Catherine Lacey is the author of four books, most recently Certain American States. She lives in Chicago.
Ask anyone who’s read her: Catherine Lacey writes some of the best sentences in the English language. Dwight Garner once called them “the sign of a writer settling in for a long backcourt game, one who is going to wear you down rather than go in for the kill.” I’m inclined to disagree. Even when her characters are seeking answers, exhausted and unsure of themselves, Lacey’s fiction is sharp and fluvial in nature: part Kafkaesque non-arrival, part sick-of-your-platitudes, part unconcerned about the kill because living is hard enough.
Her new book of stories, Certain American States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), is full of characters losing track of themselves, moved or paralyzed by grief. Devotees of Lacey’s previous work will find the same preoccupations with loss, what makes us love another person, and why that love fades. “No one should trust the feelings that occur at nineteen or twenty,” Lacey writes in one of her stories. “Everyone should just sit very still until they reach the calmer waters of later-young-adulthood, that promised land of lowered expectations. Even so, I still don’t get it—how so many people manage to keep asking the same person the same question every day—Is this what you want? Am I still what you want?—without going insane.” Lacey writes about artists and their transgressions; the strange texture of those desires “incommunicable between strangers”; what happens when we are at the end of our sorrow and decide to give everything away; what happens when a person becomes tired of being a person.
I met Lacey at the Tin House Summer Workshop, where I was her student. We conducted the following interview over e-mail.
Spencer Ruchti: The earliest of the stories in Certain American States were published in 2013, just a year before Nobody Is Ever Missing. What’s changed the most for you since then, in your writing and in your taste in books? What differences did you notice when you started looking at these stories as a collection?
Catherine Lacey: I’ve been writing short fiction for myself for as long as I can remember, but around 2010 I started writing every morning like it was my real job before I went to a job that paid bills. I wrote a ton of unpublishable stories then—mostly trashed now—and I think the main thing that changed since then is that I’m less impressionable. I have a clearer vision of what my stories need to have in order to be mine; I’m not looking outward for confirmation that I’m doing it right. I think there’s a necessary period in a writer’s development during which you allow all your favorite writers into your head and you judge your work against their work. My crowd was Grace Paley, Flannery O’Connor, Gary Lutz, Lydia Davis, Donald Barthelme, Sam Lipsyte, and Lorrie Moore, among others. But eventually you have to tell everyone to go home so you can start judging your work on its own terms. A few stories survived those early years, and they’re the ones that stood out as distinct from everything else I was working on at the time—sort of premonitions of a latent voice that I didn’t realize I was developing.
SR: How did you come to this initial crowd of writers?
CL: Sometimes a writer feels so entrenched in my head that I lose track of when I first read them. Barthelme is this way. O’Connor is the same. The rest, also, I’m not sure how I first came across them. I remember someone I don’t particularly like talking shit about Lydia Davis in 2005 and I later realized that because that dude didn’t understand her work, I knew immediately that I would like it. Also, it makes sense to go figure out who are the favorite writers of your favorite writers and go read them.
SR: You once described yourself as a “spongy” writer, someone who absorbs and inadvertently mimics the styles of other writers. What writers do you feel spongiest toward? When you notice this foreign voice in your work, do you let it stay, or do you mute that voice in the next draft?
CL: You must learn to use that sponginess as a tool, I feel. If a writer does this to you, you must only read them when you want to use their voice as a direct influence on a particular work. I think I contracted a mental virus from Thomas Bernhard about ten years ago and I still work around the scar tissue. He’s a dangerous one. And my partner has noticed that often when I complain about something it often comes out sounding like a Lydia Davis story. (Representative complaints: You’re often walking a few paces ahead of me; The bird you pointed out flew away before I could see it; We cannot understand why everyone dislikes our friend Margaret.) Davis has completely colonized a part of my brain, and I think she’s brilliant so it’s fine with me. Most importantly, you cannot read low quality shit or watch low quality films or whatever. It will hinder your verbal and visual vocabulary. It will mess you up before you even know what hit you.
