An Interview with Catherine Lacey - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Catherine Lacey

[Writer]
by Shane Jones
August 4th, 2020
Illustration by Caroline Corrigan
“I started watching MMA in 2014 or so, supposedly to “research” a character but isn’t that always just a bullshit reason writers have for doing something?” 

List of jobs Catherine Lacey would be interested in:
Train attendant (with own room)
Cinematographer 
World’s greatest whistler 

What stuns me most about the writer Catherine Lacey—and fills me with equitable bouts of admiration and jealously—is just how far she has progressed from book-to-book, four total, in the course of six short years. She is thirty-five years old and with her latest novel, Pew, has reached a maturity level almost any reader would quickly identify as masterful. 

Before her novels Nobody is Ever Missing, The Answers, and Pew, and the short story collection Certain American States, I met Lacey through the literary blog HTMLGIANT where we were original contributors. The blog was innovative at a time when writers had individual blogspot pages, a personal online space now somewhat difficult and ridiculous to try and explain. Suddenly, many writers posting on separate pages were all lumped on one page, commenting frequently and often with little to no editorial guidance. Lacey’s posts were insightful, sometimes political, and always clever. I routinely looked for them as they developed into stranger and more intelligent pieces. Simultaneously, her short stories began appearing regularly and with her flash piece “Grow” in the online journal Diagram, I took deeper notice that something unique and original was happening.

Her work stems from a wholly unique place where thought and language twists and turns, sentences folding into each other in endless surprise. As she recently posted online, she is not interested in writing the same book twice, and with Pew she has broken new ground by discovering a change in style. Somewhere in the spaces between Shirley Jackson, Agota Kristof, and Bergman’s Persona, lies Lacey’s weirdest and strongest work thus far: a fucked-up pastoral identity fable about the complicated layers of small-town kindness. Pew feels radical in its subject matter, stylistic elegance, and delivery of narration. At times, Pew comes off as high-brow, taking critical aim at the type of people who smile and say hello from the church steps then back home mutter something horrendous at the local news, but that’s part of the appeal and the challenge for the reader. It’s a novel that is morally unapologetic where there is no clear moral. It’s a novel that is somehow realistic in its societal commentary and also ephemeral and alien-like in its atmosphere and style. 

— Shane Jones

THE BELIEVER: How did you get interested in MMA (mixed martial arts) and watching the UFC? You’re a fan of Rose Namajunas.

CATHERINE LACEY: I started watching MMA in 2014 or so, supposedly to “research” a character but isn’t that always just a bullshit reason writers have for doing something? I didn’t have anyone to watch it with until 2016, then I got a lot more into it, started going to a kickboxing gym for a while, which made my relationship to watching fights more visceral. I’m far from the first writer to notice the overlap between fighting and writing—but it’s so obviously there. I’ve never been a fan of any specific athlete or sports team before Rose Namajunas, but I love her whole orientation to the sport, so much so she’s really the only fighter that I am emotionally invested in when I watch. I’m enormously interested in her narrative and her style. Amanda Nunes, too. There are male fighters I like as well, but watching women’s MMA (and my little dabbling in kickboxing) has been a way of power-washing some of the garbage in my brain about what a woman’s body should or can do.

BLVR: The face-offs between Rose and Jedrzjczyk were so intense and that’s when I became a fan, how calm and strong she was in the face of obtuse intimidation. Do you watch the fights with your partner, the writer Jesse Ball? I may have this wrong, but I had tea with him back in 2009 and he talked about getting into a fight at a Chinese restaurant (seriously). Did he read Pew in the early stages?

CL: Yes, Jess and I watch them together which is great because he has a way of catching moments and patterns in a fight that I wouldn’t notice. People who don’t watch MMA have this idea that it’s purely a brutal sport, but it’s really so elegant and cerebral if you can see the matches slowly.

He did read an earlier draft of Pew, but I didn’t show it to him for feedback. We don’t intervene in each other’s work in that way; being one of his first readers and for him to be one of mine is purely a matter of pleasure. Maybe we’re both just stubborn and self-reliant and have quite different styles, but we don’t seek advice from the other on our work.

