Lilly Dancyger is the author of Negative Space, a reported and illustrated memoir selected by Carmen Maria Machado as a winner of the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards. She is also the editor of Burn It Down, an anthology of essays on women’s anger. Find her on Twitter at @lillydancyger.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Raki Kopernik: Your new book, Negative Space, (Santa Fe Writers Project, May 1, 2021) is part memoir, part art book, and part biography of your father, who was a well-known artist and who struggled with drug addiction together with your mother. He passed away when you were eleven. It’s a long time in the making. You started it in 2010?
Lilly Dancyger: I started writing it in 2009.
RK: I really connected with the article you wrote for Electric Lit about your process in finding a home for the book, first looking for an agent and then going the small press route. You write that small presses are all about, “. . . taking risks that the big houses aren’t nimble enough for—and that’s why they put out some of the freshest and most exciting books.” I totally agree.
Your book eventually got picked up by an indie press, but before that, you considered throwing the whole thing away, which I think every writer can relate to. And, in the end, that press wasn’t a good fit. But, the whole process helped you realize you had more work to do not only on your book, but also on researching which presses would be right for you, ultimately taking a few more years until you found a home for the book. And then you write, “. . . at the end of the day we, the authors, are the ones bringing the goods to the table. If you put everything you’ve got into writing the best book you can, you can’t just hand it over to anyone.”
This article is so inspiring and validating for writers and artists in general.
LD: The whole publishing industry is so complicated and hard to navigate, especially as an outsider. Some people have connections, like a mentor who takes their hand and shows them how to do this. But as a working-class kid trying to find my own way into publishing—I didn’t have a family who could support me while I was writing my book or a teacher who was going to bring my manuscript to their agent—you really have to learn on the fly. I have my bearings to a degree, but there’s still a lot I don’t understand. It’s constantly changing and is different for every person and every book. Everything you try and do you have to learn from scratch.
I try to be mindful about how long it took me to find my way around this world, which is why I share stuff like this. Putting that article into the world was nerve-wracking. People don’t talk about things like how long it takes, all the mistakes you make, having to cancel a book deal and fire an agent. I wanted to be transparent. I’m always thinking about other people trying to get into the industry, to save them from making the mistakes I did.
RK: Writing about your childhood can really dig up old feelings that might be hard to hold. And then you have to keep re-reading and thinking about that stuff as you edit the book, promote the book, talk about the book. How is that going for you? Do you ever find yourself feeling drained or regretting opening this up?
LD: I don’t regret it but, yes, I definitely feel drained. It’s weird to work so hard for something for so long, to want something so badly, and then get it and realize that it is actually really hard. I’m finally here, I’ve been working for this moment for literally a third of the time I’ve been alive, and it’s really stressful and tiring.
Knowing that people I know are reading the book is a kind of exposed feeling. But I’m trying to ride the wave. This is what this part of the process feels like, and eventually, this part will be over and I’ll look back on it and will probably learn from it and hopefully be better prepared next time.
RK: You write: “When people ask me if I’m an artist like my father, I get defensive about writing being an art.” I think about this all the time. Sometimes I say I’m an artist, using writer and artist interchangeably. Then sometimes I say, artist OR writer. How do you identify, as the writer/daughter of a visual artist?
LD: I see myself as a writer first and foremost, but I see writing as another side of that same point. My father was a sculptor and a printmaker, and my mother was a fashion designer. Before I was a writer I was a dancer. That all feels very connected. It comes from the same place. It’s just a question of which avenue you choose to release or explore. For me, words have been the most attractive and accessible.
I don’t call myself an artist because, to me, that means something else. Even though art is the umbrella term for all of it. It’s complicated. I use the term “creative people,” (which is an even larger umbrella) when talking with people I know. Not in the context of identifying myself, but in ways of being, that certain mindset of interacting with the world and making things.
RK: I love how you write about the nostalgic New York days of ABC No Rio, the idea of artists supporting artists without necessarily thinking about money, inspiring each other, and creating community around that, living the punk artist life. Do you think that’s still alive and do you think it exists in the literary world?
