Lisa Locascio’s fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, The Northwest Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Faultline, and other magazines. The winner of the Daniel Alarcon-judged 2011 John Steinbeck Prize for Fiction, she has received honors and support for her writing from the National Association for the Advancement of the Arts, New York University, Western Michigan University, and the University of Southern California, where she teaches writing in the honors college.
[Grist]: Both of the stories you have featured in Grist, “Sasha” and “The Past Perfect,” are part of your novel, Peculiar Qualifications. Could you share with us some insight into your novel as a whole and what inspired you to write about Nina Nocente?
[Locascio]: As a project, Peculiar Qualifications snuck up on me. I was at the midway point of my MFA at New York University, feeling more and more frustrated about my work. I liked what I was producing, to a certain extent, but it wasn’t consistent, and it wasn’t cohering into the book I wanted to write. The problem was that I didn’t know what kind of book I wanted to write. I was very negative about the idea of writing something rooted in my autobiography—”writing what I knew”—both because I’m naturally kind of a fussbudgety contrarian, and because I had been told many times that, at twenty-three years old, I had no experience worth writing about. I didn’t entirely believe this, of course, but like many young women, I had to work toward owning the uniqueness and importance of my voice. My breakthrough came in a fiction seminar with E.L. Doctorow in Florence, Italy, in the summer of 2008. Doctorow had the class do a free write, which I began grudgingly; I thought that I had a sense of what my project was, and I saw the exercise as an imposition. Doctorow had just emphasized that a writer’s best work comes from the most secret, potentially scandalous or harmful places he or she can access. I guess that was on my mind, because I wrote a kind of crypto-erotic sketch about a nameless character struggling with desire. Doctorow handed it back to me with the most intense parts underlined, and it went on to become my story “Night Rides,” which spilled forth almost fully formed (it can be found in the summer 2009 issue of Lake Affect).
But I still didn’t have a protagonist. As I wrote, I came to understand who the hero of my book was: a young woman drawn to danger, committed to her sense of herself as a traveler, struggling with her desire to succeed at “normal” pursuits like schoolwork and long-term relationships while longing for strangeness. After a few stories in which I experimented with several protagonists, I realized my book was about two girls instead of one. Thus, Nina Nocente and Susanna Jordan were born. Like most writers, I’m guilty of writing myself into both Susanna and Nina to a certain extent, but their two-ness means that neither is entirely me. It was very important to me that the book be actual fiction and not thinly veiled autobiography. Chuck Wachtel, one of my professors at NYU, deserves credit for Nina’s surname; in workshop once, he told us the story of how abandoned children in Italy were given this surname, the opposite of “innocent,” to reflect their uncertain status—no one could be sure if they had been baptized or not. That was what I wanted for my character: a name inscribed with ambiguity and mystery, the foundational traits she feels in herself which others don’t seem to perceive. I think innocence is overrated, especially for women. What my characters want is power and experience.
It also bears mentioning that Peculiar Qualifications is a love letter to Chicago and its suburbs, an element of the book that was encouraged by the city’s great artistic champion, Stuart Dybek, whom I was lucky to study with through the Prague Summer Program in 2008, and nurtured by my master’s thesis advisor, Lydia Davis, who really taught me how to entrench a sense of place and visual reality in my fiction.
[Grist]: In both stories, you share such wonderful insight into the life of Nina while using different points of view. What influenced your decision to write the stories in different viewpoints? What do you feel the first-person point of view accomplishes that the second-person does not and vice versa?
[Locascio]: There are three stories in second-person in the book, a kind of boy trilogy: “Elijah,” which appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal in 2009, “Jonah,” which appeared in Faultline in 2011, and “Sasha.” I wrote “Elijah” first, and was struck by the response it got—people loved it in workshop and at readings, and constantly talked about my other work in comparison to it, establishing the story as a kind of ideal to which other pieces had to aspire. “Elijah” was one of those stories where the first sentence spoke itself into my head and the story itself was half-written by the time I sat down to write—a rare but very happy occurrence. I wanted to look at these boys in Nina’s life with intense clarity, with a kind of confrontational, bracing directness. For Nina, the world shrinks and swells to fill the shape of her body when she encounters and desires these boys. So the second-person seemed oddly natural—I wanted the reader to be Nina in those sections, incapable of looking away. Interestingly, although I’ve been told many times that readers dislike second person, these sections have been published much more quickly than others in the book.
