Conversations: Sarah Dohrmann Interviews Catherine Lacey

Conversations: Sarah Dohrmann Interviews Catherine Lacey

“I am a voice-obsessed writer and reader. To me, it’s everything.”

Catherine Lacey (Fellow in Fiction ‘12) is the author of Nobody Is Ever Missing (FSG, 2014), a finalist for the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award and winner of the 2015 Debut-litzer. The novel, which will soon be released in French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and German, is a voice-driven work from inside the head of Elyria, a young woman whose adopted sister has committed suicide long before she vanishes from her own life, leaving her husband and her country for New Zealand. Nobody Is Ever Missing takes the reader on her journey through New Zealand—but also on the journey inside Elyria’s head, where her thoughts are violent and grief-stricken, confused and sharp, funny and melancholic. It’s a voice that won’t let go even as it tries to lose itself. 

Lacey received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Columbia University; in addition to her novel, she’s published essays and short fiction in The New York Times, Oxford American, GrantaMcSweeney’s Quarterly and elsewhere. I recently had a chance to talk with Lacey about her work as a writer of fiction and nonfiction, about working with dark material, and what it meant for the making of Nobody Is Ever Missing to have received a NYFA Fellowship in 2012. Lacey will be reading at the 30th Anniversary NYFA Fellowship reading on January 25 at Housing Works in Soho, along with the writers Kathryn Harrison (Fellow ‘94), Phillip Lopate (Fellow ‘91), and Rajesh Parameswaran (Fellow ‘15) .

Sarah Dohrmann: I see you received the NYFA fellowship in fiction writing, but that you received your MFA from Columbia in creative nonfiction. How did your studies in creative nonfiction affect or inform your fiction writing, craft-wise? Did they have any bearing on the making of Nobody Is Ever Missing?

Catherine Lacey: Though I do think everything you read or do must have some sort of effect on your writing, I don’t really feel like my nonfiction MFA had a significant effect on NIEM. I was really there to focus on essays and long-form journalism, mostly because I had just moved there from New Orleans, where I lived before and after Katrina. So I had applied with a bunch of essays I’d been trying to write about all that.

At Columbia I was writing and reading fiction the whole time, but I think I’ve always felt a bit cage-y about letting anyone or anything dictate my fiction, which has always felt a bit more mysterious and intuitive to me.

SD: Why fiction and why nonfiction? I mean, when approaching a creative work: What’s the decision-making around these things? What informs that decision? In which genre do you write more frequently and why?

CL: I’m not really sure that I ever make a conscious decision to do one over the other, though fiction tends to come more intuitively to me. For the last two years I’ve spent almost all my time on a new novel and short stories. When writing essays I have a very different approach and it feels more logical, though I’ve found that over the past few years I’ve been able to have more fun in nonfictional modes, to approach it in a freer way.

SD: Where are you from? How long have you lived in New York? Did you move here to attend Columbia, or were you living in the city already? At what point in the writing of Nobody Is Ever Missing did you receive the NYFA award?

CL: I’ve been in New York (mostly Brooklyn) for eight years, but I grew up in Mississippi, Tennessee and New Orleans. The only reason I moved here was Columbia, and I assumed I would leave immediately after graduation, but it turns out I’m the right kind of scrappy for this place—I found ways to make it work in terms of housing and jobs. I was probably a year into writing the stories that became NIEM when I got the NYFA Fellowship.

SD: How did the award affect your work as an artist and/or your writing career? What’s it like being a writer in New York?

CL: The NYFA Fellowship had a massive and incomparable effect on my work. When I got it I quit one of my jobs and spent the extra time working on the novel and a few months later we sold it. I can’t imagine I would have finished it at all had I not had the fellowship. And it was more than financial—that vote of confidence did so much for me. I’m pretty self-motivated but all new writers need a thumbs up or pat on the back now and then. Maybe writers at all stages need this, in fact, but the newer ones really, really do.

Also, for some reason I never got the memo that you had to come to New York to be a writer. And I really don’t think you do. I love it here and can’t yet imagine living anywhere else but I know that’s not always the case for everyone. For many years I lived in a cooperative home and we built a small business together, a long story that I wrote about for the Times last year.

But I really love the energy of the city, the lessons it teaches me all the time about all the weird ways that people can be. Then there are organizations like NYFA or Creative Capital that are based here, and our incredible libraries, and fun things like the National Book Awards, and all the programming that PEN America or The Center for Fiction puts on, plus the billions of readings happening at any given moment. Some people find it distracting but I enjoy this stuff in doses.

SD: Can you tell me about the making of Nobody Is Ever Missing, and its publication? How long were you working on the book? How did it finds its way to FSG?

