Catherine Lacey’s work focuses on women who live unapologetically in the face of misunderstanding and social expectations. Her protagonists are happy to walk to the beat of their own drum in a way that is both vicious and joyful: never quite surrendering to the incompleteness of love, but doing their best to find the life they want. Her novels, Nobody is Ever Missing and The Answers, explore the intricacies of finite marriage, companionship, and obsession. In her new story collection, Certain American States, Lacey delves into the microcosms of these issues while unpacking the value systems we place around friends, education, siblings, parents, and monogamy.
In “ur heck box,” a daughter tries to connect with her mother after she moves to the same city, vacillating between hatred of and appreciation for her mother’s encroachment on her life, which the daughter has done her best to build in spite of her upbringing. In “Small Differences,” a woman has an ongoing affair with a strange, inscrutable friend, sacrificing lovers and otherwise fine relationships in order to casually sleep with a man she could never really love. “The Four Immeasurables and Twenty New Immeasurables” dissects the difference between our own spiritual quest and the lies that get in the way. In each story, Lacey gently unpacks these heady topics and raises questions instead of offering answers, intuitively and viscerally mimicking the real experience of not knowing.
On a warm day in June, we spoke on the phone and discussed everything from the role that plot plays in her work to how her perspective on writing has shifted over time.
—Eric Farwell for Guernica
Guernica: These stories seem to be more concerned with plot than your novels have been. I’m curious if that’s a function of the form, or if you’re trying to plot more in general.
Catherine Lacey: I always want to write fiction from a more intuitive, messy place. I tend to be more structured and intentional in nonfiction, whereas in fiction, I always make a decision based on feelings about the voice, and less in terms of plot. But since a short story has to be so compressed, it tends to make sense to hang your ideas on a clear frame and plot. I feel short stories are crucibles for ideas.
At the same time, I’m not eschewing plotless wandering fiction for more distinct plots now. Some of the stories were written before my first novel came out. Probably the oldest story in there is from 2010.
Guernica: You and many other writers who are in their late twenties and early thirties seem to have a quicker output than what we usually see from writers. Do you ever get concerned about quality control?
Lacey: I really enjoy working and don’t feel like myself unless I have some sort of ongoing project. With Nobody, it took me two or three years of working almost every day. With The Answers, it also took about three years. The stories were mostly written in between that time, though some were written afterwards. I’ve been really fortunate to have a lot of time lately. I got the Whiting two years ago, so I didn’t have to give my time away so much. I also feel like it’s not difficult for me to write 1,000 words in a day at this point. It used to be, but I’ve noticed that my output is much larger, so I do throw a lot away. The main thing is that I really enjoy writing. Now I am working on something that I’m hoping will take many more years. I don’t want to be one of those writers that just cranks books out like clockwork. It’s true, though, that if you have enough time and urgently need to say something, it’s not difficult to produce work once you understand the instrument of your mind.
Guernica: Your work often engages with and scrutinizes relationships. Does being in one make that work easier or harder for you?
Lacey: One of the projects of my first novel was to argue with myself about whether or not a relationship was a reasonable thing to do with your time. Then, by the time I was writing the second novel, I was in a long-term relationship, and trying to make it ideal. A lot of the concerns in The Answers were about the point of human relationships—asking, how are they structured, what do they contain, how do we measure them? Then, as I was revising, I left my ex and met Jesse [Ball], and this changed how I felt about the content of that novel.
You asked if being with someone helps or hurts, or what effect it has on the work. I think it just depends on who that person is and who you are relative to them. In relationships, we consent to be manipulated by the other in positive and negative ways, all of which inevitably goes into the work. There’s no getting around that. So it’s not about whether or not you’re in a relationship, but about the quality and tenor of the relationship you chose. I also think one of the hazards of being in a relationship with an actively creative person is that they’re trying to push themselves forward and change and adapt all of the time. This makes a relationship in such a person’s life a constantly moving target.
Guernica: On that note, I’m curious to know more about how you find new areas to dig into. Like your novels, the stories in Certain American States deal with microcosms of what you’ve already covered. Were there challenges in working on additional material, knowing that you’ve been thinking about some of these things from the start of your career?
Lacey: It’s not like there’s a discrete book where you address love, but then don’t address it in the next. You never complete anything. You finish a book, and then realize that there were things you left out, so you start to see what you left out and build from there. You’re constantly trying to fit everything in. Inevitably, you leave something out.
Guernica: What’s interesting about hearing that answer from you, is that your protagonists are constantly trying to live life, but assumptions and expectations are constantly imposed on them. In your work, even if not having an answer is the answer, it seems like you really are after something. There’s an intensity that you bring to whatever you write about. I’ve never read anyone that so fully inhabits that. What’s it like to write in a voice that echoes reality so closely?
