Catherine Lacey is the author of Nobody is Ever Missing, a surreal, funny, dark novel that reads like a walk through ferns; ever darker, closing pleasantly in. Dwight Garner of The New York Times called it “[A] searching, emotionally resonant first novel…[Lacey’s prose is] dreamy and fierce at the same time…Ms. Lacey’s slim novel impressed me, and held me to my chair.”
The novel features Elyria, a woman who vanishes from married life in New York to hitchhike through New Zealand, traveling a lush, craggy, complex landscape that mirrors the landscape of her mind. New Zealand becomes a kind of character in the book, more constant than the people Elyria meets. She meets new people, but never has to re-introduce herself to the landscape. We talked over the course of a week, first over the brunch table at my house and then over email.
Amelia Gray: Was there a learning curve in the work of writing so deeply in one place while you were living/working in another?
Catherine Lacey: I began writing what became NIEM as a sort of love letter to New Zealand. I was desperately nostalgic for the months I’d spent there and I spent a lot of time on Google Maps, clicking through places where I had been blissfully under-obligated. I was back in New York, working a bunch of jobs, in a love-hate relationship with the city. So letting myself return to that setting was easy for me, very natural. It was a way to be away while being not away.
In Two Serious Ladies Jane Bowles’s protagonist writes, “Tourists, generally speaking, are human beings so impressed with the importance and immutability of their own manner of living that they are capable of traveling through the most fantastic places without experiencing more than a visual reaction. The hardier tourists find that one place resembles another.” Your Elyria might say that place is incredibly unique, maybe more unique than people are. Do you think that rings true? Does it take a special place, like a special person, to make an impression?
I love Two Serious Ladies! I just read it a little while ago. I also like this idea from Elizabeth Hardwick, that the first thing you learn when traveling is that you don’t exist.
I’m not sure if Elyria would think that place is more unique than people. In many ways I feel I do not understand Elyria that well, that she was a mystery to me and that’s why I wanted to spend time with her. I think it should be that way, that we should allow there to be more mystery to what draws people to each other, to what draws a person to a place. Why did I love my desolate days in New Zealand so much? I don’t know. It’s very mysterious, what makes a place or a person connect so unquestionably with another.
What questions do you find only interviewers interested in? For me, it’s the rules of flash fiction: the length, the rules. People want me to know the secret menu.
People mainly ask me if the way Elyria’s mind works is the way my mind works but I sort of feel like– um, do you think I would have my shit together if I was the same as Elyria? Because she’s not doing so well– did you read any pages of this book? Are you familiar with the basic concept of fiction? I guess it’s just basic, human nosiness, and when I realized that the question bothered me less. I just tell them I based the setting on places I went, which is true and boring.
You know, I used to think I could avoid that kind of scrutiny if I wrote in the third person and gave my strangest characters opposing attributes: “That guy can’t be me, he’s a 45-year-old dentist!” It’s not like it was the primary motivation for making those choices but I so hate the assumptions made. It was naive to think I could avoid human nosiness, but fortunately I have caught it so often across the short stories that I feel more immune to it than before. Of course, every character is me, not in a biographical sense or even a moral sense but in the sense that every idea they bear is something I have considered and explored in some way.
Yes! And I’m not at all bothered by that anymore. It’s our job, as awake humans, not just as writers, to consider things. Ugly, uncomfortable things and beautiful, terrifying things. I used to worry about readers making assumptions about who I am, as a person and not just a writer, but it just doesn’t matter. On the whole, I don’t care what assumptions people will make about me, because the good ones don’t make assumptions.
Fiction is a method we use to queer our reality, to dig into darker things that we all share, things we wouldn’t want to live through or things we have lived through or things we’re living with. But it’s almost always indirect, even when it seems autobiographical, and I think that indirectness frees us to amble around, to explore ideas instead of facts.
I see the autobiographical question as drawing a real discomfort among a certain kind of reader. I think there’s a type of person who fears their own ability to identify with things like mental illness, instability, violence and similar. Do you agree? Or is that fear in all of us to some extent? I felt a kind of discomfort reading Maryse Meijer’s new collection, for example, though I experience that kind of discomfort as thrilling, not troubling.
I am aware these sorts of readers are out there, but the readers I’ve come across mostly are more than willing to visit, in fiction, the fringes of the human mind. I suspect the others are very busy leaving one-star reviews on the Internet for books never intended for them.
Suffering is our natural state, as humans. We struggle so fucking hard and we crave so much and it’s this vicious cycle. Few will acknowledge this aloud, perhaps because we perceive that as giving into negativity, but I don’t see it that way. I think you have to acknowledge our innate state of suffering before you can find real joy. As far as writing with this in mind, I like what Otessa Moshfegh said about it, something about not writing for people who want a tepid bath. I’m not that kind of reader so I’d never be that kind of writer. Love some Moshfegh.
