In her debut novel, Self-Portrait with Boy, Rachel Lyon considers the price of artistic ambition. Set in early Nineties Brooklyn, the novel tracks the career of Lu Rile: a young photographer working three jobs to pay rent and support her aging father. When Lu captures an image of a boy falling to his death, she is faced with a painful choice. The photograph is exquisite and could launch her artistic career. Showing the image, however, could also cost Lu a dearly held relationship with the dead child’s grieving mother.
Self-Portrait with Boy is about making it as an artist, but it’s also about desire: the seesawing balance of companionship and compromise. The pursuit of artistic greatness can be a lonely endeavor. It can also be a transcendent experience — which Lu knows — and one of the most compelling aspects of the novel is Lu’s relentless hunger to make her dreams a reality. She is manic yet fragile, bringing to mind a tormented Macbeth. “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent,” Macbeth says prior to killing King Duncan, “but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls th’ other.”
There is leaping and falling in Self-Portrait with Boy. Though the novel inhabits a New York City of yesteryear, Lu’s dilemma speaks to an ever-pressing question in an ultra-competitive world: Just how ruthless are you willing to be?
One of the pleasures of Self-Portrait with Boy is the glimpse it offers into the working life of a photographer. Could you describe your research process?
I don’t have an extensive background in photography. I was an art major in college, and was fortunate to study with the extraordinary photographer Emmet Gowin, who really became a kind of guru for a lot of students in the art department — though not for me, actually. I was totally enamored of him, but I found in that introductory class that I didn’t really have a good head or heart for photography. Spending hours in the dark room, coming up with the perfect print, and fiddling with chemicals requires a lot of patience and a somewhat scientific mind. I’m more of a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-then-scrape-some-of-it-off-and-see-what-you’ve-got kind of person.
So I did have to do a bunch of research into photographic processes. I asked a couple of photographer friends, Mikael Kennedy and Pieter M. van Hattem, lots of questions, e.g. “What kind of camera do you think a person would use who was (a) in her 20s (b) in the year 1990, and (c) broke?” and “Is it possible to make a large-scale color print in a home darkroom?” Once it became clear to me that Lu probably couldn’t make the print in question at home, I ended up corresponding with a veteran customer service rep at the Manhattan photo studio Duggal. He gave me all the information that ended up in the book about the color enlarger, the size of the largest print they could do, and the cost of a print at that time. Like Lu, I had to work with and around the concrete, mechanic realities of the craft.
Setting plays an essential role in the novel—specifically Lu Rile’s home in DUMBO, which is described as an old manufacturing building that is grimy and in ill-repair, but also “glorious” in its spaciousness and affordability. The building ultimately becomes a kind of living thing—a character even—caught in the crossfire of 1990s gentrification. In a novel about an artist’s ethical quandary, what inspired you to make the building also a central element?
Well, the building is central to the tragedy that is central to the plot. They’re kind of tangled together, inextricably; I couldn’t really have the plot without the building, or vice versa. Also, I grew up in a building similar to the one in the book, and I really wanted to write about the Brooklyn, specifically the DUMBO, of that time. The period when artists were squatting there, after most of the industry had disappeared, but before it was bought up by developers, was a very brief — but, to my mind, romantic — blip in the neighborhood’s history, and it was the blip I was around for. There’s also, I think, a kind of poetic resonance between the fate of the building and the fate of Lu: both start out scrappy and weird, if full of potential, and are headed toward renovation and commodification.
Do you think Lu Rile’s experience is inextricably linked to a time and place? At the end of Chapter Two, Lu gives us a glimpse into her present life, saying, “These days, working in digital, I often delete pictures reflexively.” Beyond the possibility of Self-Portrait #400 being deleted before it could be shared, how else might Lu’s artistic trajectory have differed? For instance, if her photograph had gone viral on social media, would she have been utterly vilified?
Oof! Probably. Can you imagine? The art world is a very small place even now, and it was even smaller then. The biggest we see Lu get is a headline in the New York Post—which, for an unknown artist, would have been huge. Today, though, with all the many online art publications and websites, “high” art is way more accessible than it used to be — just as, meanwhile, “low” art like television gets increasingly elevated — and it seems to me that all of us internet-users are getting more sophisticated in terms of our artistic literacy. Not to mention we’re also constantly engaged in widespread public ethical debates. So Lu might get more media coverage, and more people might know and talk about her, if she were working today.
But on the other hand, maybe the relentlessness with which we are exposed to shocking images has desensitized us enough that people wouldn’t really care. In comparison with the footage available to us daily on network news, say, Lu’s photograph could seem almost… whimsical. I don’t know. I suspect that whether a story either blows up or flies under the radar, today, is largely a matter of chance; it’s my impression that in 1991 there was more logic to the degree of importance a given story might be awarded — but that could be fantasy.
There was a case in 2013 involving a photographer named Arne Svenson, who was sued by his neighbors for invasion of privacy after he took a series of photographs through their apartment windows. The court dismissed the suit, but Svenson still achieved a degree of notoriety — and thus value — in the art world. Maybe a similar thing would happen, today, to Lu.
Lu’s decision to show her photograph — and jumpstart her career — comes at a great cost. It causes immense pain to people she loves. Do you think all great art necessitates some level of cruelty on the part of an artist?
That’s such a great question. No, I don’t. There are so many artists whose work is incredibly beautiful, moving, transcendent, smart, witty, and totally cruelty-free! If anything, maybe great art requires a certain cruelty to the self — if relentless work and self-discipline feels cruel. But it doesn’t have to, does it? I feel like the ideal to which we aspire, as artists, is transcendence through some combination of practice and openness to the world.
