Catherine Lacey (Photo by Daymon Gardner)
I read Catherine Lacey’s first novel, the gorgeously despondent Nobody Is Ever Missing, in a gulp. It unfolds like a hungry gasp. Nothing much happens really: one day, Elyria takes off for New Zealand to visit a poet who had once extended an offhand invitation. In sentences that hurt you with their icy precision—that make you envious of their implacable beauty—Lacey stages a woman’s internal disintegration as though it were an especially potent bit of performance art.
Her second novel The Answers has an almost sci-fi premise: an actor hires women to play out distilled threads of a relationship, i.e., the Anger Girlfriend, the Maternal Girlfriend, the Intellectual Girlfriend, the Intimacy Team of Girlfriends. Mary signs up for the “income-generating experience” of playing the Emotional Girlfriend, because she needs to generate income. Like Elyria, she is desperate—for a cure, for reprieve, for release. In many ways, The Answers is a more plot-driven novel than Lacey’s first, but its title is ironic: answers are not possible, resolutions a misbegotten fantasy.
In her new collection of short stories, Certain American States, Lacey’s characters are in mourning, aggrieved, disappointed by life and hurt by death. “You are still alive, so you have to keep living. That’s all you can do,” the narrator of the story “ur heck box” is told by a friend after her brother dies. But the insight of the eponymous story may be more true: “The loneliness of certain American states is enough to kill a person if you look too closely.”
I recently spoke with Lacey about the new collection, which includes several stories written before Nobody Is Ever Missing, about her sense of herself as a writer and about the meaning and politics of “certain American states.”
Where do these stories intersect with the timeline of your novels? How has writing stories been different for you than writing novels?
There’s a big difference, although I will say that when I first started writing, I wanted to write essays and profiles and nonfiction. As an adult, I had pretty much been just doing that for a while. And then—I’m not really sure when it started—I started writing fiction a bit more seriously. I started by writing a bunch of short stories. That was really all I had time for, all I felt I had enough stamina for. The stories all belonged together, and they needed to talk to each other in order to find their cohesion. So I had a series of stories that ended up turning into Nobody Is Ever Missing. I backed into writing that first novel by just repeating the same perspective. I hate the phrase “finding my voice,” but inevitably, when you are a younger writer, there’s a period in which you are straining, and you just throw everything at the wall and see what comes out that is meaningful to you. Two or three of the stories in the new collection were first written around the same time that I was writing my first book. They were outliers, they didn’t fit in Nobody. And that’s been true the rest of the time that I’ve been writing stories. There have been stories that I either finished and published, or finished and didn’t publish, or finished and even believed were going to be in the collection until another story showed up and was just a better fit. The oldest story in Certain American States is the title story, but at the point of writing that story I had no sense of working toward a collection, I was just writing stories that were appealing to me.
One of the defining things about your work is the comfort with irresolution. Conclusiveness is not your goal. Maybe the goal is simply the acceptance that some things are not and cannot be known.
There were many writers—especially throughout the twentieth century—who were very comfortable with places of irresolution. The last twenty years have somehow been more of a conservative swing, towards a conservative technique, so things that are old, techniques that are old, now seem rather weird. The dominant literary mode that has taken over in the last two decades is actually quite—not necessarily archaic, but it’s conservative. It’s just boring. There’s this need for everything to tie into political issues, to make a specific statement, and to offer the reader some sort of nonfiction credit for reading fiction, to make some sort of clear, hard statement. Instead, I want to create a fictive space in which the questions can be addressed and the answers are not as important—because they change, every reader brings a different sense of need to the book. I guess I just gravitate toward that naturally. You don’t always realize what you are doing until you have been doing it for a while, which is something I have started to realize now, publishing this third book. I can see patterns a little bit more, and I can see intentions that I didn’t know I had.
One of the questions that I have—and it maybe follows you talking about patterns—is if there’s a starting point for you. Do you start with a voice, an image? The voices in your work are indelible in some way. Do you hear a voice and put it in particular situations? Is there an image or an event or, since a lot of these stories are about mourning and grief, a feeling?
