Catherine Lacey is the author of Nobody Is Ever Missing, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014), a finalist for the NYPL's Young Lions Fiction Award. It was released in the UK, New Zealand and Australia by Granta Books; French, Italian and Spanish translations are forthcoming. Her short fiction and essays have been published widely. She was named a Granta New Voice in 2014 and awarded an Artist's Fellowship from NYFA in 2012. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Columbia Univeristy. Her second novel and first short story collection are forthcoming from FSG
“A Narrative Impulse,” an Interview with Catherine Lacey
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Niki Johnson. Of the process, she said, “Catherine Lacey is a rare gem. Her writing is vigorous and moving—you do not question it. I am grateful for the opportunity to have interviewed her.” In this interview, Catherine discusses how reading aloud influences her writing process and the importance of writing about relevant social issues.
Superstition Review: I was immediately captivated by Elyria’s sudden travel to New Zealand, without any clear intentions, other than to find Werner’s farm and a divorce from her entire life. How did you choose this course of action for her?
Catherine Lacey: As much as you can trace a narrative impulse to the root, New Zealand was the inspiration for this novel and Elyria. I went on a long trip there and once I was back in the states I kept mentally pacing around that landscape. I had written a few short pieces, fragments really, about hitch-hiking but it was really that space, those roads and cliffs and shores, that asked for a character. I think her inner turmoil and grief was a counter balance the pastoral countrysides.
SR: You have a fascinating way of portraying personal turmoil. Where did the idea of Elyria’s internal wildebeest come from?
CL: I tend, maybe too often, toward describing non-physical ideas and feelings through something tangible. The wildebeest, specifically, came late. I had spent about a year of working on Elyria and the problem with her was always that she had this problem that she couldn't explain. Depression, someone once told me, is anger with no place to go. A wildebeest felt like the most appropriate metaphor for hers, this hulking, massive animal that eats grass and is attacked and killed by animals much smaller but more powerful. A wildebeest's main form of defense, also, is running. Vultures follow wildebeest herds, waiting for carcasses. There's something tragic about the wildebeest to me, but also a little comic.
SR: Around certain people Elyria begins to hear an “inaudible noise,” initially an indicator of love. Yet, Elyria begins to find the noise intolerable. Does this representation change? What does this say about Elyria’s capacity for love?
CL: I'm so fascinated by what draws people together and not just into friendships or romantic relationships, but these very immediate senses of comfort that can sometimes occur between people. In New York, you can cross paths with thousands of strangers every single day and sometimes, even without eye contact or a word exchanged, I just feel so deeply soothed by someone. I don't mean romantic love or lust, though what draws people into those sorts relationships is also fascinating. But sometimes it's the random old lady on the bus or the middle aged man who is carrying too many groceries or the cashier at a movie theater who just seems to have this aura of goodness and solace and peace.
So, I thought about this minor phenomena a lot (and I still do) and eventually I came to understand it as a palpable sensation, something that cannot be denied, but also cannot be proven. Inaudible but audible.Yet these things do sometimes go away or turn sour. Friendships go dull or the old lady on the bus steps on your toes and doesn't apologize. Elyria is flawed like all people are flawed and she's in a state of unaddressed grief so her capacity for love might be under-par at the moment. But I still have hope for her, for people like her.
SR: Elyria develops a relationship with Jaye which she describes as “clean and plain and harmless.” How important are these relationships for Elyria over romantic ones? Does Jaye become a stand-in for Ruby?
CL: I think friendships are under-celebrated and incredibly important. We celebrate anniversaries with husbands and wives but rarely are friendships championed. I think they should be because so much happens between people that aren't dependent on each other for anything more than companionship and an on-going dialogue. I think there's something so beautiful in that and I think this is what Elyria is trying and failing to learn. She's never really had friends. Her attachment to her family and her husband are disorganized and not very warm or complete. So when she meets someone who is good to her for no reason, who makes her feel calm, its like she's learning a new language. In a way Jaye does become a stand-in for Ruby, but Ruby really is a stand-in for her mom, who is really a stand-in for her own acceptance of her existence. I guess everything just stands-in for other things for everyone, really.
SR: I find your writing style to be incredibly unique—often described as lyrical. How have other writers influenced your process? What is some specific advice another writer has given to you that has changed the way you look at writing?
CL: For me, so much of writing is getting out of my own way and letting myself be a little insane. I think I've learned a lot about process by going to readings and hearing writers read their work. My dear friend Sasha Fletcher is a fierce reader of his poetry. I love the sense of power and fearlessness he puts into the writing and the performance; they're intertwined. Also, the first time I heard Amelia Gray read from Threats I thought, Oh now I'm never the same ever again. So, I always read my work aloud when I think I'm done with it as a way to find the weak spots.
SR: In an interview with Granta, you mention, “I’m still not sure what [Elyria’s] desires are or if she even really has any.” I am fascinated with this “sacrilegious” approach you had in writing her. What is your process for character development? Do you find yourself becoming more acquainted with your characters over time?
