Q&A: Catherine Lacey on Her Accidental Debut Novel

by Morgan Ribera

“Oh, I get it. You’re totally eat, pray, loving!” people would frequently tell writer Catherine Lacey when they discovered she was traveling the New Zealand countryside solo for several months. They were referring to Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling novel, which came out around the time Lacey was traveling. “Because one woman had gone on a trip and it was very public, then that became the way that women traveled. People just assumed,” says Lacey, but she assured them that her travels had little in common with Gilbert’s. And like Lacey, Elyria, the protagonist of Lacey's debut novel Nobody is Every Missing (FSG), hitchhikes and scavenges through the heart of New Zealand on a soul-searching journey that involves very little eating, praying, or loving. "It's not that kind of story," Lacey says.

Partially inspired by her own travels in New Zealand and the short stories she wrote before and after, Nobody is Ever Missing tells the dark, affecting story of one woman’s existential crisis. With raw and urgent prose, Lacey chronicles Elyria’s fleet from her past and present and the mental and physical journey that ensues.

For much of her 20s, Elyria has been haunted by the suicide of her adopted sister Ruby. Even her marriage is overshadowed by the tragedy, as Elyria’s husband was Ruby’s former math professor and the last to see her alive. Though they share an intimate bond over their own history of loss, communication is lacking in their relationship, and all Elyria wants now is to disappear into solitude. Accepting an off-handed offer of a empty guest room from a poet she met once at a party, Elyria does just that, abruptly leaving behind her husband and the comfortable Manhattan lifestyle they’ve created together for a farmhouse in the middle-of-nowhere New Zealand. Along her spiraling journey, she encounters a series of quirky characters, sleeps in a few rather unconventional places, works odd jobs, and maintains a peripatetic lifestyle with little to no plan for the future. Alternating between stream-of-consciousness wonderment and beautiful clarity, Elyria recounts her surreal experiences hitchhiking across the lonely landscape as she descends further and further into the abyss of her interior self.

Packed with intriguing ruminations on love, loss, identity, and the human condition, Elyria’s expedition is a psychological one that leads everywhere and nowhere. Nobody is Ever Missing is a deliciously bold debut that showcases Lacey’s distinct style, one that drifts off the page, lingers, and haunts. At once startling and relatable, it’s a rare, magnetic novel filled with countless lines you’ll want to highlight and revisit.

I sat down with Lacey to discuss her new book, cross-country hitchhiking, accidental novel writing, and the blurred lines that exist between author and narrator.

BUSTLE: You've published a slew of brilliant short stories thus far, but Nobody is Ever Missing is your first novel. What inspired you to write this book in particular?

CATHERINE LACEY: Well, the novel actually started as short stories. For the last several years I've been writing a lot of fiction so when I was in New Zealand for a few months, I started writing stories that were set there and when I got back, I kept writing more and more stories set there and it seemed like there was a through line and possibly the same character.

I had only written really short fiction before, so I thought maybe I'd write a long short story, and then it kept getting longer and I started putting structure to it. But I came to New York to study non-fiction at Columbia, so I’d had no desire to write a book, least of all a novel. I thought maybe a book of non-fiction at some point, but the thought of writing a novel seemed like a bad idea until I kind of accidentally did it.

The thought of writing a novel seemed like a bad idea until I kind of accidentally did it.

How else did your experience writing creative non-fiction influence the way you wrote your book?

Almost every place in the book is based on somewhere I went and a lot of the characters are based on people that I knew. I didn’t necessarily do anything that the main character, Elyria, did aside from hitchhiking and working in weird places, but I think at a certain point while working on it, it just became about her thoughts. It’s a very internal book and at some point my agent said it read, at times, like non-fiction, like thoughts everybody has.

You said that, like your protagonist Elyria, you also went hitchhiking across New Zealand. Was that out of necessity or purely for the experience?

I had no money. I mean I had some money, but I was really trying to make it stretch because I had no idea where I was going to get more from once I ran out so it was kind of out of necessity. It was also just more interesting, a better way to travel. I enjoyed it once I started. It just makes for more interesting everything, versus buying a bus ticket, waiting in line, getting on the bus, which kind of makes you sick and takes forever. Instead, you’re getting into a car where you can have a one-on-one conversation with someone. It was just always a better experience and it was free.

