On “Self-Portrait with Boy”: An Interview with Rachel Lyon

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Introduced by a mutual friend when I moved to Brooklyn, Rachel Lyon and I met when our books — mine poetry, hers fiction — were both under contract but not yet out in the world. Because of this unique timing of our first encounter, it brings me great satisfaction to have both books released into the wild now and be able to talk with her about what that experience has been like, both in terms of her writing process, and her experience of having it finally loosed from her grasp.

Her debut novel, Self-Portrait with Boy (Scribner, 2018), journeys to the not-so-distant-past of the city in which we met, and where Lyon grew up, a New York rediscovered through the eyes of her sharp protagonist, a determined young artist named Lu Rile. I could not have predicted wanting to spend an entire book in the mind of Lu, but once introduced, I could barely be torn away to perform basic daily tasks like feeding myself, something Lu herself often ranks low on her list of priorities. What I mean to say is that her obsessions will quickly become yours, her ambition will intoxicate you, and her ferocious judgments of others and herself will feel as inevitable as if they were facts rather than personal opinions. Without any quotation marks (a decision discussed below) one remains so completely immersed in Lu’s world it can be tempting to forget any other exists.

When Lyon and I corresponded, we talked a lot about world-building, not just about place but about time, about holding onto the reality of this book when it was hers and hers alone, about her journey (to the Midwest and back) and Lu’s (to and from New York), and about what happens when art takes on a life of its own.

I want to start by asking about the names in this book. There’s a core set of names that have a symbolic touch — Gary Wrench, the building super, and the Schubert-Fines who are anything but fine, and then the protagonist, Lu Rile, who is poised to “rile” up everyone and everything. I found it so delicious when someone comes right out and makes this pun in the book, because indeed I “had seen it coming a mile away,which, for me only made it sweeter. Could you talk a little about naming characters, and maybe use that to also situate our readers who might not already have a context for what this novel undertakes?

Sure! I think in part because this is my first novel, I struggled a bit with the problem of suspension of disbelief. I had this feeling that I needed somehow to justify the piece. It is an improbable story — as many novels are! — and I think I was afraid readers wouldn’t “believe” it. So I think I compensated for that by playing around with various metafictional elements. The ghost is one example of one of these metafictional elements; several readers have asked me if the ghost is “real.” Which I just find so funny. Like, I don’t know! Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe in novels? If you have to ask whether the ghost is literal or figurative, you might ask yourself if you’ve suspended your disbelief just a little too completely, you know? The names of my characters are, I think, another playful metafictional element. I think of them as a kind of wink at the reader, an admission that we’re in this together, we’re playing this fictional game together. (Incidentally, I wrote a little more about the process of naming my characters for the blog on Linda Rosenkrantz’s baby name website.)

“Do you believe in novels?” — I love that. It’s kind of a dare, which also feels like an appropriately “New York” approach, in a way. It says you better be willing to leap if you want to get where we’re going! Let’s talk about another stylistic choice — elsewhere, you have noted wanting the sentences of Cormac McCarthy and I want to ask about something you definitely share: lack of quotation marks. Browsing your other fiction told me you don’t always make this choice, so I’m curious why you decided to go without in this case. Also, where in the process did this decision get made and did it receive any pushback along the way?

I have experimented with leaving out quotation marks now and then for years, but I made the definitive choice to leave them out for good when I was writing this book, and actually haven’t used them at all in any fiction I’ve written since. I haven’t received any editorial pushback, no. I did get one word of resistance from a reader. Someone who read my book early on commented on Amazon or Goodreads or somewhere that she couldn’t keep track of who was speaking, and thought it very strange and frustrating that there were no quotation marks. But she’s the only one; other readers have said they had no trouble keeping track of who was speaking. In some cases readers haven’t even noticed. So I suppose it’s a subjective thing.

Speaking of subjective, Self-Portrait with Boy is a first person narrative, and Lu is not a reliable narrator — nor would anyone be, who was telling a story about something that happened twenty years ago. The way quotation marks are used today, they signify that the statement bracketed between them is represented exactly the way it was stated aloud. I just found I couldn’t defend quotation marks in an unreliable first person narrative. How could Lu possibly remember what her landlord said, verbatim, twenty years after he said it? How could she possibly remember exactly what she said? It just didn’t make sense to me to use quotation marks in this context.

