Image: Illustration by Sir John Tenniel for Alice in Wonderland.
An Interview with Catherine Lacey
I first heard (about) Catherine Lacey when she was on Brad Listi's Otherppl (née Other People) podcast, and I guess I sort of developed a crush on her. She talked about the sort of things that give people (the media) pause (being from Mississippi, selling her eggs, moving to New Zealand to work on a farm somewhat randomly), but she talked about them as if they were no big deal—as if she didn't necessarily consider her life and the choices she's made in it potential click bait—or even just material—and that was, I'm sad/weirded out to say, refreshing. She seemed to strike a balance between examining the ambiguity of the world and reacting to it, in particularly click-baity issues of gender (which we talk about) and in issues of art (which we also talk about); it made me want to read her debut novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing. I won't retread ground covered in the review in the August issue of Bookslut, but I thought the book was challenging and exciting and original, which felt like a great excuse for me to talk to her about female travel narratives, nervous breakdowns, and the aforementioned ambiguity.
One of the things I thought was most interesting about the book was the way you dealt with gender. It's certainly a factor in Elyria's interactions—the lone female hitchhiker warnings are the most obvious example of this—but I think a lot of (feminist) writers would have made a lot more of that angle. Did you set out to do anything particular with gender, or was this a byproduct? Had/Have you read the periodic calls for more (and less cliché) female road/travel literature, and do you feel like you're contributing to fixing that, whether you're actively trying to or not?
Catherine Lacey: I didn't intend to write specifically about gender or to contribute a female protagonist to the road trip narrative; however, I am very much aware of how women are hyper-perceived, misrepresented, and manipulated every goddamn day, and I can't leave that part of myself in bed while I get up to write. So now that I'm long past writing Nobody and I can back up and have a good look at it, I do hope it can adequately answer what Vanessa Veselka calls for in that American Reader essay, though it's not for me to decide.
Also, I didn't read the Veselka essay until after I'd gone on many-a solo trip and written this book, but this paragraph in particular feels ultra-relevant:
...my choice to leave home and hitchhike was certainly no stupider or more dangerous than signing onto a whaling ship in the 1850s, 'stealing' a slave and taking him across state lines, burning through relationships following some sketchy dude around the US, or accepting rides from drunk people while on hallucinogens. These tales are fictions, yes, but they deeply affect how we see people on the road. And the shadow cast by these narratives—one that valorizes existential curiosity, adventure, individuality, and surliness—does not fall over women. In a country with the richest road narratives in the modern world, women have none. Sure, there is the crazy she-murderer and the occasional Daisy Duke, but beyond that, zip.
Elyria's being female doesn't feel fundamental, though, even as the people she meets are trying to file her under gender-normative labels, most frequently "potential rape victim" or "wife."
I did an interview with Sasha Frere-Jones a few weeks ago, and he said he thought the character could have been a 50-year-old man instead of a 28-year-old woman and the story wouldn't even have to change much. This wasn't a goal while I was writing it, but I tend to agree. I don't really know if this helps, hurts, or does nothing to the role gender plays in the story.
I don't really know, either. When the people Elyria meets stereotype her, she tends to go along with it, or silently accept it and just move on; it's like it just rolls off her, the hey-you're-a-woman stuff, which highlights another thing I really liked: the intense interiority, the disconnect between the subject and the people around her trying to get her to share that interiority with them. Um...what am I getting at? I think: Was it hard to resist conclusiveness, decision, definition? Is ambiguity a priority for you?
Books that lack ambiguity or mystery bore me. People who avoid confronting ambiguity are even worse and are to be avoided at all costs or challenged relentlessly. Unless a person has deluded herself with one of the many worldviews that preach hard realities and absolutes, then she best get comfortable with ambiguity. For some, the concept of ambiguity is something they want to avoid in literature or film or music or their relationships or their day-to-day existence—I emphatically do not write for those people, unless they are open to challenging their relationship to ambiguity.