LD: I have to think that ethos still exists, but I don’t think it’s as prevalent in terms of whole communities because it’s really fucking hard these days to live any kind of life that’s not driven by money. Everything is just so expensive. All the places I lived as a kid were places that weirdos and artists went, because they were cheap. We lived in the East Village and Williamsburg and the Mission in San Francisco, and now those are the most expensive zip codes in the world. So I think there are pockets, smaller communities and friend networks that support each other and exchange ideas.
I have a lot of writer friends and we’re always talking about ideas and exploring things together and helping each other when we can. I think that mentality of inspiring each other is inherent to that way of thinking. You can’t be an artist in a vacuum. You need input and engagement and people to bounce ideas off of, to be inspired by, and to share your work with. It’s a necessary part, so it has to still exist even though it’s harder and harder to maintain a complete lifestyle around.
RK: Right. It exists in a different way than it used to, and it evolves around things like gentrification.
LD: Yeah, maybe it’s not whole neighborhoods, cities, or communities, but it’s still there in the way we relate to each other.
RK: You have this quote from your father’s best friend Mark, who you also consider your uncle and your nonreligious godfather: “Be careful getting a job to support your art, because it’s easy for the job to take over and not leave you any time for the art you wanted to support in the first place.” Would you give this advice, and does this connect into your life now?
LD: It’s hard. I mean, it almost doesn’t apply in the same way now because, unless you’re independently wealthy, you have to work. But I think for me it’s about priorities. For a long time, I was bartending and writing. Bartending is a job that can become a personality, a lifestyle. When I was in my early twenties, I let it. I was having fun. But that was the job I was doing to pay the bills, not who I was or what was important to me. It was a means to end. The real work was always writing, even though I wasn’t getting paid for it.
RK: It’s interesting to think about what we call “work.” Like when someone asks you what you do, is your first answer the job you do to make money, or do you say I’m a writer or an artist?
LD: I’ve gotten clear on that for myself. My work is what I’m doing for myself. It’s the work that I’m excited by and driven to do and care about and want to do. Unfortunately, it gets pushed to the end of the list a lot of the time because there are bills to pay. It took a while but I got clear on that. What is work with a capital “W” and what is work that has to get done? I think about that a lot too. It’s a constant struggle to balance and prioritize the work I want to do even though it’s not making me money.
RK: What advice would you give to a young artist/writer?
LD: There are a few things and they’re all connected to what we’re talking about. Protect your time and protect your mental and creative space. Set aside a realistic amount of time—you have to pay bills and live up to your other human responsibilities, whatever they may be—but set some time and prioritize your work. Don’t wait until some future date when you have time because you’ll never have time unless you make time.
RK: When a biography is of someone in your personal life, it inherently becomes part-memoir. There is something so tangled and meta (I hate that word but that’s what it is!) about this. How did you navigate the process of writing this marriage? And is this more about you or your father and mother, or does that even matter?
LD: That is the question. That question is a big part of why this took ten years. Because I didn’t go into it understanding how complicated and messy it was going to be. I thought I could just write a straightforward monograph about my father and that would be that. I thought it would take a year and then I’d be done and move on and live the rest of my life. But I kept butting up against those places where his story intersected with mine and realizing that I couldn’t tell those parts of the story from an outside biographer’s perspective because it would be false. I had to find a way to integrate the narrator biographer journalist self and the character of this person’s daughter, who is me.
I wasn’t thinking about it as a memoir at first. But eventually, I accepted that I accidentally sideways ended up in this genre that I didn’t intend to write and there I was so I had to do it. If I had set out initially to write it as a memoir it wouldn’t have taken as long, but it also wouldn’t have ended up as it did. It had to be layered.
RK: I love this line: “Art as a way to try to be loved.” It’s so vulnerable and reflective of the way your father tangled art with his relationships again and again throughout the book. Do you think of this book as a sort of post mortem love letter to your father, or to yourself, like writing is a way to be loved by yourself?
