In Self-Portrait With Boy, Rachel Lyon has written a powerful debut novel. Self-Portrait examines the aftermath of the moment Lu Rile takes a photograph that inadvertently captures a boy’s fatal fall. Described by Joyce Carol Oates as a “beautifully imagined and flawlessly executed” book that “will suggest, to some readers, the obsessive interiority of the great Diane Arbus, conjoined with an original and disturbing examination of the ill-defined borders between life and art,” Self-Portrait will get you thinking deeply about the challenges and complexities of creativity, morality, and making art as a woman.
Caroline Hagood: Your book is really “high concept” as the lit world likes to say. How did this concept come to you? Was it more of an aha moment or something that grew slowly over time?
Rachel Lyon: There was a boy who fell from the roof of the building where I grew up. I was only a very little kid when it happened, and didn’t actually know much about it until I was in my 20s, when I was beginning to take myself more seriously as a writer. I knew I wanted to write about DUMBO, to memorialize my childhood home, but it seemed like a daunting project. Learning about the boy who fell, that stunned me. And it gave me a focal point. I kept imagining looking out the window there, which I remember so well, and seeing him fall by. How could a person preserve that instant? Through photography. I got this idea of the photograph in my head. I was thinking about the concept of photographic soul theft: the superstition that, in taking a person’s picture, a photographer can somehow steal a piece of the subject’s spirit. Taking a picture can be a kind of violence. That led me to the question, Who would commit this act of violence? Who is this photographer in my mind? Which gave rise to my protagonist, Lu Rile.
CH: The book deals with the fraught and fascinating terrain of art and ethics. What sorts of questions did you want your book to raise for your readers?
RL: I don’t know what I want readers to think about. I don’t want to try to control anyone’s experience of the book. I only hope readers get something out of it, and that whatever they get feels meaningful to them. I just hope that people—some people, anyway!—enjoy this thing. I tried to make this an engaging book that would move along quickly and suspensefully and, hopefully, would entertain. If a reader devours it and feels satisfied when she’s done reading, then I’ll feel I’ve written something worthwhile.
That doesn’t answer your question, though. I guess personally, in terms of art and ethics, I’m thinking about questions like: Where do you draw the line between art and life? How much life can or should an artist sacrifice for the sake of her work, and how much devotion to her work can or should she sacrifice in pursuit of a full, generous, meaningful life? Lu certainly behaves badly, but is she wrong to do so? Does she sin? And if she does, how wrong is she? How sinful? On the other hand, what’s the big deal?
CH: What questions did it raise for you as you wrote?
RL: Writing a novel takes so long. It’s an accumulation of hours and days and months and years, multiple versions of multiple scenes, and layers upon layers of revision, elaboration, interpretation, and so on and so on. I lived this book for a long time, so it is the product of many different periods of my life, the fluctuations of different relationships, hundreds of conversations, whims, and questions of my own about who I was, who I am, and who I will be. I used it to figure things out, artistically and philosophically and emotionally. So some of the conversations that Lu has are variations on conversations that I had or wanted to have, and some of the challenges she struggles with run parallel to challenges of my own. One essential question was ultimately both raised and answered by the writing process itself: Q: How do I do this? A: Just keep doing. Another, which will never truly be answered, is: What does it mean to be a woman artist in this world?
CH: What other authors dealt with these questions in ways that were useful or inspiring to you?
RL: In terms of that latter question, I think of Rebecca Solnit, Eileen Myles, Leslie Jamison, Roxane Gay…. Seems like all the cool women writers working today are wrestling with the question of art and life and power and selfishness and femaleness, in one way or another. Claire Dederer had a thought-provoking piece not too long ago in The Paris Review called “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” It came out after I was done with the book, of course, but it gave me an opportunity to reflect on Lu and her character in a new light. (I wrote about that piece in an essay of my own, in fact, which will come out shortly in the New Limestone Review.) But this is a topic that goes back through the ages. Since women have made art, women have asked: What does it mean to be a woman who makes art? It’s an essential metaphysical question that runs latent, I think, in most art by women. Men do not have to justify their art. We women artists have to justify our existence.
CH: What was your process for building your complex female protagonist? What sorts of concerns and intentions did you have as you brought her into the world?
RL: From the beginning of creating a character, for me the question is always, What kind of person would do something like this? That gives me a starting point, a way to begin investigating who that character is. I knew Lu was solitary and determined. After not too much writing I discovered she was pretty awkward. But assuming you know everything there is to know about your character can be limiting. I remember one significant moment in the writing process. I was working on a scene, I think, between Lu and Kate, and struggling with Lu’s voice. I kept asking myself: Would she say this? How would she react in this scenario? What would she do? Is this in keeping with her character? And then I realized, wait. No person is limited to just one kind of reaction in a given scenario. We might react any number of ways, depending on our mood, how impulsive we’re feeling, how comfortable we are, whether we’re surrounded by friends or strangers, and so on. We’re elastic. We contain multitudes—and Lu can contain multitudes, too. Personality is not just a way of reacting to things. It’s largely just a kind of style. At that point I started letting Lu act and react more freely on the page, and I discovered new and surprising things about her. She became more complicated than she would have been if I’d drawn her with my own definitive, prescribed outline.
CH: If there was one feeling you could ensure that your readers would walk away with after reading your book, what would it be?
RL: I just hope they enjoy the experience of reading it. I hope they take away with them a handful of ideas and images that they didn’t have before.
CH: I’ve grown fond of this question, so bear with me. If your book had a theme song, what would it be?
RL: Ooh, I love this question! A few bands are mentioned in the book. Lu listens to Sonic Youth and to the Pixies. A puppet made by an elementary school student wears a ripped Nirvana tee shirt. But the most fitting song appears, I think, in the third section of the book (Winter), when Lu goes to visit her dad:
I opened the refrigerator and got out some sliced turkey, mayonnaise. The foods of my adolescence. When I bit into the sandwich I thought of the Ramones: I wanted everything. I wanted everything.
I think that song I Wanted Everything pretty much encapsulates Lu’s spirit, and the spirit of the novel. I think that’s probably the theme song of the book.