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Book Review: Dear Lucy by Julie Sarkissian

Dear Lucy by Julie Sarkissian (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).

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           I have never felt fiercely protective of a character before, but the urge to shield Lucy, the main speaker in Julie Sarkissian’s quirky, unique, and weirdly beautiful debut, Dear Lucy, overtook me. And there’s a good reason why: Lucy is developmentally delayed and has issues with behavior and language yet she is filled with determination and love. Lucy is limited, yes, but she looks at the world with wonder and sees it as full of possibility. Lucy is extraordinary and she certainly becomes special to us as her eyes are open to the beauty around her.

“It is time to get the eggs. Time for my best thing,” Lucy says. “I get the eggs for our breakfast. They are alive. When you eat something that is alive you take the life for yourself. You can’t think of it as taking life from another thing, you think of it as giving life to yourself.” This sentiment comes from Lucy’s friend, Samantha. “Samantha knows” because “there is something growing inside of her too.” Samantha, a pregnant teenager, is also one of the narrators in Dear Lucy. She does not want her baby; instead, she plans on giving the child up for adoption.

Sarkissian sets Dear Lucy on an isolated and rather mysterious farm. The setting makes the story dark and desolate and allows a sense of menace to loom over the entire novel. Mister and Missus, owners of the farm, only add to the story’s doom-and-gloom environment. Missus functions as Sarkissian’s third and final narrator.

The author could have told her tale solely from Lucy’s perspective, but then we would not have so many different windows and perceptions of the story, making Dear Lucy richer and more satisfying. Sarkissian writes each narrator in Dear Lucy with vulnerability, though some characters are more defenseless than others. Weakness is sometimes overt, like with Lucy and Samantha; other times, helplessness can be hidden, as it is with Missus, who feels inadequate for not giving her husband a son.

Dear Lucy gives up its secrets slowly yet pleasingly, building mystery and suspense. Especially when Sarkissian reveals the reason why Lucy is on the farm. Lucy gets a thought into her head and cannot let it go. Because she is so single-minded, she can be willful and even prone to violence. Her impulses rule her, leading me to wonder if perhaps her hypothalamus is to blame for her behavior. Lucy’s mother could not handle her daughter any longer and put her in the care of Mister and Missus.

Lucy believes her stay on the farm is temporary and believes her Mum mum will return for her, as she promised. She must listen to Mister and Missus always so they will allow her to stay on the farm, where “Mum mum will know where to find” her. Lucy takes this literally and is loath to even get in a car or go on foot off the farm. She longs for her mother and yearns to be called “Dear Lucy” as Mum mum wraps Lucy in her arms protectively and lovingly.

The farm becomes a haven of sorts for Lucy as she waits for Mum mum. She develops an attachment to Samantha and to the chickens from whom she collects the eggs. Lucy is so happy when Samantha gives birth and decides to keep the son she delivers, but her world comes crashing down when Samantha’s baby is taken from her. Samantha begs Lucy for help.

Lucy then sets out on an adventure like no other, a journey that takes her farther away from the farm than she has ever been. She worries Mum mum will not be able to find her again, but Lucy presses on. She is not alone on her mission. Jennifer, a talking chicken, accompanies her and tells Lucy what to do. Jennifer is everything that Lucy is not: tough, smart, mature, and wise. For me, the chicken was a part of Lucy’s psyche that appeared right when she needed it the most.

Dear Lucy is told in three distinctive and gorgeous voices. Sarkissian’s imagination, originality, and amazing talent captivated me and would not let me go. Eerie and atmospheric, Dear Lucy reads like southern gothic, unsettling and intriguing and at the same time urging the reader and Lucy onward.

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Interview with Julie Sarkissian, Author of Dear Lucy

Julie Sarkissian, author of Dear Lucy

Julie Sarkissian, author of Dear Lucy

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Julie, for letting me interview you.  When Julia Fierro, founder and director of The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, has this to say about a novel, I take notice: “Dear Lucy will be one of your favorite reads of 2013. I promise.”  That’s high praise.  How do the wonderful reviews make you feel?

 Julie Sarkissian: First off, thank you for having me on your blog!

The experience of being reviewed brings to mind the nursery rhyme, “When she was good she was very, very good and when she was bad she was horrid.” When you hear something nice about your book, such as Julia’s generous and kind words, it feels very, very good. When you hear something not so nice about your book, it feels horrid. Being reviewed puts the author in a very vulnerable position, so every emotion is very heightened.

JB: Did you always want to be a writer?