Your novel is filled with countless poetic, insightful statements about love, identity, loss. Are these meditations informed by your own experiences, too?

Oh, totally. I’m working on an essay right now about how when you write in first person fiction, where is the line between yourself and that voice? The voice is constantly moving and it’s not totally clear all of the time what is just your character and what's you and what’s the difference between those two things.

When you write in first person fiction, where is the line between yourself and that voice?

In terms of writing the novel, why do you think it’s important that Elyria’s mental journey is told inside of a physical journey? Why did her story need to be told as a travel story?

New Zealand is almost the furthest away from New York that you can get and I think for some people when you need to do some work on yourself, the tendency is to get as far away from where you are as possible. I think Elyria is trying to get out of herself, you know? She is kind of trying to do the impossible, trying to get rid of herself without actually getting rid of herself.

And the New Zealand landscape just really appealed to me while I was there. I felt high on it. People say that about New Zealand all the time. It's just one of those places that gets in your blood a little bit and there's something really other worldly and peaceful about it, which is such a huge contrast to Elyria as a character. I don't know exactly how that developed, but at some point I realized that her internal world is the opposite of the New Zealand landscape, so it was nice to put those opposites together.

There's a point in the book where Werner, the poet Elyria goes to live with in New Zealand, says to her “Who understands what has gotten into women these days — trying to find themselves somewhere, like they’ve split in two and they’re chasing the other part…the human experience is not good enough for you and you want something impossible.” To what extend do you think his statement is valid and what is exactly that Elyria is looking for?

I don’t think I really know what Elyria is looking for. I think she is looking for relief from trauma outside of herself instead of inside of herself, so that's her main mistake, but in particular, about that line, I went to New Zealand by myself and I was there for several months right around the same time that the book Eat, Pray, Love came out. I remember people, not all the time, but some of the time, would be like, Oh you're eat pray loving! and I was like, I'm not. I'm totally not. I was scavenging, not talking to be people, and definitely not praying, just sort of staring blankly out into the air, but because one woman had gone on a trip and it was very public, then that became the way that women traveled. People just assumed. But not every time a man gets in a car and drives somewhere distant do people go, Oh, you're Jack Kerouacing. It’s like no, you get to do whatever you want with your travel experience. So I think that Werner was sort of carrying that perspective that I saw in other people.

Not every time a man gets in a car and drives somewhere distant do people go, 'Oh, you're Jack Kerouacing.'

A lot of your writing, this book included, is written from the point-of-view of a female narrator. Do you find that writing from this perspective is easier because you're a female or more enjoyable or do you just feel like you're not qualified to write from a male perspective?

Yea, I've been thinking a lot about this. I wrote a story a while ago that isn’t out yet. It was written from a female perspective, but then something about it felt odd so I just reversed all the genders of everyone in the story and it worked much better. I don't know if I think the female narrator is so different from the male narrator. Actually, I don't think it is.

And there aren't many female road trip stories. That was something that I realized later on while working on the book. We know what would happen to a solo man traveling through another country hitchhiking. He has a lot more power, a lot more agency, a lot more control over his space than a woman does, so to me [a woman’s perspective] is more interesting and obviously I know a lot about being a woman so it makes more sense to me to work that way. That said, I think it’s much easier for women to write from a male perspective than for men to write from a female perspective.

Why do you think that is?

It's much more loaded to be a woman. I've read way more male protagonists than I have female protagonists, and a lot of media, a lot of film, a lot of everything is from the male point of view by default. We think of that as the "everyman" archetype, and anything that is female is too particular to be universal… so I think that most female writers I know are trying to break that and show that there is a lot that is universal about the female perspective, the female perspective doesn’t need to be ghettoized. And I also think that even the most sensitive men are kind of oblivious to what it's like to live as a woman.

Even the most sensitive men are kind of oblivious to what it's like to live as a woman.

What about first person? Third person rarely shows up in your writing. Why do you prefer first?

