The Rumpus Book Club chats with Lilly Dancyger about her debut memoir, Negative Space (Santa Fe Writers Project, May 2021), the book’s long road to publication, learning that conflicting truths can coexist at once, releasing a book in a pandemic, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Mariana Oliver, Elizabeth Gonzalez James, Cai Emmons, Maggie Nelson, Wendy J. Fox, Gene Kwak, Christopher Gonzalez, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Lilly Dancyger about her debut memoir, Negative Space!
Lilly Dancyger: Hi! Thanks for having me, and thanks for being here, everyone!
Marisa: I’m so looking forward to discussing this book with you! To begin, can you speak a little about the road to publication for Negative Space? How did it finds its home at SFWP?
Lilly Dancyger: Sure. It was… a long road. The first time I queried agents was about nine years ago. The manuscript was roundly rejected, so I went back to the drawing board and revised and tried again—and that happened about four or five times before I finally got an offer from a different small press in 2016. But, I ended up canceling that deal because there were too many red flags indicating that this press wasn’t equipped to support the book and give it the best shot at reaching readers.
So, I revised again, got a bunch more rejections… hired and fired and agent, got rejected some more… and finally went on what I decided was my last round of submissions, after very carefully curating a list of small presses that were established enough to do what I needed them to do in terms of supporting the book. One of those was SFWP’s contest; when I made it to the final round the publisher let me know they were interested in publishing the book either way, but it ended up being selected by Carmen Maria Machado as one of the three winners. Which really just made me feel vindicated after such a bumpy road! And the book finally came out, two weeks ago, more than a decade after I started it.
Marisa: I remember when it out was out for the contest, and you were so hoping it would pan out this way. And yes, now here it is, out in the world! How does it feel, after so much time, to have the book in readers’ hands?
Lilly Dancyger: Surreal, honestly! I think after so long, a part of me started to believe that it wasn’t going to happen, that it was just going to be a manuscript on my computer that I kept revising forever. I haven’t fully mentally adjusted yet to the fact that that’s it, it’s done, it’s real!
Marisa: And it’s getting such a great response, too! I’ve seen coverage all over the place! Definitely is real.
Lilly Dancyger: Yes!
Marisa: You always knew you wanted to include your dad’s artwork alongside your own writing, and you share in the book that initially this began as a sort of catalogue of his life and work. When did you know that the book was in fact also about you, and your journey through grief and toward the publication of the book itself?
Lilly Dancyger: That shift was a long and slow process. I knew pretty early that I needed to include some of my own perspective, because that’s what all of the early readers wanted more of. But I kept thinking I had added enough of myself only to keep getting that same feedback… it wasn’t until the home stretch, about three years ago, that I finally took the plunge and made my story its own separate narrative thread, given equal weight to my father’s story.
Lilly Dancyger: Yes! I did the one-on-one mentorship with Melissa in addition to the workshop, so she read the whole manuscript, and she was the one who called me out on trying to get away with just sneaking a little bit of myself in here and there instead of going all the way. It was feedback I’d gotten before, but I finally listened when it was her saying it, haha.
Marisa: She’s hard not to listen to! I get it.
Lilly Dancyger: For sure.
Marisa: Can you talk some about the process of incorporating your father’s artwork into the book? Which is to say, how you determined what art to include, and where to place it? It felt very intentional—in a good way—throughout.
Lilly Dancyger: It was hard to decide which specific pieces to include, because there’s so much of it—and because I couldn’t ask my father which version out of several similar woodcuts he felt was most “successful,” etc.
But the art is really the central narrative thread, and everything else builds out around it. The very first outline I ever made for the book was actually just a timeline of the different series and images he worked with, and from there I started filling in his life story around the art. And, eventually, my story woven in with his.
Marisa: It almost felt, for me as a reader, like your father was a co-conspirator in creating this book because of how the art provides a kind of connective tissue throughout, if that makes sense?
Lilly Dancyger: Yes! I thought of it very much as a collaboration.
