Paul Rome’s debut novel We All Sleep In The Same Room captures emotional chilliness of two people distanced from each other by the grinding banality of their lives raising a son in a single bedroom apartment. Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing explores similar emotional distance, though in the case of her narrator, the distance is also a physical one; Elyria taking flight to New Zealand. Both authors sat down at McNally Jackson with Soho Press editor Mark Doten for a conversation about their books.
Doten begins by pointing out the two books share a common idea of isolation, even though Rome’s book is set in the middle of New York City. Rome’s narrator and protagonist Tom Claughlin tends to remain more upbeat, even while slowly reigniting an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and his marriage crumbles. Lacey’s narrator spends more time obscuring herself, over thinking the situations she is in.
The voice developed without any backstory, Lacey says. The character moves through New Zealand. People come in and out of her life, but the narrator remains the constant. She has no ability for self-protection even though she sees dangers around her.
Tom was more introspective, Rome says. Earlier drafts contained much more interiority, but the narrative lost the speed and intensity he wanted. As narrator, Tom ends up shielding himself.
Frank, Tom’s babysitter, is a kind of antagonist that steals the affection of Tom’s son and wife. Tom, as narrator, can misdirect the reader’s attention, and hints at the fear of sexual abuse, or some other scheme, though ultimately its about Tom’s own status as outsider. There is lots of paranoia surrounding Tom, Rome says, in part because as the babysitter, Frank observes moments of intimacy.
Doten asks both authors about the origin of their first sentences. Lacey explains that the first chapter in the published version of the novel began in the middle of the book. The last sentence did come at the end though. She knew what the character would end up doing. Still, it didn’t come easy. She describes it as trying to land a novel that spends its narrative trying to avoid landing, and creating space for the reader is a challenge. She enjoys reading novels like that. “Ending books like that is really hard,” she says.
Rome says he always knew how wanted the novel to begin even if the exact sentence wasn’t locked in. The book opens with Tom observing Frank the babysitter and his child, as though he is an outside observer to his own life. Rome wrote the basic idea for the first sentence, but his editor helped massage it. Its meant to feel more like a spy.
Debut novelists are often assumed to have written semi-autobiographical accounts in their works. Writing in the first person adds to the confusion, Rome points out. “I get quite anxious about the perception,” he says. He spent most of his time imagining his characters, describing the experience like an actor inhabits a character.
Lacey says she agrees with the idea of taking on the role of a character to write. “Its a little harder for women,” she says, meaning separating from the assumption of biography. “People are like: oh, what happened to you.” Its troubling when people meet her, she says, and expect her to be like the character. “Its controlled schizophrenia,” she says.
We All Sleep In The Same Room is set in New York City. “The geography was super important to me. I walked through every corner of the book,” Rome says. He describes his interest in accuracy as a compulsion. “I enjoy a scene of a place.”
Lacey, who had visited New Zealand, relied on Google Maps to reestablish her knowledge of the places she was writing about.
Fiction is an important way of informing an understanding of a place, Rome explains. Doten jokes that New Zealand is represented in art through Lacey’s book and the Lord of the Rings. But there is a point: there are likely more books set in New York City than in New Zealand. Rome reflects that with the fewer novels set in New Zealand, Lacey might end up impacting perceptions of the country.