Transcript - Episode 79: Rachel Lyon

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Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 79. Today’s guest is Rachel Lyon.

Hey there folks, Happy New Year to everybody, happy 2019. I hope that you all had a wonderful holiday season, however you celebrate. Before we get started I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you to all of you out there in podcast land. 2018 was a year of growth for the show and for me personally. Nearly twice as many people listened to Keep the Channel Open last year than the year before, which is just amazing, and I’m really looking forward to what’s yet to come this year. None of that would be possible without you, the one listening to this right now, and for that I just want to say: thank you.

Now, this week I’m talking with writer Rachel Lyon. Rachel Lyon is the author of the novel Self-Portrait With Boy, which was long-listed for the Center for Fiction's 2018 First Novel Prize. Her short stories have appeared in publications including the Iowa Review, Joyland, and Electric Literature's Recommended Reading. She’s the cofounder of the monthly reading series Ditmas Lit in her native Brooklyn, she teaches for the Sackett Street Writers Workshop, Catapult, Slice, and elsewhere.

In our conversation Rachel and I talked about her debut novel Self-Portrait With Boy, which came out in February 2018 and I read it over the summer. The story centers around a young photographer named Lu Rile, living in Brooklyn in the early 90s, who accidentally, while taking the titular self-portrait, captures the image of the young son of her neighbors outside her window, falling to his death. Writing for the LA Review of Books, Diana Wagman said about the book “Lyrically written, emotionally complicated, and surprising in many ways, it is hard to put down. It explores what constitutes success and fame and art. A single chance occurrence creates something out of nothing, and someone out of no one — but at an enormous expense. Rachel Lyon has given us much to think about.” And in its year-end list of the best fiction of 2018, Entropy magazine said “Self-Portrait with Boy is a provocative commentary about the emotional dues that must be paid on the road to success, a powerful exploration of the complex terrain of female friendship, and a brilliant debut from novelist Rachel Lyon.” And, in some exciting news, it was just recently announced that Self-Portrait With Boy has been picked up by Topic Studios to be made into a movie.

Now, for me as a photographer, I often find that movies and books that have photographer characters in them are sort of difficult for me, usually because they do something inaccurate that pulls me out of the story. This one, though, not only felt very real to me in the details of the photography but also in how the different artist characters think and interact. It’s really stayed with me since I read it. I’ve put some links in the show notes where you can get your own copy, and I do recommend it. I’ve also put in links to Rachel’s short story “Tripping Sunny Chaudhry,” which we discussed in our conversation, and to Rachel’s TinyLetter, Writing/Thinking Prompts. Also, coming up in 2019 Rachel has a number of workshops and classes that she will be teaching, which you can participate in. In February, Rachel will be teaching a 1-day intensive workshop on novel structuring via Catapult, in June she’ll be teaching in the second week of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and throughout the year she’ll be teaching with the Sackett Street Writers Workshop. You can find links to all of those in the show notes.

Since it’s a new year and all, this is a great time to sign up and make a pledge to Keep the Channel Open’s Patreon campaign. Your monthly donations are what keep the show going, and a pledge in any amount gets you early access to each episode, plus exclusive access to the show’s bonus archive. This week for the bonus archive, Rachel Lyon is reading her story “Jennie, Jake,” and that joins readings from past guests including David Naimon, Nicole Chung, Franny Choi, and Ada Limón. Sign up today at and support the show!

OK, so, let’s get going. As always, if you’d like to join in the conversation you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenFiction on Twitter to share your thoughts about the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Rachel Lyon.

First Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So, uh, so your book came out in February. Um, I read it over the summer. I read it in August and it's, um, it's really stuck with me. It's something that I've been thinking about a lot in the past several months. But before we talk about that, one of the things I often like to do when I'm talking with people for the show is to think about where the first time I encountered their work was. The first thing of yours that I ever read was this story "Tripping Sunny Chaudhry," which was in the 2017 Short Story Advent Calendar.

Rachel Lyon: Mm-hm.

MS: Which I really, really enjoyed. That story was what made me look you up on Twitter. And then that was how I discovered your book. So I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about that book and maybe a little bit about, you know, I had some thoughts about how it's sort of similar to some of the things about Self-Portrait With Boy.

RL: The story?

MS: Yeah. A little bit.

RL: Huh.

MS: [laughs]

RL: What are the similarities that you see between the story and the book?

MS: Well, so this story, right? It's quite brief. I mean you can read it in like, you know, maybe 15 minutes. But it really—I feel like it packed a lot in. So it's the story of this woman who—I'm not sure you ever actually learn her name in the story

RL: Mm-hm.

MS: But she's home for a holiday and revisiting some of her old haunts on the Jersey Shore, right?

RL: Mm-hm.

MS: And the story sort of revolves around this anecdote that her ex-boyfriend tells about this time that he tripped this other student back in high school, when they were all in high school maybe 10 years before, something like that?

RL: Mm-hm.

MS: One of the things that I was thinking about is sort of two things being sort of similar with Self-Portrait With Boy and one is that there is a sense of, because both books sort of revolve around a story that's being told about a past time. And the other one is that both stories to me really seem like they are involved with how that central story is framed and how the different characters involved in it might want us to think about it as we're being told it. So I was wondering sort of what you might think about that.

RL: Yeah. Yeah, that's really interesting. I never thought about that. They are both about the nature of storytelling. Yeah. And how we, how are we tell and retell our stories for—sometimes for our own benefit sometimes, you know, for other people's benefits. [laughs]

MS: Yeah.

