Novey’s propulsive novel Those Who Knew follows multiple perspectives of those affected and connected by Victor, a sometimes brutal yet widely beloved man in a position of political power. In an unnamed island nation in the early aughts, Maria P., a young woman who has been introducing the liberal young senator at his rallies, turns up dead. Lena, a professor in her 30s—who herself experienced firsthand the violence and unpredictability that simmer beneath the senator’s wide appeal when they were student radicals together—believes that Victor must be responsible for the woman’s death, and feels compelled to compensate for the decade she has spent in silence about him. Novey discusses her original conception of the novel and how it evolved.
I didn’t set out to write a novel about patriarchy. Although I did know the novel would include a powerful politician as charismatic in public as he was depraved in private. I also imagined the novel ending with two women raising sons and wanting to free them from the emotional repression that senator experienced as a child.
One of the earliest images I had in mind for the novel was a father warning his son not to cry, to stare at the wall as expressionless as a senator. The scene takes place in a kitchen and I imagined a silent mother at the table as well, longing to object to the father’s warning but who was terrified of what the consequences of defying her husband might be. I imagined another little boy at the table, too, a younger brother who would be spared the relentlessness of the father’s pressure to “man up” imposed daily on the older brother.
I didn’t set out to write a novel about patriarchy. Although I did choose a title inspired by a novel about a powerful patriarch incapable of genuine connection, who “knew himself to be hated by those he loved most.” Gabriel García Marquez published The Autumn of the Patriarch in 1975. Rereading it during the Trump administration, it was alarming to realize how unstoppable the machinery still is that propels emotionally stunted men into positions of power. “We knew who we were and he was left never knowing,” Marquez writes in one of the final passages of the novel, a line that led me to the title Those Who Knew.
Some of my early notes for the novel date from 2014, when I was obsessively following the case of two high school football players who raped a fellow student in Steubenville, Ohio, an hour away from where I grew up in western Pennsylvania. A football coach present during the crime was sentenced to ten days. How could this powerful coach witness what he knew to be a crime, and do nothing? How did Bob Weinstein justify his silence to himself about his brother Harvey? And in what larger crimes, I kept asking myself as I wrote this novel, was I also complicit?
I did not set out to write a novel about patriarchy, but I live in one, and as I imagined the lives of the women in Those Who Knew, I was raising two sons and observing the gendered messaging they received at school and in movies and books that boys are supposed to be competitive and get their sense of value from defeating other people. Was I doing enough, I asked myself daily, to counter this messaging and help my children value their capacity for kindness as their most important virtue?
I hoped to convey in Those Who Knew some of the bewilderment that led me to ask myself that question continually, to second-guess my decisions as a mother, disturbed at the endless compromises that parenting requires. Lena comes to motherhood after many years resenting the pressure from the women in her family to have a baby. Christina, the other mother in the book, dutifully meets every expectation her family places on her, deluding herself into believing that the success of her father and husband is her own.
In several ways, Christina takes on the role in the novel of the quisling, a word used many times to explain Republican Senator Susan Collins’s willingness to back up anything Brett Kavanaugh said or did. Quisling was the last name of a Norwegian military officer and fascist politician who willingly assumed the role of enabler for the Nazi occupation of Norway during World War II. In English, the term “quisling” is used for any kind of traitor who collaborates with an enemy force. And the enemy, as Toni Morrison wisely said, “is not men. The enemy is the concept of patriarchy as the way to run the world.”
I did not set out to write a novel about patriarchy. Although one of the first scenes I wrote was of a woman averting her gaze from a photo on the front page of a newspaper of a senator who had once left her unconscious on the floor. I began the novel four years ago, long before a man who bragged about groping women became president and Christine Blasey Ford, on her way to work, had to contend with photos of Kavanaugh in the paper as that president’s nominee for the Supreme Court.
Simone de Beauvoir, whose work makes an appearance in Those Who Knew, wrote in The Second Sex that a person “regarded as inessential cannot fail to demand the re-establishment of her sovereignty.” Writing is a way to demand the re-establishment of sovereignty. This quote from de Beauvoir reveals what may be driving the urgency many novelists feel under the current administration of this country to address the subject of patriarchy whether they set out to write about it, or not.