Her Side of the Story: A Conversation with Danielle Lazarin about obsessions across stories, not falling in love with Paris, and talking back to the narratives placed on women
Danielle Lazarin’s debut collection of short stories, Back Talk, is out now from Penguin Books. Her fiction can be found in The Southern Review, Buzzfeed, Colorado Review, Indiana Review, Glimmer Train, Five Chapters, Boston Review, and elsewhere. Her essays have been published by The Cut and Lenny Letter. A graduate of Oberlin College’s creative writing program, she received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where her stories and essays won Hopwood Awards. She has received grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts and The Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance. She lives in her native New York, where she is raising her daughters and working on a novel.
On February 28th, 2018, Danielle Lazarin joined Interlochen Arts Academy Creative Writing students for a master class and reading. Interlochen Review editors Miracle Thornton, Ash Freeman and Yanna Cassell sat down with her for a conversation about the geographical and literary influences that helped shape the stories in her new collection Back Talk and the challenges and revelations that come with writing a collection over a long period of time.
Ash Freeman: What about the story “Back Talk” made you choose it for the title of this collection?
Danielle Lazarin: It was one of the stories that I wrote pretty quickly and came out pretty fully formed. It’s a very short story and the shortest in the collection, I believe. It’s about a young woman that has an interaction with a young man that does not go the way that she thinks it will. What happens is, she does something that she wants to do and then it backfires, and part of the conversation she has with herself is: do I choose to speak up about my version of events or do I just stay quiet about it? In the end she decides that whatever she says she is not going to be believed; no one is really interested in hearing her side of the story. There is a power in her silence, that’s what she’s chosen to do. At least, this is the way I see the story. I know that many other people don’t see it that way, but it was important for me to title a collection about the ways that young women and older women talk back to narratives in the culture. I wanted to play with this idea that sometimes what it means when you talk back, is to not talk back. It’s to just say “I’m not even really going to engage in this conversation,” and understanding in a sad way, I think, that this is what is going to happen. The way that I see it [working] in this story is that that character takes strength in her choice to be silent. I wanted to make that the title because it seemed like an important lesson about what it means to push back against things. It’s not always a super loud, fighting kind of thing, which is what we think about when we think about back talk and teenagers and sassiness. It often works in these different ways and in a quieter way.
Yanna Cassell: This collection seems to encompass a variety of different experiences. Was it difficult to switch between narrative voices in terms of characterization, like the differences between Nicole and Robin, a teenager going through friendship issues and an adult dealing with a divorce?
DL: I wrote these stories over a very long period of time. The earliest story I started in 2002, and the last one I wrote was in 2016. When I was writing them, I was going through very different things, so each story, when I look at it, represents a different time in my life when I was trying to look at that period. I wrote them when I was looking at various questions. I wrote some of the motherhood stories before I had kids because I think I was trying to figure out “Do I want to be a mother? What might it be like?” When I went back to revise and really put the collection together, I found myself having to really focus on one story at a time, having to re-immerse myself in that moment that the story is in and not [the] life phase. I also think of them as connected. I mean, I’m not necessarily saying that they’re the same character, but that they’re all women who are asking questions about their own lives. That’s what made me feel like I wasn’t working with very disjointed things.
Miracle Thornton: Taking a look at the quote at the very beginning of your book: “It’s different for a girl,” from Lust, a short story collection by Susan Minot, it seems to be in conversation with a lot of the pieces in this collection. I was wondering if there are any other authors or anything else that influenced you while writing?
DL: I have to say when I was much younger a lot of my influences were story collections by men who I adore. Like Stuart Dybek’s I Sailed with Magellan—it’s a collection of loosely connected stories that are more or less about a pair of brothers growing up in Chicago. I loved them because it was a story collection that was really cohesive and it was about urban life, about the fabric of a neighborhood, which is something that I’m hoping my collection is as well. Junot Diaz’s Drown, I’ve always loved. It’s another book about a neighborhood and New York. I think as I got closer to pulling the collection together I became more influenced by women writers writing their stories in a very fearless way. So I feel like those first, early collections in my mind were about the way they were assembled and the world building. There were a bunch, like Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More, which is a collection that’s really obsessive; I started to realize that there is something really great about a collection that is really obsessive. I feel like sometimes it’s become some sort of criticism like, “Oh, it’s the same subjects and the writer’s so into this,” but her obsessions are these deep wells of really awesome stuff that’s going to appear in her work whether [or not] we allow it in. [Quatro’s] a really fearless writer. Elena Ferrante, who’s most famous for the Neapolitan Novels, there’s a book of hers called Days of Abandonment, which is slimmer and in it this woman, her husband leaves her and her dog dies. It’s this very claustrophobic, dark novel and again it was looking at womanhood in this very realistic way. Those are some books that I was reading around that time that I feel gave me a little bit of a push to write more honestly and think about showing women in a more vulnerable way than I maybe would have. Especially when you’ve read books by men and you’re thinking about women through the male gaze. It’s been really good to return to books by women.
