Art as a Side Effect of Life

Catherine Lacey and Emily Bell

In Conversation

In Catherine Lacey’s The Answers, the protagonist takes a job as the “Emotional Girlfriend” of a wealthy actor in “The Girlfriend Experiment,” a project conducted by biotech researchers to find the algorithms for the perfect romantic relationship. Praised by Dwight Garner at the The New York Times as “a novel of intellect and amplitude that deepens as it moves forward,” The Answers explores how cultural and institutional constructions mold the most intimate details of our personal lives. Lacey joined editor Emily Bell in conversation at Green Apple Books in San Francisco to discuss the powers of placebos, the influence of social perceptions, Meryl Streep, and, perhaps ironically, the answers to The Answers. This conversation has been condensed and edited.

Emily Bell: I guess the first chapter of The Answers is a really good entry point into talking about placebos. The protagonist Mary has these very severe physical ailments, and this treatment called PAKing is the only thing that seems to work for her, which is why she enters the Girlfriend Experiment—so she can pay for PAKing. And maybe it does work, but I’ve recently heard statistics about how unbelievably effective a placebo can be and how powerful the mind can be over what actually manifests as physical symptoms. I’m curious about if you researched that—why PAKing?

Catherine Lacey: I didn’t research the placebo effect. But I’m remembering now that Nobody Is Ever Missing [FSG 2014] was out, or just about to come out, and I had met with you in the office. You were doing this thing that editors do where you were like, “Are you working on anything, or are you catatonic in your house? What’s going on?” And I told you I’d been doing this thing called Rolfing—some people are nodding, maybe California is more aware of Rolfing.

EB: It’s like myofascial massage, or something like that.

CL: Yeah. I was doing that on work trade because I was broke, so I told you I was sort of writing about Rolfing, which was researched inadvertently. As far as placeboes go, I think the main concern of the book is to quantify the effect that people have on each other in relationships. What is the weight of a relationship? If you love somebody, how do you quantify that? Where is it? How do you prove where it is? In something like taking antidepressants, having surgery, or experiencing the placebo effect of something weird like Rolfing—these things that can go totally wrong or totally right. I think there is also a placebo effect in a relationship, where you just decide, “This is the right person for me, this is the right friend for me, this is the right family for me.” Or you think, “This is the wrong family or person or friend for me,” and your decision about a relationship is in itself a placebo.

I think the main concern of the book is to quantify the effect that people have on each other in relationships. What is the weight of a relationship? If you love somebody, how do you quantify that? Where is it? How do you prove where it is?

EB: I’m going to allow this to win or not, or I’m going to fight it.

CL: Yeah.

EB: Well, it makes me think about the title of the book, The Answers.

CL: After many bad titles of which we will not speak.

EB: I know some of them. But Mary is just searching constantly for the answers to things. In reading the reviews, one consistent thing people were saying was that it just raised more questions for them. No one ever explicitly took issue with the title, The Answers, but there was just a little push back.

CL: Ha ha, there are no answers.

EB: Yeah, exactly. And also, ha ha, the book you wrote is an answer to these questions. It’s not definitive. It’s not like, “This is the way to live.”

CL: I didn’t start a cult yet, but maybe next. There’ll be an email list. At the end, you can sign up for it.

EB: You can donate to it. But I was curious about the title because it’s something that is by definition a response to questions. So how did you arrive at The Answers?

CL: With some disaster involved. I remember talking to a writer at one point, and I was working on this. I said, “I don’t have a title,” and he was like, “No title, no book.” And I thought, “Oh, fuck. I don’t have a title. Maybe I’m not writing a book.” But for the last novel, I didn’t come up with a title until the end—I generally don’t come up with a title for the stories I’m writing until the end. I don’t feel like I know what I’m working on until I’m done with it, and then it’s like, “Oh, OK, now I can title this and then put it away.”

