Scenes in a new novel by Idra Novey might seem familiar to many western Pennsylvanians.
“Take What You Need,” set in the fictional southern Allegheny Mountain town of Sevlick, is perhaps Novey’s most personal work.
“My grandparents lived in Altoona, and my grandmother grew up in Clearfield, and I grew up in Johnstown,” she said. “Three generations of my family, over 100 years, have been in that area of Pennsylvania.”
The novel‘s proximity to Novey’s past meant that some separation of time and distance was necessary before she could begin to write.
“I think it took me a while to write about other places I’ve lived before I could figure out what kind of distance, and what I could bring, to writing about art and Jewish women in Pennsylvania,” she said. “I think I needed to write some other things before coming back to it.”
Novey said her books’ protagonists have all been artistic Jewish women because that’s what she knows.
The author was inspired not only by her family but by women in Johnstown’s Jewish community when writing the main, composite characters in “Take What You Need.”
“I wanted to think about the ways that Jean, growing up there, had experienced antisemitism, but nobody talked about it or they downplayed it,” she said. “And then, I wanted to recreate the way that she sort of minimizes it in her sense of self — the way that I think Jews who live in Appalachia tend to minimize it because they don’t talk about it with anyone else.”
Despite living in New York, Novey said it wasn’t too difficult to recapture the connections of life in a small community. Her family still lives in the area, and she goes home often, she said, something encouraged by COVID-19 and urban living.
“During the pandemic, we went back a lot because we are in a one-bathroom apartment with two kids homeschooling and two parents working from home,” she said. “We were cramped, so we went back.”
The visits allowed Novey to see her children play in the creek where she once played, explore the local woods and ride bikes on empty streets. It also allowed her a fulfilling homecoming.
So, too, will be Novey’s upcoming talk on Tuesday, March 21, at the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall as part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture series. The author did a residency at City of Asylum before the pandemic.
Novey counts the Mattress Factory and the Andy Warhol Museum as some of her favorite places in the city and recalled coming to Pittsburgh as a child to get bagels. Back then, she often visited one of her best friends, who lived in Squirrel Hill. So special were those times, a character in Novey’s first novel shares a surname with her friend.
“I would leave Johnstown because I craved things I couldn’t get there,” she said. “They were like my home away from home.”
Novey said that it was because of her time in Pittsburgh, and a talk she gave at the City of Asylum, that she decided to write “Take What You Need.”
“In my last novel, I invented an island and I was explaining how I felt like I grew up on an island because not that many people came to Johnstown and not that many people left,” she said. “It was sort of like an archipelago of islands. Altoona was an island, Johnstown was an island and Windber was an island, and all those towns like Ligonier and Ebensburg, where my dad saw patients on Fridays. People came up to me and said, ‘I’m driving back to my island.’”
There was a hunger, Novey said, for talking about these isolated towns mixed with conversation about art.
The author will talk about the connection of “Take What You Needs” to Pennsylvania, as well as her connections to the characters and art during her talk with Pittsburgh-based writer Angie Cruz on March 21.
She’ll also discuss some of the more outrageous things she did to explore her characters.
“I did all sorts of crazy things to write this book,” she said. I learned how to weld. I took welding lessons in Johnstown.”
In the end, Novey said she wanted to write a book that would be enjoyed by those in her hometown, as well as her friends in Pittsburgh.
“Maybe this book will be the start of a conversation to see each other in a more nuanced way than, I think, our media often allows people who live in more rural places and urban places do,” she said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.