Pin It
Stephanie LaCava
Stephanie LaCavaPhotography by Roe Ethridge

Stephanie LaCava: “My New Book Is a Sort of Exorcism”

As her second novel I Fear My Pain Interests You is published, American writer Stephanie LaCava talks about the complexity of female friendships, inherited trauma, and why people mistake her books as ‘poor little rich girl’ stories

Lead ImageStephanie LaCavaPhotography by Roe Ethridge

The title of Stephanie LaCava’s second novel is irresistible. Like a lyric from a cherished song or a fragment from a beloved poem, I Fear My Pain Interests You hints at all the most compelling themes – hurting, intrigue, dominance, submission, lust, and dysfunction. While the book does speak of all of these alluring, tortured topics, it’s also about pain’s supposed antithesis – numbness; a total disconnect from feeling and a nihilistic wish for oblivion.

The story’s protagonist, Margot, is born into an American musical dynasty. Her grandfather is a jazz legend and her parents are famed punk musicians who’ve gone their separate ways after an acrimonious divorce. All the while, Margot’s matriarchal grandmother is the unseen hand behind the wreckage of Margot’s childhood, manipulating and manoeuvring every member of the family, orchestrating its legacy at the expense of any tenderness.

She may possess all the conspicuous trappings of privilege, but Margot’s life is impoverished in complex ways that reveal themselves as the book unfolds. In response to the “cold comfort” of family life, she has developed various methods of inuring herself to pain, from pills and sex, to seclusion and passivity. Emotional pain does still seem to reach her – albeit in a muted, vague way, like an indistinct conversation she can hear but can’t quite decipher – but she also suffers from congenital analgesia, a condition which means she has an inability to feel physical pain. While this might sound like a superpower, the book itself advocates for feeling, tracing the correlation between our capacity for pain and our capacity for joy. 

Earlier this summer, I met LaCava at the Mayfair hotel she was staying at during her press trip to London (she’s reserved the “cutest nook for us to hide in at the bar”). “One of my friends told me, ‘Some people write feel-good books. You write feel-bad books,’” LaCava laughs. In a compelling conversation that veers on and off the record, LaCava talks about retaining contradictions and a sense of mystery in her work, what we truly inherit from our parents, and the importance of feeling bad from time to time.

Emily Dinsdale: To begin, please could you introduce Margot and the complicated dynamics of her family?

Stephanie LaCava: She’s a young woman who was born into this sort of legacy family in the music industry. Her grandfather was a famous jazz musician and producer and her grandmother is a former dancer who took on this role of controlling matriarch, handling a lot of the optics and the logistics of the grandfather’s life.

ED: Margot’s separated parents are also both punk musicians in the public eye. Did you have any real figures in mind when you created the characters?

SL: There’s no real precedent, but I can identify different things that informed it. The house is meant to be like Dial House where Crass – the anarcho-punk band – lived. And there are little nods to other people throughout the story, like there are hidden references to Miles Davis and Duke Ellington throughout the novel. I was interested in Alice Coltrane and Vera Nabokov both having to play the devoted wife, and the power dynamics in their marriages.

ED: The novel really chimed with a lot of conversations I’ve been having with female friends about how we’re conditioned to subjugate ourselves so frequently, the pressure to please others, and a prevailing sense of disconnection from our own needs.

SL: A lot of people have said similar things to this, which I love. And I guess that makes sense, right? That the stories are always, somewhere within them, the conversations we’re having with our female friends about these things, which is such a potent part of the book.

The central female friend in this story, Lucy, is the only person with whom there’s a real connection or redemption, or any kind of true care. Which is strange, because I have trouble with my female friendships, as all women do. But both my novels really highlight the importance of that one or two very dear, real female friendships. It’s very real love in an unconditional, patient way. In the end, no one else cares or turns up for Margot like Lucy does.

ED: Avoiding any spoilers – but lots of people I’ve spoken to have interpreted the end of the book very differently. Did you intentionally create that sense of ambiguity? 

SL: I didn’t really have an intention. The book is more visceral and sort of an exorcism. But I suppose it brings up questions of there always being two sides to every story, right? And the service we do by turning someone on to something about themselves? Even if, in the end, it’s painful for us? It’s almost like every breakup, every painful thing has some sort of revelation to it.

The book is three motions. Speaking to a surrealist professor, she suggested it’s like the punctuation of an ellipse. And I’m so interested in symbols and elliptical things. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, yes. That too!’

ED: I think one mark of a really great book is that it’s three-dimensional, a bit like a sculpture. You can walk around it and look at it from different perspectives and it makes sense from all angles; it holds its shape.

SL: I hope so. I mean, to me, that is what my writing is. To some people, there’s a lack of cohesion or too much mystery, but that’s the work I create. And whether they think that’s a novel or not is really not my concern. This is the way I make my work and it’s very intuitive for me.

