Escape From New York? Catherine Lacey on Her Debut Novel, ‘Nobody Is Ever Missing’


In Catherine Lacey’s debut novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, we meet Elyria, who runs away from a pretty normal life in New York to New Zealand, into the great unknown. Reading this bold debut, I couldn’t help but think of Lacey’s New York Times essay, “A Way for Artists to Live.” The piece dealt with the experience of living in and helping to operate a small, cooperatively owned bed and breakfast in Brooklyn, as a way to alleviate some of the financial pressure that squeezes just about every artist trying to make a living in New York. It’s a contrast to her novel, and it’s interesting that Lacey would write about what it has taken for her to survive in NYC while writing a book about a woman who just gives it up and leaves.

Flavorwire: You wrote an article on how living in 3B has helped you live and write in New York, but you also wrote this novel about a woman who escapes it. Was escaping New York on your mind when you starting working on Nobody is Ever Missing?

Catherine Lacey: Not at all. Elyria does leave New York, but it has nothing to do with the city as a magnetic or repulsive place or something that needs to be “escaped.” New York is just where she ended up. It’s just a place.

There have been a lot of “Goodbye to All That” essays as of late, and you touch upon that in your NYT article. What I found interesting is that while your novel is about a person who leaves New York, you seem to be one of the few artists who have offered up any sort of solution as to how to make living here a little easier. What has the response been to the NYT article?

The response has mostly been people asking to move in to 3B, the cooperative bed and breakfast I’ve lived in and been running with six others since 2010. If you’re an artist or writer trying to somehow pay New York rent and living costs while also somehow having enough time to work on your stuff, you better have a community that has your back and be able to work well with others. That or have some kind of sick rent deal. Otherwise, don’t bother.

Regardless of where you live, if you’re an artist, you have to solve the money and time problem. Some people solve it here. Some people go insane. I’m here because a lot of people I love are here and I don’t need a car. That’s pretty much all I need. New York may have a mystique or a sexy history, but we don’t live in a mystique or history. Mystique doesn’t do much for me. People do.

There’s one part of the book, towards the end, where Elyria mentions “walking long blocks just to avoid those places,” and “distressed buildings, distressing shadows made by the light through the trees.” Are there places in New York where you feel distressed?

I think over the course of a year every time I had a bad night or a weird date it was on the same block in the East Village, but I always thought that was pretty funny, not distressing. I’ve lived in six different neighborhoods in the last seven years here, so I have strong memories attached to different blocks or places, but nothing the way that Elyria does. Her trauma is much deeper than awkward tapas. I flipped my car off the side of the Nachez Trace in Mississippi when I was 17 and I remember not wanting to drive the trace for a long while. That’s about as close as I’ve come to Elyria’s kind of distress.

What made you want to take Elyria to New Zealand, of all the places on the globe you could have taken her to?

It actually happened the opposite way— I love the New Zealand landscape and people and I kept writing these stories set there. But I wasn’t going to just write a pleasant story about how pleasant New Zealand is and I wasn’t going to try to write about being a local there, so Elyria grew out of this. Her weird-ass internal landscape a counterpoint to the pristine coast, mountains and epic vegetation there. Elyria is so cagey and curdled that the kind-hearted Kiwis don’t know what to do with her. That contrast is what made the story interesting to me.

I thought it was funny that Elyria tells us at a point in the book that she hates poetry, yet you open the book to find a John Berryman poem containing a line that is the title of your book. What was it about that poem and that particular line that resonated with you so much that you’d use it to name your book?

I’m not a huge poetry reader, but I was immediately and irrevocably drawn in by Berryman’s voice. I bought The Dream Songs ten years ago and have read and re-read them countless times over the years. However, I had about 200 severely awful working titles for the novel before I was reading Dream Song 29 and realized the right title had been there all along. I think this was only a few weeks before we sent it to publishers.

You earned an MFA in nonfiction, but your first book is a novel. How do you approach writing your fiction and nonfiction differently?

The main distinction for me is that writing nonfiction I use a voice pretty close to my own, and in fiction I contaminate my voice with characteristics that I want to explore. For some reason in the last few years, fiction has come much more easily. Before that I was attempting to write a book-shaped piece of nonfiction, but it felt too much like doing math homework, so I shelved when the novel started happening and was so much more alive.

What are you working on next?

Fiction short and long. It may or may not have something do with Christian anarchists, a highly complicated attempt to engineer the perfect relationship, an invented bodywork technique and megalomania.