SR: Sort of speaking of Lydia Davis, who’s a prolific translator: can you speak about the process of having your work translated? What’s essential in the author/translator relationship?
CL: I admire translators so much—they’re the most careful readers and they care intensely about language and meaning and precision, which is more than I can say about most people. If I had my pick I’d surround myself with translators. They’re my favorite people.
Yet the possibility of my books being translated did not occur to me until it was already underway. The experience has varied widely by country. My publisher in Italy is a small, independent house, but both novels have done well there because independent book sellers in Italy have been my advocates. I can show up at a bookstore in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday morning and it’s packed. I can only assume that my Italian translator, Teressa Ciuffoletti, improved the books with her vision.
With most translations, I’ve gotten a few emails asking me to explain a line or word choice and through that I’ve realized how much unconscious thought and intention goes into every decision.
SR: You also write some of my favorite sentences in the English language. Here’s a representative passage from “Please Take,” which, even out of context, knocked me out of my seat when I first read it: “I weep athletically almost every day and sometimes I cannot get down a city block without collapsing but Adrian is always upright and smiling and glad, so glad, so glad. It may be we do not live in the same world at all. Some nights I wake up and panic, thinking he’s truly gone, for real this time, and I lie there shaking, all my organs going wild in me for hours until I roll over and see he’s been beside me all along. I keep sleeping in the wrong places, I think, or maybe I’m just waking up not where I am.”
When you’re writing something like this, with its own current, rhythm, and gravity, how do you start? Do you draft meticulously?
CL: Thank you. I feel I write the best sentences when I’m in a place of total embodiment with the character who is speaking. By embodiment I mean that I am inhabiting, physically, the space of the character, that I feel I have briefly become that person, that my mind has been given over to their way of seeing the world so fully that my body feels different, too. When I’m in that place of embodiment, I often won’t even have to edit much. Once I have a full draft of something I will read every line of it aloud to make sure the audial integrity and spatial balance is there. I still do a good deal of nitpicking and vacillating between words and moving commas around.
SR: When you get to the draft where you’re reading every sentence aloud, what makes you pause and revise?
CL: I read my pages as quickly and as loudly as I can; any time I stumble or meet resistance, I stop and figure out why. Also, any time I get bored with a sentence or feel like I’m repeating a point that’s already been made in the story, I delete savagely and without remorse.
SR: Can you talk about where the story “Violations” came from? It acts as a parody of your own writing style, or maybe a rebuttal to how critics have tried to define your voice. The narrator is obsessed with the idea that his ex-wife, a novelist who writes in monstrous, unwieldy sentences, is writing about him in an autobiographical sense.
CL: There’s a long version and a short version to where that story came from and I’ll tell you something of both. On the one hand I was feeling angry and childish and petty, so I was trying to make fun of myself for feeling that way, and on the other hand I was feeling a little burdened by the idea that the facts and experiences of a life are not exclusively our own—that is, the things that happen to us usually involve other characters, other people, who will inevitably have a way of telling the story that differs from one’s own. Writing stories well, however, is difficult, and some of us have cultivated this skill more than others, so there is often an imbalance in who gets to tell a story based on who is simply better at telling them. This is something we all have to contend with in our families and relationships and friendships. Looking back at that story now I can see how there’s another level going on, which is that I’m in the unusual position of having given stories to the public that are then professionally and non-professionally critiqued or discussed in terms of syntax or style or whatever and that experience is a bit weird but ultimately humorous to me. After a few critics describe some aspect of one’s style it inevitably changes your experience of that style. You start looking over your own shoulder a little. This also happens interpersonally; we often contend with other peoples’ ideas about who we are (or who they want us to be) in ways that can be exhausting and limiting. I wanted to stop doing that, so I used this story to exorcise that feeling.