RL: Um, I think the thing that was haunting me when I wrote "Tripping Sunny Chaudhry" was this idea that's sort of encapsulated, I think, in the last line. She goes home after this bonfire where she encounters her ex and here's him telling the story that she's heard a thousand times. And her husband is asleep, her new husband, right, is asleep on the couch. And she sits with him and she sort of looks at him and goes like, "He's mine. This is great." Like she turns off whatever was elicited in her by the story that her ex told, which is a lot, you know. Like you point out, the substance of the story is really her wrestling with that anecdote and what it means and what it means about the way that her ex sees himself and what it means about the way that other people see him and, you know, whether they could have made it or whether she still loves him and all of these things are brought up by this anecdote. But at the end of the day she comes home to this other man and just says to herself, "Well, he's mine." You know, and that's all it is. It's that simple. She doesn't have to wrestle with anything with this guy. He's asleep, he's unresponsive. [laughs] He's not performing. He's the opposite of performing. He's totally unconscious. And I think that was what I was interested in getting at, I think, is that a sense of ownership over another person can kind of short circuit all of the issues that you might have in a relationship.

MS: Hm.

RL: You know?

MS: That's interesting. I mean, one of the things that, to me, the ending of that story, there's something about the way that she—both in the beginning and at the end of the story—describes her new husband. You know, so here's this woman and over the course of this story, we get a lot about the colors of her internal life. But the way that she talks about her husband—I mean obviously there must be something that she likes about him, that she sees in him that makes her want to be with him, but the details that she gives us about him are sort of very mundane and he almost seems kind of like boring, in a kind of endearing kind of way, I guess.

RL: [laughs]

MS: And that juxtaposition between her sort of boring new husband and then this sort of tumultuous relationship that she had had with her ex and all the emotions that she had with him, to me that was one of the things that I found really fascinating about that story.

RL: Hm.

MS: You know?

RL: Yeah. Yeah, I think she's chosen... She's chosen peace over chaos, you know. And that, right, her current relationship is totally underdeveloped in the story, it's not really about that. It's more about her, and I guess the way that... Yeah, the way that she's sort of walked away from all of these questions and she has the freedom to do that. You know, it's not really her story at the end of the day. It's her ex's story.

MS: Yeah. That's true.

RL: The background of that story is that it's more autobiographical than like most of the short stories I've written.

MS: Hm.

RL: Because the anecdote comes from... [laughs] I mean it's slightly altered, but it comes from an ex-boyfriend of mine, and I was [laughs] I was thinking about it because I saw him tell it really publicly and sort of it just brought up all of these questions for me, you know. And I think it was the act of walking away from those questions that really felt freeing. You know. And the other thing about that story was I hadn't realized this, but once I wrote it, you know, months later—so it was published in Bodega magazine and then months later I was working on a new story. And I ended this new story with that same [laughs] phrase. It was not exactly the same but it was very similar, like this idea of "You're mine, you're mine," or "She's mine" or "He's mine" or whatever it was. This feeling of ownership. And I submitted this new story and then the Short Story Advent Calendar, you know, accepted "Tripping Sunny Chaudhry" for republication. And I was like, I had to go back to the more recent story and change the ending because I hadn't remembered that I ended a whole other story that way.

MS: [laughs]

RL: So like there's... [laughs] There's something preoccupying me, I think, about this idea of ownership and freedom and, you know.

MS: Hm.

RL: There's something there for sure.

MS: Yeah. Well, I mean, you know, thinking about Self-Portrait With Boy, it kind of feels like that story also... Like the idea of ownership and of sort of being haunted by something in your past, something... It feels resonant in both stories. Does that feel right to you?

RL: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Lu—I mean the whole question of who does this image belong to with Lu Rile and her photograph of the boy who's died. Like that's kind of the essence of the novel. Yeah.

MS: Yeah.

RL: For sure.

MS: So in this story, the sort of central conflict of the novel is that we have this character, this photographer whose name is Lu Rile and she's sort of a struggling young artist in nineties New York, in DUMBO, and by happenstance while she's taking a series of self-portraits, one of them happens to be in front of a window and as she's taking it the camera captures a young boy, the son of her neighbors, falling to his death. And then sort of the story revolves around all of what the picture is, what she does with it, and, you know, what the consequences of that are. You know, I hadn't thought about it in exactly these terms, what you're saying about how the question of the ownership of the photograph, of the image, of that moment of tragedy. Who owns that? I mean, that's very explicit in the text of the novel. One of the things that I hadn't really considered, but it's interesting in sort of comparing it to this short story is that, you know, the novel itself is told almost entirely as a flashback. You know, except for the very beginning and maybe like the last few sentences—the prologue and the last few sentences—the whole rest of the book is a flashback, essentially, a really long flashback.

RL: Mm-hm.

MS: And I guess, you know, one of the things that occurs to me now is that it occurs to me to wonder who owns the story. You know, like who owns the story that is the novel. You know what I mean?

RL: Mm. Yeah. Yeah. And again, you know, with the novel, this was based on an event that happened in a building—the building I grew up in, that my family lived in until I was 10. There was a young boy who fell from the roof of that building and you could argue that, you know, I'm doing exactly what Lu Rile is doing—in another way and another medium—by taking that story and using it for my own artistic purposes. I think the difference—well, one difference between the premise of the novel and the premise of the short story is that the protagonist of the novel is using this image for creative purposes and the protagonist of the short story, of "Tripping Sunny Chaudhry," is just kind of mulling things over. Right?

MS: Mm-hm.

RL: So it becomes a little bit of a different question. I think, when you add on the qualifier of like if you're using it for an artistic purpose versus, you know, just making it your own or... You know what I mean? It's like, it's not just about ownership anymore. It's suddenly about material. [laughs]

MS: Yeah.

