put in such bad situations and making such bad choices was something I wanted to handle carefully. There has to be a reason behind every bad choice, lol.


RL: Her age is another thing I wanted to talk about. What’s Not Mine is an adult literary novel, but some people might categorize it as young adult since the protagonist is a teenager. You could’ve made her a few years older and avoided that whole nonsense. 

ND: You know, it had never occurred to me to make her older! I wonder why not. It seems odd that it didn’t, since my first book was published as YA but won an adult literary fiction prize, so the crossover quality was definitely there. I think I like writing teenage characters because they’re still subject to the decisions of their parents. Parental authority is a restriction in their world, and I think it’s as simple as that: I like writing with restrictions.


RL: What do you like about writing with restrictions? 

ND: Now that I’ve said it I don’t know what I meant exactly, but I do feel it’s true. A deadline is a restriction, an assignment is one—so in the past a lot of my restrictions have been outwardly imposed by school and writing programs. On the one hand, I hate being told what to write by almost anyone, and have been known to be extremely grumpy when forced to do a writing prompt (especially when we then had to share it with the class—my feeling as a student was that unrevised work is not worth sharing). However, even I must admit that prompts and writing exercises do what they are intended to do—help generate words. Length restrictions are good too—I once had a prof who only let us write two-hundred-word pieces. I grumbled because I’m a novelist and two hundred words is nothing, but working within those restrictions made me focus on the essential. I also love writing grant applications for that reason—each section has a strict word count, and it’s so satisfying when you start to cut away what doesn’t serve you. So, in summary, restrictions irk me, but I know they’re necessary: they can propel you forward.


RL: Did Bria’s substance use feel like a restriction? I’d love to talk about how you navigated writing from the perspective of someone actively using.

ND: It definitely did, and thank you for making that connection. Addiction is restrictive by nature—you need the thing you’re addicted to, you’re bound to it, it’s restricting your freedom. But how to write dependence on a substance as a motivation without it being alienating or even just repetitive and boring was the question.

Bria is in the particularly good/bad situation wherein she has access to loads of drugs, at least at first. So, there’s less need to follow her as she seeks out drugs, which is a bit of a trope in addict stories—the routine of so-called drug-seeking behavior, the awfulness of always having to track them down or make enough money to score. The danger of stories about active addiction is of glorifying it. Jesus’ Son is an all-time most-loved book of mine—Denis Johnson doesn’t glorify addiction: he writes about it beautifully in a way that confronts the reader, like that famous line, “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”

What I wanted to focus on was not what Bria is hiding from other people so that she can keep using, but more so what she’s hiding from herself. I don’t have experience with opiate addiction, but I have loved ones who do. I used what I’ve seen, plus my own experience with having an eating disorder when I was young and having to go to treatment. The biggest, scariest mindfuck of that illness for me was the way I would simultaneously long for someone to notice my disordered behaviors and the havoc they wrought, while also doing everything in my power to hide them. I was terrified at how sick I was—at the damage I was doing to my body, at the power the disorder had over me—while also believing, adamantly and obsessively, that I wasn’t sick at all. It’s confusing and isolating, feeling two such opposing convictions at the same time.

Maybe that’s why I have an extremely high tolerance for ambiguity in writing, sometimes too high. I love nothing more than a line that can be read in more than one way. I think it may hinder my ability to critique other people’s writing sometimes.

But back to Bria: These contradictory impulses have a hold on her, too, and pull her in wild directions, like when she slashes the tires on Rick’s truck. The restriction is maybe that what Bria is willing to admit to herself in a given moment is very specific, and I had to tell the story through that lens.


RL: I admire how much care and thought you put into where Bria is with her usage. Because her willingness to admit truths to herself shifts—perhaps even her ability to—and that inability shows up in the narration so skillfully. Can you talk about the process of tracking where she was with her usage and how you translated her drug use to the page?

ND: Keeping attuned to where Bria is emotionally from moment to moment was my focus, and I think in doing so I was also tracking how dependent she is on the drug, how fucked up she is. But just because I knew, it didn’t mean the reader would because, again, so much of Bria’s modus is about being secretive and she’s the narrator, the one telling the story. Plus, then you also have me and my love of ambiguity—I’m often like, who needs to know anything, anyway! But I guess I do care about the reader, goddamnit. So I wrote in little reminders, tallies of how much she has left, once her supply starts to dry up. In the final draft stages, my editor and I tracked her usage pretty closely. We had a pill count going on.


