“I’m Not Really Interested in Creating Sympathetic Characters.” Rachel Connolly Talks to Lucie Elven
The Author of Lazy City on Creative Intentionality and Subverting the Trauma Plot
I first read Rachel Connolly’s writing a few years ago, a nonfiction piece on pandemic gossip. Her style was distinctive, she used some of the techniques of fiction, and there was something odd, something active, about the story too. After I read the gossip essay, I began to notice other writers online picking up parts of her argument, adopting it in their own thinking. I now understand this effect as being related to how I often feel when reading Connolly’s work—that she’s describing dynamics that I am starting to sense in the world, just as they reach the edge of my awareness.
Lazy City is a different kind of intervention, a novel that tells the story of Erin’s return to Belfast as she takes a break from her postgraduate degree after a bereavement. As she is thrown back into familiar relationships back home—a mother, an ex-boyfriend, old friends—Lazy City paints a picture of a city and a time: new builds, a degrading job market, hungover runs along the Lagan. Engaging and subtle in its examination of grief, Lazy City gets to something about how human relationships work in a way that’s new and never dour. I spoke to Rachel on a shared Google doc.
Lucie Elven: The first thing that was apparent to me in Lazy City was how well you capture speech, not just the words themselves but how people approach communication completely differently one from the next, how in a conversation you anticipate what the other person might say, and also the time between different comments. Here’s an example:
I say I don’t know, he says to guess. I say I really don’t know. He says have one guess. I ask what gender the person is and he says that will give it away. I say then I really don’t know and he says guess. I guess my mum.
What? He laughs. No.
I just read it out loud to myself and the rhythm made me laugh too. Could you tell me a bit about your interest in speech?There is so much work in writing, but then so much of the subconscious too.
Rachel Connolly: I am so so happy this made you laugh! So much thought and work went into exchanges like this, probably a slightly embarrassing amount, because I was trying to capture that sense of the rhythm of a conversation, as you say.
My method for doing this is pretty involved. I email myself real text from conversations I have or ones I hear. Not really anything salacious, but more the way people tend to pause or tend to phrase certain things.
Then I strip things back, take a lot of words out, and move words around. I try a lot of different versions, moving where in the sentence I put “he says,” because that signifies where the speaker would pause, and then I can just tell the right version when I get it. There is so much work in writing, but then so much of the subconscious too.
Generally the right version is the one that makes me laugh because recognizing the slightly uncanny quality of getting a real seeming voice down on the page does sort of hit you, and strike you as funny.
I feel that this exchange is the sort of thing that, if you were on an MFA course, they’d say like “No, the right way to write this is you write: He looked at me, with an expression I couldn’t place, and said: “Guess who I saw earlier?” I told him I had no idea, but he kept asking me to guess, drawing out the reveal, and eventually, lost for an answer, I said my mum. He laughed in confusion.”
I can write like that, sure. I think most writers can if they wish to. But I don’t believe novels should read like personal essays or letters. I don’t like reading novels which are written in that uniform, very essayistic style, that’s so boring to me. The bad reviews I’ve had have scolded me for not writing in that style, but my thinking is, if you want to read something like that there is a lot of it out there.
Why does my book have to be like that too if I don’t want it to be? It’s interesting to me that those bad reviews (and to be fair, they have been the minority thankfully) haven’t considered that I write the way I do on purpose. But there’s a lot of misogyny in that, I think, in refusing to consider the intentionality of a woman’s artistic endeavors.
I wanted to capture something of a consciousness on the page, and my dialogue is a big part of this. I also kind of make fun of my project I suppose. I want an exchange like this to feel real and slightly surreal at the same time.
LE: As well as the focus on speech there’s some texting, and almost-texting then backspace deleting, in the novel. There’s also prayer when Erin goes to church, as well as the dialogue in the sex scenes and Erin’s matter-of-fact asides (“Did you want me to fuck you tonight? he says. Is that why you wore this? The same porn talk as the other night; everyone does it”). Did you set out to have this layering of different forms of communication?
RC: Again, thank you for noticing this! In the prayer scenes I wanted to blur the boundary between speech and thought. It’s sort of a conversation she is having, but not really. She never gets an answer, and she isn’t even sure if she believes the person she is speaking to is real.
And for the texting scenes I was interested in trying to create that sense of a conversation which you are able to plan and script as you have it. To me that is a very different thing to an in person conversation.
I interviewed a Gen Z a while ago, I remember they said communicating on their phone was less stressful than in person because you can plan everything you say. I think they’re correct about the planning, but the effect is the opposite. I think it’s much more stressful to have to plan everything you say, with no tone or facial expression to mediate things. I wanted to get a sense of that down in the book.
I’m interested in the boundary between text conversations and speech and thought. And the different ways we think about and process each form of communication.
Actually, when I first started teaching myself to write fiction, the difference between speech and thought was my starting point, that was the thing I was most interested in trying to represent.
LE: “No one here calls psychiatrists psychiatrists or psychologists psychologists or counsellors counsellors. Just like nobody says mental health or addiction or trauma. People say a doctor, or he always drank, or that someone is on the spectrum. So often the spectrum. Their children, people they go on dates with, dads definitely. There is a certain librarian who everyone always says is on the spectrum because he wears the same two cardigans on rotation.”
