I wanted to talk to Catherine Lacey as I had read her book ‘Nobody is Ever Missing‘ last year and thought it very good and affecting. I feel that it is hard not to identify with Elyria, the protagonist, who experience a madness and sadness that is so relatable, even in its extremity. Elyria has left her life in New York – her life with her husband, nice apartment, doorman, successful job – to sleep in potting sheds and on sand dunes, to hitch around a lonely and dangerous country, to suffer condescending warnings from women she rides with and indecent amounts of self-assurance from men. Everyone she meets wants her to give something of herself to assuage their desires for community, participation, and happiness.
I know what Elyria is trying to do in making her escape. When you are making the stencil for a lino-print you use a curved blade to excavate around what you want to print in block colour on the page. Elyria is trying to do that for her mind so that she can feel she just exists as this filled in circle that lives by itself in a clean void. It is difficult though because little flecks of linoleum keep falling into the void and damaging the cleanliness. A lot of the women who pick Elyria up from the side of the road warn her against hitchhiking, “Stay away from those men”. In these cases most of them have hitched in the past and have a conviction that the roads have become more dangerous since then. Only one lady seems to understand the thrilling feeling of travelling alone and doesn’t reproach Elyria for it: an irascible old woman sitting in a comfortable armchair.
PEMA MONAGHAN: This is my first real interview, so I’m –
CATHERINE LACEY: Awesome.
– pretty nervous.
I used to do them a lot. Don’t be nervous, believe me I have flubbed interviews in a serious way, and then checked back with the writer later, and they were like, “oh, I didn’t even notice!”
[laughs] Well, I wrote loads of questions, obviously, but we’ll just see how they go. So, I wanted to know, first of all, how are you?
I’m doing great! I’ve been in a really busy period for a while and I’m getting to take a little bit of time off before coming to Australia tomorrow, and just with my husband in California where he’s from, and had a great day at the beach. I am doing excellent.
So, do you live in – you don’t live in California?
No, I live in Brooklyn.
What do you do in Brooklyn, what’s it like? I’ve never been to America.
LACEY: My pattern for the past year or so now that I’m not running a bed and breakfast part-time has been just working mainly at this coffee shop in my neighbourhood every morning, and I don’t ever get on the subway. I read a lot, and occasionally do readings, and there are a lot of writers in my neighbourhood. Because, you know, all the publishers and stuff are in town so there’s a lot of writers and people in publishing in that neighbourhood, so it’s kind of – it just feels like you run into people at the coffee shop I work at.
It must be good having such good writing community where you are. Because we don’t have much of one here actually – especially for emerging writers.
Yeah, it can be really hard. I kinda feel like I found the majority of my writing community online. About 2007 and 2008 I started writing for this literary blog that’s really tiny. We don’t keep it up anymore, but everyone was writing full essays really just for each other. Most of the people I didn’t ever meet, or I don’t know that well; I knew them just in their words and from the conversations that we were having and reading the same books. So you can really make a community wherever you go. I’m starting to realise now that I don’t have to be in Brooklyn for that. It’s nice to have friends that are writers, but I don’t feel so attached to being there necessarily, or at least not all the time. I think that making community is really an important part of figuring yourself out as an emerging writer or as a younger writer. But you can make it wherever you want.
Okay, I’ve got some questions about your book actually.
I was thinking that the bits where Elyria seems most quieted in her mind are when she’s gardening at Werther’s? I guess she doesn’t really describe [her] thinking at all [during those passages]. So I have this quote – I’m gonna quote you back to you:
“I was a thing with particular use: pumpkin-vine waterer, bean-stalk trimmer, tomato root-coverer. I was suddenly essential. The pumpkins would shrivel without me. The tomatoes would die of thirst. The summer would have sunned them dead.”
I guess I was thinking here that she’s saying that she enjoys or appreciates the feeling of being necessary to something’s survival, and yet she’s always arguing with herself that that’s what she wants least, some other living being’s need for her care.
Right. Like a dog or a baby or a person that needs her attention. Yeah, but then, plants don’t talk to you. You can just, you know, keeping plants alive … it wasn’t a really conscious decision but you’re totally right, I hadn’t really thought about it but every time she’s kind of really with nature she kind of relaxes a little bit… and like, doesn’t think about herself as much. Everybody needs to take care of something, or be connected to something and even if you’re in a place where that’s hard that need is still going to be there. So if you stop taking care or caring about anyone, or anything else, then it will figure out a way of still manifesting.
