Q&A with Catherine Lacey, author of ‘The Answers’

While dating, everyone experiments—new people, new places, new feelings, new reactions. But Catherine Lacey takes that concept to a new level in her much-anticipated sophomore novel, “The Answers,” available June 6th.

In the follow-up to her widely successful “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” Lacey’s main character, Mary, in need of funding to support trial medicine that finally works, is commissioned by Kurt in what he calls the Girlfriend Experiment. Kurt is looking for the perfect relationship and trying all avenues. Lacey is paid to be the “emotional girlfriend.”

Lacey, a Chicago resident, talked with Chicagoly about that unique arc, her writing process, and much more.

Chicagoly: You are from Mississippi, but when did you come to Chicago?

Catherine Lacey: I actually lived here in 2005 for three or four months because I was a college student in New Orleans when Katrina hit, and Loyola Chicago was the first school that said they’d take people. So I came up here and lived in Rogers Park. I then went back to New Orleans and lived ten years in New York, and I just moved here as an adult last year. I was a few months in Montana. I moved here for my partner.

Did Chicago leave an impression on you ten years ago?

Absolutely. It was strange because I drove out of New Orleans with my roommate and a couple friends and we got here a couple days after the storm hit, after we realized New Orleans wasn’t going to be habitable. Within a week I had new classes. Loyola took us right in. They helped us find an apartment. I had a new job. I was working at Metropolis, that coffee shop by Loyola. It was just surreal, but the people here were so kind. Somebody donated a whole apartment full of furniture, people were donating all their winter clothes to us. It did leave a good impression. It was a strange, strange time, and the people here are really warm. So I was happy to come back.

How did you first become interested in the written word?

I was just always writing when I was a child, making books and stories constantly. It probably had something to do with growing up in religious family where the bible is the most important text and the important thing in general. You kind of just buy in immediately to the power of words and the power of stories. I think it was just from that. And both my parents are readers and encouraged me to read a lot. But I kind of backed into writing fiction. … eventually decided I wanted some sort of writing career, but thought I’d be writing profiles, because I wanted to write about other people, or book reviews and criticism, that kind of thing. I was pursuing that in my early twenties … and I was writing fiction just for myself because I had always done it. So I was finishing a draft of this novel and I thought it was maybe something I should pursue. That was my first book.

I’d always hit these roadblocks every time I’d try to write for magazines when I was younger. I wasn’t good at pitching. I didn’t know how to speak magazine language enough to get ahead in that world. But for fiction, it came naturally and once I put it out there I found that it was a much easier experience to get published and establish a career, which is bazaar, I know. It’s the backward way things should go.

So you were just getting into fiction-writing and you wrote a whole novel?

Like this next novel, The Answers, it started from a short story. I think if you sit down and say, “Now I’m going to write a four-hundred-page novel,” that task is so daunting you just don’t do it. So if I’m writing a piece of fiction. I don’t determine what it’s going to be at the end. Often, I’m just wrong if I have a hunch as to what it could be. So, “Nobody is Ever Missing” started out as a bunch of disparate pieces of very short fiction. One-paragraph tidbits that kept coming. And eventually they started to grow into each other, and I pieced them together, and eventually it was a book. With The Answers, it was kind of two longer short stories that were going on and they grew into each other and kept growing. It’s kind of a mess. I know other novelists that get the idea, outline it, and execute, but I’m always completely blind throwing things at the wall. And in my life too, that’s generally how I approach it.

That casual attitude could fit your character in “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” right?

Yes. The main character in that novel realizes over the course of a few months that she needs to leave her entire life. So she books a one-way ticket to New Zealand and doesn’t tell her husband where she’s going or her job. She just wants to vanish. I’d never done something so cruel, but the allure of doing something like that was interesting to me and the mental state of wanting to disappear is more familiar to people, even if they never do it. You take one aspect of your personality and exaggerate it to an absurd degree, then you have a pretty interesting, complicated character that would make horrible decisions that you wouldn’t necessarily make, but you could see the logic behind. I try and start with that when writing fiction because it gives you groundwork for understanding a characters as a full, complicated person, but also it gets you further away from evolving into autobiography and it’s more interesting because a person has one aspect of their personality grossly exaggerated it’s going to be rife with conflict.

