In Conversation: Catherine Lacey

Photo by Saha Hammari

Artist, spider sculptor, Louise Bourgeois said, “You pile up associations the way you pile up bricks. Memory itself is a form of architecture.” I remember the last time I spoke to Catherine Lacey in person was at a New Year’s Eve party in Chicago, December 31, 2019. We ate lasagna. The world was different then. It changes every day. 

Memory can be a sturdy shelter or an unraveling. A single line in a grid—you see its value from a distance. It is unsurprising that Bourgeois, known for dissecting her personal history to reframe her experiences, is among the seeds of inspiration for Lacey’s forthcoming novel, Biography of X

Lacey is already the author of novels: Nobody is Ever Missing, The Answers, and Pew, and a short story collection: Certain American States. Beyond her talent for building stories—constructing sentences that possess a fizz, a newness, while also expressing something specific, a feeling or condition that is hard to name—Lacey is extremely kind. During every step of this process I worked myself up into a state of overthinking, only to find that my questions for Lacey came naturally and so, it seemed, did her responses. We spoke in February 2022 via email about casual geniuses, starting simple practices, and that fitful beast—love. 

Molly Gunther:

Something I want to ask all creatives lately—what is your relationship to optimism?

Catherine Lacey:

I’m in this very rural place right now and the other day I overheard someone saying how they hadn’t put on shoes in weeks and now they couldn’t imagine putting on shoes again. I like being barefoot, but I also think it’s funny how quickly a human being will say they can’t imagine this or that thing happening. On the one hand it’s just a figure of speech. On the other hand, there’s some truth in it—we can be inured to our smallest beliefs so quickly, which narrows the world. Being optimistic, in the best case, is an attempt to resist that narrowing. It may be that the only defense for pessimism is the avoidance of disappointment, but if an optimist remains an optimist when the worst happens, then what is the cost of optimism? I really don’t know, but it seems optimism is free and pessimism costs you something. I claim neither stance, but it seems optimists are a happier lot.  

How would you describe your writing community and process these days? 

I’ve become less rigid and generally happier in my writing process. I used to treat work like some kind of high stakes heist, like Catherine Zeta-Jones sliding through the lasers in that one movie, but now it feels less terrifying, more organic. My community is in what I read. I love finding the work of someone who is alive and being able to write to them as a citizen of whatever weird country they are living in and writing for. Writing is solitary work for me—I don’t sit well in groups or workshops or anything, but the sense of people being nearby is very important to me. Sometimes my writing community has musicians and filmmakers and artists in it, too. Lately it’s all musicians, seems like. Yeah—musicians are my writing community right now.

I remember a reading you did for Tim Kinsella’s book release at Rainbo Club, where you read police reports from your hometown newspaper, which you did again for Oral Florist. What draws you to these encounters gone awry and what can they teach us? 

 Ah! Well! The simple answer is that all writing is WRITING. That is, every time we translate a thought into language, we are making a kind of art. It seems this fact is often forgotten or neglected. Many years ago my mother and I noticed that the police reports in my hometown newspaper were poetic, comedic, surprising. She sends me the best ones in the mail. I even contacted the guy who writes them; he was very casual about it, but any genius is casual about what they make. A police report is a document of an incident—something happened, an event with a beginning, middle, end. And there’s no reason why a work of art can’t be a daily, simple, ongoing thing. There’s no reason why the police reports in the Tupelo Daily Journal aren’t a work of art. I’ve read them in “reading” settings partially because it’s easier to get excited about someone else’s work than my own in those spaces. I don’t feel much of a need to read my work to a crowd, but I do like being read to and I like reading aloud. The police reports are joyful, in a way, and very human and I think people like to hear them.

You made a sort of bibliography on Bookshop of books that went into your forthcoming novel, Biography of X. Are there any specific craft tools used by writers on that list that stand out now in your mind that went into its construction? 

Yes! It’s an incomplete bibliography but it’s a start. I was inspired a lot by visual artists—Francis Alÿs, Adrian Piper, Louise Bourgeois, etc. I also read a lot of interviews with musicians, writers, filmmakers, etc. Partially this was circumstantial—the central character in the book is primarily a visual artist and a lot of the book quotes things that she said or did in the press— but partially I wanted to change the way I was thinking about the space of a novel. I also read a lot of biographies. A biography is such an audacious thing! A whole life! In a book! I love biographies for this reason. Actually I wanted to write a real biography of a real person, but a teacher of mine encouraged me not to do that, saying it would ruin my life. She was probably right. 

In previous interviews you’ve said that your writing is an attempt to slowly translate a feeling into a story. What feelings are you trying to translate into this book? 

Simply put—the new novel is about the experience of being in love and being in grief at the same time. I felt this several years ago, and it took some time to understand and reorganize that experience, because love covers up grief and grief covers up love. But both are very powerful and very important states to live within. But when they happen concurrently, the feeling is uncanny. A kind of whiplash, a pinball machine feeling.

I read The Answers last year at a time when I was having a lot of conversations about the dangers of expecting one person, specifically a romantic partner, to fulfill all of your needs. What do you think is the strangest thing about love and vulnerability? Have your thoughts about dependability changed since publishing?

Oh Jesus, they’re always changing, aren’t they? It seems like people have a tendency to want to reach some sort of conclusion or stability or fixed point about the role that romantic love plays in our lives, but love is a beast with a thousand limbs, always finding different needs and functions and capabilities. It’s ok that a book is limited by the place the writer was living within during a particular moment in her life in the same way that it’s ok that a photograph shows one instant. A book never reaches totality. Only the worst sort of men (sorry, men, but you know it’s true) think their books can do this. 

I recently received the first issue of INQUE in the mail. You have four very short stories in it that are all wonderful in different ways. I especially love “Sandwich,” which ends with this image of a woman being folded in half during sex, calling to mind advertisements for deli meats. Do you remember what inspired this story? Was it the image first? A conversation you’d had or overheard? 

Oh! This story is 100% dedicated to and inspired by a conversation I had with my friend Maryse Meijer. Most stories are difficult to pin down, but that one is all for MM. Also—men—why do they do such things? 

Have you set any goals recently that have nothing to do with writing?

I am not sure I set goals so much as I start practices. Lately my practices have been very simple: going outside, swimming, eating mangoes, being honest and specific in conversation.

And now a silly one, you reposted a tweet I liked: “The best books are just some insane girl thinking about stuff.” Why is this so true? 

Dammit, I think of that tweet all the time. Is it because being alive means being an insane girl thinking about stuff? I think the word “girl” is important to this idea, that one could argue that the space of one of those really good, meandering novels is inherently female and young. (Maybe? Maybe!) I have never gotten over the basic facts of consciousness, the absurdity of it, the absurdity of thought and solitude and the utter insanity of how ongoing it all is. I hope I never get over it.

Molly Gunther is a writer and editor from the Pacific Northwest, currently living in Chicago. Her work appears in Twenty Five-Rooms: Selections from the Hotel Archive, Hooligan Magazine, and elsewhere on the internet. Find her on Instagram @zimawarriorprincess.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, prose, reviews, and interviews from marginalized creators.