Negative Space: An Interview With Lilly Dancyger

Catapult and Barrelhouse Books editor Lilly Dancyger talks about her debut memoir Negative Space.
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Lilly Dancyger—editor of the anthology Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger and assistant editor of Barrelhouse Books—never intended to write a memoir. She originally set out to write about her father Joe Schactman, a member of the iconic 1980s East Village art scene who died unexpectedly when she was young. 

The book she eventually wrote, Negative Space, combines Dancyger's reporting skills honed while earning her bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism with her rosy childhood memories growing up in the East Village and San Francisco to reveal instability fraying at the edges. Her interviews with those that were close to her father and analysis of his sculptures, paintings, and prints guide her to a better understanding of her loving father, whose escalating addiction to heroin sometimes overshadowed his creative passion. Along the way, Dancyger examines her own past self-destructive spirals and finds her voice as an artist and writer.

Negative Space was published by the Santa Fe Writers Project on May 1. The manuscript was selected by Carmen Maria Machado as a winner of the annual Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards. 

Dancyger talked with WD about working with an independent publisher and her decade-long process of finding the story she would tell.

Can you talk about your writing process, and combining your investigative reporting skills with your personal stories? Was this always the plan, or was the vision you began with totally different from the final product?

Originally, I didn’t set out to write a memoir at all. I wanted to write the story of my father’s life and publish it alongside full-color images of his artwork in a big hardcover coffee-table artist monograph. In the first draft of what eventually became Negative Space, I even referred to myself as “his daughter Lilly” (thank you Wendy Walters, who was one of my first readers for this project, for asking me incredulously, “What are you doing?” in regards to that move…).

So it started out in the investigative, journalistic, maybe even art historian mode. But every time I got feedback on the project, every person who read it said they wanted more of me on the page—they wanted to see more of my reactions to what I learned about my father, more of our relationship as a way to become more invested in him as a character.

I sometimes joke that I’m a “reluctant memoirist,” because the personal part of the story really did have to be pulled out of me, bit by bit, over the course of a decade. Every time I added more personal narrative, I thought it would be enough, and then I got the same feedback again and again until I finally just went for it and made it as much about me as it is about my father and started calling it a memoir.

In the book you mention that you decided not to publish Negative Space with a large publishing house because they would have asked you to take out the photos of your father’s artwork, which are pretty essential to the story. In the end, you went with an independent press. How did you know that this was the right decision for your book? Was it hard to resist the pressure to mold your work into a different version that a more commercial publisher would have wanted to see?

It wasn’t hard to resist the pressure to take out the images—that was never an option for me, even for a second. But it was hard to let go of the idea that I could convince a big publishing house that they should take a risk on this weird hybrid book. I tried—I did go the agent route at one point and submit to all the big presses, but when they all turned it down it felt more like confirmation of what I had already become aware of; that this was meant to be a small press book.

I’d already decided to go with a small press when an agent reached out to me and suggested that we try the big houses, so I figured why not. But that didn’t pan out, that agent and I parted ways, and I went about submitting to the list I’d already started compiling of smaller presses that might have the flexibility and vision to take on something that doesn’t fit neatly into one category.

I sensed that you changed a lot over the course of writing the book, both as you got older and as you learned more about your father’s story from those who were close to him. For example, it seems that over the course of the narrative there’s a lot more forgiveness and understanding in the relationship between you and your mother. Do you have any advice for writers who are starting to write their stories when they’re not quite sure what that story is yet?

I changed so much! I grew up over the course of writing this book. That’s partly because I was writing it for all of my 20s, which is a tumultuous time for everyone, but also because during all that time I was forcing myself to keep digging deeper into the darkest parts of my family history, to question my feelings about both of my parents and our shared past, to try to tell a truer version of the story.

I had no idea what the story was when I started writing—although I thought I knew what it was! Whether you feel like you know what you’re doing, or you’re aware you have no idea, the only way to find the real heart of the story is to write your way into it.

