Rachel Lyon and I first met when I took a workshop she was leading through Sackett Street Writers last year. She was a wonderful teacher and has been a sage guide to me as a young writer in New York. Her debut novel, Self-Portrait with Boy, has generated well-deserved buzz. Set in the early 1990s, it tells the story of Lu Rile, a poor, ambitious, and unconnected photographer living in a former warehouse loft space in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Inadvertently, she captures a young boy, Max Fine-Schubert, falling from the roof of her warehouse in the background of her 400th self-portrait. The photograph is, of course, beautiful and her ticket to ascension in the art world. At the same time it threatens to destroy her relationship with the boy’s mother and her neighbors in the warehouse who are being slowly forced out by a landlord hungry to develop the property. This is to say nothing of Max’s ghost who haunts Lu and the fated photograph. Rachel and I met at a cafe in Crown Heights to discuss her novel, ghosts, the early 1990s, socio-economic class in art, and transcendence.
Zeke Perkins: Lu Rile, your lead character, is really interesting. I’m wondering where in the ether Lu comes from?
Rachel Lyon: I think she came from the situation. The book grew out of the moment of capturing this tragedy. My question was, what kind of person would take advantage of that tragedy in that way? [Lu uses the photograph of the falling Max Fine-Schubert as her ticket to fame] And she was the answer I came up with — over the course of years. That was actually the hardest part of writing this book. I didn’t naturally 100% understand her. It took time for her to emerge. I was waiting for her to speak to me. I think I’ve said elsewhere that I didn’t really begin to understand her until I started writing from her voice in the first person and that wasn’t until the second complete draft. I’d already written the book one and a half times before I started writing in the first person.
ZP: That sort of Sisyphean task of the artist, you know, writing draft after draft, I think is something that Lu is mired in when her story begins. She’s in a pretty desperate situations in terms of providing for herself, supporting her father, and trying to make it as an artist. At one point she says, “There is nothing more pathetic than being the only person who believes in you.” In your interview at at the Rumpus you say that, “At my own best, though, I’d like to believe that there’s nothing more transcendent.” I’ve felt many times that I’m the only one who believes in me as a writer — you know — writing stories that never get read by anyone. Can you talk about that feeling as a writer? How is it transcendent? Is there something to that loneliness, that isolation and desperation?
RL: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s transcendent if you’re on a high. If you really do believe in it. Also, it can make you paranoid. It can make you feel totally insane to write something and put it out in the world and have nobody react to it all. You have to have so much chutzpa.
At my most powerful, I really believe in my work and I really believe it should be out there; and, at my least powerful, I think, why am I doing this? It doesn’t make sense. It’s like, I don’t know if my version of the world is one that matters. But, honestly, that whole line of thought is useless. Nobody gives a shit if I write or not except for me. Nobody cares if Lu makes this photograph or not. It’s just your own choice as an artist. It’s like Mary Oliver has it in her poem, “Summer Day”, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
ZP: So, Lu, as this working class, unconnected artist follows somewhat in a tradition that has been important to me — working class male writers like John Fante, Charles Bukowski, Arthur Nersesian, or Uzodinma Okehi (another Brooklyn-based writer). I think there’s a major difference between these guys and Lu, though. These poor male writers are out there hustling, they have the same me-against-the-world thing, but there seems to be something to the idea of the female artist having to sacrifice her relationship with friends or family to do her art as Lu does in the book. These male writers don’t really have relationships to start with but Lu ends up having a relationship with Kate, the mother of the falling child in Lu’s photograph. In the end, she chooses to put the photo out, anyways. Can you talk about this choice? Maybe the way women may have to make these sorts of choices?
RL: Well, the first thing I’d say is that her relationship with Kate is pretty weak in the first place. It’s pretty one-sided [Lu is a sort of silent support to the grieving mother]. And to different extents throughout the novel, Lu is aware of the lopsided nature of their relationship — through probably less than the reader.
That said, men are just more isolated than women are. Men are socialized to be more competitive and aggressive and not to prioritize their human relationships in our capitalist society. Women are not socialized that way. I think something that goes unsaid with the difference between men and women are socialized and the way that women value relationship is that it has everything to do with growing up threatened and needing support and protection from other women. You know, women go through life under threat, bodily threat, in a way that — sure, men beat each other up — but women are constantly aware of rape. That’s just a reality.
Lu is really really naive in that respect. She’s not really socialized at all. I think of her as a feral character. She was always very isolated. She was always kind of a misanthrope. She didn’t have much family. Her dad was as weird as she was in many ways. She never really had friends. She was kind’ve baffled by the parameters of friendship. She had some sense that she was crossing a line with this photograph but I don’t think she really knew what she was doing wrong. And to be honest there is a part of that which comes from me personally. I think we’ve all, especially as younger people — I mean she’s twenty seven so she’s a little old to be having this sort of revelation — but we’ve all struggled through some moment, probably in our teens, when we crossed some line and realized, oh shit, I can’t behave like that if I’m going to maintain my friendships. It’s a very uncomfortable moment.