I find third person to be really clinical or megalomaniac. You get to control everything and know everyone's thoughts. That doesn't really appeal to me because that's not at all my experience of the world. My experience of the world is first person, so I'm just more interested in writing that way.

Are there other things that first person allows you to do that you couldn't in third person?

It's almost like acting, you know, it's like coming up with a character and then becoming that character, just getting to speak as that character. Sometimes you can say things you would never say personally. Elyria says a lot of things that I definitely don't agree with and has a lot of anxieties for which I just want to tell her, 'Chill!" but it's fun to be her for a little bit and get to say all this crazy shit because it does seem to get something out that maybe is a part of me at some level that I'm not in touch with.

What's your writing process like? How do you sit down and “get in the zone” when you're trying to write?

I’m usually a morning person. That seems to be when things are more in flow... When I was in grad school, I had this rigid fierceness about my writing time. Once I stopped being so rigid, I found that things were actually better.

I also like having a lot of projects to bounce between. Working on a novel and stories has been good. Inevitably when you're working on a novel, you'll reach periods or months where it feels stuck so it's nice to have something else to go to. I'm kind of addicted to getting a complete arc done and polished, and then it's like one little thing and you can send it to somebody and they can read it in a few minutes. That's really appealing to me, so short stories feel like my — I don’t know, some drug metaphor, my one hit thing, you know?

What scenes in the book were the hardest for you to write?

Well, I made it really hard on myself in the beginning. I thought my novel had to be very plotted. I thought I had to have lots of stuff happen. In the early draft of the book nothing happened, and I was like, This doesn’t seem right. Something should happen? so I put in all this crazy shit. I don’t even know what all was in there — lots of violence, she was on the run and she saw something she wasn't supposed to see, and it was all very‘What the fuck? My agent read it and was like, What happened? Cut everything that you put in there to try and make something happen and then you’ll have this very voice driven thing. That's what’s working. You don't need all this excess stuff.

What do you hope that readers will get out of the novel at the end of it?

Not just with this book in particular, but with all writing, I hope that people feel seen. I think that's the reason people read. That's the reason I read at least, to feel like if I recognize some aspect of the human experience in a book than … I'm not so unknowable. I'm a part of something. And I think that that is the hope.

I'm having a bit of a weird time with the fact that it's a really dark book for most of it.

That said, I'm having a bit of a weird time with the fact that it's a really dark book for most of it. I don't see it as that dark, but people see it as a really dark and I don't want people to get depressed by it, but I think that's really not up to me.

I would agree it's a bit on the dark side. I also found it slightly odd that the back cover calls it a “comedy,” although a “pitch-black comedy.” Do you consider it a comedy?

It's been a dividing line. Because on the back of the galley it says that and also on the book’s webpage. The first reporter that I talked to was like, Okay, first of all, your book is not a comedy, and I was like, Oh, okay. I think that it is… I think it's a comedy because she can't do anything right. It’s sort of a dark comedy. I mean the scene where she pretends to be somebody's wife, I think that's really funny. She’s so out of place. To me, it's scenes like that that make it a comedy, but a lot of people have argued otherwise.

What was your favorite chapter to write?

It's funny because I don't really remember writing the book. The longer you get away from it, the more you're like, I don't remember when I did that or when I wrote that. I don't remember the act of it. Also, you write it one way and then revise it. You go back over it and see it so many times it all blurs together.

Sometimes you think your shit is amazing and then you go back and read it a day later and ask yourself, 'Was I drunk? What was I thinking? This is ridiculous!' I've done a lot of that.

So what would you say is your favorite part of the writing process than?

I freaking love writing. I like all of it, I really do. Creating new content is fun, but it's also really exhausting, so I can only do that a little bit and then I like revising. I also really like sitting by myself and thinking, or rather getting yourself to stop thinking… If you can get to the point where you're just following something and it has a momentum of its own, that's great.

I write stuff and I don't know if it's good or bad or what and it's not until months later, when I'm like, Oh maybe that was alright after all. And the opposite happens, too. Sometimes you think your shit is amazing and then you go back and read it a day later and ask yourself, Was I drunk? What was I thinking? This is ridiculous! I've done a lot of that.

Image: Lauren Volo