This reminds me of your piece for BuzzFeed about being psychologized through your characters—you try to delineate which parts of Elyria are you and which parts are her and end up concluding that it's impossible to do. It's all ambiguous boths and neithers, and with Elyria that's so frustrating; everyone wants to crack her code, and she's like, "There's no code!"
Elyria seems to believe that no one can oppress or categorize her more than she can oppress and categorize herself. She has an independence that has grown to the point of hermetically sealing her off from the rest of the world. In a way, this has led her into a struggle with the amount of instability in her life. No one has a code that can be cracked for someone else to understand them, yet we still attempt to understand others and be understood by others. Writing a character that rails against this idea is a good way to explore that concept.
I've read you (and reviewers) describe Nobody as a "story about a woman's mental dissolve," but do you see her as "crazy"? She makes a lot of sense to me. Well, she both makes a lot of sense and doesn't make sense. The desire for her husband to shoot her with a "microscopic bullet that would make [her] make sense again, a bullet that could send the proper wants through her body"—that makes sense.
I don't believe Elyria is crazy, but I do think it's clear she's going through a kind of dissolve, which isn't quite the same thing. The word "crazy" [would] separate her from the everyday person, and I don't think [hers is] such a rare experience—to feel completely adrift, to want more solitude than is actually healthy. Though Elyria is resourceful and scrappy and fearless in a deeply fearful way, she lacks the ability to take care of herself or console herself or loosen her strong hold on dread. She doesn't really know how to turn off the faucet of dread that we all sometimes wash our hands in.
I know plenty of intelligent people with irrational fears. Or smart people with deep anxieties. Probably everyone knows people like that. I think Elyria is kind of like this. Recognizable, but missing something.
The Veselka essay, again, makes an interesting point:
A man on the road is caught in the act of a becoming. A woman on the road has something seriously wrong with her.
I think Elyria is actually in the act of becoming, though we don't see her fully transform.
She's also always drawing a distinction between what is "regular" or "usual" and something else, so she ends up defining herself by what she's not—it's very slippery. Do you find the sense of there being a "normal" or "regular" way to be valid at all, or is it a (dangerous) delusion? Does Elyria believe that's where "meaning" is, in the "normal" she can't access?
I’m not entirely sure, but at some point in the narrative Elyria notices or wonders if other people might not experience the world in the feverish, unbearable way that she does. She thinks that makes her different or weird—which is a state that I think we all slip into sometimes. We wonder, Am I wrong? Am I doing life correctly? I think lots of people have moments (or long moments) during which we ask ourselves these questions. Most of us come back to the realization that everyone goes through times like these, despite the fact that we can't confirm for 100% sure that other people are sharing our experiences. But I wasn't trying to show the complete arc of this very human experience. I just wanted to dig into the uncomfortable part, to break down that state as fully as possible so I could better understand it.
Did you find yourself looking to other books for examples or help?
The one book that probably had the biggest effect on the structure was Alice in Wonderland. I read it on a solo camping trip while a tropical storm walloped my tent. I was writing the first draft and it was as if someone had just handed me the structure to the book I was already writing. Woman goes on journey, meets a lot of people, is kind of changed and kind of just the same. I used it like a map.
It reminded me most obviously of The Stranger or Leaving the Atocha Station. Which I fucking love, but a lot of women emphatically do not like Ben Lerner.
I read Leaving the Atocha Station after I was done writing Nobody, and I loved it so much and saw why it had been recommended to me. The same thing happened with Renata Adler's Pitch Dark and Speedboat.
I don't know about these emphatic non-Lerner women. I see a lot of similarities between Lerner and Adler and Jenny Offill and Thomas Bernhard and Plath—all writers I love. States of unravelment (I may have made this word up) are somewhat ungendered (maybe this one, too). If you're having a hard time with the frailty of existence (and in some ways all breakdowns, "dissolves," or unravelments are about exactly that), then it doesn't matter what gender you identify with. It may change the experience a little, but the bone of it is the same.