RL: Yeah.

MS: Yeah. I guess sort of what I meant about it was like... You know, one of the things that really, for me—and I'm sure this was the purpose of it—that really colored the whole book for me is... So like the very last paragraph of the first chapter is this sort of—this exhortation from Lu, who is, you know, she's the narrator of the story. She's saying "This is the thing that you have to understand." She's telling you how she wants you, the reader, to interpret this story, right, to sort of frame this whole thing.

RL: Mm-hm.

MS: And because the story is told in this very close first-person perspective, it's very much told from her point of view, right.

RL: Mm-hm.

MS: And I think as a reader, that tends to bias you towards sort of accepting her version of the events. But then, you know, when you take a step back from it, there are all these other characters that are involved in this story. You know, the other people that live in the building, eventually the woman that Lu ends up falling in love with, the boy's parents, obviously. And it strikes me to wonder, like if they were going to be telling this story, how would they want to frame it? You know?

RL: Right.

MS: So who owns—who has the right to tell you "This is how you're supposed to think of the story." You know?

RL: Right, right. Yeah. Nobody, right? [laughs] It's totally subjective, your experience of the story is yours and mine is mine and Lu's is Lu's, and it's... I mean, I've tried to, a little bit—I tried in the narrative to give you little hints and windows into other people's versions of events. Like Lu goes to a party and someone calls her a cunt. And she runs into a neighbor on the street and the neighbor says, "I really hope that you're doing right by those kids that you've been teaching because they loved their old teacher who died and you better be doing a good job."

MS: Mm-hm.

RL: And that guy, the guy who died, I have a whole idea of what happened to him, but that's not part of her story. She's very self-absorbed and she's very single-minded and he hasn't occurred to her, and he won't occur to her again for the rest of the book. So I think in some ways the whole novel is kind of an experiment in point of view.

MS: Mm-hm.

RL: You know, and you have to be so single-minded. I mean, in some ways it's also, you know, an exploration of the creative process itself and how incredibly absorbing it is, you know?

MS: I mean I've heard, you know, a number of other interviews you've done talking about this book, and read a number of interviews as well, and that single-mindedness and maybe analysis of artistic ambition is something that a lot of people have asked you about.

RL: Mm-hm.

MS: And it is something that I find kind of interesting. One of the things that I find sort of the most interesting was there is this thing that you said and I feel like—you know, I'm subscribed to your TinyLetter as well, the Writing/Thinking Prompts.

RL: Oh, you do? That's nice.

MS: You may have mentioned it there as well. I know that it wasn't just in these interviews that I had first sort of come across to you saying this thing, but where you said "Nobody's going to care about your work the way that you do."

RL: Mm-hm.

MS: And then in one of these interviews, the one that you did with Bomb magazine

RL: Mm-hm. With Ryan Spencer.

MS: Yeah. You kind of took it another step further and said that the world doesn't need more art. I found that a really provocative statement. [laughs]

RL: [laughs]

MS: It's been on my mind a lot the last few days. It's something that I was maybe hoping we could unpack that a little bit.

RL: Oh, wow. [laughs] You know, I... [laughs] I don't totally believe in objective truth or objective reality at all.

MS: Mm-hm.

RL: So let's take that as just a qualifier. [laughs]

MS: Okay.

RL: Where, you know, things like that are true in some ways and untrue in others. And, you know, I can make a big statement like that—and you're right, it's meant to be provocative in certain ways. But it's also... I think, you know, in some ways it's true. It's true in that we have so much art around us. So much. There are a bazillion books and paintings and TV shows and films and plays and, you know, even if all we had left was Shakespeare, we would still have enough to think about, right?

MS: Hm.

RL: I guess that's part of what I meant, is that you can always go deeper without going broader when it comes to just the bulk of art in the world. But, you know, it's totally untrue in that I do think that most people—not everyone, but most people—do have a creative instinct and do want to create work. And I think by saying "We have enough art already," I think what I was really trying to say—if I remember right, which I probably don't—is that we shouldn't be making our work for the world. [laughs]

MS: Hm.

RL: You know, like it's—the world doesn't really need it. Other people don't really need it. And worrying about what other people are going to think is the best way to kill your creative... I guess, your imagination, right?

MS: Yeah.

RL: I just, you know, I have all these students who are—you know, and some of them are really great and some of them are, they're coming to my class to, you know, they're doing a hobby. And that's great and fine. And some of them are just—they think of creative writing the same way they might think of taking a pottery class or something. And that's fine. You know, we do it for all different reasons, but I think that our reasons have to be our own first. You know?

MS: Mm-hm.

RL: We can't be doing it because we think we have the next Great American Novel to offer.

MS: It's interesting. You know, one of the things I often think about... You know, for myself, I'm mainly a photographer and I also am a writer. When I think about writing, there's this one line that often comes back to me, which is, it's from John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire, where towards the end of the book, this character Lily, who's this sort of child prodigy writer, she's talking about this sort of artistic anxiety that she has, that I have found is very common among a lot of people, where you don't really know how good your work is and you don't... And there's always a sort of anxiety about that kind of thing. And she's talking about—I'm going to mess this up, but she says something like, "You have to believe that your book can be as great as the end of The Great Gatsby." And that it's—that she's holding the last few lines of Gatsby up as just like the perfect way to end a book. And she says, "You have to believe that your ending can be as good as the ending of Gatsby, otherwise there's no point." And that it's okay if you fail. That if you try and you fail, that's fine, but if you don't start off believing that you can get there, that like what is even the point of trying?.