CL: I think characters are like people in that if you think you have them completely figured out they become boring, but even if you think you have them completely figured out you're probably wrong because a single life is far to complicated to understand in its entirety. I'm not of the mindset that you can fully understand a character or if you can or think you do that character might not be complicated enough. However, I did a reading late last summer and read from one of the oldest part of the novel and in the middle of the reading I started to find this slightly different tone in the text, which was a surprise because I thought I knew the exact, unmovable pitch of that chapter.
SR: Charles’ chalkboard clacking is ringing in my head. The idea of him working on formulas is an interesting dichotomy to his wife’s way of throwing herself into the world. I like that Elyria breaks free of what a woman or wife is supposed to be according to popular narratives. What draws you to addressing these feminist issues?
CL: I'm not entirely sure they are feminist issues exactly. It's weird—this book isn't, to me, a particularly feminist one. I'm certainly a feminist, but this book doesn't really seem to me to be dealing with feminist issues. If it had been written a hundred years ago, it would be more of a feminist text because of the context, but here we have here is a woman in contemporary America and New Zealand who has left her husband and life as a way of taking action within her grief and depression. She's not saying, “I don't need a man to complete me,” or “fuck this wage gap,” or anything like that. She's having more trouble with just being alive, being a body, being mortal. Being a woman is a part of that, but I think it's not a big enough part of the story to really call it a feminist book. But then again, I'm fine with people seeing that in the story. It just wasn't my intent in any direct way.
SR: I truly enjoyed your piece, “Against Bless-Your-Heart Manners.” It’s so important to be open to such discourse. How has the realization of “the South’s damaging culture of politeness” affected your recent works? You seem pretty open as it is. Can readers expect this to work its way into your fiction writing as well?
CL: Thank you. I'd like to write more about the The Deep South, where I'm from, particularly it's backwards social policies and changing attitude toward non-heteronormative stuff. Writing about post-Katrina New Orleans was the first way I realized how important writing was to me, then I was trying and failing to write this messy book about religion and sexuality in the south but I wasn't old enough to write that book. I hope I am old enough to write it some day. That essay for Guernica was a start. They asked me if I would write something and I threw around a few ideas before spending a couple weeks in a frenzy on it.
SR: At Columbia you earned an MFA in creative nonfiction. How do you alternate between fiction and nonfiction? Do you find that you take on a different voice between the two?
CL: I think I had to learn that good nonfiction is still very much dependent on a creating a rich, particular voice and that the essayist's voice is actually not that far from a fictional character. Writing a novel or really just writing fiction in general has helped me write better essays, I think.
SR: You talked with Electric Literature before about the book’s humorous qualities. For the record, I found Elyria’s state humorous as well—especially in her responses. “Oh how could I not stop for you? that first driver asked….I don’t know, I said. How could you?” What were your motivations or intentions in writing the book this way? Do you feel it warranted subtle comedic relief?
CL: Comedy without the complication of something darker tends to feel sort of one-note while tragedy without moments of humor takes itself too seriously and can be just as boring or too melodramatic. It came out this way naturally for me; I didn't have to add in bits of comedy later to balance the darkness.
SR: Speaking of that interview, I loved your rant about the insufferable nature of authors like Updike and Roth. “I want to read authors who see people more fully and completely and with more empathy.” I couldn’t agree more. Explain how you negotiate these qualities into your own work? How do you hope to influence your readers by doing so?
CL: I feel like that rant was more about a writer's entire career. It is troubling that we have so many white, male writers from the same era that wrote through so many intense decades of change—civil rights and women's rights in particular—and yet those social changes seem largely absent from their work. That said I'm not an expert on Updike and Roth, but I've yet to find what I personally want and need from their books and none of their fans have been able to point me in the right direction yet. Not that every book needs to be overly political in its concerns—in a lot of ways I think Nobody exist in a sort of vacuum—but over the course of a career I'd expect for a writer to gravitate toward and be moved by the changes happening around them.
SR: Congratulations on being named a finalist for the NYPL’s Young Lions Fiction Award. How did it feel to find your name on the list?
CL: Thank you! It's really crazy and exciting. It's a really great list and an honor. Some of my favorite books from the last fifteen years have been nominees.
SR: I read that Nobody is Ever Missing was first a series of short stories. Could you describe the evolution of this? Did you face any challenges growing it into a novel?
CL: I never wanted to write a novel until I realized I was already in the middle of writing one. I thought writing essays and nonfiction would be my main project as a writer, and a more likely source of income or work, but I wrote fiction fragments constantly, almost as a kind of practice, sometimes sending them out to obscure literary journals or sharing them with friends, but mainly just writing on them. After the trip, I still mentally there and anytime I wrote fiction, it was in New Zealand. Every time I was revising a story that I thought was done I'd find a new angle in it that made me want to expand it. At some point I was also working on a series of sort of deranged letters from a wife to a husband then I realized it was the same character that was in New Zealand. It's really sort of blur at this point, when it went from story to novel. What I'm working on now is following the same messy order—a bunch of fragments that start coalescing and gaining speed until they're a herd with a direction.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
CL: I've never been able to get work done in the same place I live. There's too much there to distract me, too many ways to trick myself into procrastination—laundry, books, interesting fiance. So I have a constantly mobile office that settles in at a coffee shop where the baristas are incredibly kind or sometimes the library or the park.