Letting Pleasure Lead: A Conversation with Kyle McCarthy


As a long-time reader of Kyle McCarthy’s work—and a friend who has been in an ongoing conversation with her about writing for nearly a decade—I was excited to speak with her about her debut novel, Everyone Knows How Much I Love You, to get into questions about the blurring the borders between life and art, literary doubles, and the surprises, discoveries, and challenges of process-oriented writing.

Kyle and I have known each other for eight years or so now. We met in Iowa City, where we had both moved to study fiction at the Writers’ Workshop; there, we began a conversation about life, art, and writing that, to my delight and gratitude, continues to this day.

I’ll never forget the sweltering summer that Kyle and I read War and Peace together: she was house-sitting for someone in Iowa City who had two huge dogs, and whenever I came over to read or to talk about Prince Andrei or Natasha, the dogs would crazily lick the floors from one end of the house to the other. We both found it sort of disturbing. “Why do they do that?!” We could never really be sure. In any event, it was the kind of odd scene that I felt drew Kyle and I closer together as friends and fellow writers: life with its tongue out, acting in surprising ways—moments where crazed reality and storytelling meet and blur.

Kyle and I have also talked a great deal about work, publishing, and life over the last couple of years as we both had debut novels come out. Hers came out in June, and it took me by surprise in the best way when I read it. Suspenseful, psychologically nuanced, and wonderfully risky, it follows Rose—a “funhouse mirror” version of Kyle, a literary “evil twin”—into a complex, obsessive relationship with her friend Lacie. As Rose secretly folds details from Lacie’s life and their shared history into the novel she’s writing, her behavior in relation to her also grows more and more transgressive and, ultimately, takes a startling turn.


The Rumpus: You and I have known each other for nearly ten years now, during which time we’ve had an ongoing conversation about writing, craft, creativity, life. We both recently published our first books. What have been some of the surprises or discoveries for you in your own relationship to your writing over this period of time?

Kyle McCarthy: When I was in graduate school, I remember both Marilynne Robinson and Michelle Huneven talking about writing as a very rich, deep way to know your own mind, but it’s taken me ten years to really appreciate what they meant.

When you write consistently, you begin to see what you value through the lens of what shows up on the page. There’s something about the dance of conscious and unconscious choice in writing, something about the play between micro-decisions about syntax and word choice and larger choices about theme and subject, that give you insight into your own consciousness and your own ways of processing the world. After a long time, writing becomes a way of being.

It might not be right to call this a surprise, because it came upon me slowly. But gradually, writing has shifted from an activity geared towards production—what finished story/essay/novel can I make?—to an activity that feels closer to prayer, or meditation: that is to say, an activity done for its own sake.

I realize this all sounds very dour, and also somewhat insular, so I should add that I also think I’ve learned, these past ten years, to let pleasure lead my writing, and to think of writing as a kind of conversation—but I’m sure we’ll talk more about that!

Rumpus: Let’s talk more about it right now! Tell me more about ways you’ve found to let pleasure lead your writing. What are some of the pleasures you’ve been tapping into recently in your writing? And what pleasures were leading you while you worked on Everyone Knows How Much I Love You?

McCarthy: Rose, my heroine, gave me so much pleasure as I was writing Everyone Knows How Much I Love You. I loved that she was so withering and skeptical and (I hope!) funny—I loved speaking with her voice. And later in the drafting process, it was such a pleasure to find her breaking boundaries and betraying trust. There was something in her capacity for evil that awakened a wicked pleasure in me.

The pleasure I took in her voice can be traced directly back to the pleasure that reading Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer brought me. As Elaine Scarry says, “beauty prompts a copy of itself.” I read Dyer’s book, and then a lot of Bernhard, and I was filled with the desire to write like them; the literary pleasures of those books sparked in me the desire to create.

That experience taught me how important it is to seek out film, and art, and dance, and literature, that gives you pleasure. Early on, I brought a kind of tight, perfectionist energy to writing; I thought that any time spent not writing was “wasted time.” It’s only in the last six or seven years—in part thanks to our conversations!—that I’ve begun to honor the role of pleasure and experience, leisure and excitement, rest and novelty, in creation.

