By guest contributor, Lisa Borders.
A professor of creative writing at Emerson College in Boston, Jessica Treadway’s latest novel, Lacy Eye, was published earlier this month. The novel will also be published in the UK and Australia, and translation rights have been bought by publishers in six countries. Her story collection Please Come Back to Me received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2010. Her other books are the novel And Give You Peace, named to Booklist’s Top 10 Debut Novels of 2001, and the collection Absent Without Leave, which received the John C. Zacharis First Book Award from Ploughshares in 1993. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic, The Hudson Review, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and Bellevue Literary Review, among others. Treadway has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She is a former member of the Board of Directors of PEN New England, where she served as co-chair of the Freedom to Write Committee. She lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Lacy Eye opens three years after a brutal home invasion that resulted in the death of Hanna Schutt’s husband, Joe, and left Hanna herself permanently disfigured. Their college-age daughter Dawn’s boyfriend, Rud Petty, who was convicted of the crime, has won an appeal and a new trial. The prosecution wants Hanna to testify, hoping she will remember that Dawn herself played a role in the attacks, but Hanna does everything in her power to defend her daughter’s innocence. As unwanted memories resurface, Hanna is forced to face the reality of who her child has become, even if remembering may once again put her life in danger.
My friendship with Jessica Treadway is a rare but wonderful argument in favor of social media: we met on Facebook four or five years ago, read each others’ books, and hit it off. I read the deftly paced Lacy Eye in two sittings and was delighted to speak with Jessica about the craft behind it.
Lisa Borders: I was intrigued by the structure of this novel in terms of time: specifically, your decision to open the book three years after the horrific murder and near-murder that set the events of the book in motion. It feels to me like the place the book needed to begin, but I imagine if I were writing it I would have struggled with that structure, since it forces some pivotal events of the novel into flashback. Did you ever consider starting it anywhere else? Could you talk a little about the decisions you made regarding structure?
Jessica Treadway: I don’t think I ever considered another opening, because to me it seemed that the present action had to be triggered by the event of the convicted murderer winning his appeal and a new trial. If I had written it chronologically, there would have been a couple of years in there—between the conviction and the appeal—during which not much happened between mother and daughter, because they were living apart from each other. I did struggle with structure more than anything else in this book for precisely the reason you mention. And I still worry that there is too much in flashback in past action. But try as I did to figure out how to render more of it in the present, I wasn’t able to, because in the end the narrative is a retrospective one, informed by the insight Hanna has gained between the time the events occurred and the time she recounts the story. Since she herself is looking back, I hoped I could make it work for the reader to join her on that journey.
In the very early days of writing it, I tried putting the present action in the present tense, while the flashbacks were in the past tense. But I realized that this also couldn’t work (except as artifice I couldn’t justify), because Hanna couldn’t simultaneously be describing things as they occurred and understanding their significance. I tore my hair out a lot, worrying about the weight of the past pulling the narrative down. If that isn’t the case, at least for some readers, then I’m happy.
That’s interesting, as one thing that struck me was how immediate you were able to make the flashbacks seem—not just the recent flashbacks to the night of the murder—but even the early childhood flashbacks about the narrator’s daughter, Dawn. I think for a writer, this book is a great lesson in effective use of flashback in that when every flashback has such urgency regarding the forward story, you can dip into the past quite often and it never feels like a digression.
That’s very kind of you to say—thank you! That was a further complication—that there were those layers of flashback, which I felt were necessary because they laid the groundwork for what eventually happens to this family. I did try to embed the flashbacks as much as possible in the present action or find some connection that would tie the past and present together in such a way that the reader would not lose sight of the current story.
Did the book start for you, as the writer, with character or with plot (or something else)? I ask this because Hanna is such a deeply conceived character and the depiction of the entire family so detailed, that I could imagine this novel working without something as large, plot wise, as the murder. Yet the murder—and Hanna’s burgeoning understanding of it—provides such a powerful engine for storytelling.
It started completely, solely, with the character. In my hometown in upstate New York, there was a case of a college-age son convicted of killing his father and attempting to kill his mother. The mother at first appeared to implicate her son but then switched tracks and steadfastly maintained his innocence. I tried to imagine being in such a position—having to face the prospect that someone I loved might be guilty of something I would never have thought possible.
Since the novel was inspired by a real event, what made you shift from a mother-son dynamic to a mother-daughter? Were you more interested in exploring that kind of bond, or was this simply a way to fictionalize the story?
It had more to do with the fact that I was far less interested in writing about a sociopath as the grown child of the victim than about a grown child who would be vulnerable to a sociopath’s sway. Sociopaths, as they are classically defined, aren’t interesting to me in a fictional sense because—at least from my understanding—there isn’t a conscience at play, and I am most interested in the conflicts that spring from the conscience. I suppose I could have written about a son with a male friend or boyfriend, but to me it came more naturally to write about a mother-daughter relationship complicated and infected by the daughter’s desire for this obviously malignant man to love her.