RL: Wow.

MS: That's something that I've always sort of found really fascinating. And when I tell that line to different people, different people have wildly different reactions to that. [laughs]

RL: [laughs]

MS: Some people are like, "Well that's just ridiculous." And some people are like, "Oh yeah, I really—mm, yeah." [laughs]

RL: Well, what does it mean to you?

MS: Well, you know, sort of bringing this back to the reason that this came to mind, right, is, you know, thinking about what you were just saying just now about, you know, not worrying about what other people think and does the world need more art? I think in the context of that interview, and, you know, when you've talked to—because this is something you've said in more than one place, that nobody's going to care about your work the way that you do, or nobody's going to care about your work except for you. And so you have to believe in your own work. And I think that looking at it from the standpoint of the artist, right, that you do—you have to believe in your own work and you have to care about your work and be the champion of your work. I definitely feel that. I guess sort of one of the things that I think about, you know, in the context of does the world need more art is... I mean, I think that, like you were saying, yeah, we could keep going back to like Shakespeare and Keats and whoever else, you know, the sort of the Great Dead White Guy canon that we have. And there is—

RL: Or another canon.

MS: Sure.

RL: I mean it doesn't have to be them. [laughs]

MS: Right.

RL: Yeah.

MS: We could keep going back to them.

RL: Yeah, we could go back to everything that's already been made forever.

MS: Right. And on some level, needing to believe that your work will be put into that same pantheon can be a real hindrance to making anything at all.

RL: Yes.

MS: At the same time, looked at from the other side...

RL: Mm-hm.

MS: Like as an audience member, I feel like it's a different equation entirely. Because I as a reader really do need things that are from now, you know?

RL: Yeah.

MS: To sort of help me figure out now. You know? Not to say there aren't lessons I can't learn about my life and about the 21st century from Shakespeare, because there are. But I feel like there is something much more potent about contemporary work commenting on the contemporary moment. If that makes sense.

RL: Mm.

MS: And in that sense, I really do need it, you know?

RL: You know, it's really moving to hear you say that, and it's making me reflect on where I was at when I was doing some of these interviews and things, what, like six or eight months ago—feels like a lot longer ago right now. [laughs] But in order to make that book, Self-Portrait With Boy, I had to tear my ego down to the very nub. You know, I literally would wake up every morning before—I was working as a copywriter at a marketing agency and every morning I'd get up at like 6:00 AM, exhausted, and ask myself, "Well, do you want to be a copywriter or do you want to be a novelist?" And begrudgingly I'd be like, "Well, I want to be a novelist." And then—

MS: [laughs] Begrudgingly.

RL: You know? [laughs] Well, yeah, because I was tired, and I was like—and I didn't believe in myself, really. I was just kind of like, "What am I doing?" You know, "What if nobody ever reads this thing?" And so I would do this like catechism, this interrogation of myself every day, just like, "Well, does it matter? What if nobody reads it, do I still want to do it? I guess so."

MS: [laughs]

RL: Just to get my ass in the chair, you know? And I had to believe that it was okay if no one read it. I had to believe that it was okay if it sucked. I really had to believe that it was okay if, you know, it was still worth my time even if nobody gave a shit. And that required a lot of work, you know, mental and emotional work to get there. Now that it's out there in the world.. You know, I'm really glad that I did that for myself, first of all, because everything that came out of that publication, the interviews and the good reviews and, you know, this movie deal and all of the good stuff that has happened from Self-Portrait With Boy has been a total surprise because my standards were so low. [laughs] I really I really tore myself down enough that literally everything was just an incredible gift, right? I didn't expect anything that I got. So when I got it I was really blown away and that was an incredible experience. Now that I've gotten some of it, my ego's grown back a little bit and [laughs] I'm finding myself less and less, you know, a little bit more entitled and a little bit more jealous and envious and like I'm just not as as grateful a place in general as I was then. And I think my perspective is changing a little bit. So when I hear you say that you need contemporary work that's commenting on contemporary issues, I think that's true too. You know, I agree with you and I don't know that I can stand by what I said before, that the world doesn't need new art. I think maybe you're right.

MS: Well, you know, it's interesting hearing you talk about... You know, for me one of the things about the art-making process is, you know, at the end of the day I do always, whether it's photography or writing or even this podcast, for example, I think we all go through that sort of crisis, and often it's the crisis with every new work that we make, where we say, "Well, what if nobody shows up?"

RL: Yeah.

MS: Or if people showed up for the last one, then it's like, "Well, what if nobody shows up this time?"

RL: Yeah.

MS: And I do think that there's something very valuable about the idea of not needing external validation in order to feel satisfied with your life and what you've done with it. At the same time, you know, one of the things—this is a struggle for me definitely—is that when I think about the art-making process, my impulse is often to think of it in very similar terms to the way that, like you've described in previous interviews, that it is an essentially selfish thing, right? I'm doing it for myself for my own reasons, to sort of gratify myself and express the things that I want to express. But what I often find, especially when I'm—not so much with my own work, but when I'm thinking about other people's work, is that, you know, when I can find a work of art in any medium that I connect with, it ultimately makes me feel less alone in the world. And to me that is a real act of generosity and service that that artist has done for me. You know? So I really think that it's both.

