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Dear Lucy: An Interview with Julie Sarkissian

Julie Sarkissian and I attended The New School’s MFA program at the same time, and although we shared a few literature seminars (and many more hours drinking at Café Loup on West 13th Street), we were never in a workshop together. Julie was always extremely private about her work, so I had only the vaguest idea of what this book she was writing was actually about. Six years later, the galley arrived in my mailbox and I finally got a chance to see what she’d been up to all these years. Needless to say—and this is a serious understatement—I wasn’t disappointed.

Dear Lucy, Julie’s debut novel, is the story of a girl who understands the world strictly through her senses and her emotional instincts, a girl for whom language is a slippery, treacherous thing and modern society a set of baffling and restrictive codes.  We might call her “learning disabled,” but within the fable-like context of the novel, “touched” seems the more likely term. Lucy’s been placed on the Farm under the care of an elderly couple while her overwhelmed mother carries on with her life in the City. Lucy gathers eggs and helps tend to the farm alongside another of the couple’s charges, a pregnant teenager named Samantha. Through rotating sections told from the point of view of Lucy, Samantha, and Missus (the Farm’s stern and dissembling matriarch), the novel explores the subject of motherhood—what it means to be a mother, both within the constructs of society and in the most primal and elemental sense. It’s an utterly unique and affecting novel, and hopefully the first of many to come.

I had the chance to ask Julie some questions about the book over email in early April.

Brian DeLeeuw: Tell me a little bit about the genesis of this book.  How did you arrive at the character of Lucy, a girl whose intellect is lacking, but whose spirit, heart, and sense of empathy are as developed as anyone’s?

Julie Sarkissian: Lucy came to me as a voice, narrating her gathering of the eggs. I wrote some pages in her voice, falling in love with her as I did, then I worked backwards to figure out who she must be, based on the clues she gave me. Lucy’s voice was truly the genesis of the whole project, and the one element of the book that remained constant throughout the creation of the novel. It was the inspiration and the stalwart of the novel, though I can’t rightly say where her voice came from. It was more like Lucy chose me, rather than I chose her.

In regards to her empathy, I think that Lucy is an especially empathetic person not despite her limitations, but because of them. I think of emotional intelligence as a more primal human quality than pure IQ intelligence. And Lucy has that primal humanity about her, though intellectually she is limited. Intellect can get in the way of empathy. We analyze a person’s goodness and then decide if they are deserving of our compassion. But Lucy doesn’t have the analytic skills to judge someone as good or bad, and therefore her channels of compassion are open and free.

BD: And yet that gap between emotional and intellectual intelligence leads Lucy into situation after situation in which the reader’s understanding of what is about to happen is so radically different from Lucy’s.  She’s always trying to do the good thing, the right thing, but you can see each disaster coming around the corner…  How difficult was it to maintain a central narrator with such a particular and limited intellectual understanding throughout the novel?  Did you have to constantly remind yourself of the difference between how Lucy would read the world and how you yourself would read it?

JS: The tension between Lucy’s interpretation of situations and the reader’s interpretation felt accessible, and was an organic part of writing the book, so I didn’t have to remind myself that there was a disparity between Lucy’s perception and the reader’s. But I did have to constantly find ways compensate for that disparity in terms of plot. It was often very hard to figure out ways to get necessary information to the reader from Lucy’s point of view. So that aspect of having a learning disabled narrator was often difficult. Of course there were other narrators upon whom I relied heavily to get across a lot of “straightforward” facts (though it is debatable if any of the characters are straightforward about anything, except Lucy herself). But that said, I didn’t want it to seem as if the other characters were included only to prop up Lucy and make up for what she lacked. So the challenge to bring the other characters alive in their own right—and not just as bolsters for Lucy’s limited perspective—was a by-product of Lucy being a limited protagonist.

BD: You already talked about Lucy’s empathy.  For me, one of the most remarkable things about the novel is the empathy you yourself extend to its most repellent character, Missus.  Was the decision to give Missus her own sections of the book, in which she attempts to explain herself (if never actually apologizing for her actions), one of the earlier decisions in conceiving the novel, or was it something you came to only later, after you’d already written Lucy and Samantha as narrators?  What was the experience of writing from the perspective of—in other words, of empathizing with—such a jealous, heartless woman?

JS: Missus was actually the second character to have a voice, after Lucy, of course.  She introduced herself to me by talking about Stella [her daughter] being missing from her and Mister’s lives. I created Missus not conscious of what her moral character would become—and certainly not conscious of all the things that transpired around Stella’s disappearance—but for practical purposes. Because Samantha was already on the page from Lucy’s point of view, I felt that a woman who wanted a baby, and needed help on a farm, would be the glue that would bring Lucy and Samantha together.

