By April Sopkin
Lindsay Lerman is a writer and translator living in Richmond, Virginia. She has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and her second novel, What Are You, was released on June 14 from CLASH Books. What Are You is a strange and vast experience, written in direct address to all the men in the narrator’s past as well as the mammoth, circling universe itself. On a sunny day in late May, Lindsay invited me onto her back porch to talk about writerly beginnings and external validation, how her background in philosophy and pursuits as a storyteller are intertwined, and how she works “from the inside out” to find the “beating heart” of a story. This conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.
April Sopkin: Your first novel, I’m From Nowhere, came out in 2019 from CLASH Books and your second novel, What Are You, is coming out shortly from the same press. Congrats on doing it all over again! I have a couple of friends who’ve been working on their second novels, and as an outsider to that experience, it seems like the second effort is much more pressured and stressful. How has that experience been for you? How has drafting and publishing your second novel differed from your first?
Lindsay Lerman: Well, this second book was so, so strange and so feral that a big part of me never expected it to be published whatsoever. A lot of what I write, I don’t write with the hope that it will be published. I write it because I have to write it. And the first book I ended up needing to try very hard in lots of different ways to get it published. So that was an important lesson for me in learning how to believe in something that I produced and learning how to really strongly accompany it into the world. But the second book, this one I knew, like, this is so, so fucking weird. I didn’t have a lot of expectations. When my editor [Christoph Paul] at CLASH said, “I’d love to see what you’re working on,” I thought, sure. Why not? Because I don’t know what will ever become of this novel. And he very strongly believed that it needed to be in the world. I just trusted him and we worked together on it. The first book I really worked on completely alone. And the second book was pretty much alone, too, but there was a point at which I sent it to Christoph and he would give me some thoughts and then I would take those thoughts and get back to work on it. It was a slightly more collaborative process.
AS: Did you feel any heightened stakes with your second novel? Everything from structure to point of view, your second novel is really a departure from your first in a lot of ways. Did you feel like you could protect it while you were drafting it in the same way as the first? Did it still feel like it was for you ultimately?
LL: Yeah. Well, not quite for me, but I’m very protective of whatever I’m creating and there’s a reason why I don’t join writing groups. Because I know that I’m a sensitive person. I have to be super clear with myself about what external validation means and does not mean. And even when I was working on my doctorate in philosophy, I had to be careful about sharing drafts with other people, because there’s a lot of voices already in my head, you know? I’m a sensitive and attuned person. There’s always a period of time where I have to shut opinions out very actively in order to protect my ability to keep creating, which makes social media a very tricky place to be sometimes. There was a point (after the first book) when I had the realization that people were watching and it wasn’t like I felt pressure, but like, oh, shit, people are watching. I realized people have been kind of watching and following along and in some very beneficial, supportive ways, in some not beneficial, not supportive ways. It’s a lot to balance. In terms of like, hoping that the second book brings me more attention or more critical success or whatever, I’m not immune to those concerns. But I’ve worked really hard on my relationship with my writing and myself and the world and external validation. So those can’t be the reasons why I write. I write because I have to write.
AS: How and when did your relationship to writing begin? What did writing mean to you before publishing your novels?
LL: I always wrote as a child. I had journals. I had diaries. I wrote short stories. I wrote poems. It’s just one of my ways of making sense of existence. And it was almost always private. Even when I was working on a doctorate in philosophy, I was writing fiction and poems but in secret. And not because I needed it to be a secret, but just because I thought like, why bother sharing it? This is how I make sense of human existence and my relationship with the universe and explore what ethics is, you know, all of it. I was thinking through all these things as a young kid in the way kids do and even into my twenties as still a kid.
AS: One of the things that I experienced during my M.F.A. program is that my relationship to writing became entangled with this idea of achievement markers. Publication and contests and finding an agent. Then there’s the whole workshop setup and the immediate expectation that people are going to be responding to your work. It’s all external validation. And I found that it really backburnered my ability or my priority to build my own instincts around my work. I bring this up because a couple months ago you and I had coffee and one of the things I told you was that you’re the calmest writer I know. Particularly writers who have gone through M.F.A. programs, we’re just vibrating with expectation of failure or success. There’s this culture, or feeling, of scarcity of opportunity and inherent competition. My theory is that your calmness around the whole process of writing and publishing comes, at least in part, from not going the M.F.A. route.