RL: I kind of want to ask what the pill count ended up being…. 

ND: I should have specified: it was a countdown to Bria’s last remaining pill! Much less exciting.


RL: Okay, steering away from drugs, I also wanted to talk about the subtle use of symbolism within the natural world, specifically worms and bears. 

ND: I do love to make the setting all moody when shit is getting real for characters, though I try not to indulge in it too much, lest it become clichéd. I’m from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and we have an inferiority complex here that we aren’t cool or interesting. Even the people who love it here have it low-grade. That’s okay, I have it, too. It’s like geographical fomo—everywhere else is having fun while we’re just flat and cold most of the time. But when I moved outside of Manitoba I realized how much is unique to this place. Almost everything I’ve ever written has been set here, if not overtly then subtly, as it is in What’s Not Mine. I love to make Manitoba mystical, to play around with facts in fun fictional ways. Make fogging an entire city for mosquitoes kinda mysterious and edgy. Beauchamp, the town in the book, is a fictional mash-up of places in Southern Manitoba. All true, but rearranged.

The worms are one of those “get me the hell out of here” aspects of this place. I’ve always hated them. We get different varieties cyclically, cankerworms or forest tent caterpillars, and a couple of other kinds I’m forgetting. It’ll finally be “not-winter” when they roll into town to eat all the leaves off the trees and then lower themselves down on silk threads slowly—the better to land on you when you pass innocently by. It’s beautiful (the silken threads drifting in the moonlight) and disgusting (feeling a fat, cold caterpillar inch its way from your collar onto your neck) and seemed like a good atmosphere to submerge Bria in. She’s dodging them as she dodges so much else in her life.

Every year, there are more stories in the news about bears coming into towns and tourist locations looking for food, all messed up from the changes in weather and loss of habitat. It was one of those things where I just like bear stories, everyone has them here, and after I’d been working on my “bear novel” for a while (that’s what I called it in the first draft), I realized they, too, were in quiet crisis, like Bria, like all the people affected by addiction in the book.


RL: That makes me think about how much richer fiction steeped in place can be, and how our environment impacts so much of who we are, how we feel, what we do. And when setting is done well, as it is here, it’s like this push-and-pull/give-and-take between character and place. 

ND: Yes! Personally, I do not worry about plot. Making stuff happen in a logical but surprising way is the easiest part of writing for me. But I do need to have a strong sense of a person and a place and maybe a tone or atmosphere, and once I have those elements, I find I always know “what happens next.”


RL: And to end where we started with revision—how much of “what happens next” stays intact? What’s your revision process like?

ND: Revision is such good hard work. It’s less scary than first drafts—the anxiety of the blank page is big for me, so once there are words down I’m relieved. For both of my books the ending came to me pretty early, but I don’t really write in a linear fashion when drafting, so revision becomes an act of solving mysteries of my own making, of creating order. Yet there’s a lot of instinct involved in revision too. Sometimes, I need to sit with a scene—or even a paragraph—for a week; other times, I do a grand sweeping pass on the whole manuscript in the same amount of time. You rush forward, you rewind. Sometimes, you walk away entirely for a bit. At a certain point, you bring in another set of eyes to help you see better. I love this part when done right. I don’t rush around showing others my writing in the early stages—quite the opposite—but once the work is ready I’ll show it to a first reader. What a vulnerable stage for a book and its writer, being read for the first time. But so necessary and productive. We talk about showing work to a “trusted reader” often, but I had never stopped to consider the value of that relationship until recently—to really trust a reader, to have faith in them. I’ve often thought that’s the real value of creative writing programs—the whole “community of writers” thing. For me, writing is incredibly solitary until it’s not, and both sides are equally vital. I count myself lucky to have gained a few such readers along the way who are there when I need them to help me see what I’ve done already and where I need to go next.


NORA DECTER is a writer from Treaty 1 Territory in Manitoba, Canada. She studied creative writing at York University and Stony Brook University, and in 2019 received the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for literary fiction for her young adult novel How Far We Go and How Fast. Nora lives in Winnipeg with her partner and their two cats, near the foot of Garbage Hill. Find her on Instagram @nora.decter.

RACHEL LEÓN is a is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as daily editor for Chicago Review of Books. Her work has appeared in The RumpusCatapultLos Angeles Review of BooksBOMB Magazine, Brooklyn RailElectric Literature, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @rachellayown.