Catherine Lacey Gets Back to Work

Catherine Lacey never intended to write a novel. Her first book, Nobody Is Ever Missing, began as a series of disconnected stories she wrote while tinkering with a freelance non-fiction career. Eventually her spurts of fiction gelled into the story of Elyria, a standard-issue Manhattan yuppie who up and leaves her life for a vagabond existence in New Zealand. As Elyria meanders across this remote corner of the world, she reflects on her sister’s death, her mother’s disaffection, the shaky foundation of her marriage, and the mounting anger she feels toward her own passive, detached existence.

Lacey and I discussed her own meanderings, the challenges of writing a character whose struggle is mostly internal, and her side-hustle as a Brooklyn bed-and-breakfast owner.

ALYSSA VINE: Where did the character of Elyria come from?

CATHERINE LACEY: She originally came from my travels in New Zealand, and seeing different people and their reasons for traveling. There’s a big community of people who are just out there rambling around, with different reasons for running away from life. I was out there to get away from responsibilities that I had here—which were not the same as Elyria’s, but I could easily extrapolate and take it to a logical conclusion of what it would be like for her. I wanted to create a character that couldn’t take care of herself. She’s just like everyone else, with the same problems and neuroses and things that everyone has to carry, but she has zero ability to take care of herself. At the beginning she was just this manic weird energy, and I still don’t know her completely. I know her like I know some of my closest friends, but some of my closest friends surprise me all the time.

AV: What were you doing in New Zealand?

CL: I was there for three months in 2010, and I wasn’t thinking about fiction at all. I didn’t want to write fiction. I wasn’t that serious about it, I never really wanted to write a novel. My background is in non-fiction and I really enjoy research. I was there to write essays, to research permaculture and biodynamics. Which I didn’t really do; I just sort of bummed around. I wanted to work on farms so that I could write about food politics. But I got there and life took over, I just wanted to hang out. I wish I could have stayed longer, but I had to come back to be in a friend’s wedding. Otherwise I would have stayed. I really loved that place, and I was trying to quit New York.

AV: I think we all wonder sometimes what would happen if we up and left our lives like Elyria does. I imagine that experience to be a lot more of an upheaval, full of fear and emotion and growth. But Elyria’s experience is much more mundane and quiet. Were you tempted to make the story more dramatic?

CL: In an older version, she did way more shit—she got in fights, she was on the run from people. But that wasn’t really true. She didn’t go there to do anything; she went there to be by herself. That was a big question I was chewing on while writing: How much can a person do alone? There’s not that much drama in sitting there, trying to figure out if you can be alone. I have a lot of sympathy for Elyria.

AV: The Elyria we come to know as a reader is so far removed from the type of person she was in her old life, where she was gainfully employed, living with her husband in the West Village. Do you think throwing all of that away was an inevitable turn of events for Elyria?

CL: Life can be really easy if you don’t communicate the negative things to the people around you, because you don’t have to confront anything. I know a lot of people like that. People have so much trauma that they can’t deal with, so they just get really focused. If you’re running a blender at a really high speed, eventually it’s going to shatter. No one can keep that stuff in forever.

AV: Was there a point where you thought she might put it all back together?

CL: I entertained every different route she could have gone, and I wrote like four different endings. There was a time when the story took a more traditional arc, where she had to land and change a little more. But that just didn’t seem right for the character. She reaches a breaking point where she can’t go back, can’t hold it all in. She’s trying to find a way to manage her inner rage.

AV: Everywhere she goes in New Zealand, she’s told to be careful and not take rides from men. There’s a “blame the victim” sentiment in this advice, as though it’s her responsibility to stay out of harm’s way more than it is the responsibility of everyone she meets—

CL: Not to kill her. Right. I’ve become more aware recently how vulnerable it is to be a woman. Not just the small annoyances here in New York, where you walk around with guys hissing at you. But in a more global sense, there is constant violence against women. I think a lot of women end up internalizing that and trying to deal with it or contain it in some way. I see that struggle in a lot of women I’m close to. I think Elyria really resents not having as much freedom as she would if she was in a male body. She feels it viscerally.

AV: That visceral anger takes the shape of an imaginary, looming wildebeest in the book. An excerpt:

…she didn’t know about the wildebeest that lived in me and told me to leave that perfectly nice apartment and absolutely suitable job and routines and husband who didn’t do anything completely awful—and I felt that the wildebeest was right and I didn’t know why and even though a wildebeest isn’t the kind of animal that will attack, it can throw all its beastly pounds and heavy bones at anything that attacks it or stands in its way, so I took all that into account.

Why personify Elyria’s rage this way?

CL: The wildebeest is as far as she could go in giving that rage a name. She’s not actually violent, but there’s this weight on her. It affects everything, and it’s not really being channeled.

AV: I was frustrated by how Elyria’s husband reacted to her leaving. I understand he was hurt, but it seemed obvious to me that she was really suffering. I wanted him to be more patient. Was it hard for you to turn him against her like that?

CL: He isn’t very good at expressing himself either, and he just wants her to be… right. I don’t think he had the capacity for any real sympathy. It never occurred to me to care that much about him. When I thought this book was a collection of stories, I published a piece of it—it was the scene when she calls him and they have a brief conversation—and somebody wrote the husband’s side in the comments. This person even guessed the husband’s profession correctly in their response. I was kind of intimidated by that.

AV: You’re the co-owner of 3B Bed & Breakfast in Brooklyn. How has that experience informed your writing?

CL: Seeing people in their pajamas that you are not sleeping with, related to, or even on a first-name basis with has been a weird gift, by which I mean I’ve enjoyed watching how a wide range of people act in a very particular set of circumstances.

Recently a man and his wife walked into 3B’s living room. The man pointed at the woman and said, in broken English, “This is my wife.” Then he introduced himself with a satisfied reverence, like he was the only one of the two of them who had a name. Then he shook my hand and left the room. She followed him with hunched shoulders, as if I had scared her away.

And all I can think is, what on earth was that? What kind of life was that? But that’s how those people negotiated the liminal space between home and travel that a B&B offers, and seeing that has been fascinating to me.

AV: As someone who’s successfully running a small business in New York City—and as a graduate of an MFA program—where do you stand on the MFA vs. NYC debate?

CL: If you want to turn writing from something you just do into something you get paid to do, both NYC and MFA run the risk of taking all your time and all your money—so then where will you be? At the same time, both can be motivating and if you’re a trial-by-fire type of person, then both might suit you well. There are ways around the losing all your time and money thing, and I encourage people to find those ways. But two people in the same writing program could have wildly different experiences, just as there are a million ways to live in this utterly berserk city.

So, in many ways it’s silly to pit those two things against each other. The answer to MFA vs. NYC is probably, “Shut up and get back to work.”

Alyssa Vine lives in New York.