Books In Conversation
Stephanie LaCava with Adele Bertei
Someone spoke of Stephanie LaCava’s voice in her new novel I Fear My Pain Interests You as “hard, clipped, and cool.” It’s the liquid flush of the voice undulating beneath the veneer of the book’s punky mask that drew me in.
I Fear My Pain Interests You
(Verso Fiction, 2022)
Each of LaCava’s three books has its own framing device, the styles changing in the tradition of the Nouveau Roman novels and films of the 1950s and ’60s (Robbe-Grillet, Duras, Calvino). In the first, An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of An Outsider in Paris, the titular objects frame the story, weaving through her inner life to create a filigree network of shiny resonances meant to fill the emptiness of teenage loneliness. The book reminded me of the Mike Kelley exhibit at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary in 2014—cataloged objects creating structure and serving as plot, offering safety and control for kid-strangers in a strange land but also hinting at forbidding fairy tales. The richness of curiosity and imagination in the book is antidote to/in step with the loneliness. Quite stunning. (I re-read her footnotes several times for the joyous contagion of her enchantments.)
In The Superrationals (a novel), the frame is coincidence and chance. In part, it’s a piss-take on the art world and the elite academy laying claim to it. The protagonist understands the deceits of this cosmos and acknowledges her entrapment; the anxiety-bondage of inhabiting a woman’s body paired with a magical, quirky beauty other women resent and men wish to lay claim to—not only from a desire to possess, but as an art world quid pro quo.
The three books follow the thematic trajectory of a young woman artist struggling to maintain a sacred reverence for the world, its objects, and the people who make them. Already feeling like an outsider, she’s growing up to discover the darker truths of culture and its tribes. Art, fashion, music, and literature flattened onto screens, co-opted by a corporate, conformist world obsessed with labeling and commodification, especially regarding women. Youthful awe (and sometimes that of her best girlfriends), slowly eclipsed by the shallowness of society and its cruelty. Loneliness, surrounded by those incapable of understanding or showing care for the immense beauty of a singularity that refuses to bend to the crowd. That singularity, the true mark of our most gifted artists.
LaCava is also publishing the translated prison memoirs of the French actor and underground filmmaker Pierre Clementi (Belle du Jour’s Marcel) through her own company Small Press.
Adele Bertei (Rail): I’m interested in the framing for I Fear My Pain Interests You. I read Margot’s dis/ease as armor against the discomfiture of inhabiting a woman’s body (although the affliction offers her heart/psyche no such protection). Margot is an actress, a career that focuses on physicality—maybe less on beauty than a fashion model’s but has often proved more brutal. (Maria Schneider pops in, as do hundreds of women tortured by male directors and actors). Ultimately Margot runs away from that world, wanting to hide out for a while close to nature. Can you talk about Margot’s curious affliction and what it meant to you while creating the book?
Stephanie LaCava: First, I love that you bring up Maria Schneider. It’s interesting the parallels between her character Jeanne’s affair with Paul (Marlon Brando) in the Bertolucci film and Margot and Graves. There is talk of both occurring outside of their respective lives. It is only at the end that Paul offers his real name to Jeanne, something Graves never gives to Margot. Perhaps closer to nature, she’s closer to her own desires—away from society. This doesn’t cure anything, though, because she is never free—free from the constraints of her very bourgeois family legacy (claiming to be punk). And that Margot is an actress plays into all the confusion and contradictions. She can’t feel pain as part of her disorder. Does this matter though? If she’s always pretending?
Rail: Have you read Federico Garcia Lorca’s concept of the duende in art? I feel you beginning to dance with it in your books, especially this one. A particular bloodletting in the new novel immediately brought to mind Lorca’s duende, the supernatural imp an artist must have the courage to invite into their wounds, then to let it wriggle back out in the work. This internal struggle/dance can offer vulnerable work that moves people and connects on profound levels. In your interviews, I’ve often read of your intellectual process in terms of construction. Can you speak about your emotional process when writing and creating work?
LaCava: For me, this is really apt. It’s like some sort of dance, intuitive. There’s a lot of work leading up to it—and then the exorcism. The work is often reading—eating—books and taking handwritten notes. I try to be a part of the world the best I can despite a desire to be more hermit-like. I originally typed: hermetic, which wouldn’t be wrong either. I like misspellings and word play, and I write sentences from an intuitive place. Maybe sound is involved. You would understand that better than me. I can’t sing or make any sort of music, but I judge my sentences on cadence.
