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.