(Short Fiction) CATHERINE LACEY
“All people contain the capacity for incomprehensible peace and unbearable tumult. I believe this sincerely.”
Catherine Lacey’s writing explores the messy nuances of inner realms and outside forces. Author of the novels Nobody is Ever Missing and The Answers, she’s also recently published Certain American States, a short story collection. In this interview, she discusses her path to writing fiction, along with the reasons why she prefers “drifters and fuck-ups to all-around heroes.”
Interview by Tyler Nesler
Certain American States is your first short story collection. You've said that some of these stories were written a while ago. What was it like for you to compile this collection? Did you feel as if you were reading through a kind of narrative of your own life, and witnessing particular ways in which the focus in your life shifted?
To some degree, every book is a side-effect of the a writer's life — autobiography, but obliquely told. I've been writing stories — most of them trashed along the way — since long before I wrote my first novel, but only one of those stories is included in the collection. When I first started to put the collection together in late 2014, I thought more of those early stories would stay, but as time went on and new stories were written, the balance of the book shifted.
As far as the focus of one's life shifting — of course it did and continues to do so. There are some writers who want a book to be a photograph of who they are and what the think in a precise moment, this huge consistent thing, but I've found I prefer a book to be more molten, to be a document of a long shift in thinking instead of a static moment of thought.
There's such a restlessness and alienation embedded within most of the main characters in your stories. It's as if everybody is profoundly uneasy in their skin and trying to find ways to wrestle out of it and locate some new form or identity. What do you think draws you to characters like this?
Times of upheaval and change are more interesting to me than stasis and predictability. I prefer drifters and fuck-ups to all-around heroes; a story is only as good as a character is restless. And isn't restlessness an essential human fact? We're such delicate, dumb animals. We don't handle extremes very well. I chose to foreground restlessness in fiction because where else can you address it otherwise? Not at dinner parties and not over polite coffees or at wholesome family functions. Believe me I have tried.
As far as this idea of all the characters being alienated — it's been a common diagnosis of almost every single character in all of my books, and while I think it's sometimes a correct diagnosis, it also seems that readers see alienation where there is merely solitude. It could be that the idea of a woman who spends her time happily alone upsets some deeply held idea that many of us have about who a woman should be. Women are supposed to be the “more social” gender, attuned to other people, hosting parties and being generally helpful. When a person or a character shirks those expectations, it isn't necessarily an indication of “alienation.” Perhaps it's an indication of self-reliance or of some kind of work that character or person needs to do.
Many of your characters have a peripatetic thirst. They can't sit still, they feel a freedom in fleeing, though it's often directionless. In "Family Physics," the narrator drives out West thinking I got in my car and started driving again, this American pastime — a boring solace or a bloody mess — though you never know which until it's over. You have lived and worked in a few different places so far, what do you find most compelling about exploring the fuels for wanderlust?
The past few years have been particularly rootless ones, though more by circumstance than by choice. I wrote “Family Physics” very quickly and intuitively in the middle of that time, when nearly everything about my life was either brand new or pending. There's very little direct autobiography in that story, but I created a character who was living in a highly exaggerated version of my own predicament in order to see my life more rationally. Or at least that's what I see in it with hindsight.
Your story "Learning" features a miserable art teacher in a disintegrating marriage who meets a long lost old buddy named Jared. Back in their younger days, Jared was more than a bit shady, but now he has transformed into a yogurt-branded Christian dad blogger who says he's changed his ways. The narrator doesn't seem to believe there is anything authentic about Jared's new version of himself. Do you think that while many of your characters crave transformation, they are also plagued with a deeper sense that there is actually no such thing as authentic transformation?
Is there such a thing as real transformation? I'm not sure, and though it often seems that a person has truly become different from whomever they were before, I'm also not sure anyone can definitely say that true, deep personal transformation is really possible, since previous versions of a self are prone to show up at any moment, and so that ambivalence is reflected in the story. At the same time, I don't really believe in distinct human identities, but rather these reflections in water that seem to be fixed but are never really fixed. The Protestant-American mind is repelled by this idea, but it is an idea much much older than Protestants or Americans.
