The Lost Daughter Collective presents the story of a Wrist Scholar who tells his shadow-puppet obsessed daughter the narrative of the Lost Daughter Collective, a group of men who communally cope with their lost girls qualified in two ways: missing (deemed Alices) or dead (deemed Dorothies). It is also the story of the Fathers of Lost Daughters, a group of men who communally cope with their lost girls, telling each other the narrative of the Risk Scholar and his daughter who plays with shadow. In the middle of all this lies the mystery of one father whose daughter is neither missing nor dead but “otherwise lost.”
To put it less concretely, this is a book about what it means to be daughtered, particularly by men—historically, academically, and in domestic spaces. It is also a book about storytelling, whose stories we trust and why we trust them. It is a book about gender politics and gender identity and therefore it is as much about how we read and misread books as it is about how we read and misread bodies.
The Lost Daughter Collective plays with time. It feels set in a kind of archaic, fable-like future. It feels kind of steampunk. What drove you to set the book in this temporal space?
I think perhaps one of the reasons I am drawn to fiction is because it offers the opportunity to manipulate time. Time can grow dense or thin, can stop or hasten its pace so that a moment loiters over fifty pages or sixty years pass in a single sentence. Fiction allows time to work in ways it doesn’t in our lived experience: it can bend, fold, collapse, split, or coil around itself. I am always interested in further exploring the ways time can be managed and manipulated, but in this book in particular, I wanted to try to tap into the way that over the years, the decades, the eras, our narratives morph. In this sense, then, the book is a very elegant exercise in that old game “Telephone,” where a group of children whisper a sentence from ear to ear, until it reaches the originator, who recites a perverted version of what she initially said. It’s a fun exercise in that context, but in this project, I was interested in how the stakes of that game are raised when we think of how history—our story about the past—is crafted not entirely differently. So this book concerns not just the pleasure of time bending and folding and collapsing, but also the dangers and risks and threats introduced when stories that begin as myth or gossip become calcified as fact.
The book includes otherworldly elements, mentions occupations that do not exist, and cites historical events that did not occur. There is a Wrist Institute funded by Shadow Puppet Guilds. There are references to The Touch Wars and the Museum of Paternal Understanding and the Multiversity of the Mid-North. Half of the book takes place in a sort of matriarchy in which paper no longer exists. What do these characters and institutions do for you that realism cannot?
I am increasingly convinced that in order to introduce the ideas I want my fiction to explore, I have to use forms of estrangement. I think this is a direct response to the fact that things seem to be moving ever-more toward the realm of satire for me, and satire requires that readers be placed in a world that is unfamiliar so that by the end they come to understand the world of the book is just a costume, guise, or mask for the world we navigate every day. The more I find myself interested in creatively critiquing, the more I find myself using surrealism and fabulism as a way to solve a writerly problem: how to get people to bear witness to that which they’d otherwise ignore.
Most of the characters in this book are not named. We have the fathers of lost daughters—the Butcher, the Barber, the Miller, the Smith, the Wainwright, the Angler, and the Archivist—but we also have the family of the Room Scholar, the Wrist Scholar, and the Ice Sculptor. Why have you chosen to identify your characters by their occupations?
Part of this has to do with the fact that the characters I write don’t seem to need names. Or rather, that they are so bound to their work this is the best way to identify them. I am very interested in how the work we do defines us.
The other answer is that I was interested in playing with surnames both because they come out of the old tradition of bynames, or last names that identified people by their occupation, and because of the way a woman’s identity is linked to her family name, which is conventionally adopted from a man, whether that is a father or a husband. I wanted to escape or complicate the assumption that women are identified by a family name and identify them by their work. And so: The Ice Sculptor and The Room Scholar.
You are a woman.
Yes. Thank you.
Do you identify as a woman writer? Or just a writer?
Okay! This question.
I am much more comfortable thinking of myself as not a writer but an artist. I envy poets and essayists because the language of their work permits them to be what they write—those who endeavor in poetry are poets, those who endeavor in essays are essayists. What are writers of fiction? The best we can do is designate by length: We are either novelists or short story writers (how clunky!). But I think of what I do as literary art, and I think the actual material of the books I write fit this notion: there is white space and textual play and images and schematics. The books are interested in the world of ideas, in conjuring a particular visceral response in readers, rather than in plot or character. The books are aware of their identity as books. The books are trying to raise questions rather than answer them.
That said, it is probably the case that the way I write and read is very much couched in my identity as a woman. The way I write, the way I read—but more importantly: the way I am read. I read and am read as a woman, and that’s not invisible. There are some people who would fight hard to be a writer first, to strip the world of the qualifying adjective. And there’s a rich history of writers adopting male pseudonyms or using their initials instead of their first names to do just that.
For me, I guess it comes down to this: I want to write fiction that’s really fucking smart. And I want the work to speak for itself (which is also why I have no social media accounts, website, or online presence, as of now). But I think the way this work is deployed, its particular uptake and concerns, doesn’t allow readers to forget that they are reading work coming from a body, and that body happens to identify as a female one.
Why do you write?
It is the best way I know how to exercise my humanhood.
What are you trying not to say in your work?
Slick! I’m not answering that question in a public forum.
Your first book is titled The Sorrow Proper. This book is titled The Lost Daughter Collective. When will you write something that doesn’t deal with grief, loss, or endings?
When grief, loss, and endings aren’t an integral part of everything we experience.
In that case, what do you want your headstone to read?
LINDSEY DRAGER is the author of The Sorrow Proper (Dzanc, 2015), winner of the 2016 Binghamton University / John Gardner Fiction Prize and recipient of silver in Forward Review’s 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards. Originally from Michigan, she is an assistant professor of creative writing at the College of Charleston, where she teaches in the MFA program in fiction.