Tobias Carroll | Longreads | August 2018 | 16 minutes (4,305 words)
Since the 2014 release of her debut novel Nobody Is Ever Missing, Catherine Lacey has established herself as one of the finest chroniclers of alienation working in fiction today. Her follow-up, The Answers, took as its subject a young woman who is hired to be part of an experimental program to give a famed screen actor a kind of compound girlfriend. Both novels grapple with questions of restlessness and malaise, and turn familiar fictional ground — an American abroad in the former, a larger-than-life celebrity in the latter — into something strange and mysterious.
Lacey is also an acute observer of larger literary and cultural traditions: last year, in collaboration with artist Forsyth Harmon, she released The Art of the Affair: An Illustrated History of Love, Sex, and Artistic Influence. In it, she chronicles the dizzying web of connections between artists of many disciplines over the course of decades — and in doing so unravels the mystique of the solitary genius.
Lacey’s latest book is her first collection of short stories. Certain American States demonstrates another aspect of her literary abilities. The stories found in here cover a wide stylistic range, from the surreal travelogue of “The Grand Claremont Hotel” to the meditation on loss and possessions found in “Please Take.” That stylistic range allows Lacey a way to explore her preferred themes of alienation and interconnectedness in a myriad of ways — making for an unpredictable set of narratives throughout the book.
I spoke with Lacey one afternoon about the new collection, what it means to use “American” in a title nowadays, and more. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Tobias Carroll: Did you know from the outset that Certain American States was going to be the title of the collection? What does it mean to be putting out a book with “America” in the title in the middle of our current political situation?
Catherine Lacey: Yeah, the story that is titled “Certain American States” is the oldest in the collection, and it was never the title of the collection while I was working on the collection. But then, all the other titles I had just didn’t really seem right. It definitely was after the election — it was more like Christmas of 2016 when I finalized everything with it. I’m of many minds about this, because on the one hand, I think the word “American” aesthetically is not a really beautiful word, so there’s a part of me that’s a little bit resistant to that.
And to think, what does “American” mean? So many reasons not to title your book anything to do with America right now. But at the same time, it felt like it was the title. I think that story infected all the rest of the stories that I wrote, in terms of content and voice, and there was something to it. There was something about it being the oldest story in the book that I think it had some kind of predetermined themes in it. I didn’t realize that that was the direction that I was working in until the stories had been amassed, and I could look back at them, and each one of them addresses a different way of being. It’s certainly not comprehensive, but different ways of being in America, and parts of the country, and the different sort of personalities that emerged out of different sort of situations.
At the time that I was working on it, first I was living in New York, then I was in Montana, then I was in Illinois, and I knew that I was about to move to Mississippi, and I’m from Mississippi, and so I’m always going back there. I felt like I was just sort of all over the place during all of this.
There’s something about the voice that’s sort of indicates to me this is a New York story, or this is a Virginia story, this is a sort of California story. There is something about the voice that sort of just tells me. It’s not like I make the decision.
That was one of the things that I noticed about the book — that some of the stories seem to have very concrete locations, and others felt almost archetypal in their locations, which I found very interesting.
Right. Yeah, exactly.
When you’re writing, do you sometimes know whether a story is going to have a particular place as its setting or whether you want to leave that more vague, or is that something that emerges out of revision?
It comes both ways. I think I do have a clear sense of setting from the beginning. But it’s always through voice, so there’s something about the voice that’s sort of indicates to me, oh, this is a New York story, or this is a Virginia story, this is a sort of California story. There is something about the voice that sort of just tells me. It’s not like I make the decision, there’s no other way to really put it together.
Since your first novel came out, you had The Art of the Affair, The Answers, and now this collection all come out in the span of about a year and a half. Are you extraordinarily productive with your writing or is it more happenstance that all of these have come out in such a short period of time?
It’s a little bit happenstance. I do like to work, and I work a lot. I throw a tremendous amount of stuff out. There are a lot of stories that got taken out of the collection. But I was writing some of the stories even before that first novel came out. When I had originally conceived of having this story collection, there were a lot more stories in there that had been written before the novel, and I ended up trashing them and writing others as I went along.
With The Art of the Affair, I was doing lots of the research for that before I knew that it was a book, and that was before Nobody is Ever Missing. It was a sort of simultaneous procrastination project that was I doing while I was trying to finish the novel.