ZP: Another really interesting thing in this book is the moment that Lu is operating in. It’s the early 1990s, which is kind’ve the moment that neoliberalism wins. The Reagan and Thatcher eras have just ended. Unions are decimated. NAFTA is just being signed. Everything is being privatized, globalized. And New York is kind’ve ground zero for that change. The old New York is dying. In that respect, I think it’s really interesting to contrast your book with Arthur Nercesian’s The Fuck Up. In it, the main character is a pretty desperate loner, similar to Lu, except he has no family whatsoever (Lu at least has her blind dad) struggling to be a writer in a grimy Lower East Side. But it’s the sort of dark moon of Self-Portrait with Boy. In your book Lu starts at the bottom right when New York is commodifying and she gets on that train and ascends from the bottom. In The Fuck Up the main character is at the bottom, too, but he kind’ve just goes deeper down. Lu’s ascension is obviously really tied into this big political movement. Her decision not only to put out the photograph, in which her friends son is falling to his death in the background, but also to have that photo end up being bought by Wayne Salt, the man who is evicting her and the other people in her building is really interesting. And it’s clearly personal for you as you grew up in Dumbo. Could you talk a little about that moment and the way all these personal and political threads connect.
RL: Yeah, I mean obviously there was some poetic justice there with Wayne Salt buying the print of her photograph. But I mean I needed her to be enough of a literal sellout for the book to work. And Wayne Salt is the richest person in the book so it made sense for him to buy it.
But on the way her life intersects with the hyper-gentrification of Dumbo and the rise of Bill Clinton and all these elements, I, personally, as a kid who was born in 1983 I couldn’t have ever have written a book about a dinghy downtrodden New York in the 80’s and a depressed man. I just don’t have it in me. I have come of age in a time in a time when the MFA system has already commodified creative writing. My own art form has been systematized and pedogogitxized. I mean, I don’t think in 1980 — as far as I know — there weren’t hard and fast rules about to how to structure a novel like there are now. Like, we can go to an MFA program now and learn how to write a successful novel. And I’m very sort’ve dedicated to rules — I’ve always been somebody who needed to do things the right way. I say it with an eye roll but, honestly, I just needed the story to have a clear plot. I can’t handle a novel that doesn’t have a clear plot.
Having her sell the print to Wayne was the clearest thing I could do. She’s ascending, she’s arriving. It’s a story about a woman coming into herself as a human being and as an artist. There’s a certain sort of sacrifice that you make in order to arrive financially and spiritually— you’ve got to agree to play by the rules to a certain extent. And she’s decided to play by these particular rules — the rules of capitalism. In a way, what she’s doing is similar to what her neighborhood is doing. Her own transformation is reflected in the transformation of her neighborhood. In a ways she’s not so so different than Wayne Salt though I personally think he’s more despicable.
RL: That time in the early 1990s, though, is really fascinating. It was a time when MTV had just commodified the entire punk aesthetic that anyone had ever embraced, right? Gen X had just been let down by everything, by their parents, by mainstream art, Nirvana had already just sold out according to Nirvana fans. If you look at the movies being made then there’s this craving for authenticity. In doing research for this book, I had the great pleasure of watching early 90s films just to get a sense of the way people spoke to each other then and I love it. Like Holly Hunter. Something about the way these actors and actresses spoke was so earnest and just so in their bodies. You know, they aren’t these polished Hollywood creations that we watch today. They really feel visceral. It’s almost ineffable what was being stolen and commodified. It’s more than financial, it’s a strange cultural aesthetic.
ZP: It’s unironic.
RL: And irony itself was kind’ve commodified by MTV. Today it feels like we’ve graduated from irony to post-irony to absurdity. I mean, look at Geico ads. Really, what comes next — nihilism? I mean, I think we are basically at nihilism. But then what comes? I think earnestness as a reaction has to come back. I think we are coming full circle.
ZP: And that’s kind’ve where Lu ends up at the end of the story living with her girlfriend, Franc, who she is in love with.
RL: She comes into herself.
ZP: I think something you do in this piece which kind’ve pushes back against this neoliberalism and form, in a way, at least it doesn’t follow in the realism tradition, is the ghost. I think a lot of artists, who in the past may have stuck to realism, are bringing in elements of the occult right now — think of the movement of female artists and musicians calling themselves witches. It feels like bringing in the occult is a way to move away from individualism and bring in something more collective or communal. Can you talk about mystical forces in fiction?