“The Answers” debuts June 6.

Is that something you explored in “The Answers,” as well?

Lots of people try and perfect their life in one way or another, either it’s a health thing, like cleanses or working out to be this superhuman thing, or it’s trying to make your relationship completely shit-proof, or it’s trying to make your career perfect. People want this impossible, seamless perfection that can’t be found, but everyone is pursuing it in one area of their life or another. With the setup with this girlfriend experiment, this experiment that this actor Kurt Sky has put together, this study that is going to scientifically prove how to have the best relationship through these experiments he’s running in his own apartment. And she’s fallen into it because she needs the money, and stays in it because she’s in a really tight spot and backed into a corner. He’s running the experiment because he genuinely just wants his romantic life to be solved. He’s tired of having to get into a relationship and fall in love and then fall out of love and all the mess that comes with it. I’m a human being, so I’ve experienced some of that to a degree, and some of the exasperation that comes after a relationship fails or continues to fail. But yes, it’s a gross exaggeration of anything I know firsthand.

That’s a metaphor that a lot of people can relate to. Kurt is doing a formal experiment, but a lot of people, when trying to find someone, are experimenting. Is that fair to say that it’s a metaphor?

Yea, I think that’s true. Writing the book has made me think of dating and courtship a bit differently. Typically, people get together and the early months are like a chess match of who can withhold their feelings at just the right level to make the other person interested, but not too interested. You’re really sniffing them out to see, “where are your problems?” and “could I get someone better?” and “do you have all the things I am looking for in a partner?” You’re almost inspecting them like a car you are going to buy, does it have all the features you want, does it handle the way you want, how do you feel as a person next to that person, what do your friends think. It seems totally normal because that’s just the way everybody does it. It sort of completely grotesque and a little bit horrifying if you really think about what’s going on and human beings are acting that way. When I met my current partner, we’re just all in. It’s the first time I had a relationship where it was like that. I was in the process of finishing the book, and some of what I learned writing it became reflected in our relationship. It’s made me think about dating in a certain way.

Is there any message you’re trying to get across with “The Answers”?

I don’t think it’s so much of a message or a morale, but I definitely think once I’m inside a project, whether it’s a short story or book, I know I have a real project going when I have a question I’m asking myself and I don’t know the answer and probably by the end of when I’m writing the book I still know the answer directly but I’ve explored it from a bunch of angles. I think with “Nobody’s Ever Missing” it was, how much can a person do alone. And I was thinking about how important is solitude and how much of a life can be lived in the interior. And with The Answers, it was a little bit more vague. I was wondering how really can two people love each other, whether that’s in a friendship, or as family, or in a romantic relationship. What’s the best way for a relationship to really exist? Or how can you turn the abstract feeling of love into a concrete reality with another person, that they can take in and actually feel. I don’t really like books when at the end you can say, “This author was clearly saying X.” and you can see what they’re trying to tell you. I am more interested in books that are asking questions.

How does the promotion cycle look for you?

For your first book, you really don’t tour too much. For this, I’ll go to weirdly the Nantucket Book Festival and then, New York. And a little bit later San Francisco and L.A. I still feel very brand new to all this, but it’s been strange, my first book did really well in Italy. It’s like doing really well in Rhode Island, it’s not like you make a lot of money or it’s really glamorous. It’s just a small area where a lot of people have read the book. So I went to Italy for the first book for a week and went to every city in Italy, so I’ll probably go back there again. I don’t know if I’d do much more in Midwest. … The publicists think now that events don’t sell books as much as good reviews and word of mouth.

Are you moving on to a new project or are you taking a breather?

I tell myself I don’t like to work all the time, but I guess I like to work all the time. I have a story collection coming out next year and then, I’ve been working on another project that I did a draft of, and I have other ideas for new stuff going on all the time. But I never feel like I’m working. I feel really lucky that I get to write a lot and teach a little bit and write some more and kind of wonder around. In my head, I don’t think that I’m working, but I think I am.

About the author

Joe is the publisher of Chicagoly and 22nd Century Media, where he's worked since 2006. A born and bred Chicagoland native, he is an award-winning features and sports writer and authors What Now? and On These Streets (ghost-writes) each issue.

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