But the bulk of that book really rests on the illustrator. She was the one that put a lot of hours into it in a really short amount of time, with all the drawings, because each drawing would take a full day. So I had a partner. And that was a different part of my brain.
That was a really strange one. I could work all day, all morning from 7:00 a.m. until noon or 1:00 on the novel, and I would basically have like no energy for anything — except I could do all the research for The Art of the Affair. It was really easy to do that for four hours in the afternoon. So that was a really unusual thing where, because those two projects were so different, I could be working on them simultaneously and get a lot out of the day.
But really when it comes down to it, the text of it is a long essay. It happens to be in a book, but the actual writing, it just wasn’t that many words.
Both of your novels deal in very different ways with the subject of alienation, and that goes through some different permutations in Certain American States. Some of the stories deal with questions of absences, including characters who are absent for a large portion of a particular story. Was that something you were conscious of as you were writing and assembling the collection?
I’m not sure if it was something I was conscious of. Someone being absent, and longing for them, is just an interesting mental state to me for a lot of reasons. You can learn a lot about a character based on something they’re obsessed with. There are lots of stories that are addressed to an absent character or where the voice has absented itself from someone else. I guess it’s just a beautiful state to me. It wasn’t really a conscious thing.
One of the other running themes in several of the stories involved the way that people can change over time. In particular, there was one character who becomes very religious after losing touch with the narrator, and there’s another character who had previously been fairly religious and had fallen out with that. How does that question of belief or the lack thereof, and how that can change a person, affect your work?
I was raised in Mississippi and I was raised quite religious, and I’ve written a little bit about it, and I’m still sort of endeavoring to write more about it. I was a very active fundamentalist child, half of my own making, and half because everything I did in my youth revolved around the church. And so, logically I read a lot of the Bible, and I took a lot it very much to heart in ways that other people around me maybe didn’t.
But I think losing that metaphysical certainty about the way that the world is put together — anybody who’s had that and then realized it’s false — you end up pushing against that for maybe your whole life. I mean, I hope to not always live in reaction to a rejection of the religious culture that I was brought up in, but so far I have little reason to believe that I won’t just be living in some sort of reactionary state against that.
I guess that’s the position I am often writing a story from, trying to make fun of something that I’m feeling so that I can deflate it or understand it in some way.
The collection opens with an Annie Baker epigraph. What has been your experience with her works, and what led you to find that it resonated with this particular book?
I saw The Flick in New York, sort of against my will. Often, when I lived in New York, somebody would tell me I should go see a play. So often, it would be disappointing, and bad theater is just painful. But I went and saw The Flick and I thought it was amazing. I read all of her plays this past year. The one line where Lauren says something like, “Do you ever wonder how many times your life is gonna end?” — I kind of thought that every single character in that book [Certain American States] could have asked that question. And there’s something about that character in that scene, in that moment, that really felt akin to the whole collection.
Have you ever thought about writing for the stage?
I’ve tried. This past year I was at the University of Mississippi for an academic year, doing this residency, teaching. While I was there, I thought I should just try something different. I finished a big project, and then, I wanted a small project that wasn’t a story, just to see what I could do with it. So I did write a short play, and I had a staged reading of it in the theater department. Hearing people say everything out loud in different voices, I realized there’s a lot more work to do on it, so I’m just still working on it.
I did a lot of community theater. My dad’s really into Shakespeare in particular. My mom is really into theater. I had a really excellent high school drama teacher who put on really strange plays. The first one I ever did with him The Good Woman of Szechuan by Bertolt Brecht.
Oh my god.
I know, isn’t that crazy? This is in Tennessee, and he had us like smoking little cigarettes on stage. I played a young prostitute. There’s all this atonal music that we had to like sing along with. It was a fucking strange play and I’m so thankful. His name’s Schaack Van Deusen. He was an amazing teacher, and he was really, I think, the first person I ever encountered who had really excellent uncompromising taste, and he just did whatever the fuck he wanted, and I’m so thankful for it. We did so many good plays there.
I think because of that I’m a little bit intimidated writing for the stage, and so I’m easing into it. I don’t always like to show stuff that I feel is not ready yet, so it’s been really confusing to me to know whether or not this play is done, because it went wrong before. It is a little bit off, I think.
In high school I had similar experience. I can remember being shown Sam Shepard’s True West when I was a freshman, and kind of having this experience of, “What is this?”