RL: Yeah, absolutely. That's the great paradox, right? Is that, you know, yes, okay, this is a selfish act in some ways, you know, in the kind of—remember that Claire Dederer essay that came out this year about the selfishness of the woman artist? You know, just in the logistical act of writing, of cutting yourself off from the world and, you know, cutting your experience off, and sort of living in your head. There's something kind of, if not selfish, at least self-absorbed about that. But also the act of writing and a lot of good art-making involves an act of radical empathy and putting yourself in the position of other human beings, whether they're real or not real, you know, and attempting to access an experience that's different from your own. I mean that is radically generous. It's true.

MS: Mm. So one of the things about this book—just to sort of switch gears a little bit—that I found really interesting that hasn't been discussed quite as much in previous conversations is that I feel like there's a lot in this book about class. And I wondered if we could kind of go there a little bit.

RL: Yeah. I'm so glad you brought that up. For me, that's a really essential part of this story. As you know, there's this film deal that has gone through and we're working on a film adaptation of the book, and that's something that I've been talking a lot with the production team about, is just how incredibly important Lu's socioeconomic status is to her experience. It's just essential to her character, her experience into the story. Yeah.

MS: Mm-hm. One of the things that I think is interesting—there's a lot of things around this aspect that I think is really interesting and certainly something that you've talked about previously is the sort of neighborhood aspect and the sort of historical, you know, the gentrification of DUMBO and how that affects the characters. And that is certainly something that I found interesting. To me one of the things that I found even more interesting was in—not just in how Lu's class affected her situation, but how she thinks about class, herself. Because it is something that, you know, she really explicitly does think about, and that we get through her narration, how she views herself in relation to other people and their financial situations. That was something that I really found interesting about that character.

RL: Well, you know, I come from a family where both of my parents were sort of straight middle-class if not lower-middle-class growing up, and they're both in the arts. And there's so much money in the arts. Particularly visual art is just so dependent on the kindness of wealthy people. [laughs]

MS: [laughs] Yeah.

RL: And I think that's really hard to be around when you're from a world where it's just totally irrelevant to your lived experience, you know?

MS: Mm-hm. You know, that's certainly like—you know, as a photographer and someone who has lots of photographer friends, this is something that's very much on a lot of our minds. Especially now, you know, what our relationship is to collectors, what our relationship is to wealth and money, and what are we making the work for? How accessible is our work to—you know, is our work accessible to the people that we most desperately want to speak to?

RL: Mm-hm.

MS: But I—and one of the things that really rang true to me about Lu is how she seems to view wealth both with scorn and with aspiration. That is something that really, really felt right to me. Especially thinking about other artists that I know and including myself to some degree. Uh, hopefully I'm a little bit more self aware than [laughs] than some people might be, but—

RL: [laughs]

MS: But where I feel like there is this thing at several points in the book where she might be talking about somebody else, like maybe some of the other people that live in the building with her, that she essentially says are slumming it there, right? That they don't have to be there, that they could afford to be somewhere else. They come from money or whatever. And there's this real sort of distaste that she has for that, that that is a real sort of upper-class pretentiousness kind of thing that wouldn't fly in the kind of world that she's used to. Or when she's thinking about, you know, the school that she teaches at later in the book, that the way that she views that school and the students and the other people that work there, there is sort of this sense that she feels that her experience is somehow more authentic than theirs, or more or better or something like that, right? Like these people are kind of ridiculous in some way. But at the same time I feel like there is this element where she really desperately also wants to be one of these people. Does this sound right to you or am I reaching here?

RL: No, I don't think you're reaching. I think I was trying to illustrate, you know, the economics at work in this world. And I don't know that Lu would ever think of herself as being capable of achieving wealth.

MS: Hm.

RL: I think what she's after is something more like fame, but ideally with fame comes some measure of wealth. Not so much, you know, for most people in the arts [laughs] but it can happen, right?

MS: Mm-hm.

RL: So yeah, you know, there's an aspirational element to it for her. And I think I also just was sort trying to tease out my own relationships to these things. And like New York is just awful.

MS: [laughs]

RL: And I love it. I'm a born and bred New Yorker. I love New York, but it is awful economically. It's completely unbearable sometimes to look around at the people when—and I taught at that school, you know, the school that's fictionalized in the story, and I also was a student there from kindergarten to twelfth grade. So I grew up around these very privileged people and it really skewed my relationship to money. And I think it's skewed a lot of people's relationships to money. [laughs] I think I just kind of wanted to show that. It bothers me when I read a book that seems blind to the economics of the characters, you know?

MS: Mm.

RL: I think a lot of fiction sort of tiptoes around the question of economics, and it's so essential to character, what the character's economic status is. It probably determines our personality as much as, I don't know, how we look, don't you think? You know, these are two external factors that have a huge effect on who we are. So in some ways I needed to just show the reader who she was. I also needed to show how much she had to lose if she lost. She has no safety net. This is a woman who comes to New York with no connections, no money, no family to fall back on, you know, and so she's desperate, and I think that desperation is pretty essential to the plot and to her character.

MS: Yeah.

RL: Yeah but, you know, it's just absurd. Like I was teaching at this school, I think I made less than $30,000 a year—I mean, it wasn't a completely full time position, I don't think. And it's a great institution.

MS: Sure.

RL: But I wasn't making a livable wage. I was living in Queens and I ended up having to break my lease, and these kids, I would walk into class and they'd be just back from Turks and Caicos. You know, they're like six years old, they don't know how to read yet, but they just went snorkeling or saw the Mayan ruins or, you know, and I was just struggling to buy a sandwich. And I was so fucked up about it, you know? [laughs] It's really hard to feel like you're in charge of these little people. And they have so much more than you have. I mean, I made more probably just in Christmas gift cards than I did in like a month, you know, as presents from their parents, really generous Christmas gifts from these people. And it's just so odd, you know, because also at the same time they're so little and wonderful and smart and curious and you have this direct conduit to their little souls and like it—like money shouldn't have anything to do with it, you know? But it does. It always does.

