The Beast Within: An Interview with Rachel Yoder, Author of the Debut Novel “Nightbitch”

When reading Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch, I couldn’t help but think of Joy Williams’s The Changeling, which is the only other book I’ve read that worked with themes of grief and isolation as part of new motherhood, and like Yoder’s debut, it too links primal humanity with the animal world. But unlike the disaffected ennui Williams’s protagonist experiences, The Mother in Nightbitch is savage, playful. Once a successful artist in charge of a local gallery, The Mother is forced to decide between devoting her time to motherhood or following her artistic ambitions. She mourns the loss of time spent with her son and stays home, and from this point forward, her sense of self is completely restructured. She has lost the path toward success and does not know how to move forward into motherhood. The drive toward ambition is obscured by a total loss of privacy and independence because the boy’s language, like the language of all infants and toddlers, is one of need and survival.

The grief that runs through the early parts of the novel is palpable and devastating. When her transformation begins with patches of hair, sharpened canines, and the hunger for blood and raw meat, the reader feels drawn into the naked vulnerability of the human condition. A question forms: what are we in this late capitalist hellscape, if not, at our root, animals? Nightbitch is magically real for most of the book. The Mother releases her control and morphs into a feral beast free of societal inhibitions, free to dig up the neighbor’s flowers, to bury rabbits in the yard, to delight in the smell of decay. I loved this all very much.

In addition to her debut novel, Nightbitch, Rachel Yoder edits draft: the journal of process, which features first and final drafts of stories, essays, and poems along with author interviews about the creative process. She grew up in a Mennonite community in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Ohio and now lives in Iowa City. I reached out to her for an interview via email.

At one point late in the novel, Nightbitch goes to dinner with former graduate school peers and when asked about her current art projects, she “stammered and chuckled, turned red, stared at the wall for a moment before saying something about the wildness of motherhood, the modern mother’s impulse toward violence, the transformative powers of anger.” Not only is this scene a defining moment within the novel because so much of Nightbitch’s journey revolves around the concerns of stay-at-home-motherhood versus career-driven womanhood, but I loved how the description complicates birth and early parenting. How could birth not act as re-wilding, of sorts, a temporary distancing from societal expectations within late-stage capitalism? Would you mind talking about your process of writing “the mother” away from her isolated routines and toward this primal “violence” and “anger” she describes at the dinner?

It just felt so freeing to let the mother become an absolute weirdo and to have her fully inhabit her body and then succumb to the urges of her body. Children are so present and so in their little bodies. My own son had to process everything through his body when he was small. He wouldn’t just watch a train. He became a train. And it was this way with everything that he was interested in. He would act out the difficult part in The Iron Giant, where we think the giant is dead. I have a picture of him lying on the kitchen floor, dead, in his little modern dance psychodrama. So as I was parenting him and watching this, I’m sure his embodiment seeped into my psyche. And whenever I allowed myself to go to that embodied place with him as we played, it was magical. So I’m sure I took cues from my own life for Nightbitch. As I wrote, I could feel in my own body what a relief it was for her to run and howl and rage and be this animal. She had to move what she felt through her fascia.

When I read Nightbitch, I immediately felt that this story was one about grief. Throughout the novel, I considered Kubler-Ross’s five stages, even seeing ways in which the plot moved through denial, anger, bargaining, etc. Most of the parents I know have had children late in life, some past forty, and the babies are now toddlers or becoming children. Mothers often speak of a loss of privacy, a loss of access to her body. Fathers often speak of isolation within the life event because men do not go through a physical manifestation/transformation through birth and, later, breastfeeding if that is an option. Perhaps it is only that these parents are older, perhaps becoming a parent is always a process of grieving. I don’t know. I have a lot of experience with death of loved ones, but not this concern. After my father and brother died, I often said to people that I felt as if I were a new species, one that now knew loss, while few others at the time had, well, transformed to the species I’d become. Am I missing the mark, here? Did you feel that Nightbitch’s character arc was one of grieving?

This is very astute. Yes, there is so much grief in this book. There is a very dark shadow that haunts the text. When you have a child, it’s this complicated experience — at least it was for me — of holding this brilliant, miracle of a thing in your arms and looking at it and seeing the profound vulnerability of it. How if you even drop the baby it could die. It’s so helpless and small. So immediately there is this sense of the mortality of what you have just created, and how precious and tenuous its life is. Immediately for me there was grief, because I saw my son’s beginning, and then I saw that he would end too, one day. And of course in becoming a parent and then coming into midlife, you are confronted with your own childhood as you raise your child, and then your own parents and who they are get reframed as you begin to understand them better through your own experience as a parent. Midlife for me has been about grieving my youthful foolishness and wasted time and then also holding the beauty of life as closely as I can and really feeling how time is so limited and I need to focus on what matters and leave everything else behind.

