slcBiographile, December 28 2012

Joanna Scutts

By Stephanie LaCava
Harper. 224pp. $23.99

Stephanie LaCava’s new book, “An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris,” is itself a beautiful object, a Tiffany-blue deckle-edged hardcover that combines lyrical text with line drawings of the “mementos” — from coral to cameras to kaleidoscopes — that anchor the story. A coming-of-age memoir, the book draws on the author’s troubled adolescence in a suburb of Paris, where she grew up as an alienated and awkward girl with a relentless curiosity for the world around her. We spoke with LaCava about her unusual book and its genesis.

The book is distinctive for its illustrations and its encyclopedia-like footnotes about each “object.” Did the objects shape the narrative, or did the story dictate what objects you included?

I did make a list of the objects, but also wrote the story aware that they might or might not fit in naturally. So, new ones kept appearing in the narrative.

How long did it take for the book to take shape?

I’d say it’s been taking shape since it all happened, since Paris. You should see the boxes I have of paper scraps, notebook pages, antique postcards, buttons, old ribbon, jewelry — all part of my obsession with objects. For whatever reason, I was born without the usual childlike sense of hopefulness, and so what I looked forward to was creating stories.

How did you come to collaborate with the illustrator, Matthew Nelson?

He’s the amazing husband of one of my dear friends, the jewelry designer Pamela Love. Before the book, I had asked him to draw me a little spread-wing beetle with my initials, SLC, in the shell, for personal stationery and my website. This little guy was so perfect that I asked Matthew to illustrate the book, and I was lucky he took the chance to do this with me. What I love about his work is its realness, its darkness … there was no chance the drawings would look too precious.

Your “objects” are a mix of the biological (a mushroom, a beetle, coral) and the cultural (My So-Called Life, the ’90s trend for nude slip dresses). The biological objects seem to connect you to a world that’s bigger than you, more timeless and more comforting, while the cultural objects signal your alienation from your peers, and from American culture while you were in France. Would you agree?

That is the perfect analysis. It’s true the natural objects gave me a kind of peace about how trying I sometimes found the world to be, and then the cultural objects were more concrete, more “micro.” It’s funny the way those cultural things continue to be benchmarks for me; I still want to dress that way and channel that spirit and listen to that music.

Do you still feel alienated by aspects of contemporary culture?

I do feel a little alienated now, ironically, because I’m stuck in the ’90s. I’m also saddened by certain parts of pop culture today that would have been representative of America if I were living abroad now. In a silly story, when I met my husband he always told these jokes or lines that people seemed to like, although I didn’t always get them. One day one of his friends said, “You know that’s from Seinfeld, right? Not original material?” I had no idea what he was talking about, having not seen the series.

You write about some painful moments in your adolescence — moments of breakdown, brushes with mental illness, anorexia — yet you write about them elliptically, through vivid flashes of memory rather than direct narrative. How did you decide what to include of those moments, and how to tell them?

Honesty was important for me and so I’m going to answer this question honestly too: I’m not sure I was brave enough to go there directly to say, yes, this was an eating disorder, and yes, this was a suicide attempt or whatever. I am humbled by writers who can really delve into these things in their own way. I like, though, that in the book those experiences seem more dreamlike, because that’s how they feel to me now.

I was also lucky in that my story contains nothing bad about anyone but myself. There are other memoirs that involve truths about loved ones that must be hard to release to the world. I say early on in my book that my parents were pretty much perfect — which is true, and which only made my own pain so much harder to understand and work through.

You write a lot about the women, like Lee Miller and the designer Madeleine Castaing, who influenced you as artists, or for their distinctive personalities. Are there also writers whose influence is in the book? Who are your literary heroes?

So many! Most important is Joan Didion, although I can only dream of writing like her. Then there’s Maeve Brennan, who particularly influences a column I’m writing for The American Reader. I also love and have great respect for Zadie Smith, A. M. Homes — there are so many. And can I have a few guys? James Salter, Jeffrey Eugenides.

What’s your writing routine?

I wake up around 5:30 and either go work out or go straight to the computer. I do my best work in the first three hours after exercising and having matcha tea. At night, I’m useless.

The book leaves a lot unsaid, and often takes big chronological leaps. Do you think you’ll go back to this period of your life for your writing in future? Or are you planning other kinds of books (fiction, perhaps)?

My next book is fiction, though much of it is drawn from my own experiences and those of my friends. Its exploration is more sexual in nature, and perhaps equally as haunting in its own way. In the memoir, I left out certain parts of my life, as it would have meant discussing professional situations or university, things I am still very close to.

I am lucky to have been able to write a “memoir” so young. I didn’t want to call it that for a long, long time. I also think there is an unspoken code where not everything is free game to be discussed and revealed to the world.  My early life and struggles are strictly my own and for now, I can offer just that.

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