But despite the fact that I didn’t initially know the depths of her depravity, from the onset Missus was filled with unrest.  She always felt like something was missing from her life. So I had sympathy for her simply because she was suffering, and I don’t think my sympathy for her ever dried up, even when she proved to be, as you say, heartless. But unlike a total sociopath, Missus is not unemotional. She is not self-satisfied. Some part of her does know that something is wrong with her, although she projects that sense of being broken onto her physical body. She wants to be different. I do believe she believes that she wants to love a child. But she is incapable of love, and that is pitiful.

What kept me from feeling like Missus was too immoral and repulsive to be compelling was the glimpse of humanity suggested by the fact that she is pleading her case to the reader. Unlike, for example, a character on trial for a crime, facing execution or prison, there are no tangible stakes for Missus. And yet, she is still trying to convince the reader, and herself, that her actions were justified. She must—in some tiny way, on some tiny level—be looking for exoneration, because if she wasn’t, she wouldn’t be explaining her actions. And she wouldn’t be looking for exoneration if she didn’t feel that she had done anything wrong.

BD: Religious faith, generally referred to as an adherence to “His will,” is often used as a shield or an excuse—usually by Missus, sometimes by Roger Marvin and others—for some of the worst behavior described in the novel.  Can you talk a bit more about how religion figures into the moral lives of these characters?  And perhaps into your own life?

JS: Religious discourse is used largely by Missus to defend her bad behavior, but I also think that the sense that you have a destiny, or that the universe made you a promise, is an existential feeling many people can relate to, religious or otherwise. Missus believes that a promise was made to her, and her belief in that promise is how she analyzes and understands the world. In terms of Missus’s moral character, it is a blurry line between her using religion to justify the unjustifiable and her feeling that a higher power is really asking her to go to extreme measures to follow His path for her. In fact, those elements of her religiosity are probably inextricable. They feed off each other.

My parents are now agonistic/atheist but both grew up religious, were especially religious as young adults, and actually met in church. My mom and dad both talked to me a lot about leaving the church when they were in their mid-twenties. They talked a lot about the hypocrisies of the church. So I never went to church with my family, but Orange County, CA, where I grew up, is incredibly religious.  I went to church with my friends sometimes, and actually sung in a Christian children’s choir called The Hour of Power Children’s Choir. The Hour of Power was this really popular televised ministry. They have an enormous church in Anaheim, near Disneyland. The preacher was incredibly charismatic, and I think while listening to the sermons I internalized a lot of the language and it came out here in Rodger Marvin’s voice. So I was in an interesting position of being the one non-believer in this Christian choir, and oftentimes the only real atheist among my friends growing up in the OC. I was always curious about what it felt like to have that kind of belief system, and I guess I explored some of that through Missus and Rodger Marvin.

BD: In contrast to your experience with the Hour of Power—which is very specific to late 20th Century American evangelical culture—the setting of Dear Lucy, in terms of both place and time, is left intentionally vague.  It’s somewhere in America, sometime in the 20th Century, sometime after the invention of cars and telephones.  There’s a coal mine nearby; the church, which appears to be of an ascetic branch of Protestantism, functions as the center of the community.  But beyond that, we don’t know much.  What lay behind the decision to leave these details of setting ambiguous?

JS: The decision to keep the elements of time and place ambiguous happened on an unconscious level. I liked and was intrigued by the way terms like “the farm” and “the city” sounded. It seemed to fit with Lucy’s childlike sensibilities and evoke an atmosphere of specious simplicity. The vague, symbolic naming of people and places reminded me of an old fashioned reading primer. And like a terrible, dark fable: people enacting the same base and basic fears and desires since the beginning of time. Of course, at a point I had to acknowledge the choice I was making and work to keep things consistent.

On another level, I was interested in the expectations that come with calling a character Mum Mum—evoking motherhood—or Mister—evoking some sort of title or position—and how those expectations were met and not met, and how they played into the development of character.

But there were times when I was conflicted about my decision not to name a decade or a location, when it came to details like cars and trucks and phones. I didn’t know where to draw the line in terms of elements that would suggest a specific time or place. Especially when it came to Samantha, who desperately wants to be a normal teenager, and normal teenagers love the latest fads. So it was hard to leave out any allusions to anything in popular culture. And maybe I lost an opportunity to make a comment on a moment in history or culture. But I felt committed to the choice of ambiguity and simplicity, and I felt that it contributed to the atmosphere and tone of the book.

BD: I understood this book to be, at its heart, about motherhood—about what it means to be a mother.  Mum Mum and Lucy; Samantha and Baby; Missus and Stella; and, arguably, Lucy and Jennifer: these are all literal or symbolic mother-daughter relationships.  What drove you to explore this subject, to make it the novel’s through-line?

JS: The mother of all questions!

