Nicolette Polek

On Cultivating Silence, Solitude, and Prayer in Writing and Her Debut Novel ‘Bitter Water Opera’

Cover of Nicolette Polek: On Cultivating Silence, Solitude, and Prayer in Writing and Her Debut Novel ‘Bitter Water Opera’

A young and lonely woman Gia, reeling from the end of a relationship, feeling unmoored, writes a letter to the dancer Marta Becket. Soon, Marta Becket appears in her home. An unusual thing to happen, since Marta Becket died a few years before Gia’s letter was sent. Nicolette Polek’s Bitter Water Opera (Graywolf Press, 2024) is a gentle, riveting novel rife with moments such as these. 

Told in precise, short vignettes, we follow Gia’s journey of awakening into her own life, moving from forest to desert, and eventually ending in the opera house discovered by Becket, where she had danced for five decades until her death. Throughout the novel, Gia tries to evade the impulse to disappear within herself, confronts questions of faith and faithlessness, and has her own revelations. 

I find images and phrases from Bitter Water Opera returning to me in unexpected ways in my daily life. Images of inverted towers, shadow and sunlight maps, painted murals, moments like this: “The world was covered in pinholes to be peered in. Ideas emerging in precise places, containing endless opportunities for revelation. Speckling the landscape, scattered in people, and projected into the things they made and said.” Although only about 120 pages, Bitter Water Opera is a quiet and powerful observation of what it means to be alive. 

I spoke with Nicolette over email about movement and stillness in her book, the importance of noticing, and illuminating the substance beneath the surface.

Nirica Srinivasan: I’d love to know more about Marta Becket—until about halfway through the book, when I Googled her, I had no idea she was real. What drew you to Marta as a figure? How did you first hear of her, and decide to bring her into your book?

Nicolette Polek: Marta came to me by accident—I was taking a long drive and was looking for places to stop on Roadside America, a kind of Atlas Obscura site. Her project really struck me at the time—the clarity of her will, the extremity of living out an artistic pursuit in the middle of nowhere. I attempted writing a highly condensed biography until deciding that it felt more generative to sit her down with a fictional character who could humanly (and perhaps imperfectly) relate with her work. 

NS: Gia mentions once wanting to be someone “who had an eye for things, but over time I’d lost the sense of why and what for, and thus forgot to pay attention…”. A lot of her journey is toward noticing, and paying attention. How do you cultivate that habit of noticing? What role does noticing play for you, as a writer?

NP: A writer first and foremost has an eye. Some say to “write what you know,” but the writer always writes what she perceives. It is from a particular way of seeing—through a specific, embodied vantage point—that truly special writing is born. I notice the most when I lose focus on myself—this way I can truly be reverent toward the people, things, places around me. Cultivating this posture, for me, involves silence, solitude, prayer. But also spending extended time with the things that capture my attention in the first place so that I can understand what it is that catches me instead of flitting away from it. Methods of “recording” reality that are unintuitive for me, like drawing, or transcribing a bird call onto the piano, all help me practice attention.  

NS: Gia’s name appears only once in the novel, as the sign-off at the end of her letter to Marta Becket. For most of the book, she remains unnamed. Why did you choose to leave her mostly unnamed—instead of named often, or entirely unnamed?

NP: It’s harder to confront an isolated first person narrator with their own name. Names emerge in relation to others. The flower at the center of the desert exists before its name. But it’s only when it is discovered by someone that it becomes a “desert lily.” Gia means “God is gracious,” so naming her once at the beginning felt like pointing her life in a particular direction. 

NS: Leaving Gia mostly unnamed, as well as multiple characters she meets—the ‘jolly tourist’, the ‘preservationists’— lends the book a sort of mythic quality. I also felt this in how the book moves from vignette to vignette, and in the brief but very vivid imagery—of the charcoal drawings, the body in the lake, the ‘inverted tower’. Was myth something you played with in writing Bitter Water Opera, and folklore and fairytale?

NP: With my first book, Imaginary Museums, I was reading a lot of fables, but with Bitter Water Opera I read the Bible, which has the most unbelievable passages about how the spiritual world is inextricably expressed through our material circumstances. I was also reading contemporary “realist” novels that were totally missing a whole part of life, and I thought: no, this isn’t real. I wanted to reveal the spiritual substance beneath even the small things.