CL: I sent a draft of it to my agent, Jin Auh, in 2012, before she was officially my agent. She gave me some notes, told me to work on it for a while and later that year I got the NYFA Fellowship and really dug in. It was ready in February 2013 and we sold pretty quickly. Weirdly, the week before it went out, Eric Chinski read something of mine online and sent me a message asking me if I was writing anything else, but I think Jin was already considering sending NIEM to him. I’m really deeply fortunate to have ended up with Eric and Emily Bell at FSG. I loved both of their fiction lists so much—Rivka Galchen, Amelia Gray, John Wray, Laura van den Berg. It was just a deeply surreal very happy thing. It still is. I hope I never take it for granted.

SD: Nobody Is Ever Missing is incredibly voice-driven—like a memoir, in a way. Can you say a bit about voice in fiction writing? Or voice as narrative drive? It seems to me her voice would be difficult to keep under control. Did her voice ever get away from you, the writer? Was there ever any kind of negotiating happening between the writer and the narrator?

CL: I am a voice-obsessed writer and reader. To me, it’s everything. When I find the voice of a story, (usually after a lot of writing in circles) it practically writes itself; I almost feel like I’m being possessed by the character.

I started writing NIEM as very short stories all set in New Zealand, inspired by the place and the community of transients there. For a long time I was just circling the place and the situations and scenes and then I hit some kind of nerve and everything sort of poured out and made me temporarily insane. I remember putting the book down for a few weeks and becoming myself again, then once I was writing it I was a mess all the time. I felt sometimes overtaken in a way that was not sustainable.

SD: Is Elyria you in some way? I mean, not just existentially (we’re all Elyria in some way, especially women maybe) or artistically—I mean, literally? I’m not sure I would have asked this if you didn’t traffic in both creative nonfiction and fiction. This might be another way of asking question #2, but where’s the dividing line between fiction and nonfiction here? And what is creative nonfiction, anyway? Is not a book that’s based in part on personal experience a book of creative nonfiction, not fiction?

CL: I remember very early in writing NIEM I was afraid of how personal it felt, if only because I had just spent a few aimless months in New Zealand, but the longer I worked the more she became her own thing and now I don’t feel as close to her as I once did. When I’m giving readings I feel almost like I’m reading something someone else wrote, a performance. I grew up in a community theater and school plays, and when I was looking for monologues to do in high school, I kept wanting to write my own, not about myself, but about the kinds of characters that I found interesting. I think Elyria grew more out of that impulse than any impulse to chronicle my experiences. I’m not opposed to writing about myself more, but this isn’t that.

However, when writing NIEM I was really concerned with how much a person can do alone versus with others. I was building and living in the cooperative I mentioned earlier, trying to learn how to rely on others and how to let myself to be relied upon. On the surface, the coop story is pretty straight forward, but what was happening on a deeper level, I think, kind of ended up in the novel.

SD: Nobody Is Ever Missing deals with suicide, abandonment, mental instability. How were these topics received by the general public after the book came out? What kinds of advice can you give other writers who choose to travel in dark material?

CL: I like what Otesssa Moshfegh said in an interview recently: “It’s not my job to please people who can’t tolerate anything but lukewarm baths.” I’m really not interested in connecting with readers that want easy, dumbed down voices and happy endings.

However, I met the man who is my now husband while I was writing this truly dark story about a woman leaving her husband and I did worry what he or his family would think of it. When I met his parents the first time and they asked what I was writing I just thought, Oh no. But they were awesome about it. They know I’m not Elyria, that her thoughts aren’t mine. My advice to writers who are traversing in dark material is to give no shits over what strangers think of you and to have faith that the people who really know you will not disown you for writing something dark. We all have darkness in us. Trust no one who tries to pretend they don’t.

SD: What are you working on now?

CL: I’m in the editing phase of my next novel for FSG It’s a larger, stranger book that has more of a plot than NIEM, though it’s still voice driven. Hopefully coming out in early 2017, but that’s probably about all I can say about it. A story collection will follow.

I’m also working on a short nonfiction book, The Art of the Affair, which is an illustrated history of love and influence between 20th century artists. Forsyth Harmon is the illustrator and she is pure magic. I’m also devising an original screenplay with a filmmaker I like a whole lot.

For so long I was used to working three or four jobs and writing in the scrap hours, so I think it still feels natural to stay really busy. I just protect my mornings for fiction and the rest figures itself out.

– Sarah Dohrmann

Sarah Dohrmann (Fellow in Literary Nonfiction, ’09) is a Brooklyn-based writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Harper’s, Tin House, n+1, The Iowa Review and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a memoir. Find more information on her website.

Catherine Lacey will be reading on January 25 as part of NYFA Presents: Three Decades of Writing Fellows with Kathryn Harrison, Phillip Lopate, and Rajesh Parameswaran and hosted by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. 

NYFA’s Artists’ Fellowship program awards $7,000 cash grants to artists living in New York State. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the program and NYFA is celebrating with events and online content. Follow #NYFAFellows30 on social media for updates. Applications are currently open with awards being offered this cycle in  Architecture / Environmental Structures / Design, Choreography, Music/Sound, Photography, and Playwriting/Screenwriting.

Amy Aronoff
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