My biggest piece of advice to people who want to write a memoir is to not try to rush it. I work as a freelance editor and I have so many people send me early drafts that are not ready for feedback yet, and I know they want me to tell them to tighten it up here and add more detail there and you’ll be done, but the kindest thing I can do is tell them the truth: This takes a long, long time, and there are no short cuts.

The process will be smoother, and much more enjoyable, if you stop trying to be “done” as soon as possible and let the story take you where it wants to take you. (I was really fixated on being “done” for all 11 years I was working on Negative Space, and I wish I had chilled out a little. It would have been so much less stressful.)

Who is your agent, and how did you meet them?

My agent is Annie Hwang at Pande Literary—she’s wonderful. She reached out to me after reading my Catapult column about female villains. I was already under contract with SFWP for Negative Space at that time, but we’ve been working together on a proposal for what I hope will be my next book. It’s such a wildly different experience working with an agent from the very beginning of a project, as opposed to groping around in the dark for years, unsure if anyone would ever care about what I was writing. It’s been really great to have a co-conspirator on this new one.

In a column for the March/April 2021 issue of WD, Sari Botton writes that after many years as an editor and reader of memoir, she became saddled with a case of vicarious trauma—forgetting that there are other lenses to write personal stories from, such as joy or humor. She writes: 

"I gleaned that it was a memoirist's obligation to publicly interrogate every bit of suffering in her life. It seemed to be the only way to sell a book or publish an essay in a major publication. I got the idea that you weren’t permitted to write other kinds of memoir—for example, funny or observational stories—or apply humor to difficult ones, until you’d first “unpacked” your pain for all the world to see."

With your previous work for Narratively and current work for Barrelhouse Books, you have a similar background, so I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this topic. Do you have any advice for avoiding what we’ll call here narrative burnout?

That’s totally legitimate and real (and a great piece by Sari), but no, I don’t think I get that kind of burnout. I’m the type of person who gets bored by small talk and wants to fast forward friendships to the point where we can talk about our most deep-seated issues and the things in our childhoods that made us the way we are and our problems with our parents … I like digging into the hard shit (this is different from oversharing with strangers though, for the record).

I don’t like essays or books that read like trauma porn, just recounting something awful that happened in a way that makes it clear that the writer hasn’t processed their experience, and I’ve received tons of submissions as an editor that would be better suited to a therapy session, but when a writer can turn their pain into art … that’s what I live for!

The writing that I love the most takes something hard and finds the cracks in it that light can shine through. And when a writer can do that, I don’t feel burdened by it, I feel inspired and excited and redeemed. And the submissions that don’t have that magic, I just don’t let them in. They wash over me and don’t penetrate my psyche, so I don’t take in the heaviness.

As for my own work … my book is about grief and addiction, but it’s also about finding my way in the world and finding my voice as a writer, so I think there’s some lightness in it even though the subject matter is heavy. And there are some lines in it that I think are funny, personally, though I wonder if other people will catch the humor. But I guess I’m not interested in writing lighter stories, because I don’t need to find value and meaning in lighter experiences on the page—the value and meaning is inherent! It’s the hard stuff that I need to dig into in writing until I can find something meaningful hidden inside.

From your bios, it looks like you have a lot going on, with your work at Barrelhouse, teaching writing workshops, developmental editor services, and writing books. What does a normal day look like for you?

Yes, I wear a lot of hats! I tend to break it up by week more than by day, with the exact break-down changing with my teaching schedule … But for example, at the moment, I try to take care of all of my administrative stuff on Mondays, read and respond to student work on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, edit client work on Thursdays and Fridays, work on my own writing on Saturdays, and then Sunday is always a day off, which I spend away from the computer. The days move around but that’s generally the breakdown—though it’s all a bit mixed up right now as I prepare for my book launch.

Are there any special craft books or exercises that you recommend to writers?

If you’re struggling to revise a piece of writing, see what happens if you just start it from scratch in a blank document instead.

Anything else you’d like the readers of WritersDigest.com to know?

I’m doing a virtual book tour for Negative Space, and anyone who wants to come to an event should find me on Twitter at @lillydancyger for details!

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