But I didn’t want to write the entire book in second-person; while there are notable exceptions, I think second-person is a problematic way to tell an entire sustained narrative. And I wanted it to retain its punch, its element of surprise—a kind of intimate and unexpected window into Nina’s interiority. The rest of the book is told in first-person, with the exception of one story, “The Natatorium,” which is told in the third. I just wrote the stories in the way they came to me—my creative process is very much a process of listening to the idea, letting it tell me what it wants to be. I wanted the book to be a chorus of voices, a perspectival inquiry into Nina and Susanna’s worlds.
[Grist]: Music plays a large role in both your stories—from the concert Nina attends in “The Past Perfect” to the songs Nina and Sasha share in “Sasha.” How has music influenced you and your writing across the years?
[Locascio]: I listen to music almost all the time when I am writing. It’s very important to me as a method of creating mood. My writing process is a sensory experience—it’s work, but the conditions have to be right, and my surroundings influence what I create. In terms of writing these stories, I did my best to access the world of music I lived in when I was Nina and Susanna’s ages. My adolescent universe was extremely music-focused, which helped me to develop a sense of my own voice. The soundtrack in the back of my head has cultivated the atmospheric qualities of my fiction. All of my work has a musical score, an orienting sonic identity. It’s another way of understanding why I do what I do.
[Grist]:] What is your drafting process like when you write and revise? Do you have a pattern that you follow when creating and polishing a story? Any tips for what has worked for you in the past?
[Locascio]: When I was in high school, I read all of Sarah Joy Fowler’s novels, and I remember reading a quote from her in a sort of book club guide in the back of one of them, a statement about how the initial stage of drafting and invention was painful for her; she much preferred revision. I am the same way. Invention is difficult for me. It requires a kind of focus that reminds me of what Joan Didion wrote in The White Album about driving on the freeway in Los Angeles: “Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over.” Without being too precocious, I confess I feel similarly mystical about first-drafting. Revision, while not easy, is cozy work. I understand it. My challenge right now is to find regular access to the oracle state; as a college instructor and grad student, it requires a dexterous switching-between-modes that I haven’t mastered quite yet. I will say that at least seventy-five percent of writing is in the revision for me, and probably the best tip I can give anyone is to listen very carefully to the seed of their story or poem or novel. This is a place where I am particularly indebted to one of my artistic heroes, David Lynch, and his rhetoric about “catching” ideas. I agree with him that ideas are little homunculi; they come to us fully formed. The artist’s job is to stay in touch with that little man. For me, this means being completely sure about one element of the piece—the beginning, the end, a single image—and following that for its entire usefulness. Even if it eventually gets changed, it provides a vital steadying influence that helps the idea come into itself, come into realized being.
[Grist]: What stories/novels are you working on now and what can your readers expect to see from you in the near future?
[Locascio]: I am in the trenches with a novel, currently untitled. It has been a much longer road than I thought it would be; I underestimated how very difficult it is to follow a more traditional narrative path. Developing and maintaining one protagonist’s voice—as opposed to the several in Peculiar Qualifications—is an almost athletic challenge. This novel was originally designed as a way of entering into the current craze for “supernatural romance”; I wanted to write a smart YAish book about a young woman who is sent back in time against her will and has to survive in the distant past. I wrote about 150 pages of this, and then got stuck. I couldn’t go ahead, I couldn’t bear to revise what I’d written any further. And then I entered a period of sluggishness about the entire project. Aimee Bender, my advisor at the University of Southern California, where I’m working on my PhD, really saved me by suggesting that I ditch the time-travel. I didn’t listen to her at first—the magic was a big part of my idea of the novel. But eventually I did, and now I’m working again. Magic has stayed in the book to a certain extent, but it has become much more interested in the present, in the rhythms of daily life in a foreign environment.
I am also working on a series of interlinked stories about the sexual and romantic adventures of a pair of disaffected young people in Europe and the United States. They start at opposite ends of the globe and fumble their way toward each other. Two of the stories have appeared in magazines thus far – “Love Story” in Reed Magazine’s 2011 issue, where it won the John Steinbeck Award for Fiction, and “American Hospitality” in The New Guard’s 2011 issue. I’m not sure which of these projects will finish first—hopefully the novel. I am also still in search of representation and a publisher for Peculiar Qualifications. I’m very grateful that Grist has helped me bring two of its stories to a wider readership.