Catherine Lacey on Letting Go of the Anxiety and Responding to Current Events in Fiction
In Conversation with Paul Holdengräber on The Quarantine Tapes
Hosted by Paul Holdengräber, The Quarantine Tapes chronicles shifting paradigms in the age of social distancing. Each day, Paul calls a guest for a brief discussion about how they are experiencing the global pandemic.
On Episode 218 of The Quarantine Tapes, Paul Holdengräber is joined by writer Catherine Lacey. Calling in from the closet of her home, Catherine talks with Paul about her writing process and what she has been working on lately.
Catherine’s most recent book is Pew, published in January 2020. Catherine tells Paul about how her writing process for that book was drastically different from her usual method, and they discuss its epigraph, from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” They discuss Donald Barthelme’s Not-Knowing, and Catherine talks about her experience of finishing writing one novel without having another to work on for the first time in years.
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From the episode:
Catherine Lacey: I was giving a talk digitally to MFA students, and at the end of it one of them asked, how is it possible to even write fiction now? Necessarily you have to contend with this disruption and this pandemic and this social distancing and all these things. And I didn’t really have a good answer for her because I hadn’t really been considering it. I’d already been working on a book that was sort of set in an alternate America, and I’d been working on it for several years, and so the terms of my work were already predetermined before the pandemic started. It wasn’t like I was needing to invent a new world or something to work within. I wasn’t working in the contemporary moment.
But later it occurred to me, I think part of that seems like an attitude that might be common to an MFA student or a younger writer, this anxiety to respond to the present. But the world’s constantly changing anyway, so you can’t really make it your task to respond to the present as it is right now. That was the fall of 2020 when I gave that talk, and already now it feels very different. We’re moving around the world in slightly different ways and there are vaccines. We start thinking about what maybe the next pandemic is going to look like, and we’re a little bit less fearful and we’re not sanitizing our groceries anymore. If I had wasted a bunch of 2020 trying to write about 2020, by the time I had completed it, it would be too dated, at least for me. That task sounds to me like it would create fiction or essay or whatever that’s a little bit too of this moment and therefore immediately expires. It’s almost like a pavlova or something—it has to be served right then or it’s no good.
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Catherine Lacey is the author of four works of fiction: Nobody Is Ever Missing, The Answers, Certain American States, and Pew. Her honors include a Guggenheim Fellow, a Whiting Award, and twice being a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Her work has been translated into a dozen languages and published by The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Believer, The New York Times, Playboy, and elsewhere. Her fifth book, Biography of X, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2023. Born in Mississippi, she is based in Chicago.