Emma Hudson Interviews Randon Billings Noble

Randon Noble Billings

Sundress Academy for the Arts editorial intern Emma Hudson asked Randon Billings Noble questions about her essay collection Be with Me Always. With an epigraph from Wuthering Heights to set the tone, Noble’s essays are centered around feeling haunted. Haunted by past relationships, past experiences, and even by thoughts within the self, Noble finds a way to piece these themes together through a variety of forms. These essays come together like compartments of a heart—one that beats with each word, swelling with strong emotions.

The collection is divided into six parts with four to five essays each. In the first part titled “Whatever Bed” Noble explores hauntedness within the self from adrenaline-inducing experiences to glimpses in the mirror. “Shadows and Markings” includes essays reflecting on the memories of the past and the marks of recent times, showcasing how thoughts and physical proof of memories can cast a shadow and mark the mind. These physical and internal manifestations of haunting are explored further with each essay and dissected by insightful biology, history, and literature references.

EH: Would you say you landed on the Wuthering Heights epigraph or that your autobiography took roots from it in terms of theme?

RBN: I had written a lot of the essays for Be with Me Always before I wrote “Striking,” which uses part of that line from Heathcliff: “Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!”  As soon as I read that passage I thought, yes—that’s how I feel about hauntedness – and memory. And it became the title for the book.

EH: What inspired the organization style you used for your essays from the main headings to the essays included in each section?

RBN: Although the essays are loosely themed around hauntedness, they vary greatly in both subject (a near-death experience, looking at a nude model, Anne Boleyn’s doomed relationship with Henry VIII, Stonewall Jackson’s amputated arm) and form (traditional, lyric, braided, hermit crab). So I tried to group them so that they could talk with each other. I also tried to keep a loose chronological order—putting essays where I’m younger earlier, essays where I’m older later—and to have some of the weirder forms early on so the reader wouldn’t be surprised coming across, say, “Vertebrae” (which is written in the form of a spine) later.

EH: In your essay “Split” there’s a fascinating discussion with how the self is split and lingering. What do you think the split-self represents, especially in light of hardship?

RBN: I think it’s something of an internal safety mechanism that releases when we’re confronted with sudden trauma. In my case, the split self was triggered by a near-drowning and, years later, a motorcycle accident. In both cases, part of me was struggling but another part of me was watching, waiting, witnessing—attending. The presence of this other self was calming. It seemed to point to something larger than the fear or pain that I was experiencing in the moment. The split self feels like “a small piece of mystery within us” that we carry almost secretly until it is needed.

EH: The theme of “the self” comes up in a variety of forms from internal to external, to parts that are taken and given. What do you think is the most crucial aspect to understand about “the self”? 

RBN: There isn’t really just one self. We’re always contradicting ourselves, surprising ourselves, doing what’s easy instead of what’s right, or making unexpected sacrifices to our ideas. We indeed contain multitudes. And remembering that—really understanding that—might be the most crucial aspect to understanding “the self.”

EH: In “The Sparkling Future” the essay drives home your literary influence and amazing tactic you have in how “we cast ourselves in the roles of characters, plotlines, and critics…” Do you find there is something special or maybe even worrisome about drawing such comparisons?

RBN: I’ve always read books to try to figure things out. It’s like dipping into an enormous conversation that’s been going on for 3,000 years and across six continents (and maybe Antarctica too). Is there something special about drawing such comparisons? It’s hard to say because for me it feels quite normal. I can see how some of it might seem grandiose. But thinking in metaphor is always some kind of reach. Is it worrisome? I suppose it depends on what literary lives you see yourself living parallel to. Certainly, Anne Boleyn was a dangerous one! … Interesting: I almost wrote “dangerous model”—but she wasn’t a model for me. She was a possible parallel path for only one aspect of my life and only for a little while. Thankfully, I kept my head.

EH: How would you describe your process for essay writing? Did it tend to stay the same throughout writing Be With Me Always or vary from essay to essay? (This question came to mind after reading “69 Inches of Thread, Scarlet or Otherwise” with the last two points in mind).

RBN: I almost always start with a question or an observation, a moment that confuses me, something that I need to figure out. I usually tell the story of whatever that is – what I saw or heard or thought or felt—and then add someone else’s story or thinking to help me puzzle it out.

“69 Inches” started differently. I had been asked by a literary magazine to write something about Sherlock Holmes’ A Study in Scarlet for an upcoming themed issue. I thought I would write a straightforward essay about my relationship with the book, my love of Jeremy Brett, my desire to be a spy when I was a little kid. But when I read that line about a “scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life” I wanted to consider my own life and what its scarlet thread might be. I felt that my “duty [was] to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”  And so I started writing those inches.  Later I realized there were around 70 of them so I consciously made it 69—one for each inch of my height.

I was worried when I submitted the piece—it was not at all what I thought they were asking for—but they loved it.

EH: Overall, what was your favorite line from one of your essays and why?

RBN: I love the last line of “Striking” because it sums up the pull I feel between my past and my present lives. It needs a bit of a running start:

“Be with me always,” I think of the things that haunt me, the love of my young life, the places now lost, the mistakes I have made and the mysteries I will never solve. Outside my moving car are shadowed yards and black fields, houses with dark windows or only one upstairs light on. Most of the living I pass are sleeping. And the dead—who can say?

I’m driving home to those I hold dear, but I’m not there yet.

I also love the end of “The Sparkling Future.”

I sat watching the Thames rise with the tide, and I knew the tears would come, not now but soon, and that the loss would hit me, not hard, but hard enough to remind me that sometimes, not always, you get nothing. But sometimes nothing is better than forever. Anything is still possible.

The last line speaks for itself: Even when haunted, even when committed, anything is still possible.

You can order a copy from University of Nebraska Press.

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Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her collection Be with Me Always was published by the University of Nebraska Press in March 2019, and her lyric essay chapbook Devotional was published by Red Bird in 2017. Other work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, The Rumpus, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. Currently, she is the founding editor of the online literary magazine After the Art as well as the editor of an anthology of lyric essays forthcoming from Nebraska in 2021.  Her next book is a lyric meditation on shadows, forthcoming from Nebraska in 2023.

Emma Hudson is currently a third-year student at the University of Tennessee working on her double concentration BA in English: rhetoric and creative writing, along with a minor in retail consumer science. She’s a busy bee; she is the Editor-in-Chief of the up-and-coming Honey Magazine. Emma is also a long-time member and leader in UTK’s Creative Writing Club and on the Executive Board for UTK’s Sigma Tau Delta-Alpha Epsilon chapter. In her free time, she figures out how to include K-Pop group BTS into her research projects and watches “reality” tv shows.

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