Author Q&A:
Catherine Lacey

Biography of X

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The sudden death of controversial artist X leaves her admirers grappling with the mysteries of her strange and eventful life. Determined to correct the versions of X conjured by others, her late wife, CM, embarks on her own biography – a project that leads her to numerous increasingly uncomfortable discoveries. Set against the backdrop of a United States recently reunified after years of conflict, Catherine Lacey’s fourth novel explores identity, grief, art, love and cruelty in a deeply engaging narrative that questions whether there can ever be such a thing as a true story.

The novel is full of genuine facts, references and photos. In writing it did you, like CM, discover anything unexpected about the world or yourself?
Tonnes of things. It’s hard to remember if I read anything during the five years I was writing this novel that didn’t end up in the book in one way or another. I lived for a little while in Berlin in 2019 where I learned more about the wall, the Stasi prisons, the war, and that went into the way I imagined the Southern Territory. To answer this question in full, or anything close to full, I’d have to write another book.

One character says that X “may have been a con artist, but the con was always honest”. In a world that does not facilitate meritocracy, is deception justified?
This might be better answered by a philosopher of ethics! I find it a little uncomfortable to make broad statements about whether one action or another is justifiable (the people I’ve known who are the most successful with this sort of rhetoric terrify me). In that particular line from the novel, what that character might be saying about X is that she was only interested in the experience of living with multiple identities as a way to entirely fill her life with a performance, a work of art. Of course it’s possible that all kinds of horrendous things could been carried out in the name of art or for the sake of “having an experience”.

Is the choice to “stir controversy” over accepting “the pain of making something sincerely, then being misunderstood or ignored” a blight on our current cultural landscape?
That’s an interesting hypothesis! It takes some courage and skill, I think, to stir controversy well. I love it when people who know their thoughts will be misunderstood and/or interpreted in bad faith tweet their opinions anyway. Still, no artist or writer has control over how they or their work is understood or misunderstood by the public. So it’s not a choice. You can accept the discomfort of being misunderstood or you can reject it, but the misunderstanding will be there either way.

X’s mother defends the Southern Territory on the basis that “everyone believed the very same things”. Does part of the danger of fascism lie in the appeal of uniformity?
Absolutely! It’s seductive to belong to something and everyone – liberal, conservative, woke, anti-woke, dark web trolls, book critics, novelists – everyone wants some version of that kind of belonging. It’s upsetting, but it’s true that anyone can be deluded into supporting a structure or political party that’s actively harming others (or even the supporters themselves). That’s how badly people want to feel like they belong somewhere.

In February, Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted that America needs “a national divorce” and “to separate by red states and blue states”. Could the political disunity that forms the backdrop of the novel become reality?
And what happens to the purple states? (In fact they’re all purple states). I think if a national division ever happened we would find out how mixed and fragile all these supposed political divisions actually are. I’m not trying to make an argument in the novel about what could or should happen in America. It’s not an op-ed. I was trying to see something about this country, and the sheer disagreeable size of this country, in a new light. It’s my belief that to do this in fiction, a writer has to create a world with a list of attributes and situations and hypotheses more than arguments or possible futures.

There has been an increase in recent years in writing on abuse in queer female relationships, such as Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, which, like Biography of X, blends reality and fantasy. Do you think the subject necessitates this kind of narration?
I don’t think a blend of fact and fiction is necessary for this topic, but being able to write about queer relationships for a (somewhat) mainstream audience is still a relatively new thing and I think this is a time when a lot of art happens to be blending fact and fiction. Then again, there was a lot of coded and direct homophobia and sexism in film and books in the twentieth century and into this one. Women and queers were over-represented as necessarily fragile, deluded, or hysterical, and for some people that’s a recent memory and still a hazard. But of course women can be jerks! Everyone has a right to be broken.

A character mocks CM for believing “in an abstract concept of truth”. Is there any such thing, in the novel or in life?
It’s true that this novel grapples with this question, but no character or situation in the book ever solves it and neither do I. The “truth” of someone’s life, for instance. What is that? Biography tries to reach it. Love tries to reach it. Juries and lawyers try to reach it. We fail all the time.

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