But I had some weird titles. I think, at one point, I was anxiously talking to someone about how I didn’t have a title, and I said something like, “It’s about people that are looking for answers to questions that don’t have answers.” And this person just pointed out, “You just said answers like six times.” And I thought, “Oh, OK, let’s just call it The Answers.”

EB: Do you feel you talk around the ideas that end up in your book before you put them there? Are they things that you are privately thinking about and preoccupied with, or do you interact with other people about them first?

CL: I feel like if you make a book or a story or a painting or whatever, it’s really just a side effect of your life. You’re thinking about something, or you’re going through something—and you just wander toward certain ideas. I guess it took me three or four years to write this book. In those years, a variety of different things were happening, so the book is a side effect of those years. People say sometimes that a writer writes the same book over and over again, but I think we kind of have the same life over and over again. You have these different iterations of it, where you’re like, “Wow, I keep on having this same stupid problem.” Like, you realize in your mid-fifties, “Ah, I’m still who I was at twelve!” You can’t get away from it. So for me, all works are just very private and confusing.

You have these different iterations of it, where you’re like, “Wow, I keep on having this same stupid problem.” Like, you realize in your mid-fifties, “Ah, I’m still who I was at twelve!” You can’t get away from it. So for me, all works are just very private and confusing.

EB: And then people name it. They say, “Oh, this is a satire.” It was clear to me, and now you’ve confirmed that you didn’t set out to do that. I always thought you didn’t, but you never know. Some people are secretly plotting things out and then make it look very natural.

CL: I don’t know how to do that. There are some kinds of artists who can just say, “I want to make this kind of thing,” and then they set it up and do the outline and then do the work. And then there are some who are kind of groping around, either producing something or not—and I’m the latter.

EB: Yeah.

CL: At some point, I knew there was some direction that I was going in, but when the term “dystopia” started to come up a bunch in reviews, I was like, “What?”

EB: Totally. I was like, “I don’t think so.”

CL: I mean, I can see it, but it definitely was not in my mental bulletin board. I wasn’t tacking up, like, “Dystopic.” I wasn’t thinking about Margaret Atwood. But now, I guess she was thinking about me.

EB: I called her. I was like, “Were you?” She was like, “I was.”

CL: Doing some psychic stuff from far away.

EB: To me, where this book is really successful is in incorporating these ideas and balancing them with plot—that is a rare thing.

CL: Thanks, Mom.

EB: Yeah, sure. [To audience:] Did you know that this is a mother-daughter talk? But I guess I’m curious about that. If your editor says, “I’d like more development of this character,” and you say, “I wouldn’t.” How do you—

CL: Oh yeah, I’m remembering now that you actually edited this book.

EB: I maybe reread my editorial letter before this.

CL: Really?

EB: Yeah, totally. It was funny. I’m an idiot, and you’re brilliant.

CL: No, no, no.

EB: Yeah, confirmed after reading that letter.

CL: I don’t know. I think there’s this myth that people have about the editorial process being like: the writer produces some work, then the editor is going through literally with a red pen and saying, “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” I don’t know any writer alive right now who’s had that experience. They don’t have somebody who’s marking things out. But with you and Eric—I have another editor with Emily—they mainly ask me questions, like, “Why did you make this choice?” I mean, not like they were grilling me or something. They would give me these notes, and I would go off and think about it for some time and then would make changes or not.

So the book starts in first person, and then this woman enters this experiment in the middle, this income-generating experience she enters from an ad in a health food store on the bulletin board. She’s hired to be the Emotional Girlfriend for this man who is extremely famous and wealthy. He basically is orchestrating this big experiment that’s going to solve love. His problem is he keeps having shitty relationships, and so he decides to solve it. He decides, “I’m going to hire some scientists, and I’m going to be the middle of this research study.” When I was writing the beginning, I was writing this person with all these problems. Then I thought that when she entered this experiment, it should be from some kind of plural voice or some kind of multiple perspective thing, which is something I had never written. So I wrote the whole middle hundred pages in third person now, but at one point it was first person plural—it was a total mess. I turned it into Emily, and I was like, “Help it.” And she was like, “I don’t know if it can be helped. You need to maybe think about this more.” And then I just threw it out and wrote it in third person, which is how it is now. I think you asked the right questions for that to happen. You weren’t saying, “This perspective can’t exist this way.” Just in what you told me about the way that it felt for you to read it, I was like, “OK, that’s not how I want it to feel.”