It’s funny—we were just talking with Wayne Koestenbaum about disgust in your wonderful Writer’s Notebook class. And it’s true that long projects do inevitably bring up feelings of disgust; it’s true that the sticky, imperfect muck of language inevitably brings up disgust. But disgust is the dark twin of pleasure. Both feel endlessly more productive than a kind of joyless deadened discipline.

Rumpus: While I was reading Everyone Knows How Much I Love You, I felt the thrill and that pleasure of being drawn into increasingly startling transgressions through Rose’s obsessiveness and her almost trickster-ish acts of subversion. I often wonder about how and when a writer taking a particular kind of pleasure in their own work might capture the reader’s attention. One of my working theories is that what we describe as pleasure in this regard might also sometimes be a sustained act of creative discovery or invention—that one of the pleasures of reading can be witnessing an inventor at work, so to speak.

I feel like “disgust is the dark twin of pleasure” could describe some of Rose’s own mixed or contradictory impulses and longings in Everyone Knows How Much I Love You. Of course, between these two poles and beyond them so many nuances, variations, and ambiguities may emerge, in life and in art. As you and I have talked about, it’s one of the reasons I keep returning to stories about doubles and divisions: they so often unfold in ways that complicate and collapse (or satirize!) the very binaries from which they spring.

McCarthy: Yes, absolutely. And all this talk of twins and doubles and writing from life is making me realize something new: some of the thrill of writing Rose was playing with a dark ambiguity around autobiographical doubling.

As you know, when I began writing Everyone Knows How Much I Love You, American letters was awash in autofiction. The mode of writing directly from one’s life appealed to me immensely: how refreshing to drop all the paraphernalia of invention. And so I began to write about a young woman with my job, who lived in my neighborhood, who had gone to my alma maters, who dressed and acted and looked like me.

But, I suppose because at heart I am a writer of fictions, it was impossible for me not to exaggerate and invent as I wrote. And so, almost immediately, Rose became less like me, and more like some funhouse mirror me. It made me think about something Jia Tolentino once wrote about the singer-songwriter Mitski: “She seemed to treat self-exposure as a readily available tool, almost a red-herring, rather than a compulsion.” I also became interested in using self-revelation, or the illusion of self-revelation, as a tool. It was a game to play with the reader: do you think I am talking about myself when I say these things? That alone generates narrative tension.

Writing about an “evil twin” also allows us to get at our shadow selves—shadow selves that may be as much culturally inherited as psychologically determined. For instance: those of us who are white and female and raised in the 1990s absorbed a lot of “You go, girl!” and “You can do anything!” rhetoric. But that begs the question: what does it really look like when someone thinks she can, and should, do anything? Do you end up with someone like Rose? Someone who is, perhaps, entitled and yet self-doubting, demanding and yet also aggrieved, in the way that white women can so often be?

But this sidesteps the question of writing about people other than yourself. I couldn’t agree more that writing from life, and considering humans “in their particulars,” is a key and fruitful way to write. And yet the more I do it, the more I become aware of what a tricky business it is. After all, real people have real feelings, and even if you’re not transforming them into evil twins, there is something—I think—inherently violent in publicly recording details of their lives. In the aftermath of publishing “personal” stories, I have come close to losing a job, been ignored by a former client, had fights and painful conversations with friends. I know you have encountered your own version of these contretemps in your own writing life. Not to turn the tables on our interview (haha!), but how do you think about writing from life in terms of ethics, relations, etc.?

Rumpus: Go on, turn those tables! Well, I’m not sure that I think of observing people and searching for a way to express one’s perceptions of them—and then putting that work out into the world—as inherently violent. It does come with risks, and I think that chief among them is lapsing into a kind of incuriousness or relying on received ideas, attitudes, stereotypes, etc. I used to be part of the “ask for forgiveness, not permission” school, which led to some moments when I felt embarrassed as a writer: I had to ask for forgiveness because I played someone’s private beliefs or an intimate encounter between us for laughs. I had a certain understanding of myself as working in a satirist’s mode and so gave myself more license at times, I think, that may actually have been merited by my skill as a writer then. Over time, I became more enamored of nuance and doubt in how I approached such things. For example, with I’ve Been Wrong Before, I contacted several people I’d written about in the essays during the revisions process, either discussing what I’d written about them or showing them the actual material. Some people will tell you never to do that, but I question never and always; in fact, in these cases I found that it led to some interesting new possibilities in the work, like when I discovered that I remembered one scene about an emotionally charged encounter with my mother in a totally different way than she had. I ended up working the discrepancy in our memories into the piece itself, and I interrogated my own initial instincts a little bit on the page, wondering, through the essay, why I had felt compelled to depict events in a certain way in the first place.