It's funny you think the narrator of “Learning” is miserable — I thought of him as sort of the most content of the bunch. His predicament, as I saw it, is that he's really trying to love his wife and she's not having it, and since it's natural to look backward at times when your life isn't moving forward, he looks back to this negative experience he had in the past with Jared. Maybe there is a new Jared. Maybe Jared had been this conventional the whole time and only seemed to be a fuck-up in college. Or maybe Jared is about to relapse into his rootless past. I don't know. Jared is really just a prop. I really just like puns and the thought occurred to me that a pseudo-hippy Christian parenting blog might be called The Grateful Dad. My sense of humor is pretty unrefined.
I'm interested in writers who often create chaotic characters. Accomplished writing seems to require discipline and at least some degree of stability, yet the subject matter itself can be so restive. Do you think in some ways you're operating from a need to channel degrees of inner chaos through the focus of the writing process and into your characters? Is writing both a catharsis and sometimes also a kind of albatross?
All people contain the capacity for incomprehensible peace and unbearable tumult. I believe this sincerely.
At the same time, the human personality creates itself through repetition and myth. Of course a person can have an enormous amount of outward stability and still be internally adrift just as a person can be rootless, lacking the conventional markers of success, and at once enormously fulfilled and satisfied.
I don't think I write for catharsis, nor does it cause me frustration. I enjoy writing, even when (perhaps especially when) I'm writing something that's never intended to be published. A writing practice needs something in of itself, not a means to anything else, but a thing that is just worth doing. If it's not that first, your work can't really mean anything real when it leaves your desk.
While there's a restlessness and motion to many of your other characters, a notable exception is the main character in "The Grand Claremont Hotel." Due to a possible "clerical error," the character lets himself become cocooned within the comfortable rooms of the eponymous hotel. It's not clear if he ever leaves it or transforms. He's in a kind of numbed stasis. This story also bends towards the surreal while your others are realist. What do you think the impetus was for you to write a story like this that is so different in tone from your others?
I have no idea. Every story seems to come with its own rules and reasons for existence. The guy in the Grand Claremont, he was just this clear and total feeling I had at some point and so that story came into being. I could say something about how people get confined in luxury prisons of their own making and that may be true, but perhaps I can't really read that story better than someone else might.
The majority of your stories are written in first person. Do you feel this is more of a direct or natural way for you to discover a character? What do you think compels you to sometimes switch to third person?
When I was a kid I was really into theater. I did all the school plays, church plays, community theater, and I spent my summers going to Shakespeare camp. At some point when I was learning monologues for auditions I didn't like any of the monologues I could find and I wanted to write my own. I was maybe twelve or thirteen, and while I never used any of my own monologues for auditions (for better or worse!) it was the first time I ever wrote fiction that felt like it had something going on it.
When I was in grad school studying nonfiction, I took a fiction seminar with Heidi Julavits that was primarily about reading novels written in weird first person voices — Thomas Bernhard, Kobo Abe, and Rivka Galchen come to mind — and I had another revelation. These novels were doing something that I had been trying and failing to do with nonfiction. After that class I felt so committed to the first person voice. I had a target. It does seem that the first person voice is a good constraint for a younger writer since everyone already experiences the world in first person.
First person is the actor on the stage and third person is more of a director, watching. It's my feeling that a good director needs to have at least tried to act at some point.
Some fiction writers are considered to be more "natural" at novels while some seem to be more at home creating short stories. Do you have a sense at this point of what approach is the most comfortable for you? Going forward, do you see yourself concentrating more on one form over the other?
I go back and forth between the two. I want to say I veer more toward the novel because I've completed more pages of novels than of stories, but there's something really useful and satisfying about the short story. You can more quickly see what kind of writer you are at this moment when you complete a story. With a novel you have to contend with every version of yourself that's been writing that novel, which can sometimes be useful to making something dynamic, but other times its encumbering. I feel more grounded when I have a novel going — it's a sort of controlled schizophrenia, as it turns the world into a kind of scavenger hunt that relates back to this delusion, this conspiracy that's following me around. Right now I'm two years into a new project, but it's been punctured with lots of stories and teaching and even a play—but really all that work is just outgrowths of this other work. So I guess I'm a novelist first, but I cheat on the novels as a way of making them.