BLVR: The style of Pew feels different to me compared to your previous work—there’s more fable, an increased otherworldliness, and the sentences are cut short and made clearer. Was the style a deliberate decision? You recently said you aren’t interested in writing the same book and I think you’ve succeeded.

CL: Everything I’ve ever written has been an attempt to slowly translate a feeling into a story. I started writing this book in 2016, but the feeling behind it is much older. This country was beginning a process of exhuming things we’d tried to bury and on I was experiencing something similar on a personal level. Pew feels different from previous books—and also very different from what I’m writing now—because I was a very different person for the year and a half it took to write and throw away and write again and throw away and write again.

As for the syntax being different—syntax is the way the emotion and the embodiment of a character is represented on a page. The feeling I had about Pew required shorter, slower thoughts; I see it now as a kind of syntax of absence, which is not at all what any of my other books or stories were trying to do.

BLVR: I immediately think of Pew saying, “I was buried by night. The body is already dead, I thought. I was still smiling. The body is your tomb.” Which is a kind of feeling connected to style that bleeds throughout the text. But when it comes to the people surrounding Pew, they are a little different—all the stories they shovel onto Pew are pretty incredible and come so fast, and also kind of funny? Which makes the vibe all the more eerie as it moves along. Can you talk a little about what it was like to write these characters? I can so clearly see and feel Kitty. 

CL: The setting and characters are essentially the ones I grew up with, though distorted, so when I wrote their monologues they often came easily. I could write a lot and throw a lot out. There was something particularly freeing about having a silent or near-silent narrator. It gave me permission to listen rather than write.

BLVR: You’re originally from Mississippi. Will people read Pew from your hometown? Does your family read your books?  

CL: Despite the fact that the Mississippi’s state legislature has been working tirelessly for years to demolish public education as a way to further entrench racist systems in those communities, there are still people who love books in Mississippi. Yes, my family reads all the books. People in my hometown read them. Mississippians I don’t even know read them.

I’ve often ranted over what the garbage-fire of a government is doing down there, but I sometimes worry this ends up perpetuating the vision of Mississippi as a place where no one reads. Reading in America is on the decline (though maybe 2020 will see a slight uptick) and Mississippi is not distinct from the rest of the country in that regard, nor is the rest of the country distinct from Mississippi.

BLVR: Do you remember this article from 2014 where we were interviewed about our day jobs? Looking back, it was kind of corny, but I’m curious if you are still working a day job? What’s a typical day like for you when you’re not watching the UFC?

CL: That article is so funny—I had forgotten about it. The last time I had a regular paycheck was the 2017-2018 academic year when I was the visiting writer at Ole Miss. I’ve had a run of good luck since then so my main job since then has been writing my fourth novel and second story collection. I love to work and to read, so I do it almost every morning until I can’t anymore, then I walk around, eat lunch, monitor the squirrels, and talk to Jesse. I expect to need a regular job again some day and as long as I have mornings to think about fiction, I’m fine with doing pretty much anything.

BLVR: Squirrel monitoring is important. My mother-in-law hates them so much, and so do many people in the northeast, but I’ve always liked them. Although I had a friend who was attacked by a squirrel years ago—just leaped off a tree and landed on her face. 

I think with some writers there’s an identity issue. Some writers would answer the question “What do you do?” with their day job. Other writers can’t stand the day job because “I’m a writer.” Pew is constantly defending off attacks of being labeled and identified—I immediately think of the doctor’s visit where she doesn’t undress. I know the stakes are different, but do you think of these issues of identity and labeling on a personal level? If I were to ask you ten years ago, “What do you do?” would it differ from right now? 

CL: To be clear—I love the squirrels. I love them so much. Many of them live in my backyard and I am trying to tell them all apart. I watch them dig holes. I name them. I rejoice when they bombard the bird feeder. I think they’re all doing a great job.

It’s funny you used “she” in that sentence. I sometimes thought of Pew as “he” even though neither pronoun is correct. It’s natural that when we read a book we insert the body of the writer into the space of the narrator—so a reader might gravitate towards “she” since there’s a female name on the cover. But when I was writing or thinking about the book I sometimes used “he” since “he” is the pronoun I feel the farthest from. 

