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Interview with Catherine Lacey

Catherine Lacey is a writer who came to New York by way of Tupelo, Mississippi. She is a New York Foundation of the Arts grant recipient, a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, and a Granta New Voice. Lacey broke from the peloton last year with her debut novel, Nobody is Ever Missing (Granta). Her work struck me immediately for its synthesis of two qualities of prose which often exclude one another: distinctive voice and rich imagery.

 

Nobody is Ever Missing follows Elyria from a stable but stagnant marriage to the wide-open possibilities of New Zealand. As Elyria hitchhikes through the countryside, with only a scrap of a plan, she turns and returns memories of a lost stepsister and an absent husband. The more Elyria travels, the more she struggles with the impossibility of running from yourself, calling this feeling her ‘wildebeest’. All this roiling introspection might have been too much in another writer’s hands. But Catherine Lacey invigorates self-examination with prose that is alive and electric. It’s the bright bristling reality of Elly’s world that makes Nobody is Ever Missing so significant.

 

The novel teems with metaphor and metonymy—images do the work in progressing our understanding of Elyria’s mind and her trajectory. The body becomes strange in these pages: hands become a metonym for love; we consider the possibility of living with two hearts; teeth are alternatively tiny, glowing and bared; the brain is animate and other, sometimes roving and acquisitive, sometimes lying calm and still in the dark. Imagery, line-by-line, keeps at bay the claustrophobia that typically accompanies an exploration of feelings or an anatomization of body. The reading experience is akin to waking up behind someone else’s eyes and feeling like if you tell anyone about it, you’ll find psychiatrists medicating your future. You kind of want to keep this book a secret. But you also want to tell everyone you meet to experience Elly’s voice.

 

Catherine and I first met this year when paired together for a blind interview between debut novelists. We recently talked about writing and life at the bar of Roebling Tea Room in Brooklyn. We continued the conversation electronically the next day.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— The first time I read your book, I was scared for Elyria. The second time I read it, I thought her voice was hilarious. Did you experience anything similar in writing the various drafts?

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— I think I did. I was never afraid for Elyria, but I guess that makes sense, because I always knew what was going to happen to her. I never set out to write a book about a woman slowly moving toward something that was going to destroy her. I think she was already destroyed when she got to New Zealand and her trip was a way of rebuilding herself.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Hearing that word, destroyed, makes me feel kind of bad for laughing. But, to me, the tone is often darkly hilarious. Should I reread?

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— Oh, no! Of course I think laughing is a good response. I remember being a kid, I guess I was twenty, or maybe younger, in Paris for the first time and I was horribly depressed and awkward and I slept on someone’s hotel room floor because I didn’t have any money and then I slept another night in a terrible hostel and I was too afraid of the metro so I walked everywhere for two or three days, which left holes in my cheap sneakers and I was so fucking miserable. Now I look back at that trip and it is the funniest thing I can remember myself doing. Not because it ended well (it didn’t) but because I have a context for that person.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— But the novel isn’t just funny because of the narrative distance. Elly’s voice is what I enjoyed most. Take this gut-punch of a passage: ‘I went into the kitchen to get a glass of water but instead picked up a knife because I was thinking about stabbing myself in the face–not actually considering stabbing myself in the face, but thinking that it would be a physical expression of how I felt–and I picked up a chef’s knife, our heavy good one that I used for everything from cutting soft fruit to impaling pumpkins and I looked at it, laughed a noiseless laugh, put the chef’s knife down, poured myself a glass of water, and drank it fast, until I choked a little, and I went back to arguing with my husband…’ To me, that’s funny. Super dark, but I’m laughing as the wind gets knocked from me.

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— I think I was drawn to the movement of her voice, the way she leaps from idea to idea in what seems sort of random, but is actually much more methodical. I think the better parts of the book (and I’m judging this mostly by what gets quoted back at me) came out as a total stream of consciousness after I had spent at least a year with her. This is also a benefit of writing a book that is focused on a single first-person character. You can get to a point of almost automatic writing when you spend a few hours every day with the same voice.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— So it’s her subconscious that’s hilarious.

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— More like the logic behind her mania. At least that’s what I find funny about her.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Your title comes from a John Berryman poem, Dream Song 29:

 

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,

end anyone and hacks her body up

and hide the pieces, where they may be found.

He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.

Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.

Nobody is ever missing.

 

The larger context of your epigraph seems like it reads the same way: initially horrid, but upon further inspection, pitch black funny–the impossibility of counting the missing. Did you see your title in the larger context of the Berryman poem, with a bogeyman snatching people up from the road?