Yeah I felt like she’s sort of worried about not being wanted for herself, because she doesn’t really know herself. But the plants – they only really need manual labour and that’s sort of a pure way of being.
Right, they don’t need her in any particular way.
Yeah, just her body.
Right, there is like a power dynamic too. I think that the parts where she is looking back at her relationship with her husband, she hates how he has all this power over her. And this emotional power of being older, this power of how he thinks that he knows her and she doesn’t like the way that she senses him owning her. I think that she just imagines that having a child or a dog or anything would just be another version of that. And there’s something about just being with plants where there’s no question of a power dynamic. They’re totally different.
Yeah. Existences. They don’t even really have an existence. Yeah, I was thinking that she talks about being simple, being ‘the simplest woman’ and, I was just wondering, as a human, what does it mean to be simple?
Yeah, I remember that line. Do you know Clarice Lispector?
She’s this Brazilian writer – they’re translating her now and she’s getting really popular. She has this short story called ‘The Smallest Woman in the World’ and I think I had read that shortly before writing that or I was reading that at the time – but I mean, they’re two different questions. The Clarice Lispector thing is kind of like [the character is] wanting to negate herself down; wanting to make herself the most compact that she can be as a value. And I think Elyria, because she is not simple, she kind of fetishises it, and is trying to be this thing that she’s not. But what that would be for her would be not questioning what she’s doing and not being driven wild by these really boring questions, of what should I do today, how should I feel. I think, in her mind being simple would be that she wouldn’t be asking those questions anymore. I don’t really think that’s possible.
I was thinking about that because I sometimes feel like, ‘oh, no one can be thinking in this way. Except for me’. But that’s the sort of thing that you think when you don’t know other people.
It’s…if you’re asking for that, it’s like asking to be a stranger from yourself, because we only really think strangers think like that. Because everyone we know, we know to be difficult.
There’s this awesome David Foster Wallace quote about how, I mean we all think that… I could almost pull it out, I might actually have it handy. I’m gonna allow myself a few seconds to see if I can find it. I put it on these notes that I keep nearby. Oh, yeah, this is it!
“We all have little solipsistic delusions, ghastly intuitions of utter singularity: that we are the only one in the house who ever fills the ice-cube tray, who unloads the clean dishwasher, who occasionally pees in the shower, whose eyelid twitches on first dates; that only we take casualness terribly seriously; that only we fashion supplication into courtesy; that only we hear the whiny pathos in a dogs yawn, the timeless sigh of the hermetically-sealed jar, the splattered laugh in the frying egg, the minor-D lament in the vacuum’s scream; that only we feel the panic at sunset the rookie kindergartener feels at his mother’s retreat. That only we love the only-we. That only we need the only-we. Solipsism binds us together, J.D. knows. That we feel lonely in a crowd; stop not to dwell on what’s brought the crowd into being. That we are, always, faces in a crowd.”
But everybody has it, this sensation that no one else has ever felt this before and I’m alone in this feeling. I love that quote, I just keep it around.
Which book is it from?
I think it’s from Infinite Jest. Which I haven’t read. I’m not sure how I came across it.
No. Well, I guess it’s very highly quoted [laughs]. I haven’t read it either, but I was thinking about starting. I don’t know, I just – I have sort of the reverse problem to most people where I kind of find it hard to start reading men [laughs]. I feel like I did it a lot as a kid, and now I have done it enough.
Yeah, I feel like I’ve just decided to start reading gay men, or men of colour. And anytime I’m reading like a male voice, to try to make it at least that? I mean there’s lot of straight white men that write great stuff too, but – I don’t know, it’s just the way that path is so well worn that we should be questioning it.
Have you read Open City, the Teju Cole novel?
I haven’t read that one. People have been suggesting it to me, because he is kind of wandering around the city, sort of thinking thoughts, and it’s pretty interior stuff?