NS: While reading your novel, I was reminded of many other stories I love that deal with faith in some way—the film Three Colours: Red, the play Angels in America, the poem ‘March’ by Alex Dimitrov. Were there stories—films, books, personal recollections—that served as touchstones for you as you wrote Bitter Water Opera?

NP: I love the Three Colours trilogy. Atom Egoyan’s treatment of memory and the quiet collapse of a relationship in Calendar (1993) was really instructive for me. The houses in the films Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) and Fanny and Alexander (1982) gave me a narrative clarity for the architectural spaces in BWO. While writing the book I took lots of walks through the somewhat hidden town of Washington Grove in Maryland, which is described as a “town within a forest,” with fields and lawns instead of streets. I painted my own mural in my living room (so garish) to mirror Gia mirroring Marta.


from Calendar (1993)


NS: You mention architectural spaces. In your book, there’s a mention of Stone Tape Theory, the theory that strong negative emotions can be soaked up by materials nearby and released later. Places (and artifacts) hold strong meaning in Bitter Water Opera, able to hold memory and the possibility of transformation. The preservationists of Marta’s artifacts and the opera house work against the inevitability of time. What do you think of our connection to places and to material objects, and their impermanence? 

NP: My parents spent most of their lives in Slovakia, and I grew up witnessing their profound and silent homesickness and nostalgia. I feel like I see it in many of my peers too, in different ways. In Matthew 8:20, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Out of my own longing for an unbroken, redeemed world—a kind of homesickness—I try to pour myself out into wherever I am placed. Through that meaningful and oftentimes extremely challenging engagement with a place and the people in it, I feel a little closer to heaven.  

NS: A lot of your novel is about stillness and movement—Gia is in a sort of suspension from real life, and through the book she encounters acts of creation, dancing, and growing. At one point, Gia says: “nature, in its stillness and silence” which I found striking, because nature doesn’t seem to be still or silent at all—not in your book, not in real life. How did you approach writing Gia’s experience with movement and its lack?

NP: Nature, in an earlier section, is experienced by Gia as loud and wrought with information. The access points are relational—when I have a quick and hurried heart my surroundings are mute and invisible, whereas in stillness everything else becomes clearer in its living movement. Later in the desert, Gia is confronted with a silence that she doesn’t wish to fill, which becomes a precursor to revelation. There’s the still face of the Imago Dei, and the thriving life beyond its surface; both are present simultaneously and involve a certain kind of looking.

NS: I read Bitter Water Opera as an ebook, which meant I unfortunately had fewer opportunities to look at that beautiful cover! Can you tell me a bit about how the cover came to be?

NP: I love Cynthia Talmadge’s work, which spans from sand and pointillist painting to sculpture and installation. She’s poured other covers in sand, like  Jay MacInery’s Bright Lights, Big City and The Story of My Life by Ellen Terry, and since so much of Gia’s desire in BWO is to make something solid and lasting out of what is otherwise precarious and ever-shifting, I felt very strongly that a cover-image made from sand was the perfect extension of that. Cynthia pulled the curtains from images of the Amargosa Opera House doors and it was so startling to see how much life and variegation came from the final version of the image.

NS: A more process-related question—how long did this novel take you to write? Did you follow a daily writing practice? How did you decide where to enter a vignette, and where it ended?

NP: Somewhere around four years I think. The writing took place in Ohio, Maryland, DC, New York, and Connecticut and between two different graduate programs. It was sold to Graywolf in 2022, when its shape was fully finished. Since the book depicts a consciousness that makes the initial step or turn towards God, I had a good sense when that turn was complete, I just had little idea of how it would happen.

NS: Do you have a favorite sentence, passage, or image from Bitter Water Opera, or one that you’re particularly proud of? 

NP: I think of “the mycelium of heaven” often!


Nicolette Polek is the author of Bitter Water Opera and Imaginary Museums. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, BOMB, New York Tyrant, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, and holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School. She is from Northeast Ohio.

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