EB: I do think, going back to what you were saying about some editors, who, with a red pen—

CL: Do you know any editors who work like that?

EB: No. I mean, maybe, but I don’t like them, so I don’t talk to them. Kidding! But no, I would never presume to rewrite someone like you who’s clearly so voice-driven. I feel like my job is to track things and help the book become the best version of what it already is. If it’s not tracking for me, as a very close reader, then I can’t imagine that it would for someone who just goes into the bookstore and picks it up, which isn’t to say that it can’t exist in that form. It just might not sell as many copies—and, less crassly, you might not reach as many people who could be very impacted by your work and your voice. So, to circle back around, I think that this book, intentionally or not, has ideas behind it that are timely and important and political—not news-cycle political, though we could talk about that if we wanted to, but we’re not going to. More what it’s like to be a woman in the world now. You’re talking so much about the body and what it means to be a female body moving through the city, moving through the world.

CL: For me, there are just two different parts of being a woman. Neurochemically, I’m a woman, so I experience estrogen in a certain way—but that’s just a really small part of it. The bigger part of it is that the world is constantly telling me, “Hey, woman!” So, like, I’m walking around the world, and people are being like, “Woman, woman, woman, woman.”

For me, there are just two different parts of being a woman. Neurochemically, I’m a woman, so I experience estrogen in a certain way—but that’s just a really small part of it. The bigger part of it is that the world is constantly telling me, “Hey, woman!”

EB: Except it’s more like, “Womaaaan.” [laughter]

CL: But, I mean, there are these two different prongs to it. Especially with Nobody Is Ever Missing, I think there was this feminist reading of the book. But really, it wasn’t important to me that that character was a woman; it just happened that it be that because that’s what I’ve been. I’m used to bouncing around the world and having people treat me like a woman because that’s what I appear to be from the outside. So, I’m kind of two minds about it. Like, in this book, the center of it, is this experiment where women are doing different emotional labor on behalf of this man. They’re being compensated very highly for it, but they’re being taken advantage of. And I knew that I couldn’t reverse the genders in this book without it becoming a totally different book. It wasn’t my idea from the outset to write about gender. Maybe somebody should write the other one. Some famous woman orchestrating these men around her? Somehow, I feel embarrassed even saying that.

EB: Well, which famous woman has enough money to do that?

CL: Meryl Streep.

EB: Meryl Streep.

CL: Meryl Streep could do it, and she would just be like, “You, you, you,” and they would just be like, “This is great. This is the best day of my life.”

EB: Well, one of my favorite characters is Ashley, the Anger Girlfriend. She is a total badass, she’s a boxer, and her job is both to instigate fights and to physically harm Kurt—

CL: Which is great. It was very relaxing for me to write.

EB: It’s great. I identified with her, except I don’t hit people often. But I was curious about that, your choices with the physicality of Ashley and the sort of freedoms you were allowed with that kind of a character because she’s so different from Mary—not so different from Mary in every way, but—

CL: Almost in every way. I don’t know if people know Ronda Rousey, but I think Ashley kind of grew out of my curiosity about Rousey and women’s MMA. I started watching some fights online, and I thought it was so beautiful and terrifying—and I was fascinated by it. Some people have a hard time watching it, but it’s just very exciting to me. So, the character kind of grew out of this interest in watching women beat the shit out of each other. But they’re not angry. There’s a handshake, and there’s even, like, a hug after the fight. They’re literally bleeding out of the face—

EB: It’s their job. Men and women are huge appreciators of Ronda Rousey, and she makes a shit-ton of money doing that job.

