Pixelated is the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined conversation series.
In each episode we put two writers on a sort of blind-date, and have them interview each other. The result? Who the hell knows. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them.
Andrew: Welcome to the second episode of PIXELATED. I’m here with another set of debut novelists: Catherine Lacey, author of NOBODY IS EVER MISSING (2014, FSG Originals), and Will Chancellor, author of A BRAVE MAN SEVEN STOREYS TALL (2014, Harper).
The protagonist of each book, Lacey’s Elyria and Chancellor’s Owen, have a lot in common—on paper. Both suddenly displace themselves across the globe (Elyria to New Zealand, Owen to Berlin). Both are haunted by not-so-recent familial loss. But the tone of each couldn’t be more different, most ostensibly because of the protagonist’s difference in age. Owen is in college, coming off an injury that has put his career in water polo to an abrupt end. He sees Berlin through wide eyes, and some might frame A BRAVE MAN SEVEN STOREYS TALL as a Bildungsroman. Elyria has the insight of more age and experience, and with it a self that’s deteriorating quicker than she lets on. As the title suggests, NOBODY IS EVER MISSING comes to terms with the fact there is no real escaping, not when you carry the thing you want to leave behind.
Let me first thank you both for coming on. I personally admire your writing and the escape each book afforded me. Secondly, to get started and help bridge the digital divide, would you a) each kindly describe your current environs, and b) confirm whether you have ever met?
Will: Thanks for having me/us, Andrew
Catherine: Thanks for hosting, Andrew.
I'm in my apartment in Fort Greene and I don't think I've met Will.
Have I? I am the worst when it comes to face/name memory. In fact it's not entirely clear if I have a memory at all.
Will: I'm sitting in my tutoring office overlooking Union Square. I spent the morning teaching and am now happy to be talking to you guys. I've never met Catherine, but her novel pops up as one I might like whenever I troll myself online .
Which is often
Andrew: Ha! At least faceless algorithms agree with my pairing
Catherine: Oh that's right. It's one of the books that Amazon suggests I buy instead of reading my own reviews.
Will: I think the connection may be an obsession with memory and decay.
Catherine: And decaying memory.
Will: Or buzzfeed.
Catherine: Or trending young Brooklyn writers.
Andrew: One of those modifiers is redundant
Will: I've mostly lived in Manhattan and Williamsburg because I want to run from here eventually and felt like I should squeeze everything out that I could.
New Zealand is on the table. So is going back to Hawaii.
Catherine: I'm going to highly suggest New Zealand as an escape from New York, but you may not come back.
Did you ever abscond to Berlin to get away from something?
Will: I thought about that when I read your title, actually. Return has always seemed impossible to me. Once I'm gone, I'm gone.
Catherine: (Not to reduce your novel's premise to autobiography, but I'm just curious.)
Will: The only autobiographical overlap was to research/reenact parts of the story.
Catherine: So you went there with the story and character in mind?
Will: Totally. I wrote a 1200 page draft of this book in 2004, which sucked, and then spent about 8 years learning about all the things I had written about.
Catherine: jesus christ.
Will: Specifically, art and classics. Geographically, Iceland and Berlin.
Well, it was a shitty way to start out. Not recommended.
Did you run to NZ, Catherine?
Catherine: I feel like spaces and environments have a huge impact on writing. I can't even work at home unless the whole place is clean and freakishly ordered.... And yes, I did escape to New Zealand to get away from rent/people/city/stress.
Will: But you came back.
Catherine: Then the book grew out of being unable to stop thinking about New Zealand.
Will: Can you talk about that, about memory and return. It seems like there's tension there.
Catherine: I did, but it felt like a bird trying to swim for at least a month.
Nostalgia is my drug of choice. So any time/place that is particularly impactful becomes a point of obsession for me.
I almost always remember a dream in terms of space/color/structure, rarely narrative.
Will: And in the end it comes off like a flying fish. (Maybe that's not a throwaway metaphor. It seems that there is this sense of brief flight, then a pull of gravity that gets Elyria back into the ocean.)
Catherine: Yes, running away from something has a temporary high, doesn't it?
The moment of escape? Then you re-learn the same lesson everyone has to re-learn: Nope, you're still you.
Will: I'm the same way with dreams...inaudible...ineffable...a lot of times they're just shapes...like dreaming about an electric cube that I approach, and then become trapped in. I had that specific recurring nightmare as a kid and was stunned when I saw that there's a Giacometti sculpture depicting the same thing.
The next novel is called, To Test the Meaning of Certain Dreams.
Catherine: I had the same dream except it was a big pink jellyfish!!
Will: And the dream being tested is kind of like a big pink jellyfish of time
Catherine: pink jellyfish/ blue cube: the demands of our given genders turned into objects.
Will: Did you grow up near the ocean?
Catherine: not even close. landlocked in North Mississippi. I
I think I saw the ocean once as a kid.
Will: That really fucks with my thesis!
Catherine: But my brother got stung by a jellyfish! I must have been about 2.
Will: How about Tarkovsky? He's kind of oceanic even though he was landlocked in Russia.
Catherine: Revealing deep trauma here. Now this feels sort of like gchat therapy.
We all came from the ocean at some point.
Will: There's just this pull with certain kinds of writers etc. It's there from the start with Nobody is Ever Missing.
Catherine: Instinctually we must know this.
Will: Or we all watched too much PBS (really the cartoon Jabba Jaw on Nickelodeon, but let's sound fancy).
So tell me about New Zealand. Did you arrive there with any sort of plan? Go to the South Island?
Catherine: I flew to Christchurch and hitch-hiked the south island for a while, worked on some small farms through a volunteer organization and then got up to the North Island, worked on more farms, a vineyard and winery, then found this lodge where I could work for a room, so I stayed there a few weeks and flew home.