MT: The collection shows different sides of familiar landscapes. What aspects of Paris and New York have leaked into these stories from your understanding?
DL: I spent my freshman year in Paris and it was the hardest year I’ve ever had. I wanted to bring that into the stories. I’m interested in writing about places in ways that we don’t expect them to be shown. Paris is known as this super romantic city; everyone should love it, everyone should feel full of life and renewed. But for me it just wasn’t the right fit. I was out of sorts and disoriented. There were many great things like chocolate and cheese. I did a lot of walking when I was there. I got a lot out of it but it was a difficult time and I wanted to write about a place in a way that was unexpected. I think some of the danger in places that are well trod like New York and Paris is that they lose their personality. There’s a variety of ways to live in these places and in any place. There are so many places that get written and type cast. I really wanted to write these places as I knew them or just not as much at the center.
The New York I grew up in, the one I live in now, is very neighborhood focused, very friendly; I live in a different New York than the one I think we often see represented. Because I grew up there, when I came back, I didn’t have the, “New York is so magical and it’s going to fulfill all of my dreams.” It was just where I lived. I wanted to write a different version of it, which is a challenge because New York is such a sure thing in people’s minds and they want it to be that thing. But I like to try make things difficult for myself and for other people sometimes.
AF: Where in New York did you grow up?
DL: I grew up in Riverdale, which is in the Bronx. Now I live on the northern tip of Manhattan so I’m slightly closer, but not by much. It’s what I like to call the outer edges of New York. A lot of stories in the book take place in the suburbs, take place where I grew up. I think a lot of people don’t know the New York that I grew up in exists. People interact with people in different ways than you may think.
YC: Where did you get the inspiration for your story “Gone”?
DL: Wow, that’s one I wrote a while ago. You know, I almost didn’t write that story because I thought I couldn’t write another story about two teenage girls who were friends and their friendship is drifting apart because it seemed too “on brand.” I think that story for me was a lesson in not quashing my own obsessions or things that I am drawn to. Especially as young women, realizing “Why am I trying to not write my own story and feeding into the people who devalue these stories?” We all were teenagers, we’ve all had friendships, we’ve all had these relationships, and I think there’s a real underestimation of the coming of age story. I like to say that you never stop coming of age so I don’t know why it’s pinned to just those teenage years. Even so, those are important, informative times. Thinking about what the seed of the story was, some of it was just trying to cover what life must have been like as a teenager. That diner [in the story] is a diner that I still go to and love. I was there a couple months ago with my kids and everything kind of looks the same as it did in the 90’s—it’s slightly upgraded but not really. Just trying to capture, again, that kind of New York. I think I was drawn into it by the friendship. Quite frankly, a lot of that is kind of lost to me. It’s become its own thing in its existence.
MT: What aspects of adolescence and girlhood intrigue you?
DL: In 2009, I moved back to New York and I wrote a whole bunch of other stories that I think were more cohesive and more pointed towards telling the stories of women's lives as we live them, not as they are often seen or assumed to be lived. I had some other stories that were supposed to be in the collection that I tossed aside because they didn’t seem to work in that way. I had a story in here, “Hide and Seek,” which was originally more about the brother character, the cop, and his sister was there but she was there to be bouncing off of him. I knew that I wanted to revise that story to be more inside of her perspective. Working on those other stories over time helped me return to that story with more purpose.
MT: What about “Appetite” made you put it first?
DL: I think when I originally submitted the collection to my agent [and] then to an editor, it wasn’t first and I can never remember what was first. When you start to order a story collection you start to lose your mind. You just have all these systems and I would write setting, and perspective, and try to figure it out. The thinking is you put what’s supposed to be your strongest story at the front. This is what I do when I go in a book store, I read the first page and if I want to keep reading then I know to buy it. At some point we ended up moving that one up and it might have been the second story initially. I realized when I was doing copy edits that “Appetite” has all the themes that are in the stories that follow: New York, grief, teenage friendship, teenage desire, sisters, fathers—it has all the elements in there. It makes a good introduction to the collection.
