Julie Sarkissian's debut novel, Dear Lucy (Simon & Schuster), to quote Joyce Carol Oates, "introduces a young writer with a most original voice and a tenderly eccentric vision. Julie Sarkissian has created a boldly lyrical, suspenseful, and mysterious fictional world in this striking debut novel." Recently, I asked Sarkissian (MFA 2007) a few questions about her luminary debut novel, advice for novelists emerging from an MFA program, and the idiosyncratic method with which she approaches voice and setting.
Roberto Montes: In another interview you mention that Dear Lucy began as your Master’s thesis here at The New School. What advice do you have for writers in MFA programs on the process of transforming their theses into finished works?
Julie Sarkissian: There are as many ways to get a book written as there are books that need to be written, and writers to write them. Part of figuring out how to get words on the page is learning what methods of discipline and time management work for you. Don’t be discouraged if what works for a peer doesn’t work for you. For me, I needed a quiet, dependable place to work, where I would never have trouble finding an electrical outlet or place to sit. So coffee shops were out. For a while I paid to work at Paragraph, a workspace for writers on 14th Street and I was very productive there. Eventually when my living situation changed I was able to have the peace and quiet I needed to work from home. I also found that having a job that didn’t drain my intellectual energy and didn’t follow me home was important, which is why I have stuck with working in a restaurant for so many years. But some of my fellow writers love working for magazines or teaching full time, and they find that being intellectually stimulated by their day job is inspiring. Also, try not to overwhelm yourself thinking about the enormity of “publishing,” or fretting about how impossible it feels to make a living as a writer. Just do the work you can do on any given day. You will write the book by putting one foot in front of the other, one word after the other– or, as Ann Lamott puts it– bird by bird. One last piece of advice is to polish your manuscript as much as you can bear to before trying to find an agent. There is no rush. As my agent put it, “nobody waits for your first novel.” Except the writer of course, but the point being you should embrace the fact that you have time on your side.
RB: What inspired the narrative of Dear Lucy and how did it grow over the years you worked on it?
JS: Lucy’s voice was the inspiration for the novel. She came to me as she was gathering eggs for breakfast. She led me from the chicken coop and into the kitchen, where I was introduced to Samantha, Mister and Missus. So Lucy’s voice was one element that remained relatively constant through the process. Much of the development of the book occurred in trying to analyze the motivations of other characters and how those motivations would affect Lucy. I always felt that Samantha would ask Lucy to go on a quest, forcing Lucy to weigh the importance of helping her only friend against keeping her promise to her mother. But in order for that dramatic conflict to unfold I had to develop Samantha’s motivations for being on the farm in the first place, I had to examine her ambivalence about her pregnancy, and her anger towards her parents. It was a similar challenge to shape Missus’ past. I knew Missus was obsessed with getting a baby, and somehow that obsession was what thematically – and literally – linked the women on the farm. But the depth of Missus’ manipulation, and the specific ways her past interplayed with Lucy and Samantha’s situation were developed over time.
RB: Lucy’s voice seems to occupy both a poetic haze and a childlike lucidity. How did you cultivate such a startling and idiosyncratic voice while keeping it organic?
JS: Thank you so much! Writing in Lucy’s voice felt more like being possessed by something than creating something. Her strange turns of phrase, the small details of life that captivate her attention, her idealization of her mother – they all came as a packaged deal with a life of their own. Her voice – though it is by far the most unusual voice in the book– took the least amount of conscious effort to remain consistent and organic. Writing from Lucy’s point of view was like playing a game of Ouija; my fingers were on the cursor, but Lucy’s voice was what moved it.
RB: I was very intrigued by your claim that you wanted to keep Dear Lucy outside of the context of a particular time period or location. What were the motivations for the decision? What were the challenges?
JS: The lack of any specificity of time or place was an element of the book I was rather unconscious of. I believe I write from the ear rather than the eye, so when I was writing, I didn’t “see” a “real” place. I heard voices, and the setting they inhabited looked like purposefully bare-bones stage production, with only the necessary props. I didn’t see a fully designed visual universe, certainly not with say, a calendar with a specific year tacked on the kitchen wall, or a Sears catalogue displaying the newest appliances open on the coffee table. Those details were just absent, not because they were omitted, but because they were just never there to begin with. But there were certainly challenges. One being that I wanted to make Samantha seem like a normal teenager, and normal teenagers like movie stars and bands. I was tempted to have Samantha talk about her posters of celebrities (which ones I didn’t know,) but it would have been sloppy and confusing to have only one character living in world with a specific decade and location.
RB: What project are you working on now?
JS: I am working on a novel about a carnival that takes place on a pirate ship, currently, and unoriginally, called The Pirate Carnival. The pirates believe that the only life worth living is one in which you get to realize the full expression of your desires – no matter how base, how dangerous, how frightening those desires are. When the ship docks in a sleepy New England town, a young woman must chose between the life she always thought she wanted, and one where pleasure, beauty, and ego trump all else. It’s a mess right now but I’m loving living in pirate carnival universe and hope it has a future. We’ll see!
Julie Sarkissian is a graduate of Princeton University, where she won the Francis Leon Paige Award for creative writing, and holds an MFA in Fiction from The New School. Her debut novel, Dear Lucy, was published by Simon & Schuster in April 2013. Her work has appeared in Flavorwire, The New York Observer, Tin House Magazine, and elsewhere. She is an instructor at The Sackett Street Writer’s Workshop and lives in Brooklyn, New York. You can follow her on Twitter @SarkissianJulie.