MS: Yeah.

RL: You know, especially in New York,

MS: [laughs] Yeah, and increasingly in a lot of other places too.

RL: Yeah, yeah, definitely.

MS: Well, there's like a million other things I could talk about about this book, but why don't we take a quick little break and we'll come back and do the second segment.

RL: Okay.

Second Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: Okay, so for the second segment, I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which can be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever's on your mind, so what would you like to talk about today?

Rachel Lyon: Well, so I've been working on this new novel and one of the elements that's going to be a big part of it is alcoholism. So I sort of thought we would talk about alcoholism. [laughs]

MS: Okay. That sounds like a real party. [laughs]

RL: Yeah.

MS: So, where would you like to start off?

RL: Well, I don't know. I mean, I'm always curious what other people's experiences are. A little background—so I gave up drinking almost 12 months ago and it's been a real interesting journey. [laughs] And I think my experience has been that I've realized how deeply alcohol really was affecting my character, the choices I was making creatively and otherwise, and, you know, I don't know, it was just really insidious. You know, it really seeped into every little nook and cranny of my personality. So getting to the point where I've extracted it from my life has been really just a fascinating process. And I think even before I gave up drinking, I knew that I wanted to write about alcoholism and a relationship that is deeply affected by it. My agent called it my "Me Too" novel, but it's not just that. It is that, you know, it's about a young woman and a relationship she has with an older male employer. But I think I'm curious about the extent to which alcohol is, you know, part of these stories, I guess.

MS: Yeah. You know, it's interesting. This is something I've had some conversations with people—not so much on the show, but you know, just in my personal life with people recently. There's this essay that I read—and I want to say it was like a year ago, and unfortunately I cannot remember who wrote it, but I will find a link and put it in the show notes afterwards—that was about... It was titled something like "The Reasons Women Drink" or something like that.

RL: Mm-hm.

MS: And it went into all of these different things about, you know, like how alcohol really is such a huge part of how American women's culture is sort of formulated around alcohol.

RL: Mm. Yeah.

MS: Possibly for a long time, but especially right now. You know, like whether it's boozy brunches or, you know, mommy juice in the afternoon or, you know, even kids birthday parties with drinks or just, you know, that like at every possible opportunity.... I think one of the anecdotes that the author related was that she posted something to Facebook where something had gone wrong, like she had dropped something and broken it or something, and within like five minutes she had a whole bunch of responses from her women friends saying like, "Oh, it is it wine time yet? Or "You need a glass of wine," or, you know, something like that.

RL: Yeah.

MS: And how I guess the whole thesis of her essay, if you could boil it down, was just that like the world is really, really awful and people, but especially women, are increasingly turning to alcohol just as a coping mechanism and how that's really not like—and even as a way of like not being angry all the time, but maybe we should be more angry.

RL: I think this was Kristi Coulter.

MS: Yes.

RL: Does that sound familiar?

MS: I think that's right, yeah.

RL: Yeah, she's awesome. And her new book of essays looks fantastic. I haven't gotten my hands on a copy of it yet, but I really, really like her and that was a great essay.

MS: Yeah. Yeah, it really—you know, I had to stop and think about it for a few minutes, like I really had to sit with it.

RL: Mm-hm.

MS: Because, you know, honestly—and this is probably just, you know, my bias and privilege showing—but at first it made me really uncomfortable.

RL: Mm.

MS: But the more I thought about it, the more I was like, "This makes a lot of sense and I think that this is getting at something important."

RL: What made you uncomfortable about it?

MS: Well, I think that—honestly the thing that made me uncomfortable and that often makes me uncomfortable when I'm reading cultural commentary pieces is the way that it makes me, in whatever role I am, have to consider what my complicity is in the situation being as it is.

RL: Yeah.

MS: And so in this case, you know, obviously like... So I'm a man and a lot of the shittiness of the world right now has to do with how men are. And so there can be a discomfort in sitting with that, right?

RL: Mm.

MS: And in really looking at, well, you know, am I a part of the problem here too? And, if so, how have I been part of the problem? And if that's the case, then what ought I do about that?

RL: Yeah.

MS: There's a discomfort there, but I think that it's an important discomfort and it's one that we should be more open—and when I say "we," I mean especially men, but lots of different people in lots of different ways should be more open to the possibility of that discomfort.

RL: Mm-hm.

MS: You know?

RL: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I think alcohol's so funny because it's a substance you turn to for comfort and to shut off, but it actually amplifies your feelings.

MS: Mm-hm.

RL: Right? Like if you're happy it makes you more euphoric. If you're sad, it makes you more miserable. If you're angry, it makes you lash out. So it's not actually the sedative that we—or the analgesic, I guess, that we're looking for when we reach for it. So it's really funny that way.

MS: Yeah.

RL: And it is so ubiquitous and in every little corner of society, right? Like, oh, you don't drink at breakfast, but you do drink bottomless mimosas at brunch. You don't drink alone, but you can have a glass of wine after work, you know.

MS: Yeah.

RL: You don't drink—

MS: It's 5:00 somewhere.

RL: —before the age of 21, but all the teenagers are—you know, boozy teenage parties are a whole thing in the culture, right?

MS: Yeah.

RL: Yeah, it's always 5:00 somewhere. There's an exception to every rule and the exceptions are kind of fun and, you know, exciting. [laughs] But it really dulls your life. [laughs] Really erases nuance in a really creepy way.

