It’s Not Nothing is the kind of novel that you can’t help but to savor. Every sentence, every turn of phrase is liable to catch you off guard—knock you off center—crack you up or kill you. In it, protagonist Rosemary Candwell shuffles in and out of bars, hourly jobs, and institutions, trying to grasp one elusive truth: why? Its result is a delicate yet heart-wrenching rendering of a protagonist hellbent not just on sticking around, but in believing that she can. I spoke to its author, the singular Courtney Denelle, about her novel-writing process, the making of self through creation, and what’s next.
First of all, congratulations on bringing this beautiful work into the world. When we met at Southampton Writers Conference back in 2018 I remember reading earlier excerpts in our workshop that took the form of short stories. Even then, you seemed to know exactly what you were writing towards, you had a vision. There’s a tenacity at both the sentence level and the story level that really commands the reader. I felt grounded by Rosemary’s narration, even when she herself was not grounded. Yes, this story is linear in the way we follow Rosemary through seasons of her life, but Rosemary’s resilience and journey towards the health of her mind is not. I would love to know more about the moment you realized that you were writing a novel, and what the experience was like crafting powerful vignettes and stories into a complete project. It really works.
I started where I was, which was nowhere, really. But I could write deliberately, with an intention to improve. I thought I was writing short fiction, and for good reason too. My role models, the writers whose work I return to over and over, are all masters of the short story.
But that Southampton workshop was a catalyst. There was the warmth and generosity of our cohort, and there was our teacher, Amy Hempel. She got what I was doing. And I couldn’t believe it! She said, read Mary Robison, read Kay Ryan and Chase Twichell, read Abigail Thomas. Keep going, she said.
My confidence grew, space was made, and the work took on a headlong quality. To read this novel is to experience my astonishment at the picture it created. I felt the verve of what had gathered on the page and within me—scenes and fragments, jokes, scraps of dialog. The picture of a self, becoming.
I’m intrigued by the elements of your first-person—to me Rosemary stretches the limits of a first-person narrator. She becomes almost omniscient the way she narrates moments of her life beat by beat at what feels like a distance, with a hindsight and humor that should come with that distance, but feels omnipresent. How did you stumble into this voice for Rosemary, and what helped you keep her nuance and her wisdom consistent?
I was working something out on the page, my desire to summon a voice capable of engaging with a punishing quality of self-perception. For Rosemary, disorder is the norm, but her acceptance of this fact elucidates a kind of clarity. She never romanticizes her fatal mind as somehow more real, but accepts it as merely one aspect of a greater conversation happening between her ears. In that way, there’s an essential pragmatism at play, a blue-collar-ness that resists cheap sentiment. She’s a New Englander, after all.
The disasters had happened, the outcomes were here. But the irony of Rosemary’s myriad emergencies is that they make it impossible for her to partake in life as she’s found it. So the challenge was, how to write to the shape of rage and hurt and grief; feeling the lure of resentment, the temptation to build narratives of punishment and blame, and uncovering what happens when you don’t.
One of my favorite sections in the novel was “Slow at First,” when Rosemary meets Ernie, a well-meaning man she ultimately must burn. When Rosemary becomes close with Sylvie later on, I couldn’t help but think of Ernie, and wondered what that friendship would look like had they continued to stay in touch—or if it could continue at all. Both relationships, one near the beginning of the novel and one towards the end, felt to me as foil liferafts for Rosemary. How did you choose which of Rosemary’s relationships to illuminate vs. which to keep more distant in the narration?
There are instants of connection throughout the novel, passing opportunities for Rosemary to meet herself in another person. Jackie, the bar-owner; Deb, her roommate at the shelter; Ernie and others. But Rosemary’s aloneness and self-loathing are folded so neatly into herself that she’s come to believe it’s no more debatable than gravity. How do you connect with others when empathy slams you up against your own limiting beliefs?
But there’s a measure in all things. This novel is about Rosemary’s movement towards understanding, but also her movement towards connection. One informs the other. When Rosemary finds something of herself restored by Sylvie’s sincerity, it pushes back against her system of limiting beliefs. She’s open at last to a way of being that doesn’t require her to participate in her own diminishment. Her full self, all the more valuable for having been recognized by another.
Rosemary shares space with many other women over the course of the novel, ones who could be considered by society “dysfunctional” or “crazy” or “lost.” She eulogizes (or celebrates?) them in this powerful passage, excerpted here:
“Something we all have in common is having an opinion and its exact opposite when it is convenient. Evidence of wounds unseen. And another thing. A mood, always…
Forces of nature have created creatures like us. Deeply feeling creatures, somehow compelled to survive. Women bent around the shape of what we have lost, and everything reflecting our own absent form. They did it to us, they taught us how to do it, then we did it to ourselves.”
But the most heartbreaking character to me of them all is Rosemary’s mother, who exists only as an emptiness, a harshness. Rosemary, despite the pain, can feel a sense of empathy for her mother: she has also been a victim of alcoholism. We never hear from her, but her absence is overpowering, and in it, echoes of “evidence of wounds unseen.” I was wondering how you made the decision to write Rosemary’s mother into the story in this dichotomous way.
I’ve a keen interest in exploring internalized misogyny in my work; how hurt women hurt women, how inherited modes and forms can warp a life. In Rosemary’s case, what becomes of a young woman grappling with the fact that she was raised by a woman who hates women?
As Rosemary moves through her self-blame and shame, she comes to recognize in her mother the lingering trace of her grandmother’s handiwork. That there were times when her mother’s remoteness was a matter of conditioning, something she had been taught to do. But other times it seemed her mother had chosen to harden, providing no comfort, giving no ground. Still, Rosemary isn’t immune to the archetype of capital-M Motherhood, and struggles to integrate these insights, left only with questions. “Questions with no answers and so they will be asked forever.”
And finally…what’s your next project? What’s your dream project?
I recently finished my second novel REAL PIECE OF WORK, a tragicomic art world satire that explores the belief system of art and identity. As ever, I was working something out on the page, grappling with the implications of having to establish the public face of my writer self.
My new project is marinating. I’m reading deeply about the psycho-spiritual aspects of ancestry, I’m learning Scots-Gaelic. I’ve no idea what’s calling me to the deep-past, but I’m fascinated by the impulse.
My habits of mind are cumulative, with each novel opening up new questions, new fascinations to pursue. I’m glad for it. The reparative quality of writing IT’S NOT NOTHING produced a possible future beyond what I’ve been conditioned to expect. A late-starter, I intend to keep on going. So—my dream project is my next project. Then the one after that, and after that. Success for me means I get to keep going.
It’s Not Nothing
By Courtney Denelle
Santa Fe Writer’s Project
Published September 1, 2022