Coffee House Press publisher Allan Kornblum recalls the first time he met Norah Labiner, whose second novel, Miniatures, has recently been released by the Minneapolis independent to wide acclaim and good sales. "I remember I told someone, 'I've just met Emily Dickinson,' " Kornblum tells PW.
For a 35-year-old author of two novels—Coffee House also published her first novel, Our Sometime Sister in 1998—Labiner has already acquired a reputation bordering on mystique. Her two novels are richly allusive excursions into modernist territory, marked by her prodigious reading and an astonishing absorption of pop culture. They also deviate sharply from much of the experimental fiction they will inevitably be compared to in their deft juggling of tangled plot lines and Labiner's exuberant and immediately recognizable first-person voice.
On a recent afternoon, Labiner sat down with a visitor in the living room of the home she shares with her longtime companion, a Minneapolis rock musician. She grew up in Michigan and attended the University of Michigan before moving to Minnesota to attend graduate school. Labiner worked for a time as an indexer at a local library, and at various coffee shops around town. She mailed off the finished manuscript of her first novel to Coffee House, unsolicited, and was surprised when they agreed to publish it. "I didn't have the slightest idea how publishing worked," she now admits.
Labiner is often described as shy and reclusive, and she has generally avoided the self-promotion expected of authors in the age of Oprah. She professes a dislike for book tours and public readings. Even in the unusually close-knit Twin Cities literary community, Labiner is regarded as something of an enigma.
Labiner shrugs at the fuss surrounding her books and her reputation. "I'm stubborn and I'm not a collaborator," she tells PW. "I definitely don't feel like I'm a part of any literary scene.... A lot of the first book came out of graduate school, so there was much more of a process of collaborative effort that you get with the whole workshop thing. I didn't realize how much I hated that until I started Miniatures and didn't have to deal with other people's opinions."
Labiner pounded out the final draft of Our Sometime Sister alone in a cabin over a cold February in Michigan's Upper Peninsula—the homestretch in an eight-year process of completing the book—and that is somehow appropriate for a writer whose novels feature such a compelling sense of isolation and disconnection. The narrators of both Our Sometime Sister and Miniatures are interlopers, introspective and carefully observant young women who bear more than a passing resemblance to their creator. Our Sometime Sister is a novel-within-a-novel that weaves plot elements and characters from Hamlet into its story of protagonist Pearl Christomo's struggle to make sense of her family. Miniatures, which takes place in a gothic undertow swirling with the ghosts of Mary Shelley and the Brontës, is ostensibly the tale of Fern Jacobi—"painfully shy, nervous, lost and full of an aimless and unrequited self loathing"—who takes a job as a housekeeper for a couple of American writers at a country house in Ireland. The couple, the "crypto-Byronic" Owen Lieb and his wife, Brigid, have returned after a long absence to the home where Lieb's first wife died. There are artfully exploited parallels with the real-life travails of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, which Labiner uses as a launching point for ruminations on the slippery nature of everything from history and biography to issues of gender, power and religion. Both of Labiner's novels hinge on the central question, explicitly addressed in Miniatures, "How can anyone ever trust a storyteller?"
Labiner's novels have been praised by reviewers, even as some have quibbled with her digressive style. "People want conventional storytelling," complains Labiner. "They want a beginning, a middle and an end. They want something to happen. When people complain about the digressions in the books, they're essentially saying, 'cut to the chase.' But I'm just not interested in linear storytelling. It's unnatural. I think it's much more natural to have that kind of associative story line going on that isn't all focused on simply getting you to the end of the book. When I'm reading a book I really like, I don't want it to end; I want more digressions."
After having worked for years on a typewriter, Labiner now uses a computer. "I still try to use it like a typewriter," she admits. "I'll write a draft of a chapter on the computer, print it out and then delete the file from the hard drive, so that I have to retype it all again and revise as I go along. That way you really have to face all the bad sentences, and you can't just leave things there because they're already on the page."
Labiner is already at work on her next book, her first attempt at a third-person narrative. "It's oddly liberating," she says. "Just from a technical standpoint, it's very difficult—do you know how hard it is to get someone to walk across a room? But there are a lot of different possibilities with omniscience, and that definitely more than makes up for the challenges."
While Coffee House's Kornblum is thrilled to be publishing Labiner's novels, and excited about her future, he's also less-than-secretly hopeful that his press may be only a stopping-off point on her way to even bigger exposure and acclaim.
"If we publish Norah's third book," Kornblum says without hesitation, "it will be an indictment of New York publishing."