I’m interested in what you’re saying about doubles and autofiction and how that might create its own narrative tension. And, I’m curious about the idea of self-exposure or the illusion of it as a tool. I find that working with double characters or doppelgängers both creates particular opportunities for narrative control and releases a kind of chaotic trickster energy into what I’m writing. Maybe this is related to what you’re saying about doubles and the shadow self. There’s also a certain mischief in it; part of the excitement in working with doubles is their unpredictable energy—I find they often lead me into storytelling territory that truly takes me by surprise. What surprised you most about where Rose led you or what she did?

McCarthy: Yes, yes, yes to that digression! I’m not entirely sure you can avoid hurting others by delving more deeply into what you mean when you write about their life—but it certainly is a way to reach more honest work. Clearly we could have a whole side conversation about this topic…

I realized after I sent that last missive that of course Everyone Knows How Much I Love You is full of doubles: Rose and her young tutoring client, Rose and her friend, the two boyfriends from the past and present… you’re right that doubles release a kind of trickster energy! But it’s also fascinating to think about how often we make doubles in our own lives. This happens particularly with romantic interests, I think—we’re always seeing echoes of our old lovers in our new ones. And with friendship, of course, there is often a game of echo and resonance that can be a kind of mirroring, a doubling. In fact, the poem fragment from which the title of my book is taken is really about mirroring and doubling:

Everyone knows how much I love you
All your gestures
Have become my gestures

(This fragment is from an anonymous Chinese poem translated by Forrest Gander, based on a translation by Kenneth Rexroth. I first came across it in Forrest Gander’s amazing book As a Friend, which I recommend highly to anyone).

Rose’s actions at the end of the book surprised me! I did not know we would go together to such a dark place. But there is satisfaction in seeing a dark, trickster double all the way to the end of her dark, trickster road: I feel like the energy has cleared for the next book.

Rumpus: That’s exciting. We’ve chatted a bit recently about the value of following ideas through to the end, of “erring on the side of completion,” as the eminent creativity coach and author Eric Maisel puts it. Since we’ve also both been venturing into some new territory in our writing after finishing our latest projects, tell me what your work process has been like since that energy for the next book cleared? What are you thinking about, experimenting with? What have you been absorbing, through reading, art, music, and life, that’s speaking to your new work?

McCarthy: Ah, I’m so glad you reminded me of Maisel’s edict! Just this morning I was spinning through my first, rough draft of the next novel, and thinking: should I start over? This seems like trash! But you’re reminding me that there’s value in executing an idea fully.

There’s a balancing act in early drafts, I think, between staying true to your initial germ, the spark of the original idea, and staying receptive to new material and ways of telling. So even as I try to stay with this first, rocky draft, I’m feeling very open and receptive. Over the summer, I read a lot of Faulkner and Morrison, and so their keen omniscience is in my brain. Right now I’m devouring The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez, and marveling at how, under the guise of a “realist” novel, Nunez manages to smuggle in so much cultural commentary, mini-essays, and digressions. There’s also a lot of summary, which interests me. Everyone Knows How Much I Love You is almost entirely written in scene; it’s fun to think about changing the balance. And I’ve been revisiting Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. Talk about a first-person narrator I would follow anywhere!

Because I just finished your wonderful class, I’m feeling especially alert to incorporating fragments of everyday life into my novel. And even if those fragments don’t stay in the final draft, your class helped me recommit to the value of noticing, of jotting down—always, but especially now, in this historical moment. The world is changing fast, and a lot feels pretty close to apocalyptic: the fires, the floods, the virus. The murder of Black people by police. Losing RBG, and fear for the courts. There is so much grief, so much fear and sadness, right now. It’s easy to get lost in it. But I find one way to steady myself is to remind myself to pay attention, to pick up the odd details at the corner of the frame. How exactly will we remember this time in twenty years? Some of it depends on what we notice now.


Photograph of Kyle McCarthy by Patrick McCarthy.

Evan James is the author of Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe: A Novel and I’ve Been Wrong Before: Essays. He lives in New York. More from this author →