It’s really exciting to think of, at that age, what’s possible on a stage. I don’t know why. It was just so non-standard.
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We were talking earlier about absences, and you talked about moving around a lot over the last couple of years. Do you think that sense of moving from place to place, and having all of these places you’ve left in your wake, was a factor in how absence suffuses this work?
Yeah, potentially. I mean, I also got divorced in the middle of it, so maybe that had a lot to do with it. It’s funny how some things, you’re like, oh, I don’t know where that came from. And then the answer is so obvious. So, maybe [moving] had something to do with it.
There’s a story set in Montana, and that first story in that collection is the newest I think, and that was kind of set in a couple places. And “Because You Have To,” the one where the dog gets left with her. But all of those came like pretty quickly — like pretty quickly together after I left New York.
You brought up the first story, I mean, how difficult was it to come up with a style for that particular story, and then have a style for the fictional writer in the story that evoked the story but wasn’t quite the same style?
I think it came pretty naturally. I mean, that one, I don’t know, it just sort of came out of a mixed state of feeling really enraged but also feeling really insecure, and also feeling really happy and sad at the same time. So I don’t know, if I get into the right state, there’s some kind of feeling that’s generated, and then it’s almost like I try and imitate the feeling that I’m having.
I guess that’s the position I am often writing a story from, trying to make fun of something that I’m feeling so that I can deflate it or understand it in some way. So that story in particular, I had the original position of the story, and that third person that’s looking in on the ex-husband, and then, it was easy to imitate the imitation to create the voice of the ex-wife writer who’s writing the story within the story.
There’s this mime teacher called Jacques Lecoq who has a bunch of different writing about teaching mime technique. He was a very famous mime teacher. And he has all different sorts of exercises for actors.
I feel like when I’m writing in a place that’s really authentic and honest, it does feel a little bit like acting in a way. And then, I’m creating some sort of character, and then I’m just performing that character, and typing what they say.
I think this is the first time I’d ever heard advice for working as a mime applied to writing.
It’s completely relevant. I wish I could quote what the name of the book was, I don’t have it any more. It got sort of shed along the way in the last two years. Anyway, his techniques are out there, and they been written about by him and by other people. I find a lot of them very useful to writing.
I feel like I’m always making language out of the language that’s around me. I’m very careful. I’m really careful about what I read and when I read it. And I’m careful about who I talk to and who I spend my time around. I’m always writing a story out of the language that I surround myself with.
There was one phrase that came up in “Learning” which I thought was perfect, which was the phrase “fifty percent backstory and no percent groceries.” It seemed like a perfect summation of conversations in a particular period of a life. Where did that line come from?
I don’t know. I don’t even remember quite where I was when I wrote that one to be honest. I think that one just came like from that character. I’m not sure if I would ever say that. In my life, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t use that description, at least in an honest way. But that character, he just said that.
I really enjoyed the idea of a vaguely Christian parenting blogger using the title “The Grateful Dad” for his blog.
Yeah. That one was sort of a joke. I don’t know where it came from. I’m really stupid about puns. I mean, in some ways, a lot of those stories can be kind of dark, but I am personally extremely amused by bad puns. So I think that that just sort of came independent of that story, and I just took a note, and then eventually I was like, oh, I can put “The Grateful Dad” in here. I found a place for him.
It was so perfectly suited to that character, which I really enjoyed.
I know from being from Mississippi, and from knowing a lot of smug Christian dudes with kids now, that they are really just smug about whatever their youth was like. I don’t know, it was a really easy character for me to understand.
You wrote a little bit in “Family Physics” about reactions to politics under the George W. Bush administration. I’m not sure when you were writing that, but what was it like revisiting that piece and its reaction to conservative politics in the midst of what we’re going through now?
Well, I wrote almost all of that one after the election. I had this burst of creativity right after the election. Anybody who’s in their early 30s or thereabouts — I’m 33 — I think this moment of having this really stark, terrifying new political reality setting in, it’s natural that you start to think about, when was the last time things felt like this? And it was when I was a teenager, and I was in high school, and the other election that was stolen happened. And now that one just seems cute.
I think that was the moment in which I started to understand what my own political beliefs were. Right after 9/11, when George Bush was doing some sort of State of the Nation or whatever immediately afterwards. I was in boarding school. I went in to like the TV room, and some girl in my dorm was watching it. She was crying and she was so admiring of the president, and I just thought, that’s disgusting, why would you admire this person? And not even because of the war, just that you should never really admire the president this way.