LL: I don’t think it’s the absence of the M.F.A. quite so much. I mean, I’m sure that’s somewhere in there. But you don’t get all the way through a Ph.D. in philosophy without absorbing a lot of hierarchical nonsense and a lot of commercial concerns entering your mind and soul. You’re really taught how to commodify your soul as a philosopher. It’s highly competitive and very nasty and cutthroat. So I certainly have always had to battle those impulses and those instincts because they find their way into me. But I think what I’ve realized with the second book, What Are You, which has been a beautiful gift to understand, is that I am in the writing. My most expansive self, who I am in the writing, has to also be who I am in the offering of the work to the world. Whether that’s trying to find an agent, whether that’s trying to find avenues of publication, whether that’s trying to do press, and how I do press. It has to be—I don’t like the word authentic because I feel like it’s so loaded and kind of meaningless at this point—but every step of the way has to be authentic to who I am in the writing. If I’m not doing that, I feel disappointed in myself. If I let those commercial concerns in too deeply, I strongly believe the artwork will pay a price.
AS: One of the things I talk to my students about is how stories are crafted things and writers make choices with construction and those choices underscore specific intentions with the story. In your process, I’m wondering about your relationship to choice. Do you find yourself making conscious choices early on regarding things like plot and structure? What level of conscious intentionality exists in your work?
I find what feels to me like the real heart of things I’m trying to express and get inside of that. And then I build from the inside out.
LL: Each project is really different, you know, whether it’s a dissertation or my first novel or the second novel that’s about to be released, or the third thing I’m working on now, or the screenplays I’ve been writing. But the thing I do for every project is, I have to find a way to get inside of it and build from the inside out. That’s the first choice I make. I find what feels to me like the real heart of things I’m trying to express and get inside of that. And then I build from the inside out. And even when the structure or the frame appears to me first, as is the case with my third book that I’m writing now, the frame and the structure, a lot of that came to me before anything else. But I had to set those things aside and let myself find the beating heart, or hearts, and build from the inside out.
AS: Even though you knew what you ultimately wanted the structure to be?
LL: Yeah. I’m not interested in creating something just to create it, rather I’m creating it in order to learn more about whatever it is that I’m taking on in the project, you know? I have to get inside of it in order to really deeply, like, pull it apart and understand it and look at it. And so I do it in the ways that are fascinating to me. And that allow me to deeply explore something, because the writing has to be its own reward. I have to have learned a fuckton about whatever it is I needed to learn with each project because I’ll never know what’s going to happen with it later. Whether success comes, whether failure comes, whether it is momentary success or momentary failure. I mean, there’s so many different waves to ride unless I understand and feel really deeply that each project has been its own reward and it has enriched my life and the lives of those around me in some way or another.
AS: When I was reading your new novel, What Are You, I was struck by how much of it disregards supposed “writing rules.” So much of the world of this novel—both of your novels, really—exists within the interiority of the narrators. Talk about your relationship to writing rules. Do you have any of your own that keep you propelled within the narrative?
LL: I fought the chaotic nature of this book a lot, a lot, for a long time until I realized I can’t fight it because what’s possible on the other side of taking this big risk is going to be exciting to me. I had to just go for it. I did have some rules, but they were more conceptual rules. Like, remember that everything also contains its opposite. Remember that we all contain the possibility for great goodness and terrible evilness, you know, and we are all everything, all in one. And to stay true to those basic truths and let the book be an exploration and an expression of some of these things instead of just a story.
AS: I loved the modular structure in What Are You, the juxtaposition of sections, and the accumulation of those sections building tension and stakes and an understanding around the story’s ideas. And you are never dictating to the reader what they should get from it. That’s bad writing generally, that’s propaganda. For me, your work bears rereading and in fact becomes richer upon rereading, especially as somebody who doesn’t have a philosophy background. I wondered, how does the reader exist for you when you’re writing?
To me, reading and writing and doing philosophy is all like a vast conversation.
LL: The reader is always someone with whom I hope to have a real conversation. A real conversation, not just like, Let me show you something and then you’re going to pat me on the head and tell me how brilliant I am. To me, reading and writing and doing philosophy is all like a vast conversation. One reason why I’ve loved philosophy and why I’ve never really been able to kick it is that I do feel that I can come to it—and I always have found this—that I can come to it with really deep, personal, pressing, impossible questions. I have a very hopeful, humble relationship to the reader. I hope I can offer you something. Like what reading over the years has offered me. Like all forms of creation do for me. Music does it for me. Painting does it. I’m interested in expression and how humans express themselves and deal with the weight of consciousness and existence. I love the reader and I am not afraid of offering a challenge. But I also never want to browbeat the reader or make the reader feel like an idiot or like, you know, I know a lot and you don’t, because it’s never about that for me.