ED: I read an interview with a successful screenwriter whose advice to any writer was to always keep a secret in your back pocket. Would you say this is true of you?

SL: Yeah, I mean, even my memoir – my first book I wrote when I was really young, which I kind of want to disown now – one reviewer said, ‘The most remarkable thing about this memoir is how little of Stephanie is in it at all.’ That’s something I’ve carried through and I think is essential to my work. It’s interesting because it’s pure me, but also a lot of me is missing. I don’t know if it’s ambiguity, I think I’m just always hyper-conscious of the contradictions we all inhabit. And that’s also why moralising or judging others are privileges people take thinking they know all the facts, but we never know all the facts.

ED: I liked the distinct lack of moral judgment in I Fear My Pain Interests You.

SL: In all my books there’s a Marxist feminist critique but, at face value, there is no moral judgment – which is disturbing to some people. But I’m not writing a religious text telling you how to live, I’m just showing you how some people live.

“It may be a theme in my work – the people who have all the optic trappings of privilege but are not shown care in their personal relationships” – Stephanie LaCava

ED: I feel that presenting a person’s story without judgement is in itself a caring, empathetic act because you’re allowing insight into their lives and that generates a certain amount of empathy.

SL: I think that’s the most important thing to me. There’s a critique of my books as ‘poor little rich girl’ stories. But I don’t see it that way at all. I see it as if, just like anything else, you’re presenting a story, you’re showing all the sides, you’re giving openness and empathy to the fact that they’re experiencing all of these things, showing them, and you can take what you will from it. You’re just going into that segment for a story, it’s not claiming that the whole world is like that, or that this is the only story worth listening to. It’s just one story presenting a small absurdist surrealist universe and you’re living in it for a moment in time.

ED: Despite her conspicuous privilege, there are lots of ways in which Margot’s life is quite impoverished … in terms of her emotional wellbeing.

SL: But that’s the thing, right? I mean, we’ve all seen it. It may be a theme in my work – the people who have all the optic trappings of privilege but are not shown care in their personal relationships. Or the people around them are so used to being occupied with other kinds of transactions that they’re less concerned with showing tenderness.

ED: A few really important novels of recent years I’ve read seem to have these very privileged but utterly disengaged, numb female protagonists. The main one that springs to mind is My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.

SL: Yeah, I think she’s a brilliant writer and My Year of Rest And Relaxation does create a lot of empathy for this terrible character who wants to just escape it all too. I mean, this literal desire to obliterate oneself, whether it’s through drugs, sex addiction, or sleep. That’s a very real thing, and it’s a real thing for me … I mean, even reading alone is a kind of escapism, right? So maybe the discomfort you feel at reading my book is its own safer kind of obliteration? 

I’ve been consuming books since I wasn’t even supposed to know how to read. It’s literally been my education and, in many ways I think that is a survival mechanism. I have an addictive personality so books are a safer addiction.

“I mean, this literal desire to obliterate oneself, whether it’s through drugs, sex addiction, or sleep. That’s a very real thing, and it’s a real thing for me” – Stephanie LaCava

ED: I agree but I also feel that some of the books I read when I was young and impressionable have a lot to answer for.

SL: Oh, for sure! But that’s the cool thing about it, like somehow authors figured out that you can’t really blame them, like the Barthes’ thing about the death of the author. As a writer, you’re allowed to cause a lot of trouble without actually ever being responsible for these young minds. But that’s kind of how I feel too, I’m really into ideas of troublemaking and agitating.

ED: One of the big themes of the book is inheritance – what is passed on to us from our parents and their parents, not necessarily material wealth but in terms of trauma and dysfunction.

SL: Margot’s pain disorder is inherited. I think not too many people have picked up on it, but that’s also sort of thematic, right, like she’s inherited this actual physical neurological mutation. And also, did the mother have other afflictions or addictions? Why was she sabotaging her personal relationships? All those questions are what is going on in the story.

ED: We’re conditioned to avoid pain, but Margot’s condition and her total inability to feel physical pain is actually antithetical to experiencing life. It’s when she’s able to hurt again that her future seems more hopeful.

SL: Yeah, I think it also has to do with when you cut yourself, part of it, they always say the cliché of, ‘I wanted to see if I could feel.’ Masochism or sexual addiction is the same thing as well. All these things are just like, ‘How can I feel? How can I not be numb?’ For instance, I don’t think Margot’s mum necessarily killed herself because she was in so much pain. I think it was because she was like, ‘I don’t feel any fucking thing.’

I’ve done it my whole life – fantasised about walking around with this kind of aloof numbness. So maybe the book for me is a little bit about realising that’s not what I want. Or maybe it’s a way of making peace with my own sensitivities. You can practice the perfect meditation or whatever in the morning and go to the gym, but like, what the fuck are you doing anyway? I think I’d rather be hysterical on the floor.

I Fear My Pain Interests You by Stephanie LaCava is published by Verso and is out now.