Labeling ourselves and others is a very natural human habit. And of course labels tend to feel incomplete or not totally accurate, but labels have utility as well. It took me way longer than it should have to finally accept and claim the label of being queer, for instance. Partly I felt afraid of judgement, but also, since my longest relationships were with men, I felt I should be denied membership to the LGBTQ+ community. I hadn’t significantly suffered for being queer, and I’d benefitted from the shield of usually appearing heterosexual. But I always knew I wasn’t, and queer is the closest approximation of “a person whose orientation and relationship history is not purely heterosexual.” Once I just gave in and said, yep, that’s me, it was liberating and nearly every time I “came out” to someone in my mid-twenties they’d just say, um, ok, yeah, it’s pretty obvious. But for years I was just completely bewildered because I was afraid of the label. The problem with labels is when they’re applied from the outside or when they’re used to collapse someone’s humanity into a term.

The label of my occupation has never felt that important to me. I always wrote but I always felt I’d have another job, too. And still—I write a lot of things I have no intention of publishing. I’m a writer when I write those non-paying works just as I am when I write a novel. I was a writer before I’d published anything in the same sense, I feel, as I am now, because I don’t believe income should have the power to define who a person is, just how they earn money.

BLVR: And here I thought I wouldn’t use a pronoun, but multiple times in previous questions I found myself going back and deleting “she.” I think this is part of the appeal and challenge of the book. It makes me think of the section in Pew where Harold gives his big speech and veers off script into how “troubling” it is that he can’t place Pew into categories: heritage, nationality, race, and in the same sentence uses both “she” and “him” before someone stops him. There’s this constant need to be kind and welcoming and then also “Well, we need to know what you are.”

A majority of Americans base their identity on what they do for money and I hate it, but it’s there, it will always be there. It gets even weirder when it comes to writing and art, because people are trying to attach value to it and a lot of times it comes down to money (how much did the painting sell for, what was the advance of the book) so they can oddly visualize “Oh, they were paid X amount, that’s the same as a Subaru.” Not always, but I’ve experienced it with my books with friends and family who aren’t readers.

If you could have three fantasy jobs what would they be? 

CL:. If the reader is frustrated that they don’t know “who” Pew is or what Pew looks like and they feel they can’t invest themselves in the character or story without knowing those things, that is exactly the kind of shortcoming that I want to point out. I want the reader to be discomfited by the limits of their empathy or interest when these details are obscured.

When I was a kid I wanted to work as an attendant on a train. I thought I’d have my own little room on the train and that I’d maybe serve dinner in the dining car. I always thought cinematographer sounded glamorous but I think it’s actually a lot harder than it seems. But being the world’s greatest whistler is probably just as great as it seems it would be.

BLVR: Cinematographer is great because it feels very artsy but I imagine it’s very difficult, depending on the director. Is there any development in The Answers becoming a series or movie?

CL: The Answers is in development to be a TV series.

BLVR: I hope they get the best cinematographer possible. I want to come full circle on our conversation. So if Rose Namajunas fights Weili Zhang for the championship who wins? 

CL: Zhang is a fully terrifying fighter and though I know Namajunas wants that fight and will probably get it, I get stressed out imagining it. Rose’s style has evolved so much over the last few years that I’m always ready to be surprised by her, but Zhang’s knock-outs are crazy coming out of this division. You just don’t see a 115 pound fighter knock people out like that. One thing is certain—if Rose won the straw-weight title again I would cry, a lot.

BLVR: Have you ever cried reading a book? I immediately think of this section in Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves where after the narrator leaves her son at a school for boys he comes back out totally changed, this sweet boy now hammered into something else she barely recognizes.  

CL: Many times. I cry writing, I cry reading, I cry watching movies. I cry pretty often and only when I haven’t cried in a while do I feel like something is wrong.

BLVR: Well, let’s end on something that won’t make you cry, hopefully. You said in a previous interview that Jesse frequently makes you dinner. What is he making tonight?

CL: Something vegan! 

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