“It Was All in the Service of Not Wanting Queer People to Have to Justify Themselves.” Why Catherine Lacey Rewrote History in Biography of X
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts.
On finding inspiration in Kathy Acker:
MK: I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit about what drew you to create this character who seems so like Kathy Acker.
CL: I began writing this around the time that I was reading Kathy Acker for the first time, after reading Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker. I loved something about that book. I mean, I’ve always liked reading biographies, and I like a proper biography. But there was something about that book because Chris Kraus had such a front row seat to Acker’s life, insofar as the average biographer usually didn’t know their subject and weren’t contemporaries with them. I think her partner was an ex of Acker or something. The cultural overlap between the two of them gave the biography some of its flavor and also contaminated it in some ways.
I liked that position a lot, and it was around the time that I was thinking about writing a fictional biography, and I was drawn to Kathy Acker. She knew something about creating the character of the artist exterior to the art…. She’s not my favorite writer in the world. There are lots of things I like about her writing, but I think there’s something about the bravado of her diaries and her persona and her life that still gets under our skin.
So I wanted to steal some of that for this, for these characters. And then at a certain point it became clear to me that I had to include actual people. And so Kathy Acker became a character in the book. Most of the characters that are real people are based on real people who are pretty peripheral. They’re in the background and have a couple chapters or something, but they’re not main characters in the book. That would be a different type of thing. But I feel like it was important to have. [Acker] comes in a couple times and doesn’t necessarily like what she sees. She’s a bit dismissive of X. I let her come in and sort of roll her eyes a little bit.
MK: I love that in her diaries there’s something about how X is a weird chick, whatever. I was editing a review of another biography of Kathy Acker over the summer, and there are standard things you do in biographies, and then there are standard things you do in reviews of biographies. One is you give the subject’s birthday. But we can’t all mutually agree on that one fact. And when you start like that, then it really does become a question of like, well then what’s real?
CL: Right. I don’t know why that feels so fundamental. I always wanna know what people’s birthdays are, even if I don’t know anything about their sign or anything like that. I just like knowing, like when’s the time of year that feels like it’s the new year for you? Or what’s the season that you think of as your age changes. Your memories around your birthday parties are all set in this season, so there’s something to that.
There’s something funny about when a birthday is called into question. You yourself can’t remember your own memories. Like, isn’t it weird that you have your earliest memory and you’re not sure if those things actually occurred? When does your memory start, and why don’t you remember what it felt like? No one remembers being born, and I feel like that’s common fact, but what if somebody did remember the actual experience of being born, and why does the human brain just delete that? These are all things that can’t be called into question, I guess.
On rewriting history:
CL: I knew at the beginning I wanted the biography to be written by the surviving spouse of the subject. And then I thought, well, if it’s a heterosexual relationship, should the man be writing about the woman or the woman be writing about the man? And that brought in certain kinds of baggage I didn’t wanna bring. And then I was like, well, okay, it has to be a queer couple. But I knew I wanted it to take place in the mid 20th century, and I didn’t want either of these characters to waste any of their time having to justify their existence as a lesbian couple. I wanted that to somehow not be a concern. So I was like, well, if I want to have a mid-century America where that’s not a concern, then I would have to change things way ahead of time. So the turn of the century had to be different in order for the 1960s and 1970s to be different.
And then, how would that happen? I ended up thinking about and reading about late 19th-century political thought in America and why it developed the way that it did. I read a couple of books about it, and I came upon this feeling. Emma Goldman was already a character that was really interesting to me in history and I thought, well, what if [she’s] the main thing that I change? All just to make an America where a queer couple could not have to justify themselves.
That’s the only reason that any of this stuff existed. I’m not that kind of writer usually. I’m not trying to rewrite American history. I don’t even read that much history. I had to read a lot of history to figure out how this world could be this way! But it was all in the service of not wanting queer people to have to justify themselves, you know?
But then it kind of became fun. I was also living in Berlin for a few months that I was working on [the book], and I was reading about the history of East and West Berlin and the Stasi. I went to the Stasi Museum and I thought some of that could bleed into it. And I was reading about North and South Korea, so really just a lot of reading, because I had already set up this precedent that the book was going to steal from other things and change them. I was like, well, this is the way that North and South Korea are separate and these are some of the crazy things that happen in North Korea, and I can just pull them in and use them and kind of Americanize them and make them a part of that world. And I did a lot of that kind of collage, anytime I came across something that seemed like it was appropriate. It was like a little bowerbird, building a nest with little bits of things from different places that I liked.
Catherine Lacey is the author of the novels Nobody Is Ever Missing, The Answers, and Pew, and of the short-story collection Certain American States. Born in Mississippi, she is based in Chicago, Illinois. Her latest novel is called Biography of X.