JS: Like many of us in the publishing industry – writers, booksellers, editors – one of my first great loves as a child was reading. I grew up without a television and books were the main source of entertainment in our family. I was also a very serious student from an early age. Throughout elementary school writing was a strong suite of mine, it came easily to me and I enjoyed it and took pride in it. But it wasn’t until about the age of thirteen that I became afflicted with a true and overwhelming passion for writing. I started hearing voices in my head and was compelled to write them down. I started writing on a daily basis. I was very private about my work. It was as if I was carrying on an intense, secret affair with my writing at night, and was the same straight-A, type-A, peppy student I was known for being. But something had been awakened inside of me that fundamentally change who I was, and never went away.

 

JB: You became an instructor last year at The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop.  How do you like teaching writing?

 

JS: I absolutely love it. Though I’m a writer and ipso facto have to work alone for much of the time, I am very extroverted. So gathering in a group to discuss writing and craft and literature is such a blissed-out state for me. Teaching is so humbling and rewarding. And inspiring! Of course, my situation is rather comfortable: teaching intelligent, driven adults from my home. My mother teaches high school English and has over forty kids in each class, so I probably wouldn’t have quite a rosy attitude about teaching if that were my situation.

 

JB: How has being a writing teacher made you a better author?

 

JS: That’s a good question. I’m not sure if teaching has made my actual writing better, but it has given me a better appreciation of the artistic community, and my students’ drive and ambition are very inspiring. And teaching is intellectually rewarding, and I’m sure that has to help sharpen my mind.

 

JB: Please describe Dear Lucy in ten words or less.

 

JS: Disabled girl, pregnant teenager and talking chicken vs. the world.

 

JB: What inspired you to write Dear Lucy? Which character’s voice came to you first?  And in what way?

 

JS: The inspiration for Dear Lucy was Lucy’s voice, narrating her gathering of the eggs. Her voice was so strong I just felt compelled to follow it, wherever it lead me. Her voice was the initial inspiration and the guiding force for the whole project.

 

JB: Lucy is truly an unforgettable and beautifully quirky character.  How did her creation come about?

 

JS: Thank you so much! She presented herself to me as a voice, and from there I had to ascertain where she came from, what her past was like, what her mother was like.

 

JB: What exactly is wrong with Lucy?

 

JS: I made a choice not to label Lucy or give her a diagnosis. So the most accurate answer to that question is that there is no real answer. But to be general, I think she has some behavioral issues, I think she has some language processing problems, she is developmentally delayed.

 

JB: In Dear Lucy, you shift points of view from Lucy to Missus to Samantha.  What prompted you to change perspective and give the reader different perceptions?

 

JS: The decision to have multiple narrators stemmed from my desire to get the reader information that would have been lost or at best incredibly convoluted through Lucy’s point of view. I wanted there to be tension between what the reader knew about Lucy’s situation, her safety and well-being, and Lucy’s experience. It seemed like a great opportunity to raise the drama stakes for Lucy.

 

JB: Do you have a favorite character in the story?  If so, who?  And why?

 

JS: Lucy is my favorite, because she gave me her voice so generously and inspired the whole book. But I always felt very protective over Samantha, even though technically Lucy was more limited and more susceptible to danger than Samantha. Unlike Lucy, Samantha is her own worst enemy, and I felt a sense of responsibility for creating a character like that.

 

JB: Sense of place is intensely strong in Dear Lucy.  Why did you want to set your story on a farm?  How does the setting allow Lucy to develop strong friendships and come to the aid of a friend?

 

JS: Setting the novel on the farm was an organic, unconscious part of the process. When Lucy introduced herself to me gathering the eggs, it seemed only natural that she was gathering eggs on a farm. I think the setting is emotionally meaningful because the isolation of the farm highlights and juxtaposes Lucy’s ability to make connections in any environment, even one as desolate and dark as the farm.

 

JB: Dear Lucy has been compared to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Emma Donoghue’s Room.  How do such comparisons make you feel?

 

JS: They make me feel very validated for the type of book I was trying to create. I think both these books are character voice driven literary fiction, and so it is very flattering to be compared to them because in terms of genre that is just what I was hoping to achieve. I wrote about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for the critical portion of my master’s thesis, so it has long been a book that helped me navigate the creation of a full story with a limited protagonist. When I first read Room I was much farther along in the publication process of Dear Lucy, but I was really struck by the similarities in voice between Jack and Lucy. A few of the lines are eerily similar. Jack and Lucy are no doubt kindred literary spirits.

 

JB: What was your publication process like?