Your powers of characterization have always impressed me, but I was particularly struck in this novel by your portrayal of the dog, Abby. It seems to me she’s not just a prop in the story, as pets in fiction sometimes are, but a bona fide character who tries to help lead Hanna to the truth. Could you talk a little bit about Abby’s role in the story, and the challenges of crafting a non-human character?
Thank you for asking about Abby! I loved writing about her. And I love what you say about her trying to help Hanna see or acknowledge the truth. (Perhaps I will use your language in any future interviews and claim it as my own.) I think I conceived her primarily as Hanna’s companion both before, during, and after the crime—and since she, Abby, was also injured in the attack, she is especially important to Hanna once she does set out to remember that night.
As an aside, I’ve been surprised by some readers’ reactions to what happens to Abby. A couple of them have written about being upset at the things that happen to her, but nobody has made a comment like, “Gee, I wish those human beings hadn’t gotten their heads bashed in.” I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, because I do remember what I heard Nancy Zafris, the editor of the Flannery O’Connor Award Series, say on a panel once when she was giving advice to writers trying to place their first stories. She said, “Don’t have a dog die, because people don’t like it.” Most of the bad things that happen to Abby in my novel are the result of a bad person’s behavior, but a couple of the reader reviews I’ve seen have almost made it sound as if I were the one who injured this dog. Someone wrote, “I flinch at any reference to cruelty to animals… The bit with the dog just left me feeling sad.” Well, I flinch at cruelty to animals, and it made me sad, too (and I had spent a lot more time with Abby than any reader ever will!), but as writers we don’t decide what should happen; we render what does happen (which in fiction mirrors what happens in life, of course), and we try to get at, and render, a sense of why. At least, that’s what interests me about writing fiction, and that’s the challenge I enjoy the most.
I think readers do often react more strongly to instances of animal cruelty than they do to human cruelty, but for me personally, the reaction depends on whether the cruelty feels gratuitous or is simply lazy writing—there just to establish another character’s evil nature. I’m talking about that typical horror movie setup, where the family has a dog and you just know the poor animal will be dead by the end of Act I. But you created a dog that was part of a family, who suffered as the family suffered, and who was an integral part of your main character’s journey. To my mind, that’s elevation, not exploitation.
I love that distinction, and I appreciate your saying it. If I had made a different choice about what Abby suffered, I would have made that decision based on what felt most natural and right for the story.
My experience reading this book was that it started out feeling like a whodunit, and then at a certain point my desire to find out what happened shifted from wondering who did it to wondering when the narrator would figure it out (and whether she would figure it out in time), since I already knew. It feels delightfully subversive to me, the way you use a murder mystery set-up and then redefine the suspense. Can you talk a bit about genre-bending?
I appreciate the implication that any of that may have been intentional, but I am embarrassed to say that it was not. To be honest, I never started out to write anything resembling a whodunit or a “thriller”—to me, it was always a psychological exploration of my narrator, a portrayal of exactly the journey you describe: the one she undergoes to 1) decide she wants to seek the truth, 2) find the truth and acknowledge it, and 3) examine the extent to which she might have colluded in the development of events she would never have wished for.
You discussed the journey your character goes through a bit at your book launch, as well as describing your thematic interest in the real-life event that inspired the novel: that idea of knowing something (a mother knowing her child has tried to kill her) but deciding to believe something else (that she’s innocent). Could you talk about this a bit?
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that someone might know something, on one level, and yet decide (and to what extent such a decision is a conscious one also intrigued me) to believe something else, because believing something else was more valuable, or more necessary, to her.
I realized when I started reflecting on it that this is a pervasive theme in my work—the psychological conflict people can suffer as a result of knowing one thing but wanting desperately to believe another, whether it’s about themselves, about someone else, or about a situation. I know that this theme can be explored in many contexts other than death, but I find that I do tend to write about death a lot, and I think it has to do with Flannery O’Connor’s great quote that “it is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially.” Since death, or the threat of it, seems to me the most extreme situation, I gravitate toward writing about it as a way of first discovering and then revealing the most important elements of my characters’ internal landscapes.
Lisa Borders’ second novel, The Fifty-First State, was published by Engine Books in 2013, and was a finalist for the Housatonic Book Awards. Her first novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, was chosen by Pat Conroy as the winner of River City Publishing’s Fred Bonnie Award, and received fiction honors in the 2003 Massachusetts Book Awards. Lisa’s short stories have appeared in Washington Square, Black Warrior Review, Painted Bride Quarterly and other journals. Her essay “Enchanted Night” was published in Don’t You Forget About Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes, and an essay on Kate Bush was published in Scott Heim’s The First Time I Heard series. She has received grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Somerville Arts Council and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and fellowships at the Millay Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Hedgebrook and the Blue Mountain Center. Lisa lives in Somerville and teaches at GrubStreet. More information on Lisa and her work is available at lisaborders.com.