CL: It’s been kind of sad though because she kind of got beat very badly by Amanda Nunes when she was trying to make a come-back after that horrific match with Holly Holm. But there are lots of other fighters—Rousey was just the original spark for me. I’m going to stop talking about MMA because this is not about that.

EB: [To the audience:] You guys didn’t come here to talk about MMA?

CL: I feel like MMA is similar to writing because it’s just one person using everything they have, along with years of experience and training, for this one thing. I can probably draw way too many comparisons, but imagine that if somebody came up here and started to attack me. I had to respond to the attack and not just be physically strong but also be able to mentally deal with the stress of being attacked in front of a bunch of people—and be able to physically respond. There are just so many beautiful things going on in the brain that I think maybe women can relate much more than we’ve been told that we can.

EB: Let’s talk about celebrity. Kurt, the guy who runs the Girlfriend Experiment, is this very famous actor. He has both the financial means to pay these women to perform these emotional services—but he also has the cachet and these women want to be around him. Mary is fascinating because she was raised in a very rural area with parents who were extraordinarily religious and off the grid—I mean, she didn’t even have a Social Security card. So when she breaks away and goes to college, it’s like she’s from another planet. She’s the perfect person for this Emotional Girlfriend position because she’s not projecting any of her stuff onto Kurt the way one would if they knew him as a celebrity. Like, “Oh, they’re like my friend.” She can’t do that.

CL: My knowledge of film and actors is pretty limited compared to the national average, I think. But I think everybody has probably experienced this thing, where if you have any social media presence whatsoever—you’re on Facebook, or you’ve written something that’s been online—people read your posts and then talk to you about them as if they are something that you told them. It’s uncomfortable for a person to pre-know you before they actually know you—or the other way around, where you know of somebody a little bit through some sort of friend of a friend; or you see something they’ve posted online or written online or published somewhere, and then you kind of know something about them before you’re supposed to know something about them. This is an uncomfortable thing that people deal with constantly, and we don’t really know how to navigate it. For me, that was where that concern came from, and I tend to take one thing that seems pretty real and small and then just exaggerate it. So it’s like, well, what if you were just extremely, extremely well known, and everybody felt like they already knew you? And also, what if you knew nothing about anybody else, and you felt like you were completely in the dark? So, it’s like these two polar opposites of a normal social problem that we have day to day.

EB: Yeah. Before social media, celebrities were the only people who experienced life in that way, but now, it is a quotidian problem. I think it’s a fascinating treatment of that even if you didn’t quite mean it to be. It’s a really interesting angle to go at it.

CL: I lived in New York for nine years, and before I moved there, I had friend who lived there for many years. He would tell me these stories like, “I was at dinner and then Michel Gondry sat down.” And I’d be like, “Michel Gondry, you mean like the director? You know him?” And he’d be like, “You know, it’s New York.” People are running around, and these people are just there in the background. It seems sort of absurd, but I do have a couple of friends I couldn’t go out in public with—people would just constantly talk to them. It’s different for writers, of course. There are some writers I can nerd out about meeting, but it’s not the same thing as a person whose image has been made so public. Then it seems that that people interact with their idea of this person as a picture or as somebody they’ve seen go through emotional things in movies, or whatever their medium is, you know? It terrifies me. I don’t like being in those situations.

EB: Well, and Kurt’s so funny because he so desperately wants to be a capital-A artist—and he’s not going to be, except that the Girlfriend Experiment almost ends up being this quite astounding performance art. He never intended that; it was really solely for his self-centered gains. Poor Kurt. He’s the worst, but I feel bad for him.

CL: Mission accomplished.

Catherine Lacey is the author of Nobody Is Ever Missing, winner of a 2016 Whiting Award and a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, and The Answers. In 2017, she was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. Her essays and fiction have been published widely and translated into Italian, French, Dutch, Spanish, and German. Born in Mississippi, she is now based in Chicago.

Emily Bell is a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and the director of FSG Originals.