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— Actually, no. I only saw the speaker of this poem as a mirror for Elyria, not an allusion to some possible doom on the road. Looking back at it, I’m surprised to just now see the poem in that context because there are several references to Elyria’s fear of being hacked up or other people’s fear of her being hacked up or her own interior horror show daydreams of ripping her own body apart. But I actually really dislike horror books and movies. I tend to dislike being asked to sympathise with someone who is about to be attacked, so maybe that’s why I never saw Elyria as a potential victim.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Which characters in fiction do you find yourself most readily sympathising with?

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— Fuck ups. Once a writer told me that she always writes protagonists that are better versions of who she thinks she is. Her characters get to say or do what she wished she could have said or done, almost as a way for her to re-live her own life. I think there’s a place for that sort of story but I’m not interested in it. I tend to learn more deeply through failure, so I want to see people failing in stories. My worst moments and relationships have taught me how I don’t want to behave or be treated; I had to see it first.

 

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— There’s that great phrase, ‘l’esprit d’escalier’, the spirit of the staircase–what you wish you could have said at the dinner party, but you only think of when walking down the stairs. I feel like there’s a reason real life doesn’t work with lightning wit and that too much of that in fiction makes a piece feel overwritten, or overcaffeinated. Imperfection seems integral to how the voice in Nobody, which is outstanding, moves us through experience; we perceive time as Elyria does, in a very real and patchy way.

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— There’s this line in the Will Eno play The Flu Season, spoken by a character named Epilogue: ‘If we could control life, it wouldn’t be life. If we could control our likeness of it, it wouldn’t be a likeness.’ I think one of the biggest threats or hurdles to writing fiction is thinking you know what you’re doing, thinking you’re in control. Artists are constantly waiting for the moments where we get out of our own way and write as if no one is ever going to read it.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— But willful naivete seems impossible–or inauthentic. I can’t see any of my next books being as free as my first one. And I think the best part about first books is that the first-time novelist is clueless about the machinations of the industry. Do you think it’s easier to write a debut book from this wide-open, original position?

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— In some ways, I am coming to find that it is. I was almost done with writing the first draft of the novel before I set the real intention of trying to finish it. And only after that did I think I might want to try to publish it.  What I mean is I started writing not only without the expectation of publication, but without the idea of it at all. I thought I was going to be a writer of essays. I think you have to get really far away from people for the second book, while you get accustomed to people reading what has been secret for so long. It depends heavily on boundaries. Not only not giving a fuck what people think but remembering that the whole endeavour of writing fiction is utterly pointless unless you’re actively engaged in the work. By boundaries, in this context, I mean not looking over your shoulder while you’re working. By not being too porous when it comes to criticism and other people’s taste or expectations. But you still have to find a way to let yourself be completely porous within your work, completely enmeshed in it.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— That makes sense. David Mitchell talks about how it helps him to think of being a writer when he’s actually doing the Lord’s work and of being an author when he’s in his chicken suit outside Barnes and Noble.

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— Absolutely. The challenge of the second novel is that you’ve just gotten accustomed to your chicken suit and now you have to go back into the sanctuary of your work, all fucked up over the business of it.  For the first few months after the book came out I was too self-aware to work much, too shocked by the newness of being reviewed and such. Then the fever broke and I came to this very adolescent realisation that it just doesn’t matter. I’m not a different person because one specific chunk of my writing is a purchasable, taxable commodity. I’m no better or worse than anyone else for it.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Your title, Nobody Is Ever Missing, always makes me think of Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again. First, do you think you can ever really return to the pre-publication version of yourself, and, second, do you think you can physically return to a place once you’ve left?

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— I can’t return to who I was pre-publication, but not because of the publication. Today is my step-sister’s birthday. She would have been 32. The experience of losing her, which came shortly after selling the book, pretty much flattened me for a few seasons and put the smallness of a career in high relief. If I went back to who I was pre-publication, the sort of writer I was, then I wouldn’t have learned what I learned (and am still learning) from that awful thing. This is linked, in a way, to being unable to return to a place. I grew up in Mississippi, and the south, all over, has this almost invasive sense of nostalgia for a time no one wants to actually return to. I think being a writer from the American South for the last several decades has this shadow hanging over it, that we were born in a place that can never go home again.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— It’s there. We get this sense in Nobody that you can never go back to people. Ruby is gone. Elyria tries to go back to her husband, ultimately, but finds that the physics of her life in New York has been changed. It’s almost like she’s a ghost in her old apartment building.

