The Art of Remembering Incorrectly: An Interview with Catherine Lacey

Lacey, Catherine (C) Lauren Volo (cropped)

Catherine Lacey‘s novel Nobody is Ever Missing is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. It’s the story of a woman named Elyria who abandons her life in New York to travel through New Zealand. Through flashbacks, Lacey slowly reveals the milieu that Elyria left behind, including a marriage with a very unnerving origin. Through a blend of momentum and abrupt narrative shifts, Lacey keeps things unpredictable; equally impressive is how Lacey handles the passage of time, minimizing specific situations and decompressing others. I checked in with Lacey via email to learn more about the novel’s origins, its settings, and how she came to tell this story in this particular way.

When you were writing Nobody is Ever Missing, I’m curious what came first: the concept of traveling to New Zealand? The narrator’s marriage and tragic history?

The novel grew almost entirely out of my nostalgia following a trip I took to New Zealand in early 2010. I started writing stories about Elyria (then unnamed) a few months after I got back. They were set in New Zealand, because I had to somehow justify being on Google Maps all the time, clicking myself down roads I walked, places I went. Elyria’s history came in flashback from the scenes in New Zealand, as if by being so far away gave her permission to reflect on things that were too hard to see in her real life.

What attracted you to New Zealand as a setting?

A mix of the extreme landscape, the local weirdos, the imported weirdos, the way that whole country has remained, in many ways, twenty years behind the rest of the developed world despite being a part of the United Kingdom. There’s also a certain type of traveler I kept meeting there, people that all seemed to be asking themselves questions about isolation, independence, how much a person can do alone; the experiences of those people got dissolved into Elyria as much as my own did.

Has the New Zealand trip had an impact on your writing in other ways, whether in terms of other works you’ve written or in an more general way?

The trip was part of an on-going negotiation I have with independence versus interdependence—how much should I do alone? I didn’t call anyone at home for the three months I was gone and some days I didn’t say much more than a handful of words to a stranger. I wrote an email from a library every once in a while. Most of the time I was just sort of staring off at the horizon, getting weirder.

When I got back to the states I headed to the opposite end of that spectrum by joining a co-op. Shortly after, we founded the worker-owned bed and breakfast (3B) that essentially afforded me the space to write Nobody. I really enjoy the isolation and sense of estrangement necessary to being a writer, but I can definitely take it too far, so going to New Zealand eventually taught me how to balance it in a way that makes me a nicer person and ultimately more productive. I’ve found when I go too far down the internal road, my writing gets really stupid (see above, staring at the horizon, etc.)

I found the novel’s pacing to be very interesting: certain actions are described in detail, while longer periods of time are sometimes covered in a few paragraphs. How did this method of telescoping certain events and compressing others come about?

It felt like a natural extension of using a first person narrator. Memory works like that—expanding the moments that somehow matter and compressing the ones that don’t or are too unbearable to remember. I spent three months away, yet it felt like much longer. Still, there are some weeks that melt together into a vague series of colors and shapes while other tiny moments are so vividly alive. I love traveling because it sort of fucks with time in this way. Everything is new so everything slows down.

The name of Elyria’s husband isn’t revealed until late in the novel, and it works as a subtly jarring moment. What prompted that decision?

The first scenes I wrote with Elyria, I was much more interested in delving into her moods and emotional landscape as she wandered around New Zealand. Her backstory was an afterthought. At some point the mention of a “husband” came up instead of a name and it just stuck. When she started saying “fuck that guy, fuck husband,” I was just like “yeah, fuck him.” I knew how she felt about him long before I knew anything about him as a character. She was unable to say his name, so I just let it be that way.

Elyria’s writing career is mentioned briefly. Where did you get the idea to have her have that particular job?

I’m not really sure where the soap opera writer thing came from except that I found it sort of appealing as a contrast. Elyria is so flat, so unable to express herself and soap opera characters seem mostly the opposite of that, but I have never watched a whole episode of a soap opera, so what do I know? She has all the tortured over-sensitivity of an artist and none of the ego, so in a way she’d likely make a great hired gun for a soap opera.

Elyria is reading Mrs. Bridge at various points in the novel. Do you see points of affinity between the two novels? When, in the process of writing the novel, did you decide that this would be her reading material?

There’s not much of an affinity between the novels but I think Elyria would have been somberly amused by the texture and tone of that book. I don’t know when it became a part of the novel. The novel sort of grew out of a folder I kept putting things in that might have been labeled “What is all this shit?” and I can’t clearly remember the chronology of when different parts of it arrived. At the same time, her reading Mrs. Bridge is one of the more autobiographical aspects of Nobody. I had a copy of it while I was in New Zealand that I read repeatedly. At some point I was sitting at a restaurant bar, alone, reading Mrs. Bridge, and I kept having the impulse to read to the bartender, to somehow kind of share this solitary activity with a complete stranger; that was one of the moments I realized I was on the outer edge of how much time I could spend alone before I started reaching out for a mutated form of human connection.

Is memory, and the process of remembering, something that has also cropped up in other things you have written or might be working on?

In The Phaedrus Socrates said that the written word was the enemy of memory, that by writing we learn to forget. Of course, we only know he said that because Plato wrote it down, but there is absolutely a link between memory and writing. The more I write the more I practically fetishize the act of remembering. And now that you asked, almost everything I’ve written is in the past tense and have lots of flashbacks from the main storyline, so maybe you know more than me about what I’m doing. Writing fiction, in a way, is an act of intentionally remembering something incorrectly.

Elyria is recounting the story in the past tense. Do you have a sense of the perspective from which she’s regarding these events? Do you feel that this is the sole story you’d like to tell about her, or are there more stories to be told from this world?

Sometimes a person might go off the deep end for a bit, do a bunch of stupid or sad things, then resurface later and maybe a mutual friend will say to you, “Oh man, have you seen Bill? Man, something happened to Bill. I don’t know. He’s not the same. I think he’s ok, but he is not the same ole Bill anymore.” Bill fascinates me. What happened, what changed, why did he come back… I think Elyria is probably in some state like that. She’s better but not well.

But we’re not really on speaking terms, Elyria and me. She’s very challenging to listen to and everything I’ve worked on since I finished Nobody has been so much less taxing. If I returned to Elyria as a character, I would hope her voice would have grown. I’d be interested in her next incarnation if she has one, but I can’t really say I miss working with her.


Image: Lauren Volo

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