It seems to me that Dear Lucy is a novel about, among other things, all the different ways there are to make a family. Lucy has been sent away by her struggling single mother; pregnant teenager Samantha is considering giving up her baby for adoption; Mister and Missus themselves are revealed to have had a rather unusual method for obtaining children. When you began, did you know you were writing about family?
Great question! No- in the beginning of the Dear Lucy process, I was not aware that I was writing about family. The piece began as a study of Lucy’s strange, idiosyncratic voice. In the early stages, my primary conscious motives were language based. But it turned out that strange voice wasn’t just a deconstructive language experiment – that voice was narrating this deep tenderness and carefulness as she gathered eggs for breakfast – an unexpected intimacy with an unresponsive object. And that intimacy felt like it was based in loss. The eggs were a receptacle for the attachment and attention Lucy was missing with her mother. Lucy really notices the eggs, takes pride in caring for the eggs, believes the eggs have strength and value – she projects on the eggs what she subconsciously wishes someone would think about her. So upon reading and re-reading what I kept writing about – Lucy and the eggs — I knew I was writing about Lucy’s longing to attach in a way that she never felt attached to Mum mum. And then I knew I was writing about family.
I’m interested in this idea that the book came from Lucy’s voice. When you first started writing what you called her “strange, idiosyncratic voice,” did you know she had some sort of disability? Or were you just writing about someone with a poetic, slightly unhinged way of seeing the world?
The second option: when I first started writing I considered Lucy to be someone with a poetic, slightly unhinged perspective – that’s a good way to describe it. I did feel like people in the novel didn’t understand Lucy, but not because there was anything wrong with her: plenty of people/characters are misunderstood without being disabled. When I started writing I didn’t even know if the universe I was creating was a universe in which someone would have a disability in the modern use of the word— the world I was creating was even more abstract and esoteric when I first started writing. I did feel strongly that Lucy had been abandoned, but for a while I was torn about just how “difficult” Lucy was. I had two parallel universes running simultaneously while I wrote Lucy and developed her history; one was that Mum mum just didn’t want to take care of her, and one was that Lucy really was impossible to take care of. In the end, the reason Lucy ends up at the farm is a little of both.
The novel is written in alternating voices and POVs, which is so hard to do. You’ve said that Lucy’s voice (which is a poetic, heartbreaking, and striking one!) came first. When did you realize you needed the other voices too, and what was it like to write them all?
Thank you, Amy! That probably came about when I “felt” or “intuited” or “realized” —or whatever that word is when you think your character was meant to do something – that Lucy was going to take action on the behalf of Samantha. I wanted to add other voices to create a layered effect for the reader piecing together the threat that Samantha and Lucy are under — why Lucy needs to act — before Lucy comes across that information herself. I wanted to develop these three barreling trains – Lucy, Samantha and Missus and all their pathos, their pain, their secrets – heading towards each other – towards the moment when Lucy has to decide to take action. I don’t think having multiple narrators is the only way to achieve that – but when so many characters are keeping secrets and telling lies, it would have been much more difficult for the reader to discern motivations.
To be totally honest, it was hard to get the other voices right. It took a lot of tweaking, a ton of cutting, a ton of editing and re-writing. Figurative language is probably my first love as a writer, which is why Lucy and I had such a special bond, but I kept using Lucy-like metaphors in the other voices, which had to be taken out. I had to strike many beloved paragraphs because of that: just another bittersweet part of the process.
I see so many echoes between your book and my first novel (which of course you hadn’t read!), one of which is the slightly surreal feel – the setting is a version of a real place but not quite, the time could be now or 50 years ago, the characters are all oddballs. What were some of your influences in creating this completely unique, dreamy-feeling world? And, possibly related, how did your own rural(ish?) upbringing figure in the creation of Mister and Missus’ farm?
I am currently reading – and loving — How Far Is The Ocean From Here! I was actually writing this interview out long hand on the subway and using your first book as my desk. I love the dreamy-feeling world of your book and really do relate to it. My influences in the non-time non-place were varied – Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ sweeping Latin American folk histories of fictional people, Faulkner and his make-believe county, and Toni Morrison’s remarks on her attraction to concepts often considered “cliché.” More generally, I was inspired by fairy tales and fables that begin “once upon a time, in a far away place.” I’m inspired by the Jungian idea of the cultural unconscious; we all know this creepy farm is out there – somewhere – be it in the American South, in the Valley of Southern California – or just in our imagination.