Yeah I read that last year and I mean, it was really good. That’s another novel, I think, where people have issues separating the character from the author? And [sigh], I spent the whole time being like, “ugh, this guy, just shut up” [laughs], like he’s so pompous. Then at the end something happens and I’m not gonna tell you because it will ruin the novel for you, but I just was so upset, so hurt by it. But then after I’d had that really emotional reaction to it, I went back, and thought actually that was a really skillful novel. More skillful than I thought when I was reading it before I’d read the ending.
Yeah, I think those books that frustrate people are really kind of useful, and for me I like to sort of piss people off a little bit. I mean any negative reviewer in an internet voice that’s shouting at me through some sort of social media, has always been like, “this book is self-involved and frustrating and I threw it across the room and, like, I read all of it but it pissed me off”, and I’m kind of like great, thank you. If that’s the complaint I’m getting, then that works for me. There’s this writer called Ottessa Moshfegh –
Yeah, you know her too? She said something like, “ don’t write books for people who want to have a tepid bath”. [Laughs] You know? If you want to have this comfortable, don’t think about it feeling, then I’m not the writer for you. So, I don’t know. That makes me want to read Teju Cole even more if he’s frustrating and then later you’re like, uh! Goddamnit.
Yeah definitely you should read it. Actually it makes me feel a little bit sick to think about it because I had such an emotional reaction to it, and I had an emotional reaction to your novel as well. I think that’s what people who are yelling at you, that’s what they’re saying – that it actually did something to them even if they didn’t like it.
Yeah. Which I’m fine with, and nobody has to like it you know.
Oh, I have a question. I’m just going to read it to you. “What do you think about this cultural obsession with ‘happiness’? Is it new?”
I guess it’s not new – I mean it’s just the language around it changes. I think people are always looking for some kind of contentment you know – and that’s what all religions are for, to assuage that nagging feeling that you shouldn’t be content. And if it’s not religion, then it becomes money, and if it’s not money then it becomes some other acquisition or sex or whatever. There’s always something that people, like self-help, people are always trying to better themselves. This is an interesting question to ask. I feel like in America people ask novelists ‘how did you get your agent?’ and ‘what do you think of book publishing?’, but in other countries, people ask novelists ‘so what do you think about Donald Trump?’ or ask questions that don’t necessarily have anything to do with book publishing. Which is great, because it’s more interesting [laughs]. I just saw my friend Summer in San Francisco and we were talking about this idea that people have that they should always be working on themselves and they’re always trying to work towards this goal and better themselves – and we’re saying this in San Francisco where everyone’s trying to fresh-press juice themselves into a state of total purity and be the yoga master on Instagram, and if I only make this handstand, or if I only am a vegan. It’s just funny, because people are ultimately disappointed.
I think the more you are comfortable with that, the more you are comfortable with books with open endings, or any kind of art, or film, or whatever with an open ending, where it’s not like the narrative is now clear. There seems to be a relationship between those things to me.
So, your interview with author and New York Times critic Renata Adler . I think I’ve read it maybe three times. Sorry, is it annoying to ask you about things you’ve done in the past?
No, go ahead! It’s great. I was so afraid that interview was not going to come out right, because it was so aimless and I tape-recorded it and when I went back to listen to the transcript I couldn’t hear anything that she was saying because she speaks so softly and we were in this very loud place that the publicist had picked out. But I read it recently actually, and I’m really happy with the way it came out, it’s really aimless and it was really fun to do.
Did you interview her after your book came out?
Yeah, it was a while after. And at the time she thought that she had read it and she was like, “oh I liked it! Yeah!” and then later was, “Oh, I’m mistaken, I haven’t read your book” and she read it and then she sent me this super sweet email afterwards.
Have you got any advice about writing, or living or anything? As an ending the interview question?
Oh. I don’t know, I guess, just protect the time of day that you know that you work best. Protect those hours. And don’t be so sure you know what you’re working on. Don’t commit until it’s really done, until its already taken shape. You’re not working on a book of poems until you have 30 poems that you’re happy with, and even then, maybe you’re not. Those notes for a novel that you’re working on. That actually might be the start of a non-fiction book. I think keeping things more uncertain is probably better.
Interview by Pema Monaghan
In addition to her novel Nobody is Ever Missing, Catherine Lacey has published fiction and non-fiction in Granta, McSweeney’s Quarterly, The New York Times, Guernica, the Paris Review Daily, and The Believer. Catherine will be speaking at the Perth Writers Festival this weekend.