Catherine Lacey Lives for the Sucker-Punch Sentence

A conversation about her first short story collection, 'Certain American States.'

I think it’s fair to say Catherine Lacey’s The Answers was one of the most interesting novels published last year. In our Best Fiction of 2017 roundup, Adam Morgan said the novel established Lacey as “one of the most exciting, unpredictable writers in the country right now.” I agree, so when I saw Lacey’s first short story collection was being published this month, I was eager to check it out.

Certain American States is a twelve-story collection that shows off Lacey’s range as a writer. Her work can be weird and harrowing, but it’s also emotionally rich and astute. Her stories make you pause, make you think, and make you want to read them again.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Lacey via email about her new story collection, sucker punch sentences, and her writing process.


Rachel León

“Violations” is such a fantastic opening story, particularly with the paragraph long opening sentence. What was it about this story that made it the right one to start off the collection?

Catherine Lacey

I live for the sucker punch sentence. Every minute of joy I get in writing comes from creating sentences with strange syntactical spaces and unexpected turns. So it made sense to me to begin the collection with this particular sentence, which is perhaps the longest in the whole collection. It has a certain elastic playfulness that I think makes it a good opening.

Rachel León

I’m always fascinated on how story collections come together. Can you describe the process of choosing what stories would be included?

Catherine Lacey

A vast majority of the short stories I’ve written I consider incomplete and unpublishable; they fulfilled their usefulness to me by being places I could anonymously work on becoming a stronger writer. Most of them have been trashed. There are two stories in the collection that are older than my first novel; the rest of them came rather close together either while I was writing my second novel or shortly after it. “Small Differences” was the first of that batch and it arrived with a confidence that felt new, so after I wrote that one I thought I had a collection in me. Then—and this will sound weird, but whatever—I had a dream in which Dorothea Lasky told me I had already written a collection of short stories and she showed me a copy of it. I don’t really know Dorothea Lasky personally but I trust everything she says, so after that I was convinced the collection would exist.

Rachel León

What do you think makes a good short story?

Catherine Lacey

You want to read it more than once.

Rachel León

Do you have a favorite story (or character) in this collection?

Catherine Lacey

I love all my children equally.

Rachel León

Is your writing process different when writing novels versus short stories?

Catherine Lacey

Very different yet somehow exactly the same. I feel like when a short story comes on I either catch it or it’s gone and its never coming back. A novel tends to sneak up on me slowly. I’ll feel it coming for a while before it arrives. But a story is like a passing train—you either get on or you don’t. Other than that, writing is always a space in which I argue with myself.

Rachel León

I know you share an editor (Emily Bell) with some other Chicago-based writers—Lindsay Hunter, Maryse Meijer, Laura Adamczyk, and Jac Jemc. Do you four have your own little FSG Chicago community?

Catherine Lacey

I like all these people and I see them sometimes, but to tell you the truth I’ve been sort of in and out of Chicago since I moved here two years ago so I can’t say I have any kind of community here except for my partner, his mom, and our dog. I’ve found that while writers will often make sense to me as friends, I don’t really want or need to have a “writing community,” exactly. Writing is a very solitary thing for me. I don’t like to share anything until I suspect it’s completely done. But mainly I’ve been traveling almost nonstop for the last two years so it’s been difficult to say I even live here.

Rachel León

Anything coming up that you want to plug?

Catherine Lacey

I’m a big fan of autumn, which is only a few months away. Don’t miss autumn!


Certain American States
By Catherine Lacey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published August 7, 2018

Catherine Lacey is the author of Nobody Is Ever Missing, winner of a 2016 Whiting Award and a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, and The Answers. In 2017, she was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. Her essays and fiction have been published widely and translated into Italian, French, Dutch, Spanish, and German. She was born in Mississippi and is based in Chicago.


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