He’s responsible for killing people all the time. No president deserves to be just trusted and respected. That was the first moment that I had this feeling that it’s disgusting the way that people kowtow to authority and to fame, so I was just remembering that. You just go back into that headspace of first realizing that you are political, that you do have opinions.
There are various things that anyone who is president, whether it’s someone I agree with politically or not, is going to do, where there are certain morally indefensible things that sort of come with the job.
Well, they come with the job but also they don’t have to come with the job. Like as we see now, there’s all sorts of shit you can get away with changing, or not doing, or doing differently, or offending people. I mean if there’s one thing that you can say positive about the current person in office who I won’t name, is that I sometimes wish Obama had had some of the fucking chutzpah that this dude has, because there are a lot of things that he did I just found really just weak-limbed, and he was just going along with things, and was like it’s just part of the job. It doesn’t actually have to be part of the job. You’re not required to kill people. You make decisions, too.
I don’t know, there are ways that a person can be really radical. As we’re seeing right now, a president has the power to be really radical. It’s just that you take a lot of risk in it. Anyway.
The final story, “The Grand Claremont Hotel,” is stylistically a little bit different than everything else in the book. What led you to choose to end the book on a note that stands in such a contrast to what’s come before?
That is one of the new ones in there, too. I don’t know, there’s something about that story that — I feel like it can be interpreted a few different ways. Actually, I had started it a long time ago, and I had this lingering feeling of this person in a hotel that gets put in nicer and nicer rooms so they can’t escape. And I felt like there was something a little bit eerie about it, and then it’s a little bit weirdly hopeful even though it’s scary. I’m not quite sure.
I guess I saw that narrative situation as a metaphor that had a lot of different rooms in it. There are other stories that were very stylistically different that I decided were too stylistically different to include in the collection. You kind of go with your gut. It was some businessman that told me that there’s a business theory, that any time you’re trying to make a decision and there’s four or more variables that you just can’t be certain about, that you have to just go with your gut. And I feel like when you’re putting together a collection, you’re often making decisions that have, like, 200 variables that you just don’t quite have all the information about, and you have to just go with your gut.
That story is dedicated to your partner, Jesse Ball. I’m curious about, when a work by a writer is dedicated to a work by another writer, do you feel like that writer’s work informs it in a particular way?
I guess it sort of does. He’s my partner, and so I gave it to him because I thought he would like it, and then he did. It’s more personal for me on that level. I never dedicated a story to somebody before. It just felt right. It just felt like the right thing to do with that one.
I guess it is in conversation with his work. I hadn’t read that many of his books before I met him. After we got together, I thought, I really wanted to read everything. It was a short period of time which I was just reading everything he’d ever written. He’s the kind of writer that gets into your head a little bit. And that was one of the things that I wrote to get him out of my head, even though I like him being in my head, but I also don’t want him to be the only voice in my head.
As someone who’s also read a bunch of his books in a condensed period of time, I remember that feeling.
Yeah, you have to be careful.
You had mentioned after the election you felt a rush of productivity, which I’m very impressed with, because I feel like a lot of writers I know went through the exact opposite. Have you found that that has continued, and have you found that the work that you’ve written since the election has been fairly different from what was written beforehand?
I definitely feel like what I’ve been writing since the election has been very, very different. I also had a period of feeling depressed and hopeless, too. It was more like after sort of going through a spell of that, then I just thought, well fuck, why I am going to stop doing the one thing that I like and enjoy doing in the middle of all this?
So I had more energy to write despite the utter hopelessness that I, and many other people, feel. Since then, I wrote this other novel that’s coming out in 2020 that is very, very different. I actually started it before the election happened. It was several months before the election went down, but then, in completing it, of course my priorities had shifted, everybody’s priorities had shifted, whether you wanted them to or not, just because the conversations that people are having now are so different. At least for me, I feel like I’m always making language out of the language that’s around me.
For that reason, I’m very careful. I don’t really watch a lot of series. I pretty much only watch a TV series if I’m on a plane, and I’m like really careful about what I read and when I read it. And I’m careful about who I talk to and who I spend my time around. I think it’s true for everybody, but I can’t really say it for everybody, but for me, it’s definitely true that I’m always writing a story out of the language that I surround myself with.
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Editor: Dana Snitzky