Like this game we used to play when I was little, called Exquisite Corpse, where we’d fold a piece of paper in half and then one of us would draw something, and mark the spots where the drawing connected with the fold, and then the other person would draw the other half, without seeing the first half—a collaboration without having the full picture, without being able to go back and forth on what the finished thing was going to look like.
Throughout the book, it’s also clear that we are watching narrator-Lilly learn about herself as she learns about her father’s life. What’s the biggest takeaway for you, real flesh-and-blood Lilly, now that you’ve finished this decade-long project? What do you most hope readers will take away?
Lilly Dancyger: Hmmmm, that’s a tough one… I think one of the central things that the book ended up being “about,” that I didn’t know it was going to be about, is the how often multiple, apparently conflicting truths can all be true at once. That was the case with my father, and how he appeared [to others] versus how he was with me, and it’s true about the nature of grief—it can be very present without blocking out joy.
Marisa: I’m curious whether your mother read the manuscript before the book published? She’s so much a part of this story, too, and your relationship with her changes as you do your research for the book.
Lilly Dancyger: No, definitely not. I didn’t want anyone else’s vision crowding out mine, so nobody read it until it was published.
Marisa: Through the later years of revision and submission, you’ve also worked steadily as an editor. How do you balance the two—being a writer, and being an editor? Asking for a friend (who is me). Do you find your work as an editor helps or hinders your work as a writer? Or, have you found a magic trick to shutting off your editor-brain when you write?
Lilly Dancyger: I think it helps! It’s made me a lot less precious about making big cuts, or dramatic rewrites, because I see from the editorial side how much that’s just part of the process, and writers resisting big changes to the work only hold themselves back.
But yes, I do kind of have to trick myself into writing first drafts without being critical—I tell myself I’m just writing “notes.” Lots and lots of notes that maybe also include sketches of scenes, and chunks of reflection… that start to go in some kind of order that makes sense and flows…
Marisa: What is it like to have your book come out now, amid the pandemic? Especially given its long road to publication, I imagine you had a lot of time to think about a book tour… and then the unthinkable happened.
(I will be thankful to stop asking this question in the not-too-far-off future, I hope!)
Lilly Dancyger: It sucks, to be frank. Not gonna lie.
I’ve had some really great Zoom events, and have been really grateful to receive a lot of love and support for the book online, but it’s definitely not the same as getting to be in a room with people! I really miss being able to hear audience reactions while reading—that’s been a big adjustment of COVID times. You can’t tell if a laugh line has landed! Or hear the hmms and mmms when people like an image or a moment. And you don’t get to go for drinks after the reading!
But I am hoping to do some in-person events later in the year.
Marisa: Yes, it’s finally starting to feel possible we’re only months away from complaining about standing in rooms with cheap wine after readings.
Lilly Dancyger: Yes! Can’t wait for the uncomfortable seats and the expensive cab rides home that you split with another writer you only kind of know because you’re going sort of kind of in the same direction…
Marisa: Has the pandemic been a productive time for you, creatively? It seems like it swings one way or the other for most writers. Are you working on any new projects you can tell us about?
Lilly Dancyger: Yeah, I was always a homebody, already worked from home full-time, and, as you may know from the book, am used to upheaval. So, I pretty much went on as usual. It felt strange at first, like something was wrong with me that I wasn’t spinning out the way a lot of people seemed to be, but I eventually was able to just feel grateful that I managed to keep functioning.
And yeah, I got a lot of writing done! I started prepping the companion essays for the book way ahead of time, so I was working on several of those during the pandemic, and I also wrote a book proposal, which I’m almost done with, including two sample essays. Not making too many details public yet, but the proposal is for a collection of personal/critical essays.
Marisa: That’s exciting! Can’t wait to learn more.
Who are your literary touchstones while you write? And/or, other artistic influences from outside literature? And then specifically, was there anything you returned to reading/listening to/watching while putting Negative Space together, or work you feel the book is in conversation with (beyond, obviously, your father’s artwork)?