SR: So much of your fiction deals with grief and how people function in the wake of death. There are some characters who are paralyzed by the death of a loved one, and others who fantasize about performing their grief. (From “ur heck box”: “The months after Rae died I had the repeated impulse to do something inappropriate, something dangerous, but the only thing I could think to do was not get off the subway when my stop came.”) What is it about grief that interests you?
CL: I really don’t know. Something strange that happened when I wrote my first novel; the parts about the main character’s adopted sister dying young came really immediately and honestly; I never edited or questioned any of those parts. Then, after the book was done but before it was published, my step-sister died young and it felt like I’d had premonitions of that loss before it happened. It’s only been recently that I’ve realized there’s so much grief in my work. I don’t know exactly where it comes from, nor should I, but the stage of grief is a rich one for fiction, I suppose, because it connects a character to the past. It implies a narrative immediately.
SR: Do you feel a unique connection with any character or narrator in the story collection?
CL: I suppose I feel a unique connection with all of them, that is, each character feels like a very distinct perspective and each requires a different mode of connection, but in general, I feel an aversion to aggrandizing characters. I don’t like it when a character feels too precious. I prefer to leave them unnamed when it makes sense, and I tend to avoid physical descriptions if I can. A character is a way of looking at the world, not a person to idolize.
SR: What new books are you excited to read in the next year?
CL: Laura Adamcyzk has a debut collection—Hardly Children—coming out from my publishing homebase, FSG Originals, and it’s really excellent. Miriam Toews, an incredible mid-career writer from Canada, is publishing a book called Women Talking that is a total miracle. I adored that book and cannot wait for everyone to read it.
SR: In the last few years you’ve lived and worked out of New York, Montana, Mississippi, and now Chicago. How have you reconciled with nomadic living? How does writing in Brooklyn contend with, say, writing in Missoula?
CL: I had a fear that if I left New York I wouldn’t be able to write as well because I always thought there was something about the pressure of that place that made me work, but that hasn’t been the case. Ultimately the transience of the past few years is what shifted the story collection from being titled Small Differences to being titled Certain American States, and I ended up replacing some older stories with some newer ones (“Because You Have To” and “Family Physics”) that were generated by all that moving around. No matter where I live, I always find it reasonable and compelling to wake up and have some coffee and write for a while.
SR: Did you find new pressures in new cities? Different anxieties than the ones you found in New York?
CL: American cities differ the most, to me, in their forms of loneliness and disturbance. In some places it’s the loneliness of car travel, in others, stringent societal norms create a feeling of solitude. In Montana a deep relationship with nature is a virtue. In Mississippi it’s seen as a marker of poverty—why would you go outside if you can afford to be inside? The main difference between people in Chicago and people in New York, as I see it, is that people in Chicago are comfortable being happy while people in New York distrust happiness. The latter stance is more natural to me, but I am trying to see the usefulness of the former.
SR: The last story of the collection, “The Grand Claremont Hotel,” has a voice that’s strikingly unlike the others. The narrator is fired from his job while on a business trip and undergoes existential dread in his newfound freedom. Hotel management upgrades him from room to room in a Kafkaesque series of events until one day he realizes the hotel won’t let him leave. He’s trapped in purgatory but seems to find peace there. What inspired this story?
CL: Oh dear, I’m not sure I really know. I’ve stayed in a lot of hotel rooms lately. One night I was in Reno to speak at the university and I was upgraded for no reason to a room larger than a small house that had a bathtub in the living room. I feel this enticing, numbing sense of being coddled every time I stay in a hotel. I find it both enjoyable and upsetting, which is usually a good place for me to begin writing.
SR: “Enjoyable and upsetting” sounds like a perfect blurb for this collection. What other enjoyable/upsetting events have inspired these stories?
CL: Crying in public, watching and practicing martial arts, filling out family court paperwork, air travel, unsuccessfully attempting to teach high school students, co-owning and running a bed and breakfast, setting up temporary homes in drastically different places several times in two years.