Julie Sarkissian’s debut novel, Dear Lucy, tells the story of Lucy, a girl with evident but unspecified special needs who has been sent to live on a farm with Mister and Misses, a married couple with the grit and stoic exterior of American Gothic.
Emboldened by routine and purpose and desperate to please, Lucy carries out perfunctory chores around the farm: she gathers the eggs from the chicken coop, feeds slop to the pigs, and weeds the garden. She is hell-bent on “having good behavior” so that she will be allowed to stay at the farm to appease her mother, Mum mum, who dumped her there because she just couldn’t handle the day-to-day struggle of Lucy’s limitations.
Also living on the farm—somewhat of a repository for black sheep—is Samantha, a pregnant teenager who befriends Lucy, attempting to teach her to read and see the world more clearly. Lucy’s only other friend is Jennifer, a baby chicken who survives Lucy’s attempt to horde eggs in her dresser drawer. Jennifer becomes Lucy’s accomplice on a quest to help Samantha reunite with the father of her child and remain with her baby, who is bound for adoption.
Told mostly from Lucy’s perspective but with periodic glimpses through the eyes of Misses and Samantha, Dear Lucy is deceptively suspenseful. Mister and Misses seem like decent, Bible-driven folk who are out to help these girls with nowhere else to go, but the story reveals motivations that are dark and complicated. Reading this book was uncomfortable at times—Lucy is a vulnerable character without much of a safety net. But her passionate good intentions make her incredibly endearing.
Sarkissian is a graduate of Princeton University and the New School’s MFA program. Dear Lucy started out as her master’s thesis at the New School and grew into this book over the course of five years. At a café in Brooklyn, Sarkissian and I discussed how Lucy’s story evolved in that process, and the challenges of presenting the world through the eyes of a person with cognitive limitations.
ALYSSA VINE: What authors or books have influenced your writing?
JULIE SARKISSIAN: I love American modern literature. Faulkner is a huge influence. I love Nathanael West and Flannery O’Connor, and also more contemporary authors like Toni Morrison. While I was writing Dear Lucy, I read an amazing book, The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton. It’s so good. She wrote books that got more attention, but I think The Book of Ruth is the best one. I read The Sound and the Fury twice while I was writing Dear Lucy, which was exhausting but I felt like I just had to do.
AV: While I was reading the book, I was constantly wondering what’s wrong with Lucy. Is she autistic? What’s her diagnosis?
JS: It’s a hard question to answer. My thoughts about it stopped short of being clinical, before her limitations even became that analytic. I wasn’t interested in changing her character to fit within the parameters of any diagnosis. I can definitely see that someone reading the book might not find it believable and could make the argument that what she is and isn’t capable of is very inconsistent. I mean, I wouldn’t be happy about that, but I would understand. I feel like if somebody had a diagnosis of Lucy that worked for them, by all means they should consider it.
AV: Reading a book told mostly from the perspective of someone who really only understands things in the context of her own world can be a pretty taxing experience. It really challenges a reader to accept that this is the way the character exists. It must have been difficult to keep track in your own mind of what Lucy does and doesn’t understand.
JS: You point out one of the trickiest parts. In early drafts, there were a lot of inconsistencies. There was feedback at certain points, like: this is definitely pushing the limits of what Lucy could do. For the most part, my agent and my editor and readers have been pretty permissive—they buy her as a character more than a human being in the world.
AV: I read that Dear Lucy has been compared to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and also Room by Emma Donoghue. How do you feel about those comparisons?
JS: When I read Room, I actually approached Emma Donoghue asking her to blurb the book. She politely declined, but in my letter to her, I wrote that I thought Lucy and five-year-old Jack could have been kindred spirits. I mean, who knows how well they would have gotten along, or whether their internal lives would have aligned. I don’t want to give myself such a flattering comparison as to say that I saw my work in hers, but both Lucy and Jack do have this whole internal life that’s so imaginative. There’s a really strange specificity of taking a really limited situation—physically limited in Room, and cognitive limitations in Lucy’s case—and I definitely was struck by a similarity. As far as the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I wrote about it in the critical portion of my master’s thesis. Intellectually, I understand the comparison but I don’t feel as strong an attachment. Maybe that’s because autism is marked by a disconnect from people and I feel like Lucy and that protagonist aren’t kindred spirits in that way. They do have in common going out on a quest, and I guess he is looking for his father… But he’s very antisocial, for lack of a better word. Both of them are lovely comparisons, though.
AV: Was Jennifer the devil on Lucy’s shoulder, or more like a guardian angel? At certain points, it seemed like she did not have Lucy’s best interest in mind at all. But then at the end, there’s a sense that Lucy is aware that Jennifer’s instructions and demands are actually Lucy pushing herself in particular directions. Do you think Jennifer was helping or hurting Lucy?