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— I think some people spend their whole relationships trying to be whomever they were at some ideal moment in their history. Few things are sadder than that. And I’m not beyond this. I think I’ve spent years of energy mourning the memories of people who are still very much alive. It’s a sort of dumb thing to mourn, the recent pasts I have with people who are still in my life. I’ve grown out of the habit to some degree, but I don’t think anyone ever really lets go of this. That seems like a basically human predicament, longing for your brightest memories.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Elyria is asked, explicitly, to explore some of her darkest thoughts when she participates in a university study. The technicians draw blood, wire her with electrodes, make her drink a blue liquid, and ask her questions for fifteen minutes in a blacked out room. My first thought was that this was you interrogating your character. The questions themselves cut to her core: What is your greatest fear? What is the point of love? Is there an afterlife?

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— I think at some point in writing it I wanted there to be some kind of surreal element that wasn’t too magical. When you’re writing a story or novel that is so focused on one specific character, it begins to feel like an inquisition, half into this character, but half into the writer. I’m not sure where the idea really came from, but I made the rules of the study that she had to answer the questions as quickly as possible and then I wrote those sections as quickly as possible and I edited very little.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— I love the fact that you brought up the surreal logic of this sequence. To me, it fit perfectly with the experience of being in a wide-open country, like New Zealand, and jumping from car to car as you hitch-hike.

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— Yes! That too. I didn’t see it that way, but when you’re hitch-hiking you are constantly re-introducing yourself to people–same questions, new contexts.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— I want to draw attention to the lyricism of your prose. I loved this moment at the lab, ‘As they took the blood, I watched the thin, clear tube turn red and I felt it get warm against my forearm and I thought about how my hands and my husband’s hands still loved each other and how the rest of our bodies just dangled off these hands and I envied how simply those hands could be what they were—ambivalent chunks of bone and muscle that just touch, hold, and are held, repeat.’ The writing seems to radiate from one specific image, clasped hands, and manages to encompass everything that Elyria feels at the time. I’m wondering if you write like this, image by image, and if you trust intuitively that everything in the book is going to be okay, so long as you get the images right.

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— I totally forgot those lines were next to each other. I write really messy and I think really messy.  By messy I mean I’ll be doing my taxes and remember a book I read years ago and I’ll make a note on some scrap of paper and the colour of the paper will remind me of green grapes and the texture of a green grapes and that reminds me of this redhead I knew as a kid who peeled green grapes and called them snake eyes and ate them all smiling and weird and then I’ll look up and I’m figuring out what I’m allowed to deduct this year. So I write that way.  And yes, I trust images above almost everything else. There’s more to it than just that, but everything good I’ve ever written has started as an image. For a while it’s all 1000-word chunks. Hopefully they find a way to fit together. I think (and I’ve only done this once, so what the hell do I know) but I think that eventually they meet each other because there is an internal logic and push of the character telling the story.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— I don’t think I’m ever going to write another way, or maybe even love books that aren’t written in a similar way, which is incredibly closed-minded, but what can I say. There’s the possibility that this is just a phase. Bloom would say the next phase is writing a memoir. Are you working on a memoir?

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— No, but also sort of? Isn’t that always the answer though? One time someone asked John Berryman how he reacted to the label of ‘confessional poet’. He said, ‘With rage and contempt, next question!’ Which is just to say that I think everything is confessional and no one really wants to talk about it.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Sticking with Bloom, the best I have for ‘kenosis’ is ‘to make yourself nothing’. Does that ring true for you? Can you only write once you erase your sense of self? I have a hard time intuiting anything when I feel fully present–partly what makes this time after a first book so frustrating? Like you said earlier, I get in the writing’s way. The only time I get those glimpses, each one of which is a vertebra of the novel I’m working on, is when I can remove any trace of my conscious self.

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— I think my method is closer to digging through myself to reach other people. There is nothing so particular about any one person’s experience that she should be ashamed of it or try to bury it by writing about someone totally different from oneself. Everyone is essentially living the same story.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— I think you’ve summed it up for the living. Where do you leave flowers in the writer-artist cemetery?

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— I tend to get ballistically obsessed with a dead writer or artist every now and then to the point where I feel like I am connecting to their ghost. It was Berryman for a long while, but Cy Twombly’s paintings and drawings have yet to get old to me. I don’t know what it is. I hope I never find out. The first time I went to the Twombly Gallery in Houston (which is just around the corner from the Rothko Chapel) I just cried and cried. The Rothko just made me tired and sad. But Twombly is only recently dead. Of the very dead I love Frida Kahlo. Her deranged, calm arrangements, that frenzy even in a still life. There was a summer I thought I was being followed around by the ghost of Anaïs Nin.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— She’s one of the nice ones, right?

 

A

CATHERINE LACEY

— Oh yes. I think her ghost trick is that she makes you think about sex a lot. Which is a lot better than I can say for Berryman.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Will Chancellor grew up in Hawaii and Texas. His first novel, A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, was recently published by HarperCollins.