Rachel Lyon

Not that you asked for a history lesson, but in my defense, quotation marks are a relatively recent invention anyway. In the fifteenth century they were used to signify importance, not spoken dialogue. In Victorian novels, you sometimes see dialogue set apart by em dashes. And even today, quotation marks are far from standardized. The British use a single instead of a double mark; the French use that double sideways arrow symbol («…»); in some parts of Eastern Europe they open with an upside down mark („…“). I just find it all sorts of frivolous. Visually and aesthetically, quotation marks are so busy. I feel if I can write my dialogue cleverly enough, inserting dialogue tags in just the right places, etc., I don’t need them at all. Of course, that one Goodreads reviewer would probably argue that I can’t, in fact, write cleverly enough, and had better give up the whole project. But she’s the only person who’s put up a fuss so far, so I’m going to ignore her for now.

I also want to ask about time in this book. It has sections based on seasons, but you also explore how money can structure time. Lu is always measuring how many hours she’ll have to work at one job or another to pay for art supplies or help out her dad. You also have said elsewhere you were concerned about pace with this story because the tension of the plot is so straightforward. Can you share a little more about how you think about time and how to represent it in fiction? 

That’s such a good and difficult question. In terms of craft, I think about the old adage show, don’t tell. Time is one of those things that cannot be evoked very easily in representative language — the way a concrete object can, or a gesture, or a feeling. You can say “The next day,” or “A few hours later,” or “Each minute that passed seemed like an eternity,” but that’s all just telling. It’s totally unevocative. How do you show time, when it is an invisible thing? One way to do it is to draw an outline around it. You can represent the negative space by reminding the reader what she’s waiting for: Hey, this big event is coming up… it hasn’t happened yet… just keep reading… it will happen… not yet, but soon! That’s suspense! You can also fill in the negative space. In dialogue, for instance, instead of telling the reader, “There was an awkward pause,” you can say, “He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. She coughed.” Or you can show time passing by showing how we measure it, as I do with Lu passing time at the health food store or the 24-hour photo.

It’s true that because the plot of the novel is so simple, I had to be very tricky with myself not to, er, climax too soon. It would have been very easy to let Lu tell Kate about the photograph in Chapter 2, but then the novel wouldn’t be a novel; it would just be an anecdote. So I wrote in a lot of obstacles, and I was very aware that the characters were going to experience time differently from one another. While Lu is moving forward at a pretty steady velocity — hemming and hawing about whether or not to tell Kate about the photograph, and working long hours, and futzing with the image itself, etc. — the child’s grieving parents, Kate and Steve, are experiencing time very differently. Grief is confusing; it feels slow and sometimes cyclical and sometimes even backward. Kate experiences brief forgotten moments like flashes in the present. Steve regresses pretty deeply, going back to live in his parents’ basement like a teenager. He says at one point that he somehow keeps expecting his son to return in the form of his father. And this is all against the backdrop of the entropic decay of this building where they all live. So time in this novel is pretty subjective.

Lu makes a journey home at one point and I recall you mentioning that her drive was a very early part of this book. I’m curious about what you hoped her exit and return to New York might tell us about Lu?  

As a native New Yorker, I’m curious about the experience of people who move here from elsewhere. New York smells like home to me. It feels like home, it looks like home, it is home. But I’m very aware that for many millions of people, New York is something totally different. It symbolizes something — no, it symbolizes many things. As Lu remarks of the parents of the kids she teaches, “They didn’t trust any other city to make them the best.” Lu herself comes from a very modest background. Her father is not educated. When she was in high school she drove a snow plow all winter to save up for her first camera. She feels acutely the class difference between herself and so many wealthy New Yorkers. And that difference is not just about money. It is about culture and style and ambition and a kind of brutality. Lu is also twenty-seven, so she’s at that classic age when so many of us, consciously and unconsciously, are really defining ourselves in opposition to our past. So when Lu’s father gives her a book of photographs of idyllic landscapes she says, “This isn’t art. It’s fucking lidocaine.” When she gets restless and annoyed by him she says, “I was being poisoned by mediocrity.” I think her visit home was a way for me to show her — and the reader — and myself — the extent to which Lu has grown apart from her own past. She can’t go home again.

I also know you spent some time living in the Midwest and I’d love to hear you talk about your own New York exodus and return in relation to your writing. Is there anything about your time in the Midwest that informed how you wanted to depict New York or what parts of it you wanted to contextualize for readers who maybe don’t have any experience with it at all? 

