Author Catherine Lacey
Provenance and Writing Projections


“As a writer you need to depend on yourself,” says Catherine Lacey. “Nobody cares if you write a book, ultimately it’s just up to you to do it.” Exploring her independence and interdependence has led Lacey, 29, to travel, in turn inspiring her writing.

When she was 24, she went to New Zealand and that is where her protagonist in her debut novel was born. Lacey released her first fiction novel, Nobody is Ever Missing, in July, and is away at work on her second book. Writing a book was never something the trained non-fiction writer ever wanted to do; she believes that she tricks herself into writing, starting out with an inkling of a character that she carries with her.

Having grown up in Mississippi, she always felt like an outsider. She spoke her mind then and continues to do so by writing about the politics of the South (as seen in her article Against Bless-Your-Heart Manners). Lacey moved to New York for school but didn’t feel that suited her either, finally she found her home in Brooklyn. “I found my niche in a place that has a million different niches.”

At 25, she launched 3B, a cooperatively run Bed & Breakfast in Brooklyn with seven other creatives. The cooperative living arrangement would be enough support to allow Lacey to finish her book. She has recently moved on, and we can expect to see her focusing more on her next book and more short fiction and non fiction works.

How’s your day been?

I spent the morning working on the new novel, which is unnamed and unstructured right now. Then this afternoon I have been working on a book review and some student essays.

Student essays?

I am teaching at a medical school, it’s a low stress class that is an elective for them.

When did you start doing that?

Last week was the first class. It’s just for this semester.

As you know, I interviewed David Amsden. He was currently reading Nobody is Ever Missing and said it is, “phenomenal and inspiring.” You have received wonderful praise from critics. Congrats! It was just released in July, how does it feel to be done with it?

I feel like I could do it again. It’s weird because I finished it about two years ago, and then you are in this weird purgatory state for a year and a half, going over and over it, removing all the errors. I am now starting on the second one, and it’s more satisfying to get back into the writing mode.

Nobody-is-ever-missing-catherine-laceyYou invested so much time and energy into that one book, how do you push that one aside and clear your mind for a new one?

That’s a good question; I don’t know. I have a story that started really small and I was investigating part of it, and it just kept growing the same way Nobody did. It started small and slow, and I wasn’t sure I was writing a novel. I think I kind of trick myself into working on stuff, I didn’t sit down thinking, “Time to write this second novel.”

Originally, you didn’t even want to write a novel!

Ya! It seemed like such an awful hard, sad, long thing. It isn’t. It’s just a bunch of days doing the same thing. It’s one day at a time!

As a child you did a lot of writing. Do you remember the first story you composed?

I remember getting a yellow Lisa Frank notebook, and writing little books. I found a lot of them when I went home last year at some point. They are really weird. They are one page stories that seem like a parable for something else like, “There once was a bear that did this or did that, and that was the end of that bear.” I remember in my pre-teens writing something that was three pages long, and I gave it to my friend Stephanie, she said, “This is really good!” I was hooked after that – writing something down, giving it to someone, and them connecting it with it.

To dive into your novel, I read a piece you wrote for Buzzfeed, A Need To Disappear. Through it, you stress that your protagonist, Elyria, in Nobody is Ever Missing is a fictional character despite a few similarities that can be drawn through a mental Venn diagram. You mention there is “No clean delineation between invention and reality.” David talked about this a bit, but when it comes to the invention side of the equation, do you think you create someone you live vicariously through?

A friend of mine was saying when she writes, she writes the best version of herself. I don’t have any connection with stories like that, I would prefer to read someone who is similar to me but is doing everything weirder, or is the worst version of myself. I don’t live my life like Elyria. I don’t want to runaway to a foreign country without telling anybody. Apart of me is curious about what it would be like but I am not actually going to do it. Maybe you’re right, it is a little bit vicarious letting everything fall apart. I tend to like writing characters and reading characters that make bad decisions.

Would you say you make good decisions for the most part?

I mean everyone makes decisions where they look back at it and think, ‘I don’t know what I was thinking!’ I mean I am human, but maybe in stories I can exaggerate some things so you can see it more clearly. Just like with a microscope, you zoom in on something small and make it humongous to really see what is going on.

David was talking about his new book and the character being like him, but if he turned the knob a little more to the left or right, how he would be a crazier more spontaneous version of himself…

He was telling me a lot about it when he first started working on it, but I think writers do that when you realise you have a story. I found with myself, I retreat. At the very beginning of realising Nobody was a novel, I would tell people. Then I feel I shut-up about it until it was done.

Why do you stop talking about it? Do you just not want to ruin the surprise for readers?

I think it’s more that I don’t want to ruin the surprise for me. When you first are pulled in and hit the nerve of a character the words just start coming out. You have the flow of this character, which can be exciting. It’s like you just met someone, ‘We’ve only been on two dates but he is like the love of my life!’ It feels like that. But, now it takes real work. You need isolation and need to be diligent with the writing. So for me, every morning six days a week, I wake up early and sneak out of the house before I see anybody.

I saw an interview where you said, “Writing fiction, in a way, is an act of intentionally remembering something incorrectly.” You studied non-fiction in graduate school so were trained to remember happenings correctly, but you chose to write a fictional novel. What drove you down this path instead?

