“Literary Acts of Resistance” : An Interview with Nazli Koca – curated by Wendy Chen

Nazlı Koca is a writer and poet from Turkey who now lives in the US. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame. She has worked as a cleaner, dishwasher, and bookseller while her work has appeared in the Threepenny ReviewBookforum, and Second Factory, among other outlets. The Applicant, forthcoming February 2023 from Grove Atlantic,is her first novel.

Wendy Chen: One of my favorite parts about the novel is the incredible cast of characters. Family, friends, lovers fill the pages of The Applicant with vivid personalities and desires. How do you come up with characters? Are there characters that didn’t make it into the novel? If so, how did you make the decision to cut them?

Nazli Koca: I think I come up with interactions between characters before I become aware of the characters themselves. I imagine events and conversations between half-formed ideas of people, then I let their actions reveal their personalities both to me and my imagined readers. There are a couple of characters that didn’t make it into the novel because my first readers all insisted they complicated the story without worthy contributions, which I hated at first. I wanted this novel to have as many characters as possible to emphasize the largeness of the crowd in which Leyla feels lonely, for the most part. But after months of editing, I decided to attribute certain events to different characters. Once I saw that this made my characters deeper I was able to let go of those I did. 

WC:One of the most striking features of The Applicant is that it is structured around a journal that the main character, Leyla, keeps. How did you plot out the structure of the novel? How did you determine which events would occur on specific days? What was your revision process like for the novel?

NK: For a long time, I wrote without knowing what I was writing. Once I understood that I had a novel in my hands, I printed it all out and hung it on the walls of my studio apartment. This was during the beginning of the lockdown, when I sometimes didn’t see another human for days. I made my computer read my novel to me maybe a hundred times as I made rounds in my apartment and took notes on my walls. I Googled the Turkish and world news from 2016 and 2017, when the story took place. Thought about how the news would affect Leyla’s psyche, and moved the pages around. Then I created a menstrual cycle for Leyla, considered how her hormones would affect her thoughts and actions, and moved the pages around again. 

I kept editing the novel for another two years after I finished the first draft. During those two years, I moved from South Bend to Chicago, from Chicago to New York, and from New York to Denver. In each of my temporary rooms, I dedicated a wall to post-its summarizing each date Leyla wrote in her diary. I moved things around until the very last day I turned my final draft in to my publisher. Being on the move myself allowed me to always be aware of the internal and external factors that shift the plot points of our lives, just like our selfhood(s) and the ways we express them. 

WC: What was the most difficult part of the novel to write?

NK: The last sentence! That seemingly simple, ordinary sentence was so difficult to put together. Because how does one end a novel that is against the artificiality of satisfying endings? 

WC: Conversely, what was the easiest part of the novel to write?

NK: The beginning. I barely made any changes to the first few sentences since I wrote them in my actual diary years ago without thinking about their literary values. 

WC: Did you ever encounter writer’s block while composing the novel? If so, how did you get past that?

NK: For a while, I worked on other projects when I didn’t feel like working on this one. Halfway through the whole process, the novel simply claimed every word I ever put in writing as its own. I incorporated a lot of the material that I thought belonged to another story into The Applicant. Letting this happen helped me keep going at times when I didn’t know what to write to put the pieces together. Julia Cameron’s morning journal method described in The Artist Way was also immensely helpful. I did that for two years every single morning. 

WC: Do you have any writing rituals or obsessions? 

NK: To be honest, my writing hours feel more like Marlboro Lights commercials with me as a mere actor these days. I used to have healthier rituals and obsessions like keeping a morning journal and turning my walls into mind maps, but my body and mind has been fixated on the smooth original flavor of death since I moved to Western America, and who am I to say no? I light a cigarette whenever I feel stuck and Philip Morris tells me what to write. But knowing myself, I’ll probably fall into another ritual once I make my next move. Hopefully one that is less expensive! 

WC: Do you have any advice for first-time novelists? Or, what advice do you wish you had received when you first started writing this novel?

NK: Ignore 99% of the prescriptive feedback you get. No one can know what your vision is better than you do. Instead of asking for suggestions, ask your readers to tell you how they perceive your work, and why. You can take those answers and use them to finetune what drives your story into your desired direction.

WC: What conversations do you hope this novel will inspire post publication? How do you see this novel living on in your future work?

NK: I hope this novel inspires more people to engage with the ongoing conversations on who gets to tell their stories in today’s world, both in countries like Turkey where one can be sued, arrested, or killed for speaking their truth, and in countries like Germany or the US, where readers are programmed to dismiss stories told in unfamiliar structures as substandard and inept. Writing The Applicant made me understand and appreciate how the lives I’ve lived and the stories I want to hear more of must resist canonized forms of storytelling, and I’m set to keep seeking alternative literary acts of resistance in my future work.  

WC: What are you working on next?

NK: These days I’m working on adaptations of The Applicant to two different mediums. Both projects are just a couple months old so I’ll have to wait and see if and how they want to emerge as entities of their own.