Rachel Lyon’s debut novel Self-Portrait with Boy is a gorgeously written story about ambition and responsibility, set in the New York City art scene of the early 1990s. In advance of the book’s launch at Books Are Magic on February 5, I sat down with Lyon at Pel’s Pie in Brooklyn to discuss her novel, teaching and writing prompts.
How did you get the idea for your novel?
Rachel: I grew up in a building very much like the building in the book. And there was a similar tragedy that happened there. But I was too young to know what happened. I wasn’t told. I was probably six years old, so no one was talking to me about it. I didn’t actually find out until my twenties. I started talking to my old neighbors and talking to my parents and pieced together a sort of vague version — a probably inaccurate version — of what had happened. And from there, I started the book. But I think I had always wanted to write about Brooklyn — that particular part of Brooklyn — the sort of romance of the industrial neighborhood with the shining river and the scrappy artists trying to eke out a living. I think that really made me who I am, just growing up in that environment. So, it was just sort of a clear first novel for me, I think. I had to get it out first.
Do you have any concern of the family that the real story was about reading the novel?
Yeah, I do. That said, it’s definitely fiction. None of these characters are based on actual people. Certainly not the protagonist. None of the supporting characters either. They’re all fictional. The only thing that I took from reality is the premise. I hope that if they know it exists, they think that I treated it respectfully.
There’s an idea with the protagonist that in order to succeed, she needs to take people down. Do you think that’s true?
No, I don’t think that that’s true. I disagree with her on that point. But I do think that — so first of all, the art world seems a lot more psychotically competitive than the world of literature–just from what I see. At least the fictionalized art world in my book is a much less friendly place than the world of literature that I live and work in. One thing that that has to do with, I think, is that visual art is necessarily superficial. You know? You’re only looking at what it looks like. Literature requires compassion, and it requires an investment of time. You can stand in front of a work of art and then walk away in five seconds, but you have to sit down with a book and be with it, be in the world of it, and in the experience. Through language, you get compassion, necessarily. Or some kind of understanding of other people, so I think the world Lu lives in is a colder, scrappier, more competitive world than mine. But on top of that, she’s working in 1991, when it was still very difficult for women artists to make space for themselves in the art world. That continues to be true, of course, but when I talk to women of my parents’ generation who were in art school in the 70s and 80s, the stories that I hear — it’s like despicable how they were treated, you know? My MFA program was a generally warm, supportive, really generative environment. Some of my mom’s friends have the most horrible stories about being in art school in the 70s. Women were not respected at all. So I think Lu is also coming from that background of feeling that at every turn she’s going to have to defend herself and really push her way through the chaos and the clutter and the discrimination.
I was really entranced in that sequence when she keeps calling the gallery, just keeps calling them. I thought it was going to devolve into this descent into madness. It got to a point where I said, “This is never going to happen for her. What is wrong with her?”
In some ways, I put a lot of my own crazy into this book. At the same time that she was relentlessly and insanely calling this gallery over and over, I was submitting short stories over and over and beating my head against the wall, like, “How am I going to be a writer in this world?” I think that it requires a certain level of insanity to believe in yourself, and try to succeed at something that literally nobody except for you cares about.
Some of the funniest sections of the novel are the scenes at Summerland. Was that based on any kind of personal experience?
No, that’s an amalgam of lots of different experiences. The ‘Nags and Brags’ I stole from a good friend of mine whose work I really respect. She’s a little bit of a California hippie. She would do ‘nags and brags’ with her students when she was a TA in grad school at the beginning of every class. On the one hand, I was like, “You must really be connecting with these students in a way that I’m not capable of,” but on the other hand, being from New York, I was kind of like, “That’s some real woo-woo kumbaya type stuff, right there.” So that element was straight out of her story. The environment is based on one place, the details drawn from other places.
One thing that struck me as particularly brutal in the novel — in a great way — was how she’s talking about her dad on the phone and says to herself, “Oh, it’s going to be so boring visiting him.” There’s so much truth in the book, where I said, “She can’t say that — oh no, she did say that.”
She’s not a great person. I feel a lot of tenderness for her. I really respect her as a character.
Yeah, I agree.
She’s mine. But yeah, she says things that nobody wants to say out loud.
Were there some things that you wrote down and then realized, “Oh no, that’s too far?”