LD: I think of it as very much for him and to him, especially just by way of timing. The book is coming out a few days after his birthday. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, trying to get it into the bookstores he loved the most. That’s the best gift I could give him, to get his art into these bookstores that he cherished so much. So in that way, yeah it’s a way to be loved and a way to love.
RK: Side note, you talked about how tattooing was illegal in New York in 1991. I had no idea.
LD: My mom told me that. I did fact-check it because I was like, what really?
It stayed illegal there longer than in most places because of the AIDS epidemic. Originally tattooing was illegal because it was associated with crime and gangs and then they didn’t want public places where people were sticking each other with needles on the tail of AIDS.
RK: There are a lot of pictures of your father’s art in the book. I particularly love the woodcuts and the Bad Barbies. There’s a papier-mâché bird skeleton sculpture you say is one of your favorites. Do you still have that piece and, if so, where in your house is it? Do you have any other art of his in your house?
LD: I’m looking at the bird skeleton right now. It’s above the door. Like a lot of people in New York do, I move a lot. But there are pieces that always go in the same spots and that’s one of them. The bird skeleton and the dog masks are always in these guard-keeping positions in the house. And I have a big shelf with the Barbies.
RK: Your grandfather was also an artist, a painter, in quite a different way than your father. You write that he painted Holocaust victims, but you don’t say much more about this. What’s his and your connection to the Holocaust? I know you came to Judaism a little later. Your mom isn’t Jewish and your dad was.
LD: I don’t know many of the details of the family history. I’ve gotten different versions from everyone I’ve asked. I do know the Schactman’s (father’s name) were from Russia and I believe it was my grandfather’s parents who came through Ellis Island to New Jersey.
I don’t know why my grandfather did those paintings or where it comes from. I think he just was kind of a dark, unhappy person. It’s kind of chicken and egg—was it family trauma that made him paint those things and made him hard and cold, or was it spending his life painting holocaust victims that made him hard and cold. I don’t really know. I only met him a couple of times. He disowned my father for being on drugs and he disowned me for dropping out of high school. By the time I was working on the book he was dying of Alzheimer’s. He was far gone enough that if I were to try to get anything out of him I’d have to first tell him that his son was dead and remind him that he refused to come to the funeral, so I decided to leave that alone.
RK: I had a feeling that was the case because it’s such a small piece in the book. I get why put it in the book, and also wondered if you considered leaving it out.
LD: I did, but I think the fact that my father was raised with art and with a rigid and specific idea of what art is was important to note. A lot of his experimentation and creating his own vision and style was rebellion, not only against the establishment but also against his father, and his father was the establishment in a lot of ways. So that felt important enough for me to at least mention, even though I didn’t go into much detail.
At one point I did write more about my dad’s family. His mother’s death hit him hard. But narratively it didn’t really fit to spend time on it.
RK: Do you feel connected to being Jewish? Have you explored that part of your ancestry?
LD: I do identify as Jewish. I started feeling more comfortable once I understood that atheist Jews are more common. I wrestled with it because I’m very much not religious. I think organized religion is the cause of most of the world’s problems. But realizing that that kind of relationship with Judaism is common and accepted and you don’t have to believe in God to be seen as Jewish, made me embrace it more. I used to say I was culturally Jewish. I understood later that that counts, and I can just say I’m Jewish. I also married a Jewish man whose father is from Poland. They have a more direct connection to the Holocaust and to more recent anti-Semitism—my father-in-law was kicked out of Poland for being Jewish. So now I have a familial connection to that again, which I didn’t have for a long time. It’s interesting and I’m also fraught about it. We considered having a Jewish wedding and it became a whole thing.
RK: Did you?
LD: No, but the compromise was that my friend who officiated was Jewish and wore a yarmulke.
RK: Great compromise! Why did you decide not to have a Jewish wedding?