Lilly Dancyger: It shifts and changes, but I always return to Lidia Yuknavitch, Melissa Febos, Anaïs Nin…. it was really convenient for me that Melissa came out with an essay collection while I was writing a proposal for one of my own! Haha.
And yeah, I like to switch gears and get ideas from film and visual art… I live right across the park from the Met, so walking through the park and looking at art is my go-to when I’m feeling bogged down or uninspired. Of course, I couldn’t do that for a big chunk of the last year, but it’s been great going back now that they’re open again.
The main touchstone books for Negative Space that kind of charted a path for me were: The Night of the Gun by David Carr, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden, Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev, and Just Kids by Patti Smith.
Marisa: That is a great list of touchstone books!
I miss the city, and museums. I can’t wait to start being out in the world again; the Met is one of my favorite places in Manhattan.
Lilly Dancyger: Mine too! There are a lot of things I don’t love about being uptown; I’m still a downtown kid at heart. But being able to walk to the Met almost makes up for it all.
Marisa: We’d just taken the kid for his first visit right before the pandemic, too!
Lilly Dancyger: Ah, time for another one soon!
Marisa: He’s more of a Museum of Natural History kid, but yes, he’s excited to go again. Unsurprisingly, he’s most interested in the the Temple of Dendur right now.
Lilly Dancyger: The Museum of Natural History is great, too!
Marisa: Is there a question no one has asked you about the book yet that you’re hoping someone will ask?
Lilly Dancyger: Hmm… I don’t think so! It’s been cool having people engage with it after so long of it being just me and the manuscript.
Marisa: And then also, I wonder, is it hard to talk about this book? It feels so intimate and personal—though I know that part of that is craft, too.
Lilly Dancyger: No, not really. I spent so long on it that the book, and the experiences it’s based on, are pretty separate in my mind at this point. It’s an external thing that exists separate from me, separate from my life and my family and my grief, even though it’s made out of all of those things.
Marisa: That is so healthy! I wonder if having so much time with it yourself makes it easier now to let it go.
Lilly Dancyger: Probably! I was ready to be done with it a long time ago, haha.
Marisa: What do you imagine your father would say to you about this book? I think he’d be incredibly proud, and probably thrilled, too.
Lilly Dancyger: I think he would be honored, and proud, but also the book wouldn’t exist if he were alive, so it’s a kind of time travel impossibility that he’d ever get to think anything about it at all. But I know he would love the idea of a book about his art. He was a big collector and admirer of art books.
Marisa: Yes, that makes perfect sense. I think he’d also love how you’ve become such a talented artist in your own right, albeit in a different medium.
Lilly Dancyger: Yes, I’d love to talk to him about the similarities and differences between writing and visual art; I think he’d have a lot to say and also a lot of interesting questions to ask.
Marisa: We’re almost out of time, but I always ask this question and I know you’re going to have good answers (no pressure, lol) so: what’s in your reading pile right now? Any new and forthcoming books you’re especially excited about?
Lilly Dancyger: I’m reading Elissa Washuta’s White Magic at the moment, and really loving it! I’m planning to read Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty next and really looking forward to it. I love everything she’s done so far.
Marisa: We’ll be reading Maggie’s forthcoming book, On Freedom, in the Book Club and I’m super excited!
Lilly Dancyger: Oooh, exciting; I’m looking forward to that one as well.
Marisa: Lilly, thanks so much for your time this afternoon—and for putting this book out into the world! I had high expectations, because I know you well, but truly, it surpassed them. It’s beautiful and brilliant, and I’m thrilled it’s now finally out there!
Lilly Dancyger: Ah, thank you so much, Marisa! And thank you for inviting me to do this.
Marisa: I can’t wait to celebrate over cheap wine out in the real world!
Lilly Dancyger: Yes! Soon, I hope.
And thank you book clubbers, for reading.
Marisa: You were the last friend I saw before the pandemic hit, so it’ll be fitting for you to be one of the first as things open up! Thanks everyone for hanging out with us, and have a great afternoon!
Photograph of Lilly Dancyger by Soomin Dancyger.