With the publication of her first novel Nobody Is Ever Missing in 2014, Catherine Lacey’s evocative depictions of modern life established her as a powerful voice in fiction. A native of Mississippi, Lacey has since been recognized with a Whiting Award and was named one of Granta Magazine’s Best Young American Novelists in 2017. Her characters often find themselves in the aftermath of a decision to detach from something⎯finally free, but also untethered, unsure, and not always comfortable with who they find themselves to be. Certain American States, Lacey’s most recent work, blends the author’s skill for deft cultural critique with her uncanny ability to render the brutal freedom found when people choose to go it alone.
The stories in the collection range from tales of neurotic city-dwellers literally unable to communicate with one another (“ur heck box”) to stories that center on unapologetically ambivalent women trying their best to make space for themselves in the world (“Because Your Have To,” “Please Take,” “Small Differences,” “Family Physics”) and strange, surreal depictions of what it feels like to become trapped in blissful solitude (“The Grand Claremont Hotel”). Lacey’s collection draws the reader through an expansive range of human emotion—disappointment, joy, love, detachment, resignation, hope. It is some of the author’s best work, offering pointed criticisms of the social traps we get ourselves into and out of, without losing the dreamy descriptions of characters’ inner states that are a hallmark of her fiction.
I spoke with Lacey via email about the power of transgressive women, the limitations of domestic arrangements, and the possibility of building a room for readers in her fiction.
The Rumpus: When reading the book, I felt like “The Healing Center” shared some DNA with The Answers and “Family Physics” shared some DNA with Nobody Is Ever Missing. What is the relationship between the stories in this text and your novels? Did the same grist that produced your other books help produce some of these stories?
Catherine Lacey: I think you’re right about these particular connections on a thematic level, though stylistically they seem quite disparate to me and in terms of timing, these pairs of stories were not written concurrently with the novels or with the same ideas in mind. In some ways a writer must revisit the same themes and push into or away from the same styles throughout a career—I would imagine that the themes and obsessions in these first three books will repeat throughout future books—hopefully with enough variation to make both the writing and reading of those books worthwhile.
Rumpus: I read that you researched your nonfiction publication, The Art of the Affair, while writing Nobody Is Ever Missing because you found that the nonfiction research took a different kind of energy, and you still had that kind of energy after writing fiction all morning. Can you talk a little bit about what you see as the benefits and/or drawbacks of writing and publishing in different genres?
Lacey: I did preliminary research for The Art of the Affair while I was writing Nobody Is Ever Missing, but I did the bulk of the work and writing of that nonfiction book while I was writing The Answers. From a young age, I’ve always been interested in all forms of writing, and this has continued into my career. I have come to think of fiction as my home base, but writing fiction is the most vulnerable and in some ways delicate mode of working. Anything involving research and fact—essays, reviews, even personal essays—are less personal to me than fiction is. And something like The Art of the Affair was almost more a logic puzzle than a writing project. I had a brilliant collaborator also—Forsyth Harmon—so the process was very different, even a little social. It became a way to unwind, actually.
Rumpus: Alienation is often cited as a theme in your writing, but I noticed you don’t seem to use that word to describe your work or characters—do you think of your characters as alienated?
Lacey: I think true solitude has been increasingly reduced in modern life, so much so that now it’s become something to be feared or disparaged. I’ve noticed that readers and sometimes critics tend to use the negative synonyms for solitude and independence—alienated, isolated, lonely, etc.—to describe many of my characters. I usually don’t think of them that way because I don’t think being alone is a problematic state of being. I do wonder if there’s sometimes a gender bias in this vision of the books I’ve written, as a woman isn’t supposed to be alone—we are supposed to be the social sex, building community, doing emotional labor for everyone around us. I very much enjoy my solitude. For instance, the main character in “Because You Have To”—she’s a little thorny, sure, but her problem is not her solitude. Any honest reading of that story would reveal that.
Rumpus: I think you’re right that criticism on your books is colored by the fact that a woman isn’t supposed to be alone, but what about the stories you write from the perspective of a man? For example, in “The Grand Claremont Hotel,” the central character enjoys the hell out of his solitude but eventually finds it to be a kind of a trap.
Lacey: The stories that are from a male perspective are a minority (“Learning,” “Violations,” “The Grand Claremont Hotel”) so they’re seen as outliers. Two of those three are about heterosexual relationships, however, which gives a critic a way of talking about female solitude indirectly.
