There’s something rare about debut author Jana Casale’s The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky. Humorous and heartbreaking, the layered vulnerability of Leda, Casale’s main character, makes this book something fairly unique in literature today: relatable.
There’s no exaggeration, no unbelievably fantastic good luck to be found in this novel. Instead, Casale gives us radical reliability, where we can see traces of our lives in Leda’s. The novel follows Leda throughout almost her entire life, showing us growth, depth, love and devastation.
Casale is a new author, but she writes like a master – you would never know that she hasn’t been doing this for years. BookTrib got to chat with Jana Casale about getting started in writing, planning the book, what’s coming next and why sometimes the best advice is no advice at all.
BookTrib: This is your debut novel, and it’s so good! Can you talk us through the writing and editing process, and how you came up with the idea for the book?
Jana Casale: I started writing this book when I was an undergraduate student at Emerson College. In one of my history classes, there was a student doing a presentation on Noam Chomsky. When she got to the end, the professor asked her if she’d ever read anything by him and she said, “No, but I’d like to if I had more time.” I got the idea for it right then. Then I got into Oxford University for graduate school and just worked on my thesis. After I graduated though I worked on the book exclusively.
I knew I wanted to get it published, so I started cold-calling agents the old-fashioned way. That’s how I found my current agent and publishing team, who have been so great.
BookTrib: Have you ever read anything by Noam Chomsky?
JC: I have not! It really is one of those things where I haven’t gotten around to him yet. He writes such high-minded literature, I just feel like he’s the goal of all reading. But one day I will.
BookTrib: Something that everyone loves about this book is how relatable it is, from Leda, the main character, to the party scene. Did you write the book with this universal relatability in mind?
JC: I definitely wanted to be realistic about things that aren’t often represented the way that they are in real life. 99% of all parties are presented in this ultra-glamorous way, but that’s certainly never been my experience with them! There are these details of people’s lives that are just glamorized, or glazed over, and they think they have to be a certain way because of what they’ve consumed media-wise. With women’s experiences in particular, it becomes this case of life trying to imitate art, rather than art trying to imitate and represent life. I wanted to write something that was more true to the actual experience of women.
BookTrib: Speaking of the female experience, we get to follow Leda through almost her entire life, and there are these specific events that happen to her. Did you plan out what you wanted to happen to her from the beginning?
JC: At certain points, yes, and early on. There were definitely parts in her life, things that happened to her that I had in mind from the beginning and knew that I wanted to get to. With other moments, I would just go in writing freely.
It’s like when you’re listening to a really good album and the songs all work together, but it’s also part of how they work into each other – the slow moments leading into the high, fast ones – that was the kind of energy that I wanted to replicate. Each chapter, each section is thoughtfully placed. Knowing what the next chapter will be and what it will contain is really the key to that momentum. You have these ups and downs; you may have more melancholy and regrets in one part, but every single moment leads into the next one to bring everything together.
BookTrib: One of the specific scenes I wanted to talk with you about is when Leda’s daughter, Annabelle, wants to buy a Barbie Doll and Leda tries to get her to buy a different toy, one that’s “important” instead of “pretty.” Leda has this moment of deliberation, and then agrees to buy Annabelle the Barbie. I absolutely loved this scene. What’s the background behind it?
JC: One of the things that really upsets me is when I see women who think they have to associate with more traditionally masculine traditions, so to speak. In this case, we’re talking about toys, girls with things that are traditionally boyish. I think we have a tendency to inadvertently denigrate things that are stereotypically feminine, and that’s not great, because we’re all just trying to be who we want to be. I wanted to talk about Leda’s desire, here. She wants to not let her daughter fall into the bad side of those feminine traditions. Barbie can be a bad image for a girl to take and equate to herself, and Leda wants to protect her daughter from those things that she knows affected her. So, she’s torn, but at the same time she realizes she’s falling into this trap as well.
I was just going to end the chapter where Leda buys her the Barbie, but I went back later and added in this moment where later Annabelle wants to be a police officer, and her favorite color is blue; and that makes Leda a little sad, because she wants her daughter to remember that you can also draw strength from the color pink, and things that are traditionally feminine. It’s a hard thing to explain, but that’s the great thing about fiction.
BookTrib: Is there anything that you left out, or didn’t want to include for any reason?
JC: Actually, no. I pretty much wrote everything that I wanted to write. There’s definitely more material if I wanted it – the book is focused on very small moment for the most part. When I was writing, there would be things that would come to me – usually it was just from a sentence – about something that would happen to Leda and it would just expand from there. But I could write ten more books that were just little moments of Leda’s life.
BookTrib: Do you plans for a follow-up?
JC: I’m planning on writing another novel. I haven’t started it yet, but I’m hoping that it goes faster because it’s the second novel! That’s probably going to be completely wrong, though. I also have a screenplay that I’m writing. It’s very early on, and it’s very different.
BookTrib: Can you tell us what that screenplay is about?
JC: It’s about a woman whose relationship falls apart so she goes to the land of lost love to get her love back. Even though it’s a bit of a fantastical concept, it really is more about what love is and what we should and shouldn’t do for it.
BookTrib: Finally, as a debut author, what’s your advice for aspiring writers?
JC: My advice would be not to listen to any advice! I was told and given advice that just wasn’t right for me. The typical route that a lot of people I know did was to find a small publisher, get that on your CV, and work your way up until you could publish a novel with a large publisher. For some people that worked, but I wasn’t one of them. I have a friend who literally walked up to an agent with his manuscript and that’s how he got published – but that also goes against all the advice you’re given about getting an agent, or getting published.
Go with your gut. Think holistically. Nobody knows what feels best for you in this than you.
The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky is now available for purchase.
ABOUT JANA CASALE
Jana Casale has a BFA in fiction from Emerson College and an MSt in creative writing from Oxford. Originally from Lexington, Massachusetts, she currently resides in San Francisco with her husband. The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky is her first novel.