I rewrote the climactic scene a couple of times. There was a scene that I took out between her and Steve that was just too confrontational and so unproductive. I was using it to illustrate this gender dynamic that I wanted to make clear. I wanted that to illustrate why she has such an aggressive and defensive attitude about her work. But it just seemed so unlikely that he would give her the time of day to have a confrontation with her like that that I ended up taking it out. You have to think about both characters’ motivations. He had no reason to be engaging with her at all. So it almost made more sense to make her more isolated.
You’re building up toward this moment — we know by the book cover and the synopsis that this about a photographer capturing a photo of a young boy’s death, but you really built that tension up to the moment where she realizes what the photo is. Were you concerned at all with asking how do you get people to that moment?
I was thinking about older technologies. I had to do a lot of research into photography for those sections. I didn’t know much about it. I think through that research I realized how long it would take to see what you’ve done, and how strange that is as a creative process, you know? With painting you’re making the thing and you’re watching it being made in real time as you create it. With photography — at least back then — you weren’t working in digital, so you didn’t get to see what you’d done until days later, sometimes weeks, depending what kind of processes you’re using.
Yeah, and it must be that thing of where it factors in what you’re deciding to take photographs of in between getting the photos developed.
I liked the dramatic irony of her looking down at the other rooftop when all of the neighbors are gathered down there and being like, “Huh.” Having no idea what had happened until she develops the photo. That brings across her obliviousness and her obsession with her own work. It doesn’t even occur to her to be like, “I wonder what happened.” She’s just like, “Great photo.”
I loved the description of how #400 looks blown up. It was this mix of beauty and horror. She describes how beautiful it looks even as it’s showing a kid dying. I really admire how you didn’t sugarcoat any of it. It’s horrifying and it’s also beautiful and those two things can exist at the same time. Was it tough to find that balance?
It took me a while to really visualize the picture itself. I knew that it had to be important to her and I knew that it had to be incendiary, but I think I had been writing the book for a while before I got a clear image of what it looked like. Sometimes I fantasize about this book being turned into a movie. Probably every writer has that fantasy at some point. I think it would be very important to never show the picture. You know? Because it would be impossible to create a picture that everyone would find powerful. This is such fiction in that way. In reality, if somebody took this picture, maybe thirty percent of people who saw it would say, “What’s the big deal? It’s not the greatest picture.” I think that’s almost the biggest fiction in the book — the idea that a picture could be that divisive and powerful. I have a vision in my mind, but it couldn’t possibly be the same vision that readers have. That’s kind of cool to me.
You’ve been a good literary citizen in New York, teaching writing classes at Catapult and Sackett Street Writers, and also you co-host Ditmas Lit. What’s it been like teaching writers?
I love it. I love teaching. I really do. The people who take Sackett Street and Catapult are so great — and I had a great class with Ditmas Writers Workshops — I taught a master class at Slice Literary Conference and I taught at The School of Making/Thinking, this really excellent alternative program. Overall, my students have been really dedicated, open, curious people. It’s been such a joy.
What’s it been like curating your reading series?
It’s so fun. I have to give a lot of credit to Sarah Bridgins. It was really her brainchild and initially she brought me along for the ride. She and I have a pretty different network — I mean, it overlaps — but the people she knew coming in and the people I knew are different, so we got to draw from a pretty wide group of talented writers. Everybody we’ve had has been awesome, there’s always a good crowd. It’s a well-oiled machine at this point.
You also having this writing prompts newsletter. How did that come about?
I have a few hundred subscribers!
I subscribe! You’re up to 58 prompts now? How did that come about?
Originally I had this one class I was teaching, which was a generative class, and I had prompts that I was coming up with for them. And then I had this other class, which was a workshop, so we didn’t really have time or space to do a lot of prompts, because we were always workshopping. But I wanted to share them the prompts that I was giving my generative class — because, you know, they have writer’s block and they’re intimidated by the process, and so on. It started as regular writing prompts, but then some of my friends subscribed who aren’t writers and they said they enjoyed it even though they weren’t using it to write, so I thought, “I’ll call it writing/thinking prompts.” It’s really evolved since the beginning.
It’s fun. It’s satisfying. It’s a thing that I can do every week and it’s just done. It’s not like an ongoing project that makes me want to bash my head against the wall.
What’s currently making you bash your head against the wall? What are you working on next?
I’m working on a novel and some short stories.
Where are you at with the novel?
I think I’m about a third of the way through. I think I’ve got about 150 pages or something.
It’s a really different book. It’s written in the third person. The protagonist is younger and more naïve. It’s more of an interpersonal psychodrama. It’s fun.