That’s a great question about my rural upbringing. Where I grew up was an anomaly: a 500 person community called Modjeska Canyon in Southern California– a very rural – probably the only rural – part of Orange County. I grew up without a television, I was potty trained on an outside, my parents grew all our own fruits and vegetables, and all our family trips were backpacking in the Sierra Mountains. In our canyon there were no sidewalks, no street lights, and no commercial establishments besides one dinky country story that sold booze and ice and candy and all of us children worshipped and spent all week stealing change so we could make our weekly pilgrimage to “Danny’s” – as we called it (after the man that owned the store.) My parents sought out rural living as the crux of their lifestyle and their value system, and there were the obvious benefits to growing up that way: reading all the time, “appreciating nature” (this never stuck as well as my parents would have hoped), playing live music as entertainment, eating healthy, etc. But I always felt disconnected from the way “everyone” else was living. I did feel isolated! I resented where I lived. My family called driving into the city of Orange to go to the grocery story going to “town.” That expression was very anachronistic to the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, especially in the suburban sprawl of Orange County. My parents aren’t old fashioned – but if you came to my childhood home, besides the fridge and the computers (and my wardrobe) – you might not have been able to tell if it was 1940 or 2010, and I certainly think that influenced “the farm” and its sense of being “far, far away” from everything else.
And, not to make this all about me, but I also see echoes between this book and my second novel, namely, the supernatural ally that helps the protagonist to be brave. In my book it’s a mermaid, and in your book it’s an awesome, talking baby chick named Jennifer. Where did Jennifer come from?
Absolutely there is a parallel! I was reading Mermaid of Brooklyn and laughing to myself about an imagined conversation between the mermaid and Jennifer. They are certainly both know-it-alls.
Like Lucy, Jennifer was a character that had her life force, and I was sort of surprised when she hatched. I was never conscious there was going to be a talking chicken in my book until Jennifer broke through her shell and starting talking away. But on the other hand, Lucy had squirreled away those eggs, and subconsciously I must have known I wanted that to have consequences. I think there was a desire to give Lucy’s profound power of wonder and possibility real power. That her sense of awe of the world actually could manifest in something that could help her. I also think Jennifer – and perhaps your mermaid too – were conduits of all the things that Lucy had been told or had over heard that she couldn’t remember – that escaped her mind but that stayed deep inside of her. Jennifer is the mental equivalent of that superhuman strength you hear about that allows mothers to lift cars off of their babies. The crisis doesn’t create the strength; it just unlocks it.
I love how you said that. I think in all great hinge moments in fiction or in life, that’s just it – there is a crisis that unlocks inner strength. Which reminds me of something I learned in grad school, which reminds me to ask, how did your experience in your MFA program shape this book, if it did? This started out as your thesis, or did I make that up?
It did start out as my master’s thesis! Graduate school was a formative experience. I learned a lot about how to process criticism of your work and make that criticism work for you, I learned a lot about language theory, I was introduced to a lot of experimental literature. But I think the most significant things I took away from grad school was some understanding of how to be disciplined – and how discipline is a battle hard won – and my friendship with a few fellow authors, who I am still very close with today – especially Haley Tanner, who is one of my very best friends and is an incredible author. I trust Haley’s opinion implicitly when it comes to my work, and she has been an emotional rock through the trials and tribulations of publishing. So I have the New School MFA program to thank for that relationship.
You teach fiction writing for Sackett Street Writers’ Workshops. What’s the best advice you’ve ever given a student?
Oh gosh, I have such ambivalence about giving advice. My parents never gave my brother or me any advice about anything; my mother considered giving advice a form of boundary crossing: inappropriate and usually unwanted in almost any situation. My parents were supportive, but never did they tell us what we should or shouldn’t do in terms of academics, interests, dating. So I sometimes feel overly aggressive giving straight-up advice. On the other hand, I feel I’m not earning my teaching paycheck unless I can offer my students something of what I’ve learned from my experience publishing. Advice I often give – which is not sexy advice whatsoever – is to have a manuscript as polished as possible before seeking out representation. Nobody waits for a your first book – relish that time is on your side – there is no point in rushing to find an agent only to have them tell you to get in touch when your manuscript is ready. Because chances are that is what they will tell you, unless it’s as done as possible.
Now I have to ask that boring-to-answer but crucial-to-those-of-us-who-loved-this-book question… What are you working on next?
Aww, thanks! I was just hanging out with an old professor of mine and he asked the same question. As I blabbered away, attempting to answer it, he told me flat out that my “elevator pitch” made no sense at all and that he had no idea what the book was about. So I’m going to take this opportunity to cut to the philosophical question the new book asks – How much would you sacrifice to experience the full expression of your ego’s wildest desires?
JULIE SARKISSIAN‘s debut novel, Dear Lucy, was recently published by Simon and Schuster. She is a graduate of Princeton University and has an MFA from The New School. Other writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Observer and Huffington Post. She teaches at The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop and lives with her fiancé in Brooklyn Heights, New York.