 

JS: Dear Lucy was my master’s thesis at The New School. Ann Hood was my thesis advisor and she was incredibly encouraging and supportive. After grad school finished a full draft of a manuscript and found my wonderful agent, Judy Heiblum, through a friend of a friend at the restaurant where I wait tables. My agent and I edited the book for well over a year. That was a very challenging time in the life of the book. Getting the book in sellable shape felt like trial by fire, but eventually we did get a polished manuscript ready. Someone upstairs must have been looking out for me because the book ended up being acquired by Sarah Knight at Simon and Schuster, and she is absolutely the editor who was meant to work on Dear Lucy.

 

JB: How did you react upon seeing a finished copy for the first time?dear-lucy.jpg

 

JS: It was a few seconds of pure elation, trying to take in the enormity of how six years of work, essentially my sole focus of my life for six years, had led to this tangible object in my hand. It was very significant, very existential moment.

 

JB: Who are some of your favorite authors and/or what are some of your favorite books?

 

JS: Faulkner has long been a huge influence on my work. Other favorite authors and major influences are Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Flannery O’ Connor. I buy a lot of books at Housing Works – a thrift store near my house- so I often stumble across critically acclaimed books that were published some years ago but are new to me. Some in that camp are: Mating by Norman Rush, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton, Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman. Shopping in thrift stories is treasure hunting, and discovering brilliant books like these is the ultimate thrill.

 

JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

 

JS: I’m from Southern California, and am a Californian at heart, so naturally I love the beach. My fiancé and I rent a beach house in Montauk every summer and I cherish those summer months. I’m big into yoga and baking. I love having dinner parties and BBQing on our deck when the weather is nice. I grew up without a television and now am unabashedly addicted to it, especially crime dramas. I’ve watched every episode of Law and Order, Perry Mason and Murder She Wrote.

 

JB: What is a typical day of writing like for you?  Do you have a favorite place where you write?  Do you prefer quiet or must you have noise?

 

JS: Like any rational human being I start the day with coffee. I’m not a morning person and my brain takes a while to start functioning. But once it does, I sit down to write either on the couch, though I am trying to wean myself off of that habit, or my desk. I get my best work done in the mornings into early afternoon. I break for yoga and lunch, and try to work a few more hours in the afternoon. I prefer quiet when I write early drafts, but listening to music while editing can be inspiring and help keep the work feel fresh.

 

JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing Dear Lucy?

 

JS: Personally the hardest thing was not to get discouraged that the process took so long. Creatively the hardest thing was structuring the novel. My editor was instrumental in helping me get structure the novel in the way that best served all the character’s storylines.

 

JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself while in the midst of this tale?

 

JS: I used to be incredibly private about my work and it was very painful for me to show it to anybody. I never shared any details about my creative process or the host emotions that come with it. But through the publication process I started opening up to my fellow artist friends about the experience of creating the book, the deep tenderness I had for my characters, the mental and creative challenges of editing, the sense of anticipation and the fear of criticism. Being able to share what I was going through was very grounding and galvanizing and helped foster a sense of community and support.

 

JB: Do you have any advice for those working on a first novel?

 

JS: Remind yourself feeling passionate about something is a real blessing. Ignore self-doubt and feel proud that you’re trying! Don’t compare your journey to anyone else’s; there are as many ways to write as book as there are books to write.

 

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Dear Lucy?

 

JS: I hope readers take away the sense that the world is renewing itself every day, and that our sensory perceptions have the inherent ability to experience profound beauty. That seeing the world through another’s eyes, or hearing it from another’s ears, feeling it through another’s fingertips alerts the mind and the heart to the beauty that is around us all the time.

 

JB: I’m sure you have attended many book launches, but BookCourt was the site of your book launch on April 23.  What was it like?

 

JS: It was a blast! My friends- Heather Robb of the band The Spring Standards and Peter Lalish of the band Lucius- played live music – all booked themed songs, including Paperback Writer by the Beatles and Everyday I Write The Book by Elvis Costello. I cried during my thank yous and started uncontrollably coughing while reading– my friend had to take over the reading for me! It was a great turnout; BookCourt sold out of books, there were lots of cupcakes, lots of wine and lots of love!

julie sarkissian

 

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

 

JS: I am working on a new book. It’s about a carnival on an old pirate ship that travels the East Coast prophesizing that to succumb to your most primal desires is the only way to have a true experience of life. When the ship docks in a sleepy New England town, the lives of three women will never be the same.

 

JB: Thank you very much, Julie.  Good luck with the book!

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