This also seems pertinent: I had this dream once that I was walking through a wonderful house that I wanted desperately to buy. It just kept going and going. There was an indoor Olympic-sized swimming pool with beautiful tiling! And when I got back to the front door, the realtor told me it had already been sold, so I sat down on a purple velvet bench and was just crestfallen. An elderly couple walked up to me and the woman had a beatific, saintly face, beaming with happiness and love, and she said, “Oh honey. Don’t worry! In the end, you’re going to lose everything.” And I was so relieved to hear this. It filled me with such a sense of goodwill and contentment. But Nightbitch doesn’t have this perspective, not yet. She is still grieving the loss of herself and her youth and also grieving how imperfect the world is, how we make so many mistakes, often irrevocable, and must still find a way to continue on.

I’d like to go back to the scene at the dinner with the two “working mothers.” The engagement took great effort on the part of Nightbitch. So much of the work she’d put into becoming an adult in the world, an artist, was altered the moment she decided to stay home: she was alone, the husband a distant figure viewed through computer screens, and she’d lost the light back toward her own artistic ambitions. And though Nightbitch is angry, nearly-feral with desperation at this dinner party, she is fucking funny, and not because she says, “I could crush a walnut with my vagina! to no one in particular,” when she turns over the dinner table. The entire book belongs to a legacy of literary comedic novels. This novel felt fantastically female. And the humor was insightful, essayistic in nature, and managed to blend social commentary with emotional depth. Do you consider yourself a humorist? A follow-up question would be: are there novels or essays by female writers you might share that were comedically kindred? 

I have never thought of myself as a humorist. I consider myself weird. And I do like dark comedy, so I think I brought this sensibility to the book. I really loved Bunny by Mona Awad and found it not funny-ha-ha but funny-wtf-is-this, which is a vibe I really like. Same with My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh. I don’t really like to read writing where the writing is obviously trying to be funny. I’m more interested in the weird emanations of a writer that wind up being humorous for their sheer originality and surprising perspective.

I have to ask: how many parents have shared stories of killing household pets since the novel came out?

Exactly zero! I think it’s still fairly taboo to kill a pet. I mean, as it should be.

This is an off-the-wall question, but it was something I thought about a lot while reading because I think about it in my daily life. What are your thoughts on inter-species communication? So often at my rural home I have direct, non-human interactions with animal and plant life and I feel, well, in conversation with the land. Maybe this sounds too woo-woo, but when thinking about a novel where a human mother becomes a nightbitch, it doesn’t seem so farfetched. (If this goes nowhere that’s fine.)

I don’t think this sounds woo-woo at all. I don’t think we give animals or plants enough credit for how conscious and communicative they are. We are not separate from other creatures or from our environment, but we think we are. We think that the ego is real, the self. I had this very profound experience when my parents sold the house and acreage I grew up on. It was my last visit home before home went away forever, and I walked over the land, back to the strip mines where I hadn’t been in a decade, and I remembered every curve of the land as if the land were my own body. It was an incredibly emotional experience to return to the slopes of earth that I had spent so much time on as a kid and to be in relationship with that land again. I found a perfect place to weep and did just that, as if I were mourning the death of a person. I had never felt so connected to a place. “Connected” doesn’t even capture it. I felt that the land was an extension of my self. And this circles back around to having a child, to this sense that we are parts of each other, that there is no separation. And this extends also to the creatures we cohabitate with, that they are part of a system in which we are all operating. I write in a sunroom on the front of my house, and I often just stare at the flowers and plants bobbing in the breeze. They are such a wonderful society, busy with life and personality. I should probably also tell you the story of my cat Snacks and what a wonderful little soul he was, but this is getting long. Suffice it to say he was a completely formed being, who learned and loved and was very wise, much wiser than I was, and who was my best friend during my very lonely 20s. I hope I get to meet him again in another form, if that’s possible.

A final question: if you were suddenly transformed into an animal what do you think it would be? Not what you’d want it to be, but what you really are. I think I’m a turtle. But I wish I were a lemur. One is solitary, catty. The other is social and catty. I asked my partner and she said there’s a big difference between what you innately are and what you’d become depending on what is happening in your life the moment you are turned. This is a two part-er: the first is obvious, but the second: is species transformation accumulative or dependent on adaptability during experiences?

I have no idea if species transformation is based on who you fundamentally are or who you are in the moment! I think if it’s based on something more fundamental and unchanging, I would probably be a moody lioness, prone to roaring and napping in the sun, who isn’t necessarily dangerous other than when she’s hungry. But certainly we draw on the spirit and energy of many different animals depending on where and when and who we are. I’ve had a friend say that I have lamb energy — and my name also happens to originate from ewe in Hebrew — so I also can hold and embody that gentle, vulnerable energy sometimes. It seems correct that a lion and a lamb are taking turns. There’s also something really lovely and appealing about cows! I used to talk to a number of them each morning as I waited for my ride to school. They’re very good listeners and such calming forces with those soulful eyes. But would I become a cow? Is my essence bovine? Probably not. Even after saying all this, it’s difficult for me to deeply identify with a specific animal. I can’t really imagine myself as another animal. I am my own animal.

By Rachel Yoder
Doubleday Books
Published July 20, 2021