Catherine Lacey is our first new voice of 2014. You can read her story ‘Small Differences’, on not being a cheerleader and being heartsick over Jesus, here. She talks to Louise Scothern about her novel, dissonance and self-criticism.
LS: Your depiction of friendships and relationships felt noticeably different from others I have read. In ‘Small differences’, Nikky has difficulty communicating meaningfully or openly with Nathan, and though she mentions having close friends, they do not feature in the story. At one point she describes ‘people who seem barely concerned or even aware of other people’s existence’. Your characters seem to find little solace in relationships – do they ultimately have to face the challenges of life alone?
CL: Anti-heroes and dystopias are more interesting to me, as a reader and writer, than their tidier counterparts. Nikky and Nathan’s friendship is, in a way, a kind of dystopia: almost everything necessary for human connection is dysfunctional; it’s a kind of exaggeration of all that can go wrong between two people. In the same way dystopias are one way to look at the way a society functions, I think reading about characters who are failing to connect is a way to learn something about relationships that is too subtle to notice in our daily lives. I suppose I could write a story about two really well-adjusted friends who just love and support each other but – no, wait, I couldn’t write that.
Do they have to face life’s biggest challenges alone? Maybe. Nikky doesn’t tell Nathan of her father’s sudden death because she assumes he wouldn’t know how to comfort her. (Whether she’s right is another issue.) In moments of loss as big as losing a parent or loved one, I think even the most loving relationships can start to look a little like Nikky and Nathan’s. No amount of love or support or communication can really externalize grief and it can be incredibly lonely to go through that. The care of other people is pretty essential if you don’t want to go insane, but no one can really go with you into yourself, into your problems. Still, there is a middle ground here that friendships and relationships attempt to reach. Nathan and Nikky are sort of awkwardly lunging toward and missing that space.
After a religious childhood and adolescence, Nikky turned away from her faith. It seems that the initial disappointment of realizing that divine love can fail – that faith can be lost – contains in it the next adult disappointment: that human love can fail too, and that it will never live up to the initial perfection of the divine. There seems to be a kind of pre- and post-lapsarian element here, with Nikky in the middle of it trying to figure it out. What kind of comment were you looking to make here on either religious faith or human love?
Inherited religious faith – the kind a child has by growing up with a religion in the same way a child grows up with fairy tales or the concept of Santa Claus – is profoundly different from a faith chosen as an adult. The kind of faith that Nikky loses is more of a coming of age than a loss of faith.
That said, making comments on religion or human love is not the sort of hurdle I am able to set for myself while writing a story, but the questions I see in Nikky now are about what this kind of inherited faith can do to a person’s expectations of the world. Nikky has had a really hard time not expecting everything to disappoint her. That’s not actually true, but she thinks it is, so she’s stuck in that self-generated reality. Of course, we all have little stories that end up limiting ourselves or other people.
The question, ‘Do you think people can really change?’ returns, almost as a refrain, at several moments in the story. Do you think the story has any kind of answer to this question?
There’s probably less of an answer than a sustained curiosity. Early in the story Nikky wonders if there is a way for her to act ‘out of character,’ and towards the end Nathan does something attentive and caring, which breaks the idea Nikky has of him. Maintaining a curiosity and sense of questioning is the closest a person can get, I think, to being pliable and able to change.
Everybody I know has multiple, distinct aspects to their personalities, many of them at odds with each other. Do we contradict ourselves? Damn straight we contradict ourselves. I’d be very wary of someone who didn’t. I don’t think there is a true kernel of ‘self’ under all of these qualities; maybe there’s just an ever-moving center of gravity that shifts instead of changing. People don’t change as much as slowly reveal their set of contradictions. That’s probably the closest the story has to an answer.
In both ‘Small Differences’ and your novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, your narrators engage in constant streams of self-criticism. Nikky’s repeated calling into question of her actions and self-conscious presentation of her anxieties can be uncomfortable to read. Did you mean for the experience to be uncomfortable for readers? Could you talk about how you developed this narrative voice?