RL: Yeah, I mean, this is Lu’s story and the ghost is part of that story. Process-wise, though, the book came from the idea of the ghost originally. In my first draft, I had whole sections of the story that were told from the point of view of the ghost. I started with research about disasters on the East River, all the murders and accidents which had happened there, so I was really thinking about ghosts from the beginning. Max is really the last ghost left in the final draft.
But in terms of our cultural zeitgeist, ghosts in contemporary literature and the occult, I think that you’re right that it’s sort of an expression of the ancient feminine and I think that’s really cool. I also think that trend might be fading a little bit. I think the occult was, in part, an effect of a certain complacency we had politically going on for eight years under Obama. Now that we have a lot more to resist with Trump in office, ghosts don’t seem as fun anymore. It seems more frivolous. I think if I were to write this book today, I’d give more for Lu to struggle with. I think I’d put her in danger more. It’s not that she isn’t in danger but, in the grand scheme of things, her problems don’t seem as important to me as they did then.
ZP: So, yeah, you’re writing a novel now. What problems are important to you now?
RL: Well, I’m writing about sexual psycho drama and gas lighting and gender power dynamics. That all seems very fresh and important to me now.
ZP: So, obviously a lot of my questions have centered around community and the ethics of being an artist in community. As somebody from a working class background who has spent a bunch of years organizing in the labor movement, I can relate to the outsider, lower class position Lu is coming from. At the same time, her choice to put out her photograph and kind’ve “sell out” flies in the face of her community of artists and her friendships. I was thinking, though, that this community may not have ever really been hers. She works at an organic market for this guy Chad who is always talking about community and interconnectedness but it’s really phony because he’s paying her minimum and just needs her to do work for him. More generally, she’s always kind’ve a second class citizen in that community of artists in her building and in the art world. In a way, when she sells out, it’s not like she’s really selling out her community because she was never really included in it.
RL: I think there’s a conversation about class in this book that some people have been resistant to discussing or they just didn’t really read it all in the book. But for a blue collar kid to make it as an artist in a capitalist system is very very different than a bourgeois person making it. In some ways, the aesthetics of the anti-establishment artist are bourgeois aesthetics. Because it’s really impossible for a blue collar person to have those aesthetics or morals if they really have nothing. And Lu really has nothing. So yeah, is it selling out or just selling?
ZP: It’s really interesting that when all the artists want to fight the landlord who is forcing them out, fighting to the artist community doesn’t mean collective action, something Lu could actually do, but it means spending money a lawyer, which Lu can’t do.
RL: Yeah, and that reflects reality. That happened in the building I grew up in. Some people could afford to do it and others couldn’t.
My mom came from a pretty blue collar family and went to art school and became an artist. She was one of the first people in her family to go to college and went to grad school for art. It just blows my mind that she did that. She had nothing to fall back on. She was scrambling for grants, she was working her way through school, she suffered a good deal of discrimination from her male teachers. And she still did it. Why? Because in her mind that was just who she was. She was just an artist. That’s how Lu is. She just has no question of what she is. I don’t think people who aren’t artists get that. I almost don’t. In fact, I don’t get that. I chose writing because it’s something I’m good at it and it’s something I enjoy but I can see other versions of my life where I pursued something else. There are just some people who can’t do anything but make art and I think those people are incredible, especially when they are coming from not well-to-do circumstances. You have to be so single-minded.
ZP: I think in New York there’s something totally insane to writing while everyone here is striving and working for money. To just say, I’m gonna sit at home or in this cafe and work on this story nobody might ever read.
RL: It’s a real existential problem. But like, what else are we gonna do? And I think you only feel this way when nobody is reading your stories. When somebody is reading them, you feel like, Yeah, I’m doing a service.
ZP: Yeah, and this book has kind’ve blown up.
RL: I mean, I don’t know. I don’t have great perspective on it. I’m definitely grateful for the attention it’s gotten. But I feel really gratified that some people have found it meaningful. Somebody told me before my book launch — I was so nervous, I was afraid that the book wouldn’t matter to anyone ever — but this person said think of yourself as a channel. And I feel so much better when I think of myself as a channel for some other force to move through. The only thing I can do is try not to fuck that up too bad.
ZEKE PERKINS has spent most of his working life fighting for social justice as part of the labor movement. His fiction, essays and interviews have appeared in HobartPulp, Entropy, Queen Mobs Tea House, and Lab Letter. He has a bachelor degree from Bard College in Written Arts. He lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York
RACHEL LYON is the author of the novel SELF PORTRAIT WITH BOY. She teaches for the Sackett Street Writers Workshop, Catapult, Slice, and elsewhere, and offers private writing coaching. Most weeks she sends out a free writing/thinking prompts newsletter. She is a cofounder of the monthly reading series Ditmas Lit.