Certain American States is a collection of stories about ordinary people seeking—and failing to find—the extraordinary in their lives. The characters are continually coming to terms with their place in the world, and how to adapt to that place. A woman leaves her dead husband’s clothing on the street, only for it to reappear on the body of a stranger; a man reads his ex-wife’s short story and neurotically contemplates whether it is about him. These are stories of breakups, abandonment, and strained family ties; dead brothers and distant surrogate fathers; loneliness, happenstance, starting over, and learning to let go. Lacey’s elegiac and inspired prose is at its full power in this collection, further establishing her as one of the singular literary voices of her generation. She joined author Alexander Chee in conversation at Greenlight Bookstore to discuss writing her first short story collection.
Alexander Chee: As I was getting ready to talk to you about Certain American States, I was thinking about how these stories have a very simple premise and how they all bear a relationship to jokes. And I wondered: are these stories also jokes? At least some of them? Some of them seem like really long jokes.
Catherine Lacey: Yes, jokes about grief. I do think people sometimes feel like they have to admit that something is funny—like things can’t be serious and funny at the same time. This seems like a sort of latent agreement that every critic and literary person has made and we haven’t necessarily noticed. Any time we describe a writer as funny, that’s supposed to be a little bit of a demerit to their—
Chee: —their seriousness scale.
Lacey: Yes. Or their weight. Or it’s just fun and it washes over you and you are done with it. We can’t have lasting literature that is also really funny. I mean, I find a lot of classic, depressing writers to be hilarious. Jean Rhys is coming to mind for some reason. She’s super dark—
Chee: —but every now and then something is just hilarious.
Lacey: You see her seeing herself from above and that’s always kind of a relief, right? This came up last night, actually, in Boston, where somebody asked a question that was, “Why doesn’t anybody talk about you as if you’re comedic?” Critics never mention that my work is funny. If, in a review, somebody doesn’t want to bring up or write about the humor that plays into my writing, it may just be that they think they are doing me a favor by excluding it. The other reading which is also possible is that women aren’t ever recognized as funny. We can’t even recognize humor in female writing. It must be emotional.
Chee: OK, for example, I’m going to read your own stuff to you. “Everyone was talking about how they were picking up everything they own and asking ‘Does this bring me joy?’ And if it didn’t, you had to get rid of it. Everyone was doing this, asking themselves about joy. It felt incredibly dangerous. I was afraid for the world.” That is so terrifying and hilarious.
Lacey: But it’s true. We’re still kind of doing this. But there was a time a couple years ago where everybody was like, “I’m just really reducing everything and I’m really questioning everything. . .” I truly did feel that way. I thought it was very humorous that this had caught on in Western culture, all of sudden. As if people hadn’t been living with nothing all over the world for so long. And we were like, “What brings me joy?” You don’t really want to ask yourself that, you know? You would just tell everybody in your house, “Go away. I never want to see you again. I’m never speaking to you again.” You don’t really want to only have the things in your life that bring you joy.
You don’t really want to only have the things in your life that bring you joy.
Chee: “Learning,” a story from the collection, first starts, “It’s hard to know which of us began to wear our shoes in the apartment, but one of us did. One of us, then the other.” That’s hilarious.
Lacey: Well, thanks.
Chee: Yeah, but also it’s gross. That’s what’s great about it—the mystery of it—and you think back to how those things happen in a living arrangement or marriage. “Who started it?” But then you realize you’ve both been doing it for some reason and you don’t really know why.
Lacey: This is a thing that came up last night too and I find myself saying something that I didn’t know that I thought. In relationships—friendships and long-term relationships and all different dynamics—there’s the two people and the way they perceive themselves, then there’s the things that actually happen between them. Imagine there’s a transcript of everything that you have ever said to your partner or friend or whatever. If that was all recorded, there’d be this verifiable aspect of the relationship. Meanwhile, you both have your own highly edited, Michel Gondry thing going on in your brain that doesn’t really match the record. But it’s the only reality you have access to. Nobody is actually following you around with a tape recorder, compiling what has really happened between you and the people in your life. As time goes on, you build on these fake versions and these stories that we have in our heads; these fictions, they grow. So, in that way, we are all fiction writers—every single one of us is a fiction writer. We play that off to other people constantly. And I just think that’s hilarious. The alternative would just be to be overwhelmed by it and never talk to anybody ever again, which is always an option.
Chee: My theory, then—of you and of these stories—is that they began as things that cracked you up and also kind of freaked you out.
Lacey: Yeah—you solved it. It does sort of speak to something that I find disturbing and kind of exciting and fun and funny and sad. I’m trying to figure out where this feeling came from—who’s saying this? What is that? What is this feeling that I have? So, that’s how it happens.
Chee: So, with jokes, there’s typically a structure where there’s somebody who the joke lands on. Who is the joke on? Does it change?
Lacey: I don’t know!
Chee: Is the joke on the reader?
Lacey: Never. You know when you’re reading something and you can tell they think they’re better than whomever happened to be picking up the book? We know these books. We’ve read these books. We put them down. Or we finish them.
You have to somehow find a way for the story to have space for every single character to be flawed and beautiful at the same time, for every character to completely be the hero and completely be the villain.