I rarely have an intent when writing fiction or if I do that intent will inevitably be discarded along the way, but it’s probably not an accident that both of these voices can be, at times, uncomfortable. I’m sort of a contrarian bitch in real life, but hopefully in a fun way. I like to play the devil’s advocate, to argue, to be challenged and, at times, be challenging. That state of questioning extends internally for me, too, as it does for lots of people to greater or lesser degrees. I think the mental state of self-criticism can happen on a level that is beyond (or beneath, or in tandem to) language. Because of this, I think I gravitate toward voices that externalize all that stuff that happens internally that we all live with but don’t really get to actually see.
In fiction I like voices that are really readable on a sentence level, really smooth and well-constructed, but with a ton of dissonance happening on an emotional level. It’s uncomfortable, at times, to be alive, so I see no reason why a voice in fiction shouldn’t be also.
Your story and novel both feature damaged, vulnerable protagonists who seem uncomfortable in their own skin, trying to establish a sense of self: ‘I was not an observer of myself, but a be-er of myself, a person who just was, instead of a person who was almost.’ To what extent are your characters’ desires unknowable to themselves?
It’s funny you bring up desire. The question of where a person’s desires come from, or how authentic or inauthentic a desire can be was a question I kept returning to as I started working on the novel. It’s a question that fell away after a while, but I guess it got dissolved in there somewhere. This might be sacrilegious to other novelists, but even after years with Elyria, the protagonist, I’m still not sure what her desires are or if she even really has any. I liked to be just far enough away from her that she could still surprise me and that was true right up to the end of writing the novel. I don’t know if that’s how I’ll always proceed with characters, but I suppose there was a little of that in Nikky as well. But Nikky seeks security and knowledge in a more direct way than Elyria does. Nikky knows that human connection is essential, while Elyria seems to be having an extended allergic reaction to other people, even though she desperately needs them. Elyria has become unable to want what she actually needs and Nikky knows what she needs but can’t figure out a way to get it.
They’re both damaged and vulnerable, because I think everyone is, on some level, damaged and vulnerable, and the same goes for their continual attempts and failures to establish a sense of self. There’s a long tradition of books labeled ‘coming of age’ not just because we tend to fetishize the emotional and intellectual transformations that occur in adolescence but because ‘coming of age’ is a fugue in everyone’s life. We’re continually searching for a sense of self and failing and succeeding and failing again. Nobody ever becomes of age – it’s never a matter of past tense.
What are you currently reading?
I just read Ray by Barry Hannah and had very complicated feelings about it, but I’m re-reading David Foster Wallace’s Consider The Lobster and it puts me a in a pure state of bliss.
Name a book you think you should have read but haven’t?
I could name hundreds, probably, but what’s worse is that I have such a pathetic memory for plots that I tend to not even remember the books that I have read. If I was to take a reading comprehension quiz on the last 20 books I’ve supposedly read, I’m afraid I’d only pass for one or two of them. I have strong feelings about the language of each book, but I tend to forget what actually happens.
But, to answer the question: I haven’t read Moby-Dick. And I don’t really want to. Sorry!
What besides other writers influences your work? If you didn’t want to be a writer, what would you want to be?
I’m an obsessive music listener. I listen to certain albums on loop while I’m writing, usually chaotic, repetitive stuff. I think I wrote 90% of Nobody Is Ever Missing, while listening to the entire discography of Animal Collective on repeat. According to iTunes I have recently listened to WIXIW by Liars, 23 times. That’s almost 17 hours of the same album. And I don’t restrict listening to albums on loop to just writing time: St. Vincent, James Blake, Angel Olsen & King Krule have gotten a lot of plays lately, but lyric-forward artists like those are better for the hours between writing sessions. They’re all hypnotic and addictive and their writing is inspiring for different reasons.
I double majored in visual arts and writing, so if I wasn’t a fiction writer I’d want to be Jerry Saltz, but maybe that doesn’t count since he’s still a writer. So, maybe I’d want to be St. Vincent, but that’s probably not realistic since I have no musical ability or desire to learn an instrument. I tried once to be a radio DJ, but if I’d ever had a show I probably would have played the same artist on repeat for a month at a time, which probably wouldn’t appeal to anyone but me.