There tends to be a sentence that occurs to me. But a sentence is not just a sentence. In the sentence, I will feel a very specific bodily posture, a very specific rhythm, and a very specific level of intensity at which this character, this voice, is living. The sentence holds a lot. It’s always way more than a sentence. I’m constantly thinking of processing the world in terms of words. I’m looking at everything and thinking automatically about how to describe it and what it feels like. These sentences come to me all the time. I try to be idle and bored as much as possible in my everyday life. If I’m just walking around, I try to resist the impulse to listen to music or a podcast, at least some of the time. I find that idle spaces of not doing anything, not reading, not trying to get anything done, just aimlessly and slowly being alive, are the times when a sentence can arise that has more in it than just language. There’s a code with an entire story in that sentence, if I can just get it down and take it apart. The process of uncovering where the sentence came from is the process of writing stories for me. Sometimes there’s an image, there’s a character, there’s a voice, but it generally comes as a sort of complete syntactical object.
When and how did you know you wanted to and would be a writer?
There were different points when I knew I wanted to do this, but I was making compromises with myself. I’d say, I’ll do this, but I have to do this other thing for money, and I’ll do this on the side. I allowed myself to pursue writing as long as I had other ways of making money. This was because I didn’t think I could survive off of writing alone. It didn’t occur to me as an option, so it wasn’t even a matter of could or couldn’t. From a very young age, the dominant story I was told was that all the things that I wanted to do, I didn’t get to do them. And I didn’t even argue with it, I didn’t even notice it until recently. In the last few years, I realized that I was always writing, my whole life, but I didn’t consider myself a writer for a long time, nor did I even want to be a writer. From a very young age—I was reading a lot, I was writing a lot—but I never even tried to write a novel until I was already writing one. It’s funny, I moved away by myself when I was young. I was like, Fuck this place, I don’t belong there. I thought of myself as being past those things, when in fact I was not.
Your writing is often described in otherworldly or supernatural terms, even though it’s largely quite realistic. Is there a paradox that’s there in how you write?
When I’m writing, I am very much thinking of the body, the character’s posture, the way they might move across a room, how quickly their heart is beating. I think physical sensation is the beginning of all stories, but—and I don’t think this is necessarily a very modern concern—I do think there’s this very human, ongoing problem of people being dissociated from their own bodies. So sometimes work that addresses the intricacies of what is happening in a body and the way that it relates to our thoughts, the way it relates to the way we see the world, seems kind of familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Beneath our lives there is the physical rhythm of our existence, and yet so much of the time we are trying to ignore it. One could say, Oh, this is really a modern thing, it’s because we are all on the internet. But I don’t think it’s that. I think that’s just how human beings are. We want to ignore it, because it would be too upsetting to acknowledge the sort of temporary bloody mess that is your life.
You mentioned earlier that you don’t necessarily think of your writing as political. Obviously “Certain American States” is the title of a story in the collection, and you’d mentioned that it was the first story you worked on. But I do want to hear a bit more about why you chose this title and what you think of its instinctual political overtones.
Oh, I don’t mean to say that. I don’t think anyone writes anything that is apolitical. I think my comment earlier about the dominant literary mode of the last twenty years is that it must engage overtly with specific political events in order to be considered political, which to me is crazy. Because I do think that all writing is political, maybe even especially the work that is about the domestic sphere, that is about the way that fathers treat their daughters, the way that mothers treat their children, and the way that spouses treat each other. All these things are microcosms of the way that we treat each other on a global, political scale. There is a lot of power in the stories that are just about relationships. It’s often what our laws gets based on, the love of this person over that person.
When I realized I was working on a story collection, originally I had titled it Small Differences. But after I had written all of the stories, I went back to that earlier story and used that title. There are several reasons. One is that there are about four different meanings in that phrase, and so I liked that it invited scrutiny and reinterpretation. You know, there’s the state of being certain about something, and then there are “certain American states,” as if there are a few different states of being that are all-American. Then there are certain states that are American, like Mississippi or New York. I liked the variability that that title gives. I do think that the collection of emotional states that are in the book are all, for better or worse, a variety of American problems. They are in American settings, people are grappling with the theater that is America. The more I travel, the more I realize that the way we have our country put together, the problems and the different scales of nuance we have here, are very different from the rest of the world. We as Americans get very America-centric over time—I think we are all guilty of this. I’m certainly guilty of this. Our international culture machine allows this. You know, it’s our movies that are being translated, our books that are being translated, and our music that is sent out across the world and reflected back at us. I had to admit at a certain point that my concerns were American, whether I wanted them to be or not. I think I just wanted to acknowledge the limits of the collection as well. It’s not all American states, it’s not the United American states. It’s not all of them, it’s just a few of them that I happen to have access to.
Yevgeniya Traps lives in Brooklyn. She works at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, NYU.
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