Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Stephanie LaCava:
On her first book, Walter Benjamin and needing time to fall in love with the places that make us

Stephanie LaCava's first book, An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris, came to me just as I was about finishing Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays and I find that serendipitously appropriate. Not unlike Didion's Maria, LaCava's story is one of a troubled young woman, dealing with anxiety and depression in an environment that, at least on the surface, appears to be privileged, perfect and proper. In An Extraordinary Theory... Stephanie's father accepts a mysterious job that requires the family to move to France. They settle in the Parisian suburb of Le VĂ©sinet where the kids attend an unorthodox international school and try to deal with the unusual circumstances of feeling like an outsider. LaCava quietly looks back on that time and tells a sweet, strange and sobering coming of age story by laying out a catalog of the objects, talismans and people who enabled her to get through it.

The book took my breath away.

Precocious children frequently find a way of growing up to be good tellers of their own stories. But this book is different because its power lies not so much in the odd childhood details it gives but in the emotional depth that it shares. The chronology surprised me but I most enjoyed it when it made me feel lost. The book is beautifully bound and features original illustrations by Matthew Nelson that only add to it's overall delicate aura.

And when I say aura... I mean that in the way Benjamin defines the term. The books feels both extremely brave, new and current but also oddly old-fashioned. Children of the 90s with recognize themselves in the music, fashion and cultural references but others won't and that will be ok. The most confessional elements of the narrative are the least revealing about the personality of the character. And the work emerges as most authentic when it gets dangerously close to sentimentality. It also seriously made me wonder about the correlation between depression and dislocation... I'm sure many of you would have thoughts on that. 

The interview below took place over email and phone. Stephanie was very kind to accept my request to interview her and I must admit, I was beyond flattered. Especially because (nerd alert!!!) in the course of the conversation we discovered a common fascination with the work of Walter Benjamin. The beautiful illustrations in the post are original Marta Spendowska watercolors, which she graciously produced for this piece and so wonderfully capture Stephanie's beautiful spirit (and uhmmm... scarab-obsession). 

Thank you, Stephanie.
Thank you, Marta.
Your story of {un} belonging, loneliness and psychic break-down is very brave for MANY reasons but especially because it is in such stark contrast with your public persona. So many people know you because of your work as a magazine writer (Vogue, T Magazine, Interview, etc.) and your appearances on some of the most popular fashion blogs and, I'm sure, assume you live an unhampered, charmed and glamorous life. Women like you are not supposed to get depressed, right? I was very surprised and impressed at your choice to write the book as a memoir. Could you tell me a little bit about how that decision came to be? Did you at any point consider telling this story as fiction?

For sometime, I went through a phase where for whatever reason I decided I wanted to read nonfiction as much as possible– biographies- to learn lessons from other people's past lives. Fiction is amazing and wonderful and important to translate universal truths, emotions and messages, but there is always that subconscious that knows the characters and events are a theory of human behavior, not actual events. I realized that if I wanted to tell this story and help others through similar experiences it would be most effective both in writing and communicating to readers if it were a real story. It was probably a silly thing to do, but it was the right one for this book. A lovely editor named Julia Cheiffetz helped me realize this. It took me some time and many mistakes to sort through how exactly to do it and which scenes to focus on for the book. My editor on the project, Maya Ziv was amazing.

At the time, were you aware that what you were going through (emotionally, psychologically) was uncommon or did you only piece things together later on as a grown-up?

It's funny, it wasn't until recently that I realized I was, well, weird. You only know what you know and I didn't understand how or why my socialization and way of expressing myself made people react in a certain way. I get it now, because of a combination of good friends--and not so good ones. Both are important and illuminate things about ourselves. The funny thing is since I've written the book and had feedback, I've found unlikely kindred spirits.

Would you say that once you find yourself in the position of being an outsider, it is pretty difficult to take yourself out of that mindset? Is that a bad thing? In what ways does this "outsider" perspective finds ways into your life now?

I've never felt I'm anything but an outsider. I love it. Some of my journalism is part of a world that is created and critiqued because of emotion and creative, singular points of view. The authorities are those that have cultivated signature unique perspectives that enable them to do their jobs. What I have to offer is my own offbeat sensibility: A little dark, strange, yet preoccupied with color, design, sexuality and femininity.

I think that's precisely the reason why people are drawn to your fashion writing and I am sure why readers will enjoy your book. Admittedly, I've never been interested in sea ivory, mushrooms, or scarabs (everyone reading this interview will think we are BOTH crazy) but reading your book, I found myself really caring about those things without feeling you were telling me I should. Rather, I was fascinated by your ability to assign unusual meaning to old and common objects and ideas... I don't think I've EVER paid that much attention to footnotes! Could you speak a little bit about your writing and research process?

It's funny you ask this-- I just discovered Walter Benjamin's archive and fell in love, because he seemed to make it okay to not have a linear process. I wrote down so many things in so many notebooks and then started writing some more and it coalesced when it felt right. I knew the objects I wanted, but wasn't sure where they would appear until they did, does that make sense? The research was all about finding something whimsical and bizarre to highlight, a way of showing that when there appears to be nothing hopeful delving into another story, not necessarily a person, a theme or creature even, can show there is something for us here on earth.

Your story begins when your family moves to France where, "without quotidian American distractions", you say you "bacame aware of my thoughts" and realize you "wasn't wired for contentment". In the short term, leaving the States placed you in a strange space (physically and metaphorically) but it also propelled you to seek wonder and cultivate a curiosity that ultimately saved you. What does place mean to you now? Does it affect your "wiring"? Do you need to escape from America every now and then? Are the returns therapeutic or traumatic?

Again, a great question. It took me a long time to be able to go back and fall in love with the place that made me. Now, it's a second home in so many ways. Sometimes I feel out of place here, but I don't ultimately fit in there either. Sadly, turns out my wiring works the same on either continent.

I come from: Mars- just kidding, but not really.
My home is: doesn't really matter, I love hotels everywhere, it's more when I feel content, which is like the phases of the moon.
I dream of: men, again, just kidding, but not really (my husband, of course.)
My work lets me: dissect those dreams
Always in my heart: youth

What is your next big project?
I am working on a novel that riffs on Joseph Kessel's Belle de Jour in a way. It's a few years in the making, but keeps me excited for the next day of work.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Petya for this collaboration and really great interview!
    And—thank you for introducing me to Stephanie's work.