It was a 3 month trip. Escaping winter.
Will: Did you know the book was going to be set there beforehand?
Catherine: No way. I wasn't even writing fiction seriously. I was writing nonfiction, or trying to.
I wrote short fiction a little but primarily for my own amusement.
Will: Hmm. Seems like that book would be impossible without the wide open space of NZ.
Catherine: I think you're right.
Will: It's also interesting to juxtapose personal crisis with geologic time.
Catherine: And the months spend aimless and alone.
what do you mean by that?
personal crisis/ geologic time?
Will: I mean that NZ is a landscape where you see aeons when you look at the mountains and the vegetation. I look at pictures (never been) and think in terms of millions of years rather than in a human lifespan, a lifespan that allows tragedy to be possible.
Will: I think wrong decisions sit there, decaying over a course of months or years. But after hundreds of years, all of our mistakes have turned to dust.
Will: Yet at the same time, we are nothing but how we feel in those mistakes. Which seems like a necessary contrast in Nobody is Ever Missing.
Catherine: Yes. Looking at a tree older than your grandmother, a tree that will outlive you, puts all your terrible pettiness into perspective. It's also bizarrely serene everywhere you go in NZ, even the grungy bits. Did going to Berlin wake something up for you as far as finding your characters go?
Will: The parallel I'm thinking of is hiking across Iceland. Brave Man has always ended there. In 2009 I thru hiked Iceland to figure out how the ending felt.
It's hard to say, because this was two months with several near-death moments that only translated into a few pages of the book. But the trip changed the feeling.
And I think allowed me to understand the father better. If nothing else, going there allowed you to feel authorial enough to write the book?
Catherine: Ah, I see. You wrote the ending to happen in Iceland before you had ever visited then you went there to re-find your end and you almost met your end...
endings upon endings.
I think going to NZ caused the book completely.
The character grew out of that trip.
Will: So far it seems intrinsic.
Wow! the character, really?
I was 24 when I went there and I think I had an outsized understanding of my own independence and that isolation ended up wrecking me a little, which was a surprise.
Will: I didn't expect that. Do you think Elyria is wise or naive? I've read her so far as wise...but singing "Is that All there Is?" over and over again as she walks by the side of the road.
How did the isolation wreck you?
Catherine: I don't know where to put her on that axis. I think it depends on the day. I think it depends on the day for everyone. I do think everyone has a wisdom in themselves that they spend their whole life trying to learn how to translate.
And I think she's having a really hard time understanding her own wisdom but she would probably reject the term "Naive"
Will: When I was 23, I moved to Pittsburg Texas, wrote the first draft of this book, and didn't see anyone for eight months (except when I went to the grocery store (at night)). That isolation allowed me to distill a lot of what I was thinking about.
Catherine: You didn't have a job, even?
Will: I'm probably trying to shoehorn in "naive" because that's how I've explained why Owen gets chewed up by the art world.
Catherine: anyone could get chewed up by the art world.
Will: Did not have a job. I had just finished teaching the LSAT in Austin and doing postgrad work. I moved into my grandmother's old house that had been abandoned for five or so years.
Catherine: Wow, yes. So these are the sorts of things that force people into writing all the time.
Will: True. But I would guess from your writing that you are a deeply intuitive person who needs that cave time. How was the isolation too much?
Catherine: Young would-be writers: abscond and suffer a little and write.
Will: Ah. I thought you were taking the piss out of me a bit!
Catherine: I do need "Cave Time" and I hope that I have become more intuitive, but the isolation in NZ was probably too much because I can binge on it.
And I realized that was what I was doing.
Will: It's hard to intuit anything if you don't have isolation. I can't do it.
So did you start writing right after the three months in NZ?
Catherine: I used to date this boy who had a tiny little dog that loved to drink water. And the thing would drink water like he had been wandering a desert for a month until he threw it up. They had to hide the water from him so he didn't make himself sick. I am that dog. I need structure around my isolation because I will go too far with it.
That's what NZ taught me.
That someone needs to hide my water bowl.
I don't even really know when I started writing Nobody.
It just sort of grew.
There were stories that got longer. I didn't think of it as a project then I looked at it one day and thought, huh. What is that?
Will: Ha! Your book teems with imagery. In my own reading and writing I treat images as the handholds that allow me to climb the slick rockwall of a book. Do you consciously anchor your writing to images?
Catherine: Yes but I think they have to trick me. I can't consciously chose them
Will: Love that
Catherine: Are you one of those writers that orchestrate from above more?
I have heard of these people. They seem more efficient.
Will: I try to "write" in my head when I'm walking or on the subway or something by linking images together.
Efficient I am not!
Catherine: YES. I was going to ask you this actually.
Writing while walking.
All the best lines are in walks.
Or the shower.
Or the ocean.
Will: Ha! True story: the first draft of Brave Man had like 20 lines that read, "And then Owen took a shower."
My best friend was like, "Dude. One shower. Fine. Two? Ok, I guess. But what the fuck, man?"
And it was because in writing it, I would hit a wall and take a shower and make some sort of breakthrough.
Or at least it felt like one.
Catherine: Ha! I guess I just have Elyria walking and walking and walking.... I hadn't made the connection until just now.
Andrew: Hate to do this, but we're at time, so I'm going to politely ask for final thoughts.
Catherine: I'll have to look up A Brave Man! Where does the title come from?
Will: Well. Feel kind of like we were just tuning our instruments. Hope there's something in all that noise that makes sense.
It comes partly from Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain
Partly from a Wallace Stevens poem
Catherine: Lovely. Thanks for talking.
Andrew: Let's call it what it is
Andrew: And scene.
Will: Can't wait to read your next one, Catherine. Thanks Andrew!