MS: Yeah. There is something that I guess feels kind of, you know, sort of like a leftover from... I mean I'm almost 40 years old now so you'd think that I'd be past this, but I think there's something leftover from being a younger person and seeing drinking as something still sort of transgressive and cool and... You know?

RL: Yeah. Yeah.

MS: Yeah, It's interesting.

RL: I feel like I've heard so many former drinkers talk about going to the bar alone and and having their drink and, you know, looking up into the mirror over the bar, this, like—in a beautifully lit bar as other patrons are trickling in, and that sense of like, "Oh, look at me, I'm cool. I'm drinking alone." And how, looking back at that after quitting, you're kind of like, "Ooh, that's a little pathetic." [laughs]

MS: Yeah.

RL: But, yeah, of course while you're doing it, it's like "Oh, it's tempting, it's glamorous." You feel glamorous.

MS: That is something, you know, like so many of the narratives around alcohol that we have in art and pop culture are something that really do glamorize it. Even narratives that... Like, you know, I'm thinking about that Nicolas Cage movie, Leaving Las Vegas?

RL: [laughs] Yes.

MS: Right? Like, I mean this is a portrait of an alcoholic and he eventually drinks himself to death, and it is gross in a lot of—

RL: Yeah.

MS: —the depictions of it. But at the same time, there's something about the fact that we're telling this story and the way that we're telling this story that I do feel like there's a way that in this suffering and in this pain, that this story is somehow more authentic and more real and more noble than just a story about people being happy, you know, or whatever.

RL: Yes. Yes. Right. There's this feeling, this like myth that you're going to get to a truer truth if you get to it drunk.

MS: Yeah.

RL: Like at the bottom of the bottle is truth, right?

MS: Yeah.

RL: And the more you drink, the closer you get to it. But then you do all kinds of insane shit when you're drunk [laughs] that's definitely not—you know, it's not the true you. Right? It really does alter your behavior and your persona.

MS: Yeah. And that's something like, you know, with the holidays—Thanksgiving just behind us, Christmas just ahead of us. And I know a lot of people on my Facebook feed, for example, or, you know, on Twitter, have expressed this sort of anxiety about having to be around their family and about, "Oh, I think I'm going to really need at least a few glasses of wine in me to get through Thanksgiving or to get through that evening." I remember my wife and I were talking about that phenomenon, that sort of comment and how—

RL: Yeah.

MS: —for us, like, yeah, there are family members that it might be a little—we might have some anxiety about having to face. But for us it's more like, "Gosh, if I get drunk I'm probably going to end up getting in a big fight."

RL: Yeah.

MS: "I'm not going to be able to keep it in."

RL: Yeah. No, it's true. Like what do you—you think it's going to help you to have a few glasses of wine around the people that you have trouble with? I don't know. I don't know, I think that's a lie that the inebriated version of yourself likes to tell you. [laughs]

MS: Yeah.

RL: I went through my first sober Thanksgiving this year and it was great. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

RL: It was such a good time. I've gone to the same Thanksgiving—not every single year, but, you know, every other year or so since I was in high school. It's hosted by my best friend from growing up, her parents host it. This year I didn't have any wine and I had the occasion to sort of like—I actually asked this girl that I've known for years how her mom's doing, you know, and her mom has cancer and it was a really meaningful little moment. You know, and I wouldn't have done that if I was busy drinking and freaking out about what the dynamics might be like, you know?

MS: Yeah.

RL: You know, I realized that I had never really stopped to figure out how everyone was related to each other. It's so basic but... I don't know, you just—I was more present. And the other thing was, you know, people bother you and you get wrapped up in how they affect you. But if you're sober, you have the opportunity to figure them out, which is so much more interesting, right? Like who cares if they bother you or not? Maybe if you put your own experience aside for a second and, I don't know, observe them and ask them some questions, your experience becomes so much more interesting.

MS: Yeah, I mean there is that thing, right, like if everybody's the main character of their own story, everybody's acting out of some need or fear or anxiety or something, and maybe finding ways to access that in other people, have a moment of empathy, and not to say necessarily that you condone what they're doing, but at least it can help it not bother you so much. You know and I think, too—this is something that I'm always sort of harping on, I'm sure I've said it on the show more than once—but that like on some level, I feel like a lot of what's wrong with the world comes about because of this sort of societal inability, this collective inability to be uncomfortable ever to any degree, you know?

RL: Mm-hm. Yeah.

MS: And that if you're not willing to be uncomfortable sometimes that you cannot actually even admit that there are problems, you know, let alone try to solve them.

RL: Yeah, I mean I think in some ways that comes from an increasing lack of rules. Like we don't have a strict system of etiquette the way most cultures did like 200 years ago, right? You know, the rituals of our society has gotten really diffuse and I think that leaves a lot more room for uncertainty in the ways that we're... We don't know how we're expected to behave anymore.

MS: Yeah.

RL: There are like infinite choices for how to behave. And so a lot falls back on like, "Well, I don't know, how do you want to behave? You're your own person, you get to choose." And it has everything to do all of a sudden with your identity and your selfness, you know. And it's like nobody has enough self to fill that void of missing societal rules. You know, we can't always be reinventing the wheel over and over again. So I guess drinking gives us an opportunity to, I don't know, turn off a little bit, right?

MS: Although, I mean arguably drinking itself is sort of a cultural ritual as well.

RL: Mm-hm.

MS: I don't know, I think, you know, it's interesting that thing that you were saying. Like I—for me, I like that word that you used, "ritual." Like I think that maybe in some cases, or maybe in a lot of cases that etiquette might be something that tended to sort of paper over the real sort of savageness of life and sort of incivility that actually—

RL: Mm-hm.

