In Lucy Ives’s gorgeous and funny second novel Loudermilk—after 2017’s Impossible Views of the World—we follow the adventures of aspiring writer Troy Augustus Loudermilk and his best friend, Harry Rego, as they attempt an audacious con at the country’s most prestigious creative writing program. Loudermilk has been accepted to the MFA program for his poetry, but it’s Harry who has been doing the writing. As the book progresses, we’re introduced to other intriguing characters: Clare, the first-year fiction student with writer’s block; Lizzie, the professor’s daughter who wants to sleep with Loudermilk; and Anton Beans, who wants to think his way through the process of writing a poem.
As a recent MFA graduate, I wish I’d picked this book up sooner. The questions raised by Ives—Who is a writer? Who is the creative asset? Are we all creatives? Who is to say what can be done at a creative writing program?— are poignant and timely and relevant.
Ives—a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—and I recently discussed MFA programs, her writing process, and what it means to write about our obsessions..
The Millions: I just graduated from my MFA program in fiction and as I finished Loudermilk, I couldn’t help but laugh at how spot on it was about the entire system. You say in your afterword, “He does what he does because of the existence of institutional structures that produce the illusion of self-expression.” It was ironic, being confined to certain academic rules as we were prodded to be creative. What do you think would happen to the MFA structure if your book became required reading at the college level?
Lucy Ives: Would the novel be required reading as a part of the college curriculum? Or, do you mean that it would be informally required among students? I ask because I’m not sure that faculty would be eager to adopt the novel in this way—although, of course, anything is possible. Leaving aside these logistical questions, let’s go along with your thought experiment and say that lots of undergrads, or even a small handful of undergrads, or okay: One undergrad reads this novel before entering an MFA program. What happens to that one undergrad?
I imagine that this one undergrad, privy to the secret knowledge in Loudermilk, realizes that they can be or pretend to be who or whatever they want, when they write, and they subsequently hand in many interesting creations for their workshop assignments. This person might choose to write in the style of a bestselling American author of the late 1970s; they might write in the style of an obscure Surrealist poet. They might experiment with the effects different styles and genres have on their captive audience. They might have fun. Perhaps they wouldn’t worry too much about whether their writing is “good.” I guess this might be what I would hope for.
As for the structure of the MFA itself, I do think that if there were a greater emphasis on actually learning how to write—which isn’t just a matter of story arc and pacing, prosody and description, but also concerns things like, what or who is a reader, where are we now in history, how is it to be part of an institution—this would be helpful. My sense is that in being afraid to be awake to the exigencies of institutions, as teachers, we can also fail to be awake to the present and subsequently struggle to convey liveliness. But I don’t know if my novel can really help with these problems. They might sort of be endemic to teaching. This, at least, is my experience.
TM: How did you go about structuring the novel from the perspective of a poet? You say you wrote using a trope from the libertine canon, how did you reach that point? Your sentences are lengthy and include quirky word choices not seen in most novels. I loved how you played with words and sentence form. Do you think all poets should write novels?
LI: I do want to be clear that I do not think that poets are required to write novels. I think it’s fine and even very good to just write poetry. I don’t choose to express myself in novels as a reaction against poetry. I’ve always wanted to write novels as well as poetry, and I don’t do this because I think that poetry is too hard, or obscure, or otherwise inadequate. Maybe you aren’t even asking about this, but I mention it because poetry has a sort of troubled reputation and I worry.
If the novel is structured “from the perspective of a poet,” as you put it, this might be because one of its main goals is to attempt to narrate the writing process. This was not an easy thing to do, and I often despaired about getting it right and not having it turn into a big pile of mush that nobody would be interested in. It’s a smart observation on your part that the use of the Cyrano trope really helped me out in this undertaking. Thinking about proxies allowed me to make the act of writing into a sort of drama; it allowed me to introduce the idea that characters ran the risk of being revealed, whether they knew, strictly speaking, that they were disguising themselves or not.
Thanks, too, for the compliment about my language. I don’t know if this makes me seem extremely pretentious or just bizarre, but the way I put things together in novels as far as sentences are concerned is a slightly heightened version