AS: Did you get any pressure or concern from your editor to consider the reader?
LL: For sure we talked about stuff related to this. But I mean, he ultimately felt like, you know, you’re trying to blend a lot of different things here that no one has really tried before. You’re trying to blend lyrical essay and personal narrative and philosophical reflection and sort of diaristic and aphoristic stream of consciousness stuff. He understood and he felt like, you know, we have to trust that in the next 50 to 100 years, there are going to be people who need this form of expression, the way that you’ve needed to create it. There are going to be people who need to consume it in order to understand themselves, their lives and the world. So let’s just go for it.
AS: That’s a hell of an editor.
LL: Yeah. He has a lot of trust. Just a lot of trust and a lot of fuck-it, DIY, punk spirit. I really value CLASH Books for that. There’s always challenges to working with a small press but their belief in the raw power of writing is rock solid. They really understand what an act of power it is to shape something with just words. They respect that. I’m very thankful that I’ve been able to work with them.
AS: In a few interviews you’ve mentioned having a hard time describing What Are You. And then I was reading an interview in LitPub that you did for your first novel, I’m From Nowhere, where you talk about that narrator’s identity in relation to the men around her and society. I’m going to quote something that you said: “It’s so complicated being constituted by others’ understanding of us. It can be positive. I can feel and understand that people think of me as kind and smart and self-sacrificing, and that can help me continually reshape myself to be those things. The darker side of that, especially for girls and women, is the possibility of only being real in relation to male desire.” Now, I see these ideas in What Are You as well. Crystal clear. So much of your second novel seems to be about the pursuit of this amorphous, kind of shifting feeling, about power and autonomy and how to retake authority over one’s identity, especially once you’ve realized that these societal structures are in place around you. Part of what compelled me so much with What Are You is how the novel is structured around an accumulation of ideas and experiences. I know when I am drafting things where I have an idea of a feeling, I often lose myself in abstraction. I go down too many paths and I lose sight of the original idea. How did you follow a feeling without getting lost in it? Did you put any mechanisms in place, or rules or guideposts, that kept you grounded in your own knowledge of what you were seeking?
LL: I kept drawing the story back to a body or to bodies. That experience you’re describing of getting lost in abstraction is very familiar to me. Like, why did I love philosophy so much? In part because I could escape my body. I could escape the body through abstraction. I mean, that was one of the huge things I loved so much, especially when I first found philosophy. I was like, Oh my God, I could just be a pure mind. [Laughter] I could be a pure mind floating. And I don’t have to deal with all of this horrible bodily shit, you know? And people will just respect me because I have a great mind. Well, no, that’s a fucking lie. Right? [Laughter]
AS: A beautiful lie!
LL: It’s a fantasy. And with What Are You, I took that on. I took that impulse to task, not just in me, but in all of the theory that I’ve loved so much. Even theorizing about bodies is this weird, kind of detached theorizing about bodies. And I said, To hell with that. Like, this book is in a body. This book is a body. And this book is doing that deep, abstract work that we tend to pursue in order to float away from the body. But I’m going to keep drawing it back to the body. This tension between spirit and body is very present for me in the book, and there was no other way to do it. So I did, of course, get lost at points. And that’s why I just kept drawing it back to the body. And that’s also why it was helpful to work with an editor after a certain point, because I had a lot of raw material.
AS: So, with the acknowledgment that you have trouble describing this book, I’d like you to describe it.
LL: This book is a record of a struggle with very deep fears and terrors and deep pleasures and intensity. It’s a record of life. It’s a celebration of life, and that sounds so impossibly cheesy, but it really is a celebration of life. I don’t mean human life. I mean the fact that life is this fleeting thing that we get to participate in as humans. You know, to me, it’s not even so much about humans. It’s more about the earth and the universe, you know, and our very minuscule place in it. And it was a way for me to find the—and this is a crude way of putting it—but it was a way for me to find the little girl who was torn apart, torn to shreds by the world, and to take care of her, you know, and to perform surgery on her and, like, help her grow a new heart and a new mind and new skin and new organs, because that’s what it takes to survive, you know, continual rebirth, continual reconstruction. And it’s an experiment. I’m no longer afraid of not knowing how to describe it.