MS: —sort of characterized life before the modern era. But I think that when you talk about ritual, you know, there's this sort of jadedness that—certainly, you know, I'm a child of the nineties and performative jadedness was like our stock-in-trade. [laughs]

RL: Oh yeah. [laughs]

MS: But, you know, that this sort of shedding of rituals, of trying to sort of see them as hollow and not valuable and get rid of them. I think that there is a way that that has sort of left a certain void and a certain sense of purpose and belonging that shared cultural touchstones and rituals can provide. Yeah. I mean, I think you're onto something there.

RL: Yeah. Well we're not... We don't really have a shared God anymore and we don't really celebrate each other more than a couple times in a lifetime, right? And one of them is when you're dead. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

RL: So you've got your wedding and your funeral and if, if you're part of a, you know, a religion that does sort of a birth ceremony, then you've got that. Maybe you do like a sweet sixteen or a quinceañera or a bar mitzvah when you're a teenager. But like that leaves a lot of decades without any life cycle events.

MS: Mm-hm.

RL: And then there's the yearly events. We've got our Christmas, which is essentially secular. And Thanksgiving, which is so problematic. And Fourth of July. You know, like what are—it really is sort of country to country and here in the United States we're lucky to have free enough speech that we can interrogate all of these traditions. Which is great, but leaves us with a lot of freedom, which is scary and anxiety-making and like... Right, like if drinking is—you're right, it's like it's its own ritual. Or maybe it's not just one ritual, it's kind of ritualized. Right? But it sort of makes sense that it would start to replace—in a world where we have less and less and less ritual that we would start using this ritual substance to try to replace these things.

MS: Yeah, I mean I do think that sort of the upside of the current moment that we're in is that we have the opportunity now to see the ways that, you know, our older, more traditional cultural forms really didn't apply to everybody, right?

RL: Yeah.

MS: And it didn't include everybody. And so that's the real upside of it is that, you know, we can find ways now to make the "we" in all of this really mean "we." But, you know, that's hard. [laughs]

RL: Right.

MS: You know, it's hard to sort of figure out what the new normal looks like.

RL: Yeah. And I'm not sure it's totally possible to have a completely inclusive society. I mean certainly there's no evidence of it. [laughs] You know, we haven't succeeded yet. I hope so. I hope eventually we get there. But it doesn't... I think a lot of societies are sort of predicated on leaving people out, which sounds like a pretty—I don't know, that's dark and jaded in some ways. But I do think we also are in a really exciting period of understanding, you know? And there are more women and people of color in Congress than ever before. That's super exciting. We have more and more global community. We're speaking more of the same language and we've got a bazillion friends all over the world. It's, you know, it's not—we're not prepared for this. You know? [laughs]

MS: I have hope though. I have hope for the future.

RL: Yeah. Well, what do you hope?

MS: Um... Well, you know, I mean I guess what I hope is that out of all of this sort of tumult and, you know, different sort of unhealthy coping mechanisms that we might be interrogating now and things like that, that we're sort of collectively able to get to a more mature and empathetic and compassionate place, you know? And I guess it's hard to see what that would look like, but I feel like at least people are having the conversations now, you know? So it does leave me hopeful.

RL: Yeah. I heard a really great interview this week on the New York Times Book Review podcast. I'm going to forget the name of the guy who wrote this book, but the book was called, I think, The Politics of Petulance.

MS: Hm.

RL: And he, you know, he's very critical of the Trump Administration and where we're at right now. And at the same time, very hopeful that it's possible we'll look back from some future vantage point at this time and say, "Well, that was a great example of the worst that can happen. And now things are better." It was really great to hear that from someone who actually knows what he's talking about. [laughs]

MS: [laughs] Yeah. I think we're all looking for something. But there's a lot of opportunities for people to figure out, you know, how to make that kind of thing happen. So we're getting pretty close to time, but there is one question that I like to end with and that is if there is a piece of art or literature or creativity of some sort that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.

RL: Well actually since we've been talking about ritual and etiquette and the difference between now and a couple hundred years ago and all that, I recently saw the film The Favourite.

MS: I've heard a lot of people saying great things about that movie.

RL: [laughs] It blew my mind. [laughs] It was so good. I really was just stunned. I think it was this great combination of completely irreverent and really, really dark. I did walk away wondering how accurate some of the details were. Like the queen has... So it's set in, I guess England. I'm using a vague word on purpose. [laughs] I think it's somewhere in England in the 1700s, I would guess, or maybe 1600s. And this queen has like boils and like open wounds all over her legs. It's really just gruesome and disgusting, and kind of sexy and wonderful. And they play like these bizarre games and it was just really a beautiful movie and also really disturbing. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

RL: It really stuck with me. Yeah.

MS: All right, well great. Thank you for that. And thank you so much for talking with me. I really appreciate it.

RL: Yeah, thanks for taking the time. It's such a pleasure.


Alright, so, as I mentioned at the top of the show, Rachel is teaching workshops with Catapult, the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and the Sackett Street Writers Workshops, you can find links to all of those as well as purchase links for Self-Portrait With Boy in the show notes, do be sure to check those out.

And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can follow the show on Twitter and Instagram at @ChannelOpenPod, on Facebook at, or you can send an email to If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, it also gets you access to our subscriber-only bonus content. You can find that at, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. And please leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, that does help new listeners find the show. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at We’ll be back on January 16th with a conversation with photographer Jerry Takigawa, so be sure to come back for that. And until then, remember: keep the channel open.

Michael Sakasegawa