I think the impetus to explore motherhood stemmed initially from two things, which quickly became three. The first was that Lucy had been deserted by her mother, which was something I felt instinctively about her, rather than consciously deciding it. I think perhaps Lucy’s gentleness with the eggs is what made me feel like she was compensating or searching for some connection that had been broken. Then when Lucy walked into the kitchen with the eggs, there was pregnant Samantha with red hair. I don’t “know why” there was a pregnant teenager in the kitchen, but there she was, and I had to accept that was where I had been lead. So Lucy being deserted by her mother—but still loyal to her mother, and in a lot of ways controlled by her mother—was the first element of motherhood. The second was the pregnant teenager who didn’t want her baby. The third was Missus, and her desire for a child, and her justifications of what had happened to her daughter, Stella. Missus was a character whose motivations were more mysterious to me, and it took a lot of conscious effort to make her character consistent.

As to why motherhood was such an unconscious inspiration, and then deliberate thematic through-line, I think relationships to mothers are about as fundamental to human life as it gets. Intellectually, I understand why people might disagree with that, but emotionally and psychologically I am tethered to the idea that you cannot overstate the influence of the mother on the child. I am rather Freudian in my psychological thinking in that way. I believe in the concept of attachment theory; that much of who we are is formed by the ways our mothers did and did not attach to us, and vice versa, as infants. I have always been very inspired by Faulkner, and I think of As I Lay Dying, how the Bundchen’s have to drag their mother’s corpse on this horrific journey to bury her, and how that is a metaphor for life, trying to part with the mother, wishing the mother dead, never able to bear leaving her. Addie Bunchen is the center section of the novel, the foundation, the touchstone. It also calls to my mind “The Origin of the World,” the painting by Courbet. The idea that women’s reproductive systems are the origin of life is just one interpretation, one way to understand human life, but it is one that I have always been compelled by, no doubt because of my relationship with my mother.

BD: You mentioned Faulkner and Courbet.  What other authors and books—and artists, movies, music, etc.—were you thinking about while you wrote Dear Lucy?  We were in the New School MFA program together years ago when you began the novel.  Were there any professors or particular books you encountered in that program which had a strong influence on this novel?

JS: In terms of content, I’m drawn to novels that interplay the grotesque and the emotional, and in terms of style, I am particularly grateful to the modernists for introducing stream of consciousness and the voice-driven novel. Faulkner has been a big influence on me, and I re-read As I Lay Dying and The Sound And The Fury while I was working on the book. Other major influences for this novel, and great loves in general, are Flannery O’ Connor and Toni Morrison, especially Beloved. I love the simplicity of O’ Connor’s voice and the depth of her darkness. I really admire that Morrison can take topics like “Love” and “Motherhood,” and make them so incredibly specific to a single character and yet still feel relatable to the whole human experience. Also, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, which I actually had never read but finally did towards the end of the writing my novel. An amazing book, and more contemporary, called The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton was inspiring to me while I wrote Dear Lucy; the narrator of The Book of Ruth is touched in some unnameable way, and her voice came barreling off the page and really re-confirmed my love for voice-driven novels.

The New School was such an inspiring and dynamic place, and I had an awesome time in the MFA program. Shelley Jackson’s post-modern literature class was an eye-opener. Almost everything in her class I hadn’t read before, and I was particularly fascinated by the language theory that we studied. We discussed the concept that desire is the birth of language; that if we were never taken from our mother’s breast, we would never have had to develop language. That made a huge impression on me. At The New School I also fell in love with the short novel The Hour of The Star by Clarice Lispector. It is a brilliant mediation on the self, on the artist and existence, as a poor unfortunate battles for her freedom against the cruelty of her boyfriend, and as her character battles against her unjust treatment by the author.

In terms of music, Joanna Newsom’s newest album always inspired me when I was writing, because it reminded me of Lucy. Also “Stuck fur Kinder” by Carl Orf, a.k.a. “The Badlands” theme.

BD: What’s next?  Are you working on a new book?

JS: I am working on a new project! It’s about a pirate carnival: an eclectic faire that travels the globe on an old ship and is run by gypsies that, legend has it, are descended from actual pirates. The pirates have found a way to stop raping and pillaging and make money the good old fashioned American way: commerce. But what the pirates sell comes at a huge price. They sell what the ego wants more than anything, but has been too afraid to ask for. When the carnival docks in a sleepy New England town, three women fall under the spell of the pirates, calling into question all they thought they valued and believed in.

Intellectually, I know the pirate carnival is a mess, but emotionally I’m in the new romance stage with lots of excitement and butterflies and hopes, and I’m not quite ready to face the flaws head-on.

And I recently started teaching at the Sackett Street Writing Workshop. I absolutely love teaching. A dream would be to be teach full time, or full time-ish, one day.

I’m also still working a few shifts a week at the same restaurant, Edwards Restaurant in Tribeca, that I have worked at since I was twenty! I can barely believe it’s been that long.

Julie Sarkissian is a graduate of Princeton University, where she won the Francis Leon Paige Award for creative writing, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Her debut novel, Dear Lucy, is out this month from Simon & Schuster. She lives in New York City.

Brian DeLeeuw is the author of the novel In This Way I Was Saved (Simon & Schuster, 2009).  He’s a screenwriter living in Los Angeles.

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