LD: That was before I reconciled my conflicting feelings about religion in general and I didn’t want a religious ceremony of any kind. It felt like a lie. I didn’t want to do it for somebody else if it wasn’t what I believed or wanted, and my husband didn’t care either way.
RK: Do you do Jewish stuff with your husband’s family, like Passover?
LD: We have. The last two years we did our own mini Seder at home, which was nice. I mean, there’s literally a plague. Let’s show some appreciation! I have a continually evolving relationship with that identity, which I think is very Jewish actually.
RK: It’s a very nuanced and layered identity. I love how you say in the book that when you were young and your dad started sharing Judaism with you that you were now “apparently required to enjoy rye bread,” which really made me LOL because I love rye bread. Do you?
LD: I do. But I didn’t when I was a kid. That was literally what my father told me! He said, we like bagels and lox on our rye bread and you have to eat the crust.
RK: Thanks for sharing all the Jewish stuff. Even when I’m not trying to write about it, it always presents itself in my work.
LD: I felt that in reading my father’s writing about his discovery and connecting to that identity, connecting it with art and his descriptions of questioning as part of Jewish identity, this act of seeking and striving. And that’s what this whole book is.
RK: Right, it just keeps folding on itself.
What artist or writer dead or alive would you love to invite to dinner and what would you make?
LD: I’d love to have dinner with Anaïs Nin and I would have to make something elegant and decadent and fabulous but I don’t know what. I’d probably enlist my husband’s help because he worked in five-star kitchens in New York. I usually make lasagna and mac and cheese, which would not be fancy enough for Anaïs.
RK: Are you working on anything new?
LD: I’m working on a book proposal (essays) but not talking too much yet about what it is. I am excited to get back to it. Knowing I get to go back to being alone with stories, that it’s there waiting for me, has been really grounding during all of this intense, anxious book promotion stuff.
RK: For me, the best part is being in the process of creating.
LD: Yes. And all this stuff is giving me more appreciation for that. For so long with this book I was in a hurry. I wanted to get it done and get it out because it took so much longer than I thought it should, so I was rushing to get to this point. And now that I’m at this point I’m like, oh yeah that’s the whole thing, enjoying it for what it is. I mean I did, but I was also putting a lot of external pressure on myself to finish and get it out and make it successful, whatever that means. I’m trying to keep that appreciation for the process with me moving forward to the next thing.
RK: What’s your vision for the next book?
LD: I’d love to get an advance so I can focus more. I wrote all of Negative Space while doing ten other things. You know all that stuff about balancing the paying work with the work work, I’d like to not have to be so concerned about all of that. I’d probably still work if I got an advance, but maybe I’d just work two jobs instead of five.
RK: What are your other jobs?
LD: I edit for a publication and for a small press and I teach and I do freelance editing. It all feeds into the same place. Even when I’m working on other people’s stuff, at least I’m honing the same skills. When it’s well balanced I feel nourished and it keeps me connected to the community aspect. I learn from other writers and from my students, all the different ways there are to approach writing.
RK: What do you do that’s totally separate from writing, like when you have a day off?
LD: I’m a work-until-I-collapse kind of person. If I have a recovery day off I like to laze around and nap and watch bad TV and hang out with my cat, Lady. I’m trying to be better at reading for fun, just for entertainment.
RK: What’s fun reading for you?
LD: Right now I’m reading a Judy Garland biography. It has nothing to do with anything but it’s interesting. I also like to go to museums and to the park when it’s nice out. I live across from the Met.
RK: I love New York!
RAKI KOPERNIK is a queer, Jewish fiction and poetry writer. She is the author of The Things You Left (Unsolicited Press 2020), The Memory House (The Muriel Press 2019) a 2020 Minnesota Book Award finalist, and The Other Body (Dancing Girl Press 2017). Her work has appeared in numerous publications and has been nominated for several other awards, including the Pushcart Prize for fiction and the Pen Faulkner Award for Fiction. She lives in Minneapolis. You can find her at https://rakikopernik.wixsite.com/mysite and follow on Instagram @rakikopernik.