Erika Carter’s debut novel Lucky You tells the story of three young women in their early twenties who leave their waitressing jobs in an Arkansas college town to embark on a year off grid in the Ozark Mountains. In a remote house, without a washing machine or cell phone reception, Ellie, Chloe, and Rachel grapple with questions of identity, purpose, and what it means to be human.
In Lucky You, as well as in her short fiction, Carter deftly shapes women who are deeply human. She uncovers the darkest parts of her characters, exposing every trick they employ to escape and anesthetize against life. She also shows us their softest spots, their most vulnerable places. Both unflinching and compassionate, Carter’s writing has a sense of quiet urgency that kept me quickly turning page after page, gobbling the book up over the course of one day.
Erika Carter’s fiction has appeared in the Colorado Review, South Carolina Review, New Ohio Review, CutBank, Deep South Magazine, and Meridian, among other literary journals and magazines. She holds an M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas and has earned residencies from the Vermont Studio Center and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts.
The Rumpus: What was your relationship to books and stories as a child? Were there any storytellers in your family?
Erika Carter: I grew up in a middle class suburb, in the heart of the ’90s. As a child, my parents read to me, and I had a library card, etc.—I always loved to read. But I never took myself seriously, as a writer or reader, or anything else, until I went to college. Growing up, I was actually a bit of a jock. I was always at some practice, or scrimmage, or meet, or match. I used to look like a boy on purpose.
Of my family, an ex-boyfriend once said, “Nobody in your family has conversations. They just make comments.” Fair enough. While we were—and are—a very close tribe, there isn’t much sharing going on with each other. They are not a group of storytellers, and I myself am not a natural storyteller, in the traditional sense. On the page, I tell stories in pieces, in scenes and sequences and fragments. There’s a lot that goes unsaid, blank spaces of time. It’s more about the telling gestures and undertones, what is not said, what is alluded to and ignored, or what is only said through sex, or the passing detail. Which I think makes a lot of sense, considering the narrative of how I grew up.
Rumpus: Did you take anything from your life as an athlete to your life as a writer, in terms of your mindset or your approach to the practice?
Carter: I do think all the sports instilled a certain drive—a quiet interior kind of self-competitiveness, me against myself. So I think I’m used to the mentality of pushing: Can I do this better? Am I really tired of writing tonight, or can I keep going? And, like that.
Rumpus: What happened in college that led you to take reading and writing more seriously?
Carter: What happened in college was, I took my very first creative writing class. And then, I don’t know… I began seeing myself differently. I began noticing images in a certain way. I started having tastes. It’s like I flipped a page to another world—and I loved this world more than anything.
Rumpus: How long did it take to write this novel?
Carter: It took me about three years to write this book, and I wrote it in many places, mostly on my laptop—the one I still use—and mostly in small, dark apartments that I shared with my cat. I went to the Vermont Studio Center and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, which were both amazing for their space and time.
Rumpus: What time of day did you write it? Do you write on a laptop? Longhand?
Carter: I like to write in the morning, but I try not to be too precious about it, and just write when I can. I’m usually freshest in the morning, though. And although I use a computer to draft, I have lots of journals going on, little notes on pieces of paper, and images and sentences I see and hear and have written in my phone. I print a lot, and do all of my editing and revising by hand, then go back to the computer. Then print, revise, back to the computer. And so on.
Rumpus: Lucky You is written in sections, each from Ellie’s, Chloe’s, or Rachel’s perspective. Was there one character whose voice and mind you were able to inhabit most easily? One you struggled with?
Carter: I always felt the most comfortable inhabiting Ellie. But when writing Chloe, I was Chloe. And with Rachel, I was Rachel. I have a lot of compassion for all three of them, in different ways, in their cyclical struggles of finding ways of bearing life. The paradox is that because they are in dire pursuit of love, health, and meaning, they make choices that are usually counterproductive to finding these things. In fact, the more they seek anything at all, the more obscure it becomes.
Rumpus: In Lucky You, there are tidbits of information about the characters’ pasts. There are time gaps between sections. There is a lot that goes unspoken. This seems to require you, as the author, to have a lot of trust in the reader. Can you talk a bit about this relationship of trust between author and reader?
Carter: When I was writing this, I had no agent or publisher, and was far from even thinking about having readers. So, that was freeing, because I wasn’t trying to please anyone. It’s interesting now, though, because I’m writing my second book, and I’m still not trying to please anyone—I feel like I’m just writing what has to be said, in the best way I know how to say it.
Lucky You is definitely not for everyone, but I would never want to write a book for everyone. I’d like to quote Elena Ferrante here, from her interview with the Paris Review, on this subject:
I employ all the strategies I know to capture the reader’s attention, stimulate curiosity, make the page as dense as possible and as easy as possible to turn. But once I have the reader’s attention I feel it is my right to pull it in whichever direction I choose. I don’t think the reader should be indulged as a consumer, because he isn’t one. Literature that indulges the tastes of the reader is a degraded literature. My goal is to disappoint the usual expectations and inspire new ones.
Rumpus: Could you give a few examples of other texts that this book was written in conversation with?
Carter: I, of course, satirize the deluge of environmental self-help memoirs and nonfiction published about a decade ago. More seriously, I hope Lucky You belongs in the canon of honest books about young women trying to find their way. Some of my favorites of the kind are: The Group, Bad Behavior, Two Serious Ladies, Love Me Back, and all of Elena Ferrante and Jean Rhys.
Rumpus: The setting of Arkansas and the Ozarks, specifically, is drawn so compellingly. I know that you received your MFA from the University of Arkansas. Could you talk a little about your relationship to this place, and what stirred you to use it as the setting for Lucky You?
Carter: I lived in Arkansas from the time I was twenty-two to twenty-six—so, five very impressionable years. The state of Arkansas will always be a really special place to me. I began this novel as I was just leaving. I’m not gifted with a fantastical imagination, so Arkansas, and the people I knew there, are just what I knew. And I tend to write what I know.
Rumpus: If you had to go off the grid with three other people for a year, who would you go with, where would you go, and how do you think you would fare?
Carter: I would definitely try to get out of doing it! I would fare horribly. I don’t like living with people, for one thing. In fact, I never had a roommate in my adult life until I got married. So if I had to go off the grid… I would take my husband. Not only because he never bores me, but because he is extremely competent, so I know he wouldn’t let us die. He can fix things and make things and grow things. In fact, he is quite environmentally conscious! For the other two, I would choose Johnny (my cat), and… I think that’s all I could handle.