MT: It’s interesting that “Back Talk” is almost hidden as the shortest story in the collection. I also find it interesting that “Back Talk” is in second person. Can you speak towards that?
DL: That was one of the things that made the story feel risky to write. Second person is a really interesting point of view that can be great when it’s done well, but I don’t think it’s great in a much longer story. It does this thing where it distances the narrator in some ways, and it’s accusatory, which is really fun to work with. It’s finger-pointing and it’s forcing the reader to put themselves in that position. You have to be careful when you do that, but I think it also made me take risks in doing that, in writing about a subject matter with an intensity that I might not have done if it was in a different perspective.
AF: In a couple of the stories we noticed there was a recurring theme of defenestration and cliff jumping, is this symbolic?
DL: One of my favorite things has been talking to people about the obsessions they pick up on in the book. That is not one I’ve heard. It wasn’t a conscious thing but all the obsessions are subconsciously always there. The cliff jumping at the end of Appetite happens off this big rock, the Spuyten Duyvil Canal, where the Harlem and Hudson rivers meet at the top of Manhattan. I can see it from my window, so that made its way into the story because that rock is always there and in the summer mostly young men jump off of it. That’s been going on for decades and decades—there’s a documentary about it called C Rock. And the windows? Maybe it’s just a New York thing. I also fall down a lot, I’m not the most stable person in the universe. I think it’s just one of the fears you have because you're constantly in windows that are high up.
YC: In your story “Weighed and Measured” you have a lot of lyrical undertones. Do poetic themes such as rhythm and sound influence your work? What's it like to put a lyrical style next to a narrative?
DL: That story, I do think of as more lyrical, the sections are titled, there’s more use of music and I wanted it to cover more time and space in her life. I was looking for a rhythm that would allow me to do that and make those leaps more consistently. That’s why I used the sections. I find that the more I write, I start less from language. So it’ll come in much later for me than it used to. I think I used to start more from just a line as I did with “Gone,” which started from a line I liked. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, which was good, I think it was a good thing to get myself into. But now I’ll start more from plot or character. There’s always a point when I’m revising where I’m reading my work aloud, that I know that I have the story. A professor in grad school said to me “You need to stop doing this; your sentences sound very similar.” I think we all have an ear for language that we don’t even realize is there. Some of the ear that we develop has to do with the way people talk to us growing up. I have a pretty large extended family close by and there’s a definite syntax to New York Jews that makes its way into my stories, and I would often have to fight about in workshop and hear “People don’t say stuff like—” yes they do! That’s just the way that they speak. That was also why I loved Junot Diaz’s work in general and Drown in particular. His characters spoke the way they spoke and as a reader he was not going to sit there and pull it apart for you or translate it into something more accessible; it was what it was. I think about lyrical language a lot when I’m writing dialogue. I always have to read a piece out loud to know how it sounds and flows. If it doesn’t work that way, it’s not going to work for me.
MT: Would you consider “Weighed and Measured” more like a collection of flash fiction in conversation with longer stories?
DL: I definitely wrote it that way and now that you asked that question, I feel like you’ve dug into a secret of mine. There was a time when after I wrote Back Talk when I would just write tiny things. “Window Guards” is two pieces of flash put together. One originally appeared on a site called People Holding as a story called “Ghost Dog.” People Holding has this great premise, they will email you an image that’s a prompt and it’s an image of a person holding something and a they ask for maybe a 1500 word story. I got this old photograph of a portrait of a girl holding a stuffed dog and it was blurry. “Window Guards” was under a hundred words and it was just that bit about the brothers. I found a lot of freedom and a return to language by working in flash, that compression. Now that I think about it, I probably wrote that story when I was thinking about lyric and language, returning it to story and making a story less plot-driven. Knowing I was going to cover more time, I was going to make that big leap ahead at the end there and have it be looking back in that way that I could work more in those compressed spaces that are often what you’re looking for in flash.
AF: In your collection, why did you choose to put most of your stories in first person?
DL: I probably didn’t choose to. I’ve never changed point of view after I started writing something—I say that and I’m actually currently taking a novel from first person and moving it into third. Most stories come to me in the voice they’re going to be in. And it's interesting because I find first person to be some of the hardest voices to write in. There's a feeling that you’re close to the narrator but it’s clearly not you and then you don’t want all your first person narrators to sound the same. Then you also don’t want them to be super voicy—that works for some stories but if the voice takes over the story, then you have voice but not necessarily a story. I think every time I start something in first person I go “Ugh, why!” It just seems harder; you have to think about what that person is able to see and tell you, you have to think immediately more about the time frame of the story, how much do they know, how reflective are they? There’s more questions with a first person narrator. So not by choice—they choose me.