AS: In your first novel, I’m From Nowhere, the backdrop is a desert landscape and there’s a peripheral recognition of worsening climate change, but these things are handled with a light touch. In your second novel, there is a kind of placelessness, because most of the action occurs within the narrator’s consciousness. We often don’t know where we are in the traditional sense of setting. I wondered, how does place or placelessness speak to your creative instincts or concerns? How do you see yourself using place, or a lack of place, as an intentional element in your work?
LL: The second book, and I can only say this in retrospect, but I think it was all about that inner freedom that we have to eventually seek in our lives. And that is placeless, right? It is not dependent on where you live or who you live with or what you do for a living. I mean, sadly, those things always inform whether or not we can seek out that inner freedom. When I lived in Turkey, I was fascinated by the way that, for the five calls to prayer, some people would turn and face Mecca. But some people can’t actually stop and turn and face Mecca and drop to their knees and pray on the floor because of their work or whatever. And so in Islam, there’s this understanding that you can just face Mecca in your heart. And I think that’s so incredible and so beautiful. What Are You is more about finding your rootedness in the world within your own heart and mind and soul. In the first book, place was very important to me, because I have a love affair with the Sonoran Desert, and I probably always will. I spent lots of my childhood years there and I finally got to go back and be with it. And it was such a beautiful experience. It’s also a harsh place. It’s an unforgiving place. In some ways that first book is a love letter to the Sonoran Desert. But the second book, I wanted it to be less about a particular place and more about the internal, the universal internal place that we all have.
AS: I’ve noticed that you seem to play around with POV as well. Your first novel sort of alternates between omniscience and first person. And then What Are You is first person with direct address. It’s written to this unnamed “you” that at times seems to be a specific person, or persons, and at other times it seems the “you” is the gaping universe. How did you land on these POV choices? What do POV considerations look like for you when you’re generating new work?
What Are You is a really desperate, wild attempt—and I don’t mean desperate in the negative sense—I mean, like an unhinged attempt at communication. And why cover that up?
LL: They have to serve the force and the power of the story. For the first book, I was fighting the form of the bourgeois novel in the 20th century and how it’s supposed to have one very clear point of view. I was fighting those limits and constraints really hard. And early on, I got plenty of feedback that was like, This is a mess, this is terrible. But, I remember thinking, I have one shot to put out my first book and I [made these POV choices] for reasons that make a lot of sense to me. And once CLASH was interested in the book, they were like, No, we would never ask you to change that. Why would you want to change that? I mean, that’s just an example of how when you’re working with someone on a creative project, if they’re dismissive of something you’re trying to do without trying to understand why you’re doing it, it’s probably not worth working with them to begin with, you know? In the second book, that first-person direct address, I needed that absolute immediacy. I’ve always loved epistolary novels, and at first I thought, okay, this is going to be an epistolary novel. But then, of course, the chaos kept breaking in further and further, so it was not a standard epistolary novel. But I love direct address. I think there is a place for artwork that is a direct address and maybe it’s accusatory, maybe it’s not, but like, you know, get rid of that ruse that it’s not an attempt. What Are You is a really desperate, wild attempt—and I don’t mean desperate in the negative sense—I mean, like an unhinged attempt at communication. And why cover that up? So the first person and the direct address, it was a way for the book to have that immediacy, that directness that I wanted. I don’t know at what point I committed to that POV, to be perfectly honest. Once I get deep enough into a project to start building it from the inside out, it’s like I intuitively know everything it probably needs. And it takes a long time, sometimes, to have the courage to admit it to myself or to have the language to be able to articulate why it is that I need to do it, and I still don’t necessarily have all the language to perfectly articulate why I did what I did with anything I’ve done. But eventually, maybe.
AS: Both of your books don’t use traditional paragraph formatting. Paragraphs are left-justified and separated by a line of whitespace. I thought initially with your first novel, like, oh, this publisher has an interesting style guide. Then I read in an interview that you actually prefer this formatting because it gives a kind of breath between the paragraphs. And this seems to me connected to the way that you lean into a modular structure in your work. Where does this narrative instinct come from for you? I’m wondering if it’s at all connected to your background in philosophy, and a certain way of interpreting the world through juxtapositions and finding connections through the accumulation of ideas.