JS: One way I would reconcile it is by recognizing that something about Jennifer was born out of a change that happened in Lucy when she met Samantha. Samantha is one of the only people who Lucy is really attached to, and one of the only people who showed any real fondness or loyalty to Lucy. Some weird subconscious part of Lucy knew that she was going to be in an impossible situation—there was nothing else but Mum mum and Lucy’s world, until Samantha comes along. So it’s as though Jennifer is almost there for Samantha, more than for Lucy. I ultimately do think Jennifer was helping her. But it’s tricky.
AV: Throughout the book there are a number of examples of struggle between good and evil. I’m thinking of Misses. She has taken in these two girls who really need somewhere to go; she and Mister are caring for them, but when you start to understand her reasons for doing so, and some of their backstory as a married couple… she’s not a good person. As a reader, you want the best thing for Lucy and you worry about her. Was it hard to turn other characters against her, to some extent?
JS: There’s definitely an evolution with Misses. I ended up feeling a lot of sympathy for her. She’s in so much pain, and she’s such an unhappy person, and she has no self-awareness. She just blames the world and God and Mister. I don’t really know if she blames herself, or if that’s her manipulating the reader by saying that her body was broken and that’s why they couldn’t have children. She is very psychologically unsophisticated, even though she’s very intelligent. She has intuition, and she can read people and get them to do what she wants, but that does not extend into self-reflection at all. I think she has some qualities of a malignant narcissist. It’s strange to have sympathy for that kind of character, but I did. There’s just no peace in her world, no relief. She can’t self examine. But weirdly, she’s pretty neutral toward Lucy—well, except when for Lucy came in the way of her larger designs.
AV: What about Mum mum?
JS: I worried sometimes that Mum mum was a bit too much of a cliché, she was just like this social-climbing, vapid mother who doesn’t really take care of her daughter. I did start to feel sorry for her too, a little bit. She was really confused about how none of her efforts got through to Lucy. She was really let down by her experience of being a mother.
AV: As a reader, I’d say I felt more sympathy toward Mum mum than I did toward Misses. Were you tempted to give Mister a chance to tell his side of the story?
JS: Mister had sections and they were taken out, and I do miss them. I don’t think I really knew who Mister was. It was painful for me to part with his voice, but I didn’t know what his story was. So he had to go, for practicality’s sake. I guess I just kind of cut my losses and tried to keep it a little simpler.
AV: One consequence of that is the book is driven entirely by women’s voices. Was that intentional?
JS: I guess it’s sort of apropos of the book. It is so much about motherhood and daughterhood. I do think it is fitting. It’s a book about the joys and the burdens and the dashed hopes and the unrealistic expectations. It’s about the power to create life, but then the responsibility that comes with that.
AV: With that idea of creating life, I think it’s interesting how Lucy, who for all intents and purposes can’t even really take care of herself, takes on this caretaker role with Jennifer. She has her own maternal instincts. And on some level, she ushers Jennifer through this book safely in a way that her own mother and various other mothers are not really succeeding at.
JS: I never thought of it like that, but yeah, it’s a good point. Lucy’s feelings are so unadulterated and so uncomplicated, she is able to do this in this romanticized world where it’s about the bond with the child, like it’s just this natural thing. She is the only one that really does maintain the attachment to the thing she created.
AV: What happens next? Is Lucy going to end up in some kind of juvenile detention situation?
JS: Oh God. It’s possible. That’s not how my mind works. That’s the fictional reality world that you’re talking about. You can only take it so far. I did have another ending—I’ll just say it was a much darker, much more realistic ending. And I also had this fantasy ending—it was never going to be the real ending, but it speaks to this question of what is wrong, and does it matter what’s wrong? Does it change or qualify anything? It would be way too postmodern but, in another scenario, there’s an ending where it is a couple of years later and Lucy is a little more grown up, and she has a party for all of the people in the book, and she speaks in her voice and it’s like the Queen’s English. And you wouldn’t have seen how she got to that point. We never know what was wrong with her in the first place, so who’s to say she could never learn to read, or was anything really precluding that?
AV: What are you working on now?
JS: My agent has my new novel now. The working title is The Pirate Carnival; it’s about this old pirate ship that’s been turned into this amusement park, carnival-esque, floating entertainment center. It takes place in the 1960s, and the Pirate Carnival docks in this sleepy New England town and disrupts the lives of these three young women. These pirates make a living selling lots of things, but what they really sell is desire, and lust, and inhibition, and passion.
AV: That sounds very different from Dear Lucy, even just the fact that there is a specific time period and place to it.
JS: Yes! It’s fun talking to my dad about what it was like in the early sixties, and looking online at pictures of the clothing from that era is really fun. And definitely a really good use of my time. But I am very happy it has a time and place. It brings on another set of consistency issues, but I’m willing to tackle that.
Alyssa Vine lives in New York.