Who are your literary influences?
As a reader I’m drawn to works of wisdom. There’s probably a little part of me that wishes for religion. I have a hard time writing essays myself, but I love reading them — not so much the heart-on-sleeve, gut-wrenching personal essays that are so often about sex and trauma, and have become so popular today, but the thoughtful, highly specific, occasional essays of wry, intelligent writers like Anne Fadiman, Zadie Smith, MFK Fisher, E. B. White, and Scott Sanders. It took me a shamefully long time to get into James Baldwin, but his essays are brutal and brilliant. Jo Ann Beard’s “Fourth State of Matter” is a masterpiece. Mary Oliver’s essays are so beautiful they hurt. Roxane Gay is a national hero. Joan Didion is Joan Didion. I like to encounter a sentence that really cranks the gears of my mind. And I like when a writer uncovers the divine eternal in the humble mundane.
A few fiction writers whose work I read while writing Self-Portrait With Boy — and loved, and was inspired by — included A.M. Holmes, Miriam Toews, Kevin Brockmeier, Brock Cole, Mary Hamilton, Lorrie Moore, Paul Harding, Mary Gaitskill, and Nicholson Baker.
We originally connected in part because we both worked, albeit at different times, at hotel on a small island off the coast of New Hampshire. A good handful of other members of the literary community also passed through this particular summer job — including the founding editor of Buzzfeed Books, Isaac Fitzgerald, and NEA Fellow Edgar Kunz. Is this all just a crazy coincidence born of dishwashing and bellhopping? Or do you think there’s a particular well-spring of creative energy out on the island?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence so much as a phenomenon. It’s a chicken-egg thing, right? Or a snowball effect. Or some such cliché metaphor. Fundamentally, that island is just so physically gorgeous and spiritually romantic, it inspires creativity. It attracts young people who are naturally open-minded, receptive, and encouraging — but it also cultivates them consciously. Its culture is defined by those qualities.
There are other forces at work, too. Like, a somewhat boring job can exacerbate your need to be creatively productive in your free time. And being around other creative people can make you braver, more likely to try out a creative project you’d be reluctant to show to people who might not be as receptive. And — maybe this is really the root of it— being stuck on an island with the same few people for a long period of time makes you stir-crazy, which makes you want to try new things, which makes you fearless.
You live in New York now — or I should say, again — and run a reading series called Ditmas Lit. What prompted you to start up the series? How does it inform your creative life?
My cohost Sarah Bridgins had the idea for Ditmas Lit, and asked me to join her. We’ve been doing it for more than a year now, and it’s been really fun. Sarah is a poet and essayist, and was a literary agent for many years, and I’m a fiction writer; even though we have a bunch of mutual friends, we have a broader network together than we would alone. Through her I’ve discovered some incredible writers, particularly poets, I would never otherwise have known. It’s been really rewarding to build this community, and our readings always leave me feeling inspired. It takes chutzpah to get up and read in front of people! Getting to see other writers read their work every month reminds me to be brave.
With respect to bravery, what was the most challenging aspect of writing this novel?
At the risk of coming off as a smart-ass, writing this novel was the most challenging aspect of writing this novel. And by writing I mean actually sitting down every morning, or most mornings, for years, and turning on the faucet, but getting only a few drips and drops, a few stupid words, out of my brain and onto the page. And then, once I had a bunch of stupid words, trying to make them into something less stupid. And then organizing those less-stupid words into something coherent. And so on.
I wrote the first half of this novel a bunch of times, over and over, for years. And then I wrote the second half — way too fast, really poorly. Then I threw away the whole thing, and started the novel again from scratch. Over the course of a little less than a year and a half I wrote the whole thing again, chronologically, from beginning to end. I really, really hope I don’t have to do that with my next book. But maybe I will! Writing is hard.
I completely agree. The drafting process for a novel is agonizing — and yet we still do it! What keeps you going?
Agonizing, yes! I have the same stupid internal dialogue over and over. First I tell myself I don’t want to do it. I offer myself a bunch of other options. I admit to myself those options are either short-term and lame (watching TV, making a snack, looking at social media) or long-term and impractical (traveling the world, launching a new career as a private detective). I remind myself that I teach creative writing, went to school for creative writing, went into debt for creative writing, and, slowly but surely, have been working on becoming a creative writer.
I wonder if there’s still time to back away slowly from all that. I imagine everybody being disappointed in me if I do. Then I remind myself that’s a fantasy; nobody cares what I do. It’s my own life, my own choice whether or not to keep writing, to pursue the maddening project, to keep pushing through. I realize for the zillionth time that it’s me who would be disappointed in me if I backed away slowly. At which point I get sick of myself, tell myself to have some dignity, and get back to work.
Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon
Published February 6, 2018
Rachel Lyon’s short stories have appeared in Joyland, Iowa Review, and Saint Ann’s Review, among other publications. She attended Princeton and Indiana University, where she was fiction editor of Indiana Review. She currently teaches fiction at Sackett Street Writers Workshop, Catapult, Slice, and elsewhere, and is a cofounder and cohost of the reading series Ditmas Lit. Self-Portrait with Boy is her first novel. (Photo credit: Debra Pearlman.)
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Allegra Hyde is the author of the novel ELEUTHERIA, as well as the story collection OF THIS NEW WORLD, which won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Her second story collection, THE LAST CATASTROPHE, will be published by Vintage in March 2023.
Thanks for introducing me to this book! Sounds interesting, mind opening and controversial.