I consider myself a mischief maker or, even, daemon. Yeah, for sure. It’s so perceptive that you say you see it starting with this book. I do feel my voice is starting to come out, especially in the making of this book because it came at such an emotional time for me as a way of handling unrelated things in my own life. I lacked the confidence to let that voice come through for a very long time, much in the same way I tried to be more like the woman I thought everyone wanted me to be. The “everyone” being a very small insular community in New York. Someone who’s known me a while recently said to me, “It’s nice to see the punk LaCava I always knew was there rear her head.” I guess you saw it too when you met me.
Rail: I feel art-as-entitlement is the fundamental rot at the soul of American culture, as soul-crippling to the wealthy as it is to the working classes. There was a moment in the late ’70s and ’80s when the worlds of art, music, and fashion collided triumphantly across lines of gender, race, and class in downtown NYC. Can you talk about why you chose this milieu and punk aesthetic for Margot’s parents and her formative background?
Also, there’s a message projected onto the daughters in all three books; that to survive in the world, you can own things, be a critic of things, ideas. But you cannot create them. You can’t be the thing if it means “the artist.”
LaCava: Ah! I love that my answer to the question above rolls into this one. Yes! I would add that this daughter is allowed to be a thing. Meaning that she can be a cipher for everyone’s—artists included—projections. No talking.
My parents were obsessed with taking me to museums, but it was frowned upon to study “English literature” in college (I did not). I am hyper aware of the privileges I grew up with and this appears in my work as critique rather than endorsement. I think a lot of people live with contradictions and compromises in the system as it is. And being isolated as a kid (nuclear family living in foreign country outside city), I didn’t learn as quickly about alternatives.
That’s not asking for absolution or a pass, rather acknowledging something my work tries to do: highlight these things that were always making me uncomfortable without being able to articulate exactly why. The use of punk music in the book is important. And please, again, this is your world way more than mine. Anarcho-punk music seems so pure to me.
I’ve learned a lot about it from people who are very dear to me. And the more I learned, the more it became clear how many posers try to claim it as their own. I fall in this category. I can write about it in the context of a narrative like this book, but I cannot claim it. There is an anti-capitalist stance dancing through all of the work, but its characters and its author are products of this world. I hope it leads readers to thoughts of a better one.
Rail: Anarcho-punk! Like the Contortions. James Chance was raging for love through sound and voice, we all were. I’d pound on the keyboard with my fists, on my knees staring up at the lights in supplication, like Maria Falconetti as Jeanne d’arc. In books, it’s an insidious, simmering rage of love I crave and sometimes discover. I think a lot about how artists make the longing for love, for a sacred justice to life’s suffering, be seen on the page. The courage and skill it takes. I think your books accomplish this beautifully, and tenderly. How difficult is it, when making choices to be brave in your work?
LaCava: I’m in awe of you and the above. I spent so much of my childhood head-down that I knew a lot of facts but didn’t really understand anything. My writing was always the one way for me to act out, and even then I was afraid to. I am not so much anymore. This may sound silly, but if for no other reason than that the loneliness that’s felt in all my work has one important antidote—and that is recognition in other people’s creative work. And vice versa. It doesn’t even require meeting face-to-face.
I would also quote back the T-shirt Margot gets sent in the story: “G-d loves me and there’s nothing I can do about it.” It’s the punk thinking too that’s taught me about trying to lose the mask. As you say, it slowly falls through the three books. Maybe because I was judged a lot at a young age working in New York media. Made a lot of mistakes. Learned about myself vis a vis this society. Also because of the intuitive thing, I feel a lot of things about people with my “antennae” and as I write. I really hate “climbing” as an emotional sport. You know?
Rail: I do know. And masks. A lengthy conversation awaits. To wrap up… being a lover of fashion, who is your favorite designer? Do you still collect beetles? And what is your current object fascination?
LaCava: Ah! Full circle. And I am punched in the face with my origin story. I do collect insects—dead in boxes. I have two sons and they seem to be afraid of spiders. Breaking my heart. I love Vivienne Westwood. What if I said synthesizers? ARP 2500. (That would be a lie, but I will leave it here.)