I think if there’s ever a character in your book that you think you have figured out and you don’t like, then there’s a problem. You have to somehow find a way for the story to have space for every single character to be flawed and beautiful at the same time, for every character to completely be the hero and completely be the villain of every story—because that’s just how life is. You create every single problem in your life, and you have to solve every problem in your life.
Chee: So how did this collection come together?
Lacey: I was writing short stories before I wrote a novel. I finally thought that I had to sit down and write a whole book. I don’t think I would’ve written a book—it was too big a task for me when I was a younger writer—so I would write stories. That was enjoyable for me. And there were a few stories that sort of became nobodies. Then there were others and they kind of got some friends together. And I thought that together, they formed a sort of collection. At some point later, I published the first novel. Then, while I was at a writing residency, trying to finish or give it a go with The Answers, I had a dream with Dorothea Lasky.
Chee: For context, if you don’t know her, she is a remarkable poet and she’s also one-half of Astro Poets on Twitter.
Lacey: Yes, before she was Astro Poets on Twitter, she would walk around and be like, “Are you a Gemini?” Then she showed up in my dreams unannounced like, “Here, here is a book that you wrote.” I wrote an email to my agent the next day saying, “I think I have half a story collection.” And she was like, “Cool.” From then, though, those stories, some of them did not belong. Other stories were written over years. It kind of grew and shed and grew and shed its skin in a way that I had backed into it as I seem to do with everything by messing something up first.
Chee: What would you say is the oldest story in the collection?
Lacey: The oldest story is actually the title story. At least that was the first one that was ever published. But I didn’t know that I was writing a story collection and I hadn’t written a novel then. I don’t know what I was doing.
Chee: In the writing, what would you say is the one that surprised you the most?
Lacey: I think they were all surprises to me. Other people, maybe better, stronger, more ritualized writers, they can plan and they can see them coming and can lay them out and they understand something—I don’t know—about how literature should be. I don’t know who these people are. I just hear about them. Zadie Smith—it’s just her. I don’t know. I feel I can never control how the writing happens. I have a regimen—I wake up and I work and I write and I read. I do these things all the time. But then there are some days where you just have a story and it’s just there. Most of the other days you just don’t have one. So every time there’s been a story, it’s been kind of a surprise. There were a couple stories that got cut from here that I didn’t feel ever quite got done despite me feeling like I could see them, I could see the whole thing and I’d been working on them for years and I felt sure that if I just worked hard enough on them, the story would reveal itself to me. And that’s just not true sometimes. You wait on the doorstep for this thing to come out and then you look behind at the facade and there’s no house there. Like, “Oh, what am I doing here?” And the next day you just get one quick one.
Every time there’s been a story, it’s been kind of a surprise.
Chee: “What have I been doing here?” would be a great eventual next collection.
Lacey: I think that was an essay collection by Marilynne Robinson—What Are We Doing Here?
Chee: Mm-hm. But what have I been doing here?
Lacey: It’s a sequel. We should give her a call.
Chee: You mention that stories are consoling to your life. Is that accurate?
Lacey: It’s not always the stories.
Chee: Is it fun?
Lacey: They are fun when it gets going. It can be really fun. Even the ones you end up trashing can be a lot of fun.
Chee: You make it sound like you’re crashing a car.
Lacey: I am! Sort of. I’m a really bad driver. I think the writing process—the more you get into that, the more you accept that’s the way you organize your thoughts—it truly does not matter what comes out of it because sometimes the stories that get finished, published, whatever, maybe they happened quickly and you didn’t personally get that much from them. It becomes an object that other people can use. Some of these stories that did not end up getting finished that were just flawed or had emotional problems, I had to leave them somewhere. The process of writing them—even though they will never see the light of day—there was something that was happening there. I think in those ways, those graveyard stories can mean more to a writer.
Chee: The ones that didn’t make it.
Lacey: Yes. There’s this trend in theater of this one-on-one, immersive experience. I don’t know if you ever went to Sleep No More, where you get pulled into a closet where somebody does some weird thing.
Chee: I think there’s a reason I’ve never been.
Lacey: I was poisoned! I mean, I wasn’t really poisoned, but this woman gave me a vial of something. It was a performance that was specifically meant for a random person selected from this space. I remember that experience a lot more clearly than a lot of plays I have seen—these entire magnificent fully produced things at BAM. I can’t remember them. But I won’t ever forget that one-on-one experience, despite the fact that perhaps it was just innocuous and a bit trite and overdone and dramatic. Maybe it was all those things. Maybe it was great. But only I saw it, so I remember it clearly. And so these stories that never get out there, anything that anybody might be working on, I feel they are really impactful. It becomes privately useful to you over a time in a way that you can’t share with anybody else and that’s part of the reason it’s useful.
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 of Young American Novelists. Her essays and fiction have been published widely and translated into Italian, French, Dutch, Spanish, and German. She was born in Mississippi and is based in Chicago.
Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, and the essay collection How To Write An Autobiographical Novel, all from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic and an editor at large at VQR. His essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, T Magazine, Tin House, Slate, and Guernica, among others. He is winner of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose and a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, and is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.