John Ashbery once said, “I write with experiences in mind, but I don’t write about them, I write out of them.”
This approach is not necessarily uncommon among poets or fiction writers, but Ashbery’s phrase returned to me again and again as I read Nobody Is Ever Missing, Catherine Lacey’s debut novel. In it, a young woman abruptly leaves New York on a one-way flight to New Zealand, where she spends several months hitchhiking around and mulling over the loves and deaths in her life that have pushed her out onto this tropical island brink, trying to reconcile her mind with the morass. She left without telling her husband, about whom the reader learns in increments—a sad figure, a math professor—as the story of their miserable life together unfolds.
I know Catherine a bit, well enough to be sure she’s never been part of any dark marriage, but she did leave New York once in perhaps not the most orderly manner, flew to New Zealand, and hitchhiked around. She’s not a “post-wounded woman,” as one reviewer dubbed the novel’s protagonist, nor is she a “smart woman adrift,” as another reviewer put it. But she’s not entirely unrecognizable in the character she has rendered, Elyria, who Catherine seems to have secreted, squeezed out of her experiences, sentence after often-lovely sentence, to discuss depths of pain and anxiety deeper than a mere retelling of her transcontinental foray could likely reach.
Lacey is a Mississippi native, a graduate of Loyola University New Orleans (fun fact: Elyria is named after the daughter of Lacey’s former professor there, Mark Grote), and she received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University. She will present her new book at a Happy Hour Salon from 6 – 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 12, at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.). Author Wayne Curtis will also be presenting his new book.
I spoke to Lacey on the phone last week while she was counting down the final few days she was spending at a residency at the Omni International Arts Center in upstate New York.
Room 220: It’s interesting to me when young writers who have never been married imagine what it’s like to be married. I was wondering why you made the decision to put your characters in that institutional framework and the roles—husband and wife—that go along with it.
Catherine Lacey: It wasn’t necessarily important to me that she was married—I’m not making a comment on marriage. It’s almost like the marriage just happened and she woke up one morning inside of it and was like, What the fuck is this? In some ways, I don’t feel like she made choice—or, it was a choice made out of desperation and trauma, and then she woke up within that. I can imagine that, having not been married.
I kind of do this a lot in fiction: I take something I know pretty well or have experienced—I have been in long-term relationships—and then use it as a jumping-off point to kind of exaggerate and be like, Okay, what if it was worse? What if it was worse? What if it was worse? Trying to turn up the dial on whatever experience I have had.
Rm220: As the story goes on, and Eylria’s chastising herself for abandoning her regular life—which, on paper, seems attractive—it increasingly reveals how dark her marriage is, up to the point when she can’t honestly deny that her husband didn’t abuse her. The recognition of abuse comes in the form of a slow reveal, with Elyria realizing—or incrementally admitting to herself—that this was essentially an abusive relationship. Did you begin writing the book knowing how dark this marriage was, or was that something that you realized through the process of working on the book?
CL: When I first started working on it, I had this sense that Elyria was on the run, not really from an abusive partner, but some situation that felt like abuse because of its context. I don’t think that her husband’s a bad guy. I don’t think that he necessarily abused her except in ways that every relationship has some form of abuse in it—when you’re trying to yoke two people’s ideals and aspirations and needs together, necessarily some things get sacrificed, one partner takes up more space than they should or doesn’t take care of the other partner in the way that they should, and there are these minor abuses that happen in relationships. And sometimes major ones, too. But I think that there’s an element of consenting to being abused and abusing your partner a little bit in any relationship. I was more interested in the abusive relationship that’s not overtly abusive.
Rm220: Both your undergraduate studies and your MFA were in creative nonfiction, and you write a lot of nonfiction. There were parts in the book that seemed essayistic—these sort of expository sections that, had they been from your “real” perspective, easily could have been at home in a personal essay. How did studying nonfiction and writing nonfiction influence your writing this book?
CL: There’s a big focus in nonfiction on creating your voice, and I think that it was really hard for me. I look back at the nonfiction I was writing in college and graduate school and right after, I can see that I didn’t really understood my voice on the page, I didn’t have a strong sense of what I should sound like as Catherine writing this essay. When I was writing Elyria and I could give her whatever qualities I wanted, it was easier for me to get into the voice of somebody who’s not me and run with it, as if she was writing an essay about what’s in her head.
Rm220: So did that process make it easier for you to write the Catherine Lacey voice in your nonfiction?
CL: I think it has. I feel like since the novel has been done, nonfiction has come a lot more naturally to me. I’ve gotten to know Elyria’s voice so well, and I know that’s not me, but there are some qualities in it that are me and that I didn’t know I had until I was using certain techniques in Elyria’s voice. While I don’t think the exact same things that she thinks, and I don’t have the same anxieties she does, I learned something in the patterns and music in her voice—I was like, Oh that’s me, but I’ve never used that before. It took writing fiction to hear it, to find it.