You’ve written a fair bit on the pitfalls of trauma narratives. If I remember right, you fault the ‘pity me’ personal essay genre partly for setting up an awkward hierarchy where the writer is telling the reader to agree with them, even needing this. This book deals with trauma, and intergenerational trauma, but doesn’t lose complexity or humor. What was your strategy? I’m also interested in the moment when Erin smashes a vase.
RC: Yes! That was the gist of it. There is something so unnerving to me about personal essays and novels in which a kind of lowly protagonist stoically faces indignity after indignity while the reader is invited to benevolently sympathize with their plight. Sympathy, to my mind, is so different to empathy. And I’m just not really interested in creating sympathetic characters. I’m more interested in writing characters who feel real.
I do understand why narratives like this do well commercially, I can understand someone reading something like that and feeling good about themselves for having read it. In the same way that I think a lot of stuff that does well at the minute has an overtly educational bent to it, like dialogue with pop explainers of topics like feminism and so on. Erasure by Percy Everett is the best send up of this kind of thing, and still feels very relevant now.
I don’t read novels to feel like a good person though, or to see things I’ve read in op-eds from a few years ago repeated back to me, so I wrote one for people who don’t read novels for that reason either. Ha!
I am interested too in the idea that trauma can make people ugly, rather than straightforwardly sympathetic. And Erin is very ugly in a lot of ways, everyone in Lazy City is. She was so wicked for smashing that vase, that was an awful thing to do. But we all do things like that, or I do at least….
LE: Erin is someone who notices things in quite a methodical way. Or, at least, she keeps track of her own responses to things, so to a reader she feels like she has a strong sense of self. I just read Nathalie Olah’s Bad Taste and I was wondering, do you see Erin as gaining a form of agency from noticing these small details about people, their behavior, what they’re wearing?
RC: Yes. I see her tendency to be very observant as a character trait of hers, which actually tells you quite a lot about her. She watches other people very closely, I think, because she’s fundamentally very mistrustful of other people. She’s almost gathering as much information as she can about people and situations to try and anticipate how certain interactions will go. I think there’s a sense of safety in that. And perhaps that gives her the illusion of agency.I’m just not really interested in creating sympathetic characters. I’m more interested in writing characters who feel real.
Of course other people are fundamentally just very mysterious to us, no matter how much information we gather about them, they often upend our expectations. That happens to her a lot, she thinks she understands where something is going quite well and it goes in a totally different direction. That’s almost the plot I think of the book really, how unpredictable other people are.
LE: There’s a character, the other Matt, who drinks more than the others. You quite recently wrote a newsletter about addiction and alcohol tolerance as a form of privilege. I’m curious to hear how you conceived of Matt’s place within the plot, as he serves an important role, even though he seems peripheral at first.
RC: I love the brother Matt, I think he’s my favorite character. A lot of people have told me he’s their favorite too. He’s a really decent person, he’s very kind, and that doesn’t make his life any better, he doesn’t get anything out of it, but he’s kind anyway. I wanted to show that in my book, have someone who is decent and does the right thing and how it doesn’t mean they win the lottery or get a good job or whatever. That’s one of the themes of the book.
I think I understand privilege a little differently to how that word is often used right now. I think anything which makes the world an easier place for you to live than for other people is a form of privilege. I see being driven and ambitious as a form of privilege, being hardworking too, or being really passionate about something which gives your life meaning, I also see not having addiction issues as a form of privilege.
The other Matt is very privileged in a lot of ways, he’s a white man from a reasonably wealthy background. But he hasn’t managed to make much out of that, in fact I think financial comfort has made his life worse, even. His dad often bails him out of situations which doesn’t help him really.
He struggles with things that other people just get on with. He keeps dropping out of courses, he has no sense of how to move forward, he drinks too much. It was an interesting project to me, to make a character like this and make them likable. I feel a character like this is more challenging to people in a way, his “type” isn’t sympathetic, but he is I think. I think of other Matt as a huge success.
LE: The novel revolves around Erin’s friend, Kate, who has died, and Erin’s continuing relationship with her even after her death is heartfelt and direct. Kate wasn’t from Belfast. Can you tell me about the title of the book and why you wanted to set your first novel in Belfast? You live in London now. Do you feel like writing is a way of tying disparate experiences from life together?
RC: The title came to me when I was running one day, while I was writing the first draft, and I just knew it was right. Then I realised a while later that one of the themes in the book is progress in terms of development, and moving forward in time, and that being quite a negative thing, and trying to escape or get away from that. And I think the title, Lazy City, is really about that. There’s the subconscious again.
I knew the book was working then, when I had that title. I knew it was becoming a real book. I googled Lazy City to check it wasn’t used for anything else. I would hate to have the same title as someone else, how awful! Thankfully it wasn’t.
In terms of piecing together my different lives, I think I feel a little out of place wherever I am, except maybe in a fake Belfast that only exists in my head. Maybe the book is really about that, in a way. One to discuss with my analyst!
Rachel Connolly has written for the New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, The Baffler and lots of other places. Her short fiction has been published in the Stinging Fly. Lazy City is her first novel.
Lazy City by Rachel Connolly is available from Liveright Publishing, an imprint of W.W. Norton & Company.