In Pew (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May.), Lacey explores questions of identity and belief in a story of an outsider’s arrival in a Southern town.
Pew features a (mostly) silent protagonist. What is it like to write a book in which the main character doesn’t speak?
The first draft took about two months. I read it several months later and found that most of it was bad, so I rewrote it quickly. I repeated this process five or six times between 2016 and 2019, and eventually found that when I had my main character listen to other characters, it made the creation and deletion of dozens of pages much easier. It was as if—oh, I didn’t write that, I just heard someone say it.
What made you choose to place your genderless and racially ambiguous protagonist in the South?
For both personal and completely impersonal reasons, I was thinking a lot about Mississippi, about the difficulties I experienced as a child there. In graduate school I used to joke that I was an international student because I was from the south, but now I think the American South is not foreign so much as it is America magnified. The country’s Puritan origins are there: the scrappiness, the scars of slavery, the simultaneous fascination with and distrust of outsiders, the paradoxical streaks of individuality and tribalism—it’s all there.
The supporting characters project their identities onto the undefined protagonist in various ways. Were you interested in how people might interact with someone who doesn’t self-identify their gender or race?
I think it’s so human and so terrible that we want to categorize people. We even do it to ourselves, most often to disastrous effect. So much of our public discussion these days is about resisting labels or creating new ones. There’s an interesting tension in that—in the ways we attempt to define ourselves or others and fail to do so. We want categories and we feel hurt by them.
Pew takes place over a week. Are there advantages to writing in a short time frame?
I have a note on my desk right now that reads, “Use limits as they enable you and discard limits as they limit you.” This was the first time I ever wrote anything knowing its time frame from the start. I think it helped me through the doldrums of revision.
You’ve spoken elsewhere about domestic spheres as societal microcosms. What broader questions were you interested in taking on in Pew?
I never know what the broader concerns are. I focus on the small—a person comes to town. I tried to feel what it might feel like to be that person, a stranger even to their self.