Does the artist have a responsibility to culture? Does this responsibility, if it exists at all, shift between short stories, novels, film, music, visual art?
The main responsibility as I see it is not to make crap. I think producing any work of art that you actually see as a vessel for making money is inhumane. The world is full of so much shit.
So then, pop culture is on the more inhumane side of the scale? I once heard a screenwriter declare that TV writing does not necessarily have a responsibility to culture. I think it’s actually the opposite: a TV show can move a huge weight that my little nuanced novel, for instance, cannot.
Well, if I can contradict myself, I do think there’s a place for work that is uplifting in some ways. It just can’t be vapid. And just because a work is serious or dark doesn’t mean it’s good. There are ways to create art that has a wide appeal and isn’t full of shit, but it’s a highly inexact formula. But I still think that art that’s made with a primary goal of making money is mostly bad for the universe, but maybe that’s just my universe.
And anyway, seeing as how fiction writers are a little on the outside of the culture machine, you’d seem to agree our responsibilities become simpler: make good work, say something true.
Agreed. But then all these motherfuckers are like, Well, what’s good work? Isn’t it subjective? And that’s true, sort of. I think the problem is that people think they have to like something in order for it to be “good.” You really don’t!! There are so many novels I can acknowledge as good but I don’t necessarily like them. I think the same could be true of movies and TV but I have way less patience with a film or series that I’m not actively enjoying.
I know you’ve had a lot of day jobs, including teaching and freelance writing, running a bed & breakfast, but you don’t do office jobs. (You’ve said, “It’s soul crushing and your soul needs to be intact to write.”) I’ve found the times when I’m losing focus creatively a few months in an office can snap me out of it; it motivates me and helps me better appreciate my time. I agree that there is a delicate balance, and when I’ve ignored that, my work has suffered. Is the soul a thing that can be uncrushed, or is it more like an aluminum can?
I think it can be uncrushed, that it’s elastic. People are much more mutable than we care to admit. And of course you have to make a living, but too many people make a living that’s killing them.
And what kills one person is maybe fine for someone else. I had a very hard time teaching English 101, for example; it was like dragging a heavy rope through mud to get the students to kinda think for a few minutes about art or essays I’d carefully picked, things that moved me, which I arranged just for them. It was so awful to see them listless over it. But working in advertising, which seems like it would breed cynicism or exhaustion much more easily, hasn’t had that effect on me. I’m not trying to crack someone’s mind open when I’m selling laundry detergent. I have goals but they’re smaller. And I do also see advertising as bearing some cultural weight like how I mentioned above, since people are forced to sit through it.
Oh that’s interesting. Yeah, I do think you have to find the rhythm that works for you. People are so obsessed with comparing themselves to others in terms of habits and timelines. But it’s a losing game. Everyone finds their own messy way through it all. I also think that taking time off from writing is good. Be a person for a while, less single-minded, more spontaneous. Also I keep coming back to this idea lately that writing should be a side-effect of your life rather than the goal of it. The goal should be to be curious and present.
Describe your most productive times. I mean broadly, the most productive times of your life.
Well, residencies have been productive for me. I go into a weird altered state where I stop being able to talk to people for very long. I just stay in my room doing push-ups and lunges and talking to myself. Sort of like a nice prison. But that’s not sustainable. Other than that, I don’t really know when I’ve been the most productive because I tend to just write for a few hours most days and most of it’s garbage and then sometimes it’s not garbage. It’s cheesy, but I think being in love or making a new friend can be really creatively invigorating. Also: Airports. Love an airport. If I lived close enough to JFK I would go there daily.
The more constant the writing, the more tolerable the variation in quality.
Yeah. Once you have a steady habit and you’ve seen the ebbs and flows of good ideas and dull ones, the dull ones don’t scare you so much.
What about people who only want to take in elements of the culture that are pleasurable to them? What’s going on there? Conversely what’s up with the people drawn to darkness and gore? What the heck man?
Ha! What the heck indeed. Can we have both a little? I like a dark comedy, but some things I think are dark comedies I think other people would just find dark. But I think people who only want “pleasurable” “culture” don’t actually want culture at all. They want happy endings.
No such thing as a happy ending?
Yeah, not really. I like to be around people who know how to be happy being themselves, but when I read I want more. Happiness is a pretty dull emotion to remain in. It’s stagnant. And if you’re just consuming art that gives you a pure jolt of happiness, how will you recognize the joy in your real life?