When I was in grad school in Bloomington, IN, I went on a day trip with friends to visit the Creationist Museum in Kentucky. From that experience came a novella about a town in transition, and a small natural history museum that gets purchased by born-again Christians who don’t believe in evolution. I still like the premise, but the novella was utter crap. The problem, really, was that I did not understand the culture I was writing about. I like Bloomington a lot, but I was kind of a fish out of water in the Midwest. I was one of very few people of Jewish descent in my program, and to be honest I was a little uncomfortable with the idea that my very sweet new Christian friends believed I was going to Hell. Coming from this New York, Jewish-influenced culture, I was also used to different social norms than my cohort were — for instance, arguing for fun. Being in the Midwest gave me the opportunity to see myself through different eyes. It was not an altogether pleasant experience, but it did give me a better perspective on New York, which allowed me to write about it more effectively. So I abandoned the idea of writing about places like Kentucky, and resolved to write what I knew.

While you’ve described how Lu is really discovering herself over the course of this book, I appreciate how she remains conflicted too. I’m thinking about when she picks out a dress, which is a big deal for her, and then when she puts it on later she feels completely different about it. She thinks she looks “puny.” People are contradictory but fiction sometimes forgets this, so I love this moment. There’s also such tremendous pressure put on women and their appearance, and this sneaks in here too. Can you talk a little bit about Lu as a woman and how she navigates that, sometimes pushing back against gendered assumptions and sometimes also wanting to look the part and fit in?

I had a moment when I was writing this book, struggling with what I worried might be inconsistencies in Lu’s character, when that famous Whitman line came into my head, “I contain multitudes.” I decided, Fuck it! Lu can contain multitudes, too. Just as — to put your own words a little differently — we tend to expect fictional characters to behave in a way that’s consistent with, really, a finite number of characteristics, which they’ve been assigned by their author, we also expect women to behave consistently with a finite number of characteristics considered feminine. You might say we expect women to behave as if they were fictional characters — and indeed the role of the woman in society is an invented role, as any role must be — and thus, in a way, fictional. Lu is fluid — socially, sexually, ideologically. She is radical that way. Isn’t it funny how this idea of Walt Whitman’s — who’s been dead 126 years — seems radical today, when it’s applied to a female character? 

It cuts to the core when Lu says, “there’s nothing more pathetic than being the only person who believes in you,” but you also have your own personal spin on this, that it’s actually empowering to know you need to be your own champion. This got me thinking about how secretive artists can be, as if before you show your work, you can maintain the idea that it will be significant. And unlike a photograph, novels can take a long time to develop even after you know you’ve hit on a really compelling story. This is a long way of asking about believing in this book before it existed, and what it feels like to be on the other side of that now. What have been some of your favorite parts of having it out in the world?

I brought this book into the world very slowly. My writing group had read bits and pieces of it many years before it was published. I really had to do that for myself. I had to get friends to read parts of it — sometimes many parts, through many drafts, many times! — before I sent it out to agents, and so on, because I didn’t trust my own judgment. I couldn’t see the book in just one light. I saw it in flashing lights; in hideous glaring fluorescents one minute, in greased-lens soft focus the next. Sometimes it seemed like a genius work of heartbreaking beauty; other times it seemed like trashy crap. Now that it’s out there, and people have read it and enjoyed it, I feel at last as if that part of me can settle down. But by far the best part of having it out in the world has been hearing from readers who’ve enjoyed it. I heard from a former student of mine, a girl I taught when she was in third grade, that she’d read and liked it. She’s going to Oberlin next year! I heard from a man whose son died that he and his wife felt I’d portrayed Kate’s grief well, and accurately. That truly moved me.

OK, one more! Because you’ve used one art form (writing) to explore another (photography), let’s end on a question I love asking artists of all types: if you could be a master of another art form, what would it be and why?

Oooooooh, what a good question! In a past life I was a violinist, and in the end I gave it up, partly because I knew I’d never be master enough. But I love music. I write aurally, I think. Sonically? I write with a rhythm — in my head, at least. I’ve found, though, that the desire to master a thing gets in the way of my enjoying it. So what I’d really love is to be the kind of musician who could play easily in a casual band, or who could accompany herself alone. What I would really love is to be able to sing. I love singing, but I don’t have a strong voice. It cracks and goes out of tune and just doesn’t behave itself. I wish I could sing like Jenny Lewis. I would accompany myself on the ukulele and sing to my cats all day long.

Find out more about Lyon’s work at rachellyon.work, or follow her on Twitter @manateesintrees.

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