YC: Was there a particular story that made you know you wanted to start a collection?
DL: For instance, “Appetite” I wrote when I came back to New York and I thought ‘I’m going to put this aside for later.’ I was trying to work on a novel and I was like, “I'm not writing stories now, please go away please go away.” I wrote “Weighed and Measured” after that, and then I started to just know that stories were something I was doing. I always wanted to write a collection; I always assumed that I would. But when you go to graduate school they tell you “If you want to sell your stories, that’s great, but I hope you have a novel to sell alongside.” I was very focused on trying to get that novel into shape and then I just kept writing stories that I pretended I wasn’t doing anything with. I got very frustrated with my novel and looked at all the stories and I was like, “this is nearly a collection I pretended I’m not writing.” Then I chucked the novel and it is living happily in a drawer without me. I started to write [stories] more earnestly; I think I wrote maybe two stories after I decided on a collection, but most of them were written in denial.
YC: Which stories were the easiest to write for you?
DL: “Back Talk” and “American Men in Paris I Did Not Love.” Both came out pretty fully formed. A lot of the stories became easier further in the process, but they all invoked suffering. I can’t imagine a writing process where at a certain point I don’t think “Why am I doing this, who let me do this, who said this was a good idea? This is the dumbest idea for a story.” That can be over the course of the day, and three hours later I’ll feel like I’m a genius and I think that’s a natural part of it. Some of them, I was able to write with more intention. Also, a lot of the stories that I had written when I was younger, going back and revising them was a lot harder than it might have been if I had been closer to the time of writing them. I was kind of dealing with the self who had written the story and what I had wanted the story to be then versus the self who was revising it and thinking about really what it should be and which version to go with. Usually, I went with the latter version of myself. I think it worked.
YC: Do you have any writing rituals?
DL: Besides procrastination? I’ve become a more disciplined worker than I used to be. Not so much rituals as structure. I try to know exactly what I’m working on, I use a lot of lists and timers, I work these 25-minute blocks which is called the Pomodoro method. The thinking is you can do anything for 25 minutes, then I get up and take a break, get a glass of water, snacks that I should not be eating. I’ll get through the day in those little bits. I also have two very dear friends and every Friday we try to email each other pages and usually the subject line is ‘please put these in a fire,’ and being able to see the work I’ve done, even if it feels like I’m not working, is important.
MT: When did you know you had enough stories to fill in a collection?
DL: When I would count obsessively because I hated revising my novel so much. I was looking for a revision note when I was doing edits on the collection, and I saw that I would write out a list of how many stories I had and how close they were to being finished in the middle of notes for the novel. I was just killing time and pretending I wasn’t doing it. I knew that if I put my energy toward [the collection] that I could get it done but I just had this idea that it wasn’t a good thing. Which is still true, one of the questions I’m asked a lot is “How did you know you were ready to sell a short story collection?” and it’s like ,“I don’t know, I wrote a good short story collection?” It’s true, fewer people buy short story collections, but the publishing market is out of our hands. So, I just told myself I shouldn't be doing it and then I did it, which is a hard trick to pull on yourself deliberately but I recommend it.
MT: Why did you dedicate Back Talk to your parents?
DL: My parents never told me to do anything else, which blows my mind because they don’t come from the sort of privilege that should allow them to tell me to do that. They probably should have steered me towards something that had better career prospects but I think partially it was because they put so much into mine and my sisters’ lives, making sure we were happy and had what we wanted. My mother was born in Germany during the war, came over to the States when she was three, had a difficult upbringing. My father was drafted into the Vietnam war when he was eighteen and had a lot of near misses. I think they’re both people who are just very grateful to be alive and have the opportunity to have a family and have a life. They just really wanted nothing more than for us to be happy. Writing was something from a very young age I clearly wanted to do, so they were like “Sure, go get an undergraduate degree in creative writing! Go get a Master’s!” Sometimes people ask me “How do you afford to write?” and I think that’s asked as a financial question. Yet, I always think of the privilege of somebody believing in your work and [believing] it’s worthwhile to do, which is a great privilege even if it doesn’t come literally with a trust fund. The idea that the pursuit of art is more important than the pursuit of money is an amazing thing to have had at my back and I think that is what has made the book possible. I think if I had those doubts coming from then I probably would have taken a different turn.