Rumpus: I read an interview with you in the Paris Review where you said that you believe
…all writing is political, maybe even especially the work that is about the domestic sphere… All these things are microcosms of the way that we treat each other on a global, political scale.
Knowing one can’t help but be political, what particular American political and social realities do you think your book reflects?
Lacey: Certainly the context I was born into—as a middle-class, Southern, Protestant, white female with relatively liberal parents—informs what issues I’m most sensitive to, but I think it’s important that we each use our particular American contexts (and there are so many) as a path toward understanding others. The conservative milieu of my childhood taught me again and again that our bodies too often set the limits and terms for how we treat each other and I believe this is one of the most damaging lies in American culture today. Where one’s body was born, what it looks like, whether it can produce babies—these random physical facts are not essential truths about a person—but much of American legislation (especially in Mississippi) rests on the foundation of this lie and my rejection of this lie and my anger about the harm this lie has caused in my life and in the lives of those around me propels much of my work and will continue to do so. Imagine if one’s honesty and kindness mattered as much as your face or skin or accent.
Rumpus: I’d like to hear your thoughts on how the domestic sphere works in this book. A theme I noticed is avoidance or silence as a relationship survival strategy, but this tactic isn’t lamented by your characters so much as accepted as the cost of doing business. For example, one character refers to conversational landmines in a marriage as something a person simply learns to avoid. Do you see these stories as critical of traditional domestic arrangements?
Lacey: I do think my work is critical of domestic conventions because conventionality of all forms should always beg critique. What is seen as convention in one era is often later seen as monstrously shortsighted, so anyone who is interested in the betterment of the world should constantly ask themselves what conventions have they accepted and whether they really accept the values that convention expresses. A traditional domestic arrangement might very well suit someone who wants to uphold the underlying beliefs of such a tradition, but of course there are limits to it, just as there are limits to less conventional arrangements. And one should always remember that what appears conventional from the outside may not be from within, and what seems radical could easily be mired in disastrous power dynamics.
Rumpus: One of my favorite things about your writing is how frequently you create women characters that are “bad” at being women—they refuse to conform to social expectations, even when it disappoints or confounds those around them. For example, at the end of “Family Physics,” the narrator’s sister confronts her by saying that that her “problem” is that she “thinks she’s a man”—meaning the narrator is refusing to follow gender norms as expected. When you’re writing these women, do you intend to write them as transgressors of the social boundaries around gender?
Lacey: Honestly, I couldn’t write a non-transgressive woman if I tried. I really just don’t know much of anything about them. It’s probably best if I stick to my lane on this one. I did, however, write an essay recently for The Believer about the uniform of conventional white femininity in the South. Here’s the CliffsNotes: I don’t like it.
Rumpus: As a follow up to that, what kind of impact do you hope your stories will have on your readers? At what point in your writing process do you begin to think about the people who will eventually read your work?
Lacey: I don’t think directly about the reader while I’m writing because I write all the time, every day, just heaps of stuff that no one will ever read. All reading and writing is a form of practice for the writing that we share with others. And since I’ve only been publishing on a large scale for a few years, I’m still forming my creeds about my relationship to readers. I met an older man in a small town in Italy who told me through a translator that he had never felt like he had company in his depression until he read Nobody Is Ever Missing and that really stayed with me. I didn’t write that book with that intention. I wrote it because it felt necessary and urgent to write it. I wasn’t aware that I was writing about depression or anxiety or that I was creating a space for someone to feel seen or have company. I suppose on some level, that’s all I want to do—I want each book to be a room in which the reader can think through something. But they have to be that for me first, and I think clarity depends on a certain amount of isolation from the reader. Events have become increasingly odd for me for that reason. I forget myself a little after I do a few of them. I think it’s fine to do that from time to time, but I am more interested in protecting my space than getting applause in a bookstore.
Rumpus: Your stories often wrestle with the question of how we come to know one another, when language is so limited in its ability to produce understanding between two people. And yet, your writing has more than once given me language to describe feeling or states of being that I hadn’t been able to describe before. Do you think fiction provides a different way to produce empathy or understanding than other kinds of communication?
Lacey: It’s true that words so often feel inadequate and frustrating and limiting, then at other times a turn of phrase can seem to open a hundred doors and produce almost an explosion of meaning and clarity between people. This paradox is very interesting to me and I think has led me to a real addiction to good metaphors. One could argue that the very concept of writing or reading fiction is a exercise in extended metaphors. We read fiction as a way of thinking about our own lives obliquely.