At the time I was writing non-fiction about the South where I grew up, and about the real experiences I had with religion and politics, and feeling like an outsider. While I was writing, I remembered things incorrectly. I would sometimes ask my siblings or parents, “You know the time that this happened?” They would remember it differently. I started to realise that there is much fiction in writing memoirs. I am writing more about the South now but less about me; more about what’s currently happening, what the actual policies are, what the churches are doing, and what people are saying. With fiction I am more interested in these exaggerated versions of characteristics. I think fiction comes more naturally, I always felt that I was working really hard when writing the non-fiction.

Why did you feel weird growing up in the South?

I tend to just say what I think. There are all sorts of things that happen in the South that people say or do that I really disagree with. I would speak my mind about that, and that isn’t really part of the culture there. I think there is this agreement in the South to not disagree. All this politeness just kind of covers things up. It’s a really special place for that reason too.

You wrote a recent piece for Guernica Magazine titled Against Bless-Your-Heart Manners. In the piece you talk about the church, homosexuality and race, and retelling personal stories. It’s written in a direct matter-of-fact tone. What kind of response did you receive about the piece? 

I really wanted to have more of a dialogue with people in the South that I grew up with and parts of my family. It has started some conversation. I am interested and hesitant in continuing those conversations because I get really angry. I feel very close to the issue.

If you have more to say, is it something you are going to continue writing about then?

Yes, but I am not sure when. I think I am getting older and wiser and not getting so worked up about things. I need to have the ability to detach from it a little bit, so I can clearly and calmly explain my point of view without alienating anybody. It’s like the whole LGBT rights, not just marriage equality, but just like laws on the books that protect a person from being fired just by being gay. The fact that we even need to keep talking about it enrages me. I will be apart in fighting this.

I agree! How did you end up in New York?

I went for graduate school with the idea I was going to get in and leave immediately after. I didn’t like New York. I had visited a few times and thought, ‘man that place is overrated.’ I live in Brooklyn and I love it here, I have my people and an affordable way to live. I found my niche in a place that has a million different niches.

On that topic, you are one of the founders of the living cooperative 3B, a bed & breakfast. This business project helps support your passion projects. Launching that at 25-years-old has its risks, so what ultimately led to you open the doors of 3B in 2010? Did you feel like you had nothing to lose and everything to gain?

It was me and seven other people that I really trusted. We all had the vision and the energy. For the first six months there was lots to do physically, which felt really satisfying. I had spent the few months prior to that working on farms in New Zealand, and I really love just getting to physically do something. I was in a place then where living and working cooperatively was something I wanted to do and learn how to do. I am not naturally great with working with others, so I really wanted to get better with that. I grew to really love all those people, but I actually moved out a few months ago and moved in with my boyfriend. It was either working in 3B or teaching and freelancing. There is only one founder that is still there the rest of the founders have moved on.

I did actually read your story for the New York Times, A Way for Artists to Live, which touched on that. At one point in the piece you mention the long talks between housemates feeling like you had ‘written a book aloud together’. Did you ever think about writing a book on it?

That essay I feel – as best I could – captured the spirit of the place in 800 words. Several times a TV company would approach us to do a reality TV show, but we always said no. In order for that to work you would need a lot of conflict and there naturally wasn’t any conflict, we all got along pretty well. I didn’t want to live in that situation. I feel like I write often about relationships that are going wrong, or people that are in these extremely hard relationships, those are not actually relationships that have.

You don’t want your life to be the fictional story. Jumping back to the fields in New Zealand you mentioned, that was where the idea of Elyria originated. I understand when you talked about your trip to New Zealand it was a time where you focused on your independence. When you look back at that experience what has been one thing you learned and have carried with you, other than the conception of the book?

I think it’s something I have still been unpacking. I don’t always have to default to being alone or hyper dependent. I am naturally a pretty independent person, and I used to think I needed a month every year where I travelled somewhere by myself and just wrote and read for a month solid. Earlier this year, I went to Costa Rica for three weeks and thought, ‘I really don’t have to be this alone.’ It’s this question of how independent should I be and how interdependent should I be. As a writer you need to depend on yourself. Nobody cares if you write a book. Ultimately, it’s just up to you to do it.

Do you think that you will travel again for inspiration for your next book?

I am not sure yet. I have never been on a trip to investigate a fictional character. I more or less keep that character with me, whatever I am doing or seeing or reading about. Generally, that character will have some sort of comment on it if it’s relevant. I am going to Ireland next year. This character is really interested in travel too. She may have something to say about it, she may not. We’ll see!

One of your forthcoming projects is Gigantic Books, a book that includes 51 authors and their flash fiction stories. When is it coming out? Can you tell me more about your involvement with this book? 

Gigantic is a literary magazine based here in Brooklyn and they started this new project. One of the editors asked if I would consider contributing flash science fiction, so I submitted a piece. It’s delayed, but the books are coming out this fall. It’s a cool project I have seen the other stories that are in it and it looks awesome. I only have two pages in there though.

INTERVIEW: Janine Leah Bartels

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ILLUSTRATION: Christy McCormick | @_catherinelacey

Images Courtesy of Catherine Lacey