LL: Yeah, absolutely. Completely. Part of it comes from my philosophy background. I like the range of formatting choices that are possible, you know, and the attention that’s paid to what a block of text does versus what one line of text does. You know, how it acts on the reader. I’m attuned to that and I like having those concerns and being able to play with them. I love the pause. I think a pause is really necessary. And then sometimes a pause is not what you want. There’s sections in What Are You where I wanted no breaks, no pauses whatsoever. And we ultimately ended up putting some in because we felt like it would be too overwhelming or the speed would be too breakneck. But I kind of wanted that.
AS: You have only one published short story, “Real Love,” in NY Tyrant. Do you not normally write short fiction? Do you have more short fiction on the horizon?
LL: I really like short fiction. I have a lot of stuff I’ve never published. Sean Thor Conroe was the guest editor for NY Tyrant and he reached out to me. I sent him a poem that I’d been working on, but I actually knew in my gut that it wasn’t what I wanted to publish with them, because I’ve loved NY Tyrant for a long time and an opportunity to publish with them is a pretty big deal to me. But I sent [the poem] to Sean and right away he’s like, This is good. Send me anything else if you have it. And I’d had the short story that became “Real Love” kind of building in me over the 48 hours prior to that. I sat down and I wrote it out in twenty minutes. And I loved it. You know, I’m not always able to say that I love my work. But from the moment I closed the computer, I was like, I love and am so thankful for this. I would like to publish more short stories. More essays. I don’t know. You know, it’ll happen.
AS: What a gift to sit down and just burn out a story in twenty minutes.
LL: Well, it was a gift, but also a necessity because it was, you know, peak pandemic. Everybody stuck in the house. We couldn’t go anywhere. I had no childcare. I was teaching online. I was trying to do other work and I was editing What Are You. My time was so fractured and so thin. I really had to say to myself, like, you have twenty minutes while she’s doing her math lesson, like, go.
AS: You’ve since adapted this story into a screenplay. I wonder, now knowing that it was drafted in twenty minutes, and then going back to it and reopening the world and changing the medium—how did that process work for you? What particular challenges or discoveries did you come across?
LL: Well, I’m still writing it. I’ve put it on a shelf for the past few months because I’ve been busy with book stuff. Initially it was really fun, a chance to step into this world and really imagine these characters in a bigger way. It was also an opportunity for me to sit with what it was that I had created and to ask myself, like, why did it need to have this violence? Why did I do it this way? That was really neat to have that opportunity to ask like, what role does violence play in survival? And how uncomfortable does it make me to have to think about that? But I mean, I loved adapting it into a different medium. I’m at a crossroads with it now where I have to either commit to … well, I mean, the moviemaking world is very different than the book world, but also not that different. They have a set of concerns that they bring to any project to figure out whether or not it’s going to make it, you know, out in the marketplace. I mean, ultimately, I love telling stories. I’ve always been a storyteller. Even a philosopher is a storyteller. And if they say they’re not, they’re just lying to themselves. The screenplay has been another opportunity for me to play around with storytelling. It’s been really fun and I’ve loved studying the screenplay, what’s possible or not possible in it.
AS: What’s next? You mentioned a third novel. Can you speak about some ideas that are propelling it at this point?
LL: I’m excited about the next novel. Once I get through the promotional cycle for What Are You I know I will have more time to give to it. I think this new novel is a braided narrative. Three characters. One is not a human. And they weave in and out. And part of it, I believe, is set in outer space. Like, Waiting for Godot in an interstellar border guard station. This one came to me in a dream many years ago.
AS: That resonates with me. I don’t look to my dreams for much, but I have one story that comes from a dream and I’ve carried it now for fifteen years and I’m finally going to work on it. And the idea has evolved hugely in that time. There’s something to carrying ideas with you, ideas that you don’t necessarily sit down and attempt to write for a long time.
LL: Absolutely. Completely. What Are You could not have been my first book. I mean, I could have written it, maybe, but I don’t know that I was capable of that level of complexity yet. But then there’s also having the courage to stand by it. You know, that takes time to develop, too. Because courage is not easy. It takes time.
By Lindsay Lerman
CLASH Books $15.95
April Sopkin lives outside of Richmond, Virginia. Her work has most recently appeared in Joyland and the MIT Technology Review. She teaches creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Visual Arts Center of Richmond.