10 Questions With Debut Novelist Julie Sarkissian
Every once and a while a new voice comes along that is so beautifully different from anything you've read before that it is hard to even dream up where it came from. Such is the voice of Lucy the title character in Julie Sarkissian's debut novel, Dear Lucy.
In her book, released in April, Sarkissian tells the story of Lucy, a girl with special needs sent to live on a farm away from her mother who can't manage her daughter's issues. On the farm Lucy makes her first real friend, a pregnant teenager named Samantha (the farm is something of a home for misfits) and begins to see the world in brand new ways. As the truths about the farm and its owners, Mister and Misses, become more and more sinister Lucy embarks upon a journey to do everything within her power to help her one true friend.
Written in poetic prose, the novel's language sweeps you up from the first pages; with chapters told from the different perspectives of the novel's strong female characters there is a wealth of rich voices to get lost in. Mysterious and haunting the novel is one of this summer's first must-reads. Sarkissian, a recent graduate from The New School MFA program spoke with us about life as a millennial writer, getting her book deal, and what comes next.
Elena Sheppard (ES): A lot of our readers are also writers; tell us a little bit about the process of writing your first novel. How long did it take? When did the Dear Lucy journey begin?
Julie Sarkissian (JS): It took a really long time. Or at least, it felt that way! It was my master’s thesis at The New School and I started it in 2007. Six years from conception to publication.
ES: How would you sum up the novel for those who haven’t yet read it?
JS: I’m partial to this description of Dear Lucy from the UK edition’s book jacket:
Lucy is different. She doesn’t have the right words for things and she doesn’t have good behavior. And she doesn’t understand why she’s been sent to work on Mister and Missus’ farm. But she does know she must stay on the farm or her mother will never be able to find her. When something terrible happens to Samantha, her only friend on the farm, Lucy embarks on a dangerous journey to help the only friend she has ever known.
ES: I understand that the first character you thought up was Lucy. Where did her incredibly unique voice come from?
JS: Lucy was born out of my ear, so to speak, rather than my brain. It was an auditory introduction: Lucy narrating her “best thing”: collecting the eggs in the morning. Lucy really came out of my unconscious or out of the collective unconscious that lies within all of us.
ES: The book deals with a lot of extremely weighty issues without ever using the conventional words for them. Among those issues would be mental disability, incest, and kidnapping. Was there a reason why you shied away from using the grown up words?
JS: That’s a great question. I think one reason is that I didn’t have a fully developed idea of just how weighty the issues were as I was writing them. I didn’t outline the book and I rarely had a sense of where the plot was going. Not that I write under the influence of alcohol, but you could apply, “Write drunk, edit sober,” to the way I wrote much of this book; there was a lack of awareness of what I was doing as I doing it, and it was only upon editing, structuring and assessing that I became aware I was dealing with some pretty dark themes.
Another reason terms aren’t made explicit is that Dear Lucy deals with secrets, with re-tellings, and half-truths. Samantha and Missus both narrate their stories as a way to feel vindicated, and so they can only gesture towards the underbelly of their truths. Missus doesn’t believe that she was involved in such crimes as the ones you list, so she would never use that language.
ES: The other thing that you never mention is what time period the story takes place in. There are hints of boys going off to war and, to me, it all felt nostalgic in an old fashioned way. When does this novel take place for you? Or did you deliberately not make a decision on that?
JS: I made the “deliberate” decision not to assign a time or place to the novel after I had already unconsciously not assigned a time or place to the novel. Or rather, after much of the book was written, I became deliberate in my decision to be consistent with the lack of time or place. There were a few times when I really wanted to use some specific culture references, which would have dated the novel, but I had to accept that artistically I was tethered to keeping in the book out of a hard and fast time and place in history. I think of the novel as a bit like a fable or a fairy tale. Artistically there is something about that concept that gels with Lucy’s childlike sensibility. Conceptualizing Dear Lucy as something that could take place in any culture, in any time period, helped me to tackle the enormity of themes such as “love” and “loyalty” and “promises.”
ES: What was the hardest part of the book for you to write?
JS: Missus’ storyline was very hard for me to iron out. I had difficulty making peace with my own intentions for her. I felt such intense sympathy for the pain and self-loathing inside Missus, but at the same time I was creating a monster, so it was difficult for me to accept the truths that I had created about Missus. But once Missus made the horrendous decisions she made, I couldn’t unmake them. I had to accept that was who Missus was, even though I myself felt betrayed by her.
ES: Tell us a little bit about the publication process? Had you not gotten a book deal would you ever have considered self-publishing?
JS: I followed a rather traditional route to publication, though while it was happening it didn’t feel prescribed to me since I was new to the process. I finished a draft of Dear Lucy, (then titled Lucy on the Farm,) found an agent, edited the book with my agent, sold the book to Simon and Schuster and edited the book with my editor at S&S. In regards to self-publishing, that’s a great question. I would like to imagine that yes, I would have done anything to share the book with the world, but I was plagued with such a sense of uncertainty that I might not have had the confidence to pursue the independent route. But I’ve heard inspiring stories from authors who have self-published.
ES: As a writer, what’s your daily schedule like? When do you write?
JS: After dragging myself out of bed (after almost 30 years on the planet I don’t understand why that step still has to feel so hard,) I have breakfast and coffee and slowly turn on my brain, then write through the rest of the morning, break for lunch, ideally get some exercise, then write a few more hours into the afternoon. I’m not creative at night, though I can edit at night.
ES: A lot of our readers are young writers who I’m sure would be interested to know how you made novel writing a career that worked for you. Did you have a day job while you wrote Dear Lucy?
JS: Yes, I had a day job, and I still do! I’ve been waiting tables at a Tribeca bistro called Edwards since I was 20. I paid for my MFA myself, so I used almost all of my advance from the book to pay off my grad school loan. It was a great feeling to pay off my debt, but it meant I couldn’t quit my day job. So I was, and still am, the cliché of the New York waitress working in a restaurant to pursue her dreams. But there are many ways to support yourself while pursing your passion as there are people pursuing their passions. Working in a restaurant is certainly not the only option.
Last year I began teaching at the Sackett Street Writer’s Workshop and I love it. I teach from home once a week and the students are so smart and interesting that it hardly feels like work.
ES: What’s next for you and your writing career?
JS: After over eight years together my boyfriend and I are getting married in September. So 2013 is a year with two huge milestones in it. I’m working on a second novel, waiting tables a few times a week, teaching at Sackett Street and planning my wedding. I hope I get this second book into shape, I get more teaching opportunities, and continue to immerse myself in the amazing New York literary scene.
For more information on Julie Sarkissian and Dear Lucy check out Sarkissian's site.