Brooklyn Eagle recently spoke with Julie Sarkissian, a Brooklyn-based writer whose debut novel “Dear Lucy” is narrated in an unusual if sometimes eerie voice. While the story’s protagonist Lucy often cannot “find the words” she needs to express herself, Sarkissian infuses the character with a captivating narrative that has been aptly compared to the voices in Emma Donoghue’s “Room” and Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.”
Lucy’s “Mum mum” has sent her to live on a farm with Mister and Missus, who do not treat her particularly well, and Samantha, a pregnant teenager who becomes Lucy’s only friend. In her childlike yet astutely observant manner, Lucy constantly reminds herself that she has to be good so that she can stay on the farm and her Mum mum – who she’s certain is coming back for her – will know where to find her. Yet despite her resolve to please Mister and Missus, Lucy often gets in the way.
In spite of its quirks, Lucy’s voice is relatable and compelling. She explains the feeling of her egg-filled apron pockets rubbing against her legs as “nice like someone who would hug your legs. It isn’t really a place to hug but that is why you would want it. Because you thought nobody would remember that place.” When describing how Missus sleeps, Lucy observes, “Missus sleeps like when a person dies and you put them in a box to stay hidden in the ground, with hands on her heart on top of the covers.”
With such a unique disposition, Lucy is a lonely character, but Samantha offers altruistic friendship and guidance. She looks out for Lucy and shares stories from her past. But when Samantha encounters her own trouble, Lucy is forced to act without her friend’s leadership. Torn between her effort to be good and her determination to help Samantha, Lucy embarks on a journey that reveals her unflinching compassion and determination.
Brooklyn Eagle recently checked in with Sarkissian, who will celebrate the release of her novel on Tuesday, April 23, at BookCourt in Cobble Hill. We asked her how she created and maintained such a refreshing voice, and she offers a preview of what she’s working on now.
Lucy’s voice is so distinct. Where did it come from, and was it difficult to maintain throughout the story?
Lucy’s voice came out of the blue, out of my individual unconscious, and, to take a Jungian perspective, out the collective cultural unconscious. When Lucy appeared to me, she came as a voice, and that voice was whole and distinct and totally consistent. Lucy’s voice seemed as real as my own internal voice. Lucy’s voice was the one voice that wasn’t hard to maintain throughout the story.
While Lucy is the predominant narrator, the point of view shifts between chapters, which helps to tell a more comprehensive and well-rounded story. Was this something you intended to do at the outset, or did you decide to include other characters’ voices later on as a means of enhancing the narrative?
Initially I wrote out about forty pages in Lucy’s voice, without direction or intent. I was really letting her voice create not only her character, but also the emotional and psychological setting in which her story was taking place. After writing about forty or so pages I realized I wanted to create a dichotomy between Lucy’s perception and the reader’s perception. I knew some juxtaposition was already inherently taking place, but I wanted that disconnect to be explicit, and that is when I decided to introduce Missus as a narrator, and then Samantha.
As a young, emerging writer, do you find the Brooklyn literary community to be particularly supportive?
I find the Brooklyn community incredibly supportive. Julia Fierro, the director and founder of the Sackett Street Writer’s Workshop, exemplifies the generosity and supportiveness of the Brooklyn literary scene. Julia really believes in the Brooklyn literary community and works to foster that community. She is so inspiring, and Brooklyn is lucky to have her. I feel such gratitude to be living in Brooklyn as my first book comes out. Of course I am biased, but it’s hard to imagine a more supportive or exciting literary environment.
Can you talk a bit about your involvement with the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop?
I began teaching as fiction instructor last fall as part of the SSWW and it was one of the most rewarding, exciting and inspiring experiences I have ever had. I am proud to join the ranks of teachers who say that their students have more to teach them than vice versa. I have spent half my life as a student in writing workshops, so I have had lots of experience as a student, but there was something very special, and very humbling, about teaching professionally for the first time. I honestly laughed more with my students than I can remember laughing in years. It used my brain in such an incredible, challenging way and I am so grateful to have had the honor of instructing such intelligent, talented and dedicated students.
What does your typical day of writing entail? …Do you usually write from home, or is it helpful to get out of your apartment?
I currently write from home, but for about two years I paid for a writing space at a writing workspace called Paragraph on 14th street in Manhattan. Once my fiancé and I began living alone I was able to adapt a relatively productive routine working from home, and now I am find that I am most productive working from our home.
How long have you lived in Brooklyn and in which neighborhood are you living?
I have lived in Brooklyn Heights since 2007, ever since I moved in with my then boyfriend, now fiancé. We still live in Brooklyn Heights and we love it.
I’m working on a new book: the working title is “The Pirate Carnival” – about a fair on an old pirate ship, run by a band of gypsies, that travels the United States, making money off selling whatever it is that the ego wants more than anything but has always been too afraid to ask for. When the carnival docks in a sleepy New England town, a young women must chose between the life she thought she wanted, and a life where pleasure, passion, and beauty are valued above all else. It’s a bit of a mess right now, but I’m still in the early purely creative stages, so we will see if I can hammer it into workable shape.
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Sarkissian’s April 23 and May 6 Brooklyn appearances will both begin at 7 p.m. BookCourt is located at 163 Court St. in Cobble Hill.
Julie Sarkissian is a graduate of Princeton University where she won the Francis Leon Paige Award for creative writing, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. She lives in New York City, and teaches at the Sackett Street Writers Workshop.