Lacey: I like it! I tend to write about whatever feels vulnerable or messy in my life at that moment, even if that means writing a plot that has nothing to do with anything I’ve ever done or lived. The feelings in a story or novel have to be native to my life. I listened to this Elif Batuman interview on Longreads and she was talking about the anxiety of putting bits of your own life into a novel, or why something has to be called a novel instead of a work of nonfiction. I thought I was done with thinking about these divisions, but when I listened to that interview I realized I wasn’t at all. Sheila Heti also put out a great book recently called Motherhood. She’s very forthright about using the container of her life as a stage for her novels, and I admire that very much.
There are so many things that happen in life that are beyond our control. If your house burns down, there’s a way you use the feeling of having lost your house in your fiction. I don’t mean in a therapeutic sense or for autobiographical purposes, but as a way of exploring the possibilities of the feelings you’re having, and not accepting that the reality you live in is the only reality. It’s so easy to end up at a place of automation in our lives, and I think that’s the thing I’m constantly trying to escape in my writing. I’m constantly trying to argue with the facts in my life in order to not become inured to them.
Guernica: One of the new topics you explore in the collection is the way we individually define monogamy. In “Small Differences,” the narrator and a character named Nathan have an ongoing affair that she qualifies as “a little sex.” I’m curious about how you came to the conclusion that this speaker would have this position.
Lacey: “Small Differences” is one of the older ones in the collection. At the time, I was interested in those relationships that are neither partnership nor friendship, and all the messy qualities that come with them. I think most people have had one or many relationships in which the boundaries and feelings are unclear; sometimes you’re not sure if you love or almost hate someone. That seems like a perfect stage for a story, because it’s so rife with conflict between past and present, between two individuals, between their hopes and disappointments.
But really, what happened is that I was cat sitting, and I found it very strange to pretend I was living in an apartment that I didn’t live in, and having a temporary relationship to a cat. But the cat in the story is based on a different cat. I tend to piece all of these different things together to get to a story.
Guernica: There’s a lot of play in the new collection. “Violations” works as both an examination of post-divorce bitterness—with the husband criticizing his ex-wife’s long sentences in a story made up of long sentences—and as a seeming meta-response to the criticism you’ve received for your own lengthy sentences. In a piece like this, which is stylistically trying to pull off a few things at once, how are you balancing the needs of the narrative with the desire to make a statement of sorts?
Lacey: That’s the newest story in the collection, so I find it hard to really see it. I don’t remember when I wrote “Violations,” because I’m too close to it. But one thing I was thinking of was how, after a break-up, each person creates a narrative around the end of a relationship, but these narratives are often so disparate from each other. At the time, I was thinking about how a person engages with the writing of current and former partners, how natural it is to be slightly annoyed and slightly curious about the writing or work of an ex-partner, and how anyone might perceive or project meaning onto a work based on personal history or fears. But I wasn’t trying to critique how others might critique my long sentences. I’m comfortable with how baroque my sentences can sometimes be.
Guernica: What was interesting about that story, as well as “ur heck box” and “Family Physics,” is that they dial into the confusion of the value of family relationships, which varies for people depending on where they’re from. Why are you interested in these dynamics?
Lacey: There’s this argument that family should be inherently important, and I don’t believe this to be true. The people I’m genetically related to are perfectly nice people and we’re nice to each other, but I don’t think we owe anything to each other because of our genetic relationship. People often will say their family is important to them, or you must do such-and-such thing for your parents or siblings simply because they are your parents or siblings. But if you ask someone why, they don’t have a good reason. I think it’s best to question the statements or ideas that seem obvious to many, but don’t have any reason behind them.
Guernica: I wanted to end by asking you the most banal question I have. While there’s all of this play in your work, I sense a hyper-diligence that keeps one eye on the emotional core of the story, sentence to sentence. In reading, I thought a lot about Donald Antrim’s The Emerald Light in the City. Have you read him? Who else are you reading?
Lacey: I love Donald Antrim, but I haven’t read his collection yet. And because these stories were written over many years, I was reading many, many different things. But if we’re naming writers, I always find myself saying Grace Paley. I feel like she’s my grandmother. And sometimes I think of the stories in Certain American States as badly-behaved Lorrie Moore stories. Lydia Davis is also a big influence. I love Ottessa Moshfegh’s collection.
But influence is a funny thing. I sometimes feel I’m more influenced by the things that have happened to me, than by anything I’ve read. When I’m reading, I feel I am teaching myself about the tools I want to use, which I feel is a separate thing from what will influence this or that book. The real influence on a book is the emotional and intellectual engagement you have with the ideas that are in it. The way other writers exert influence is more about learning skills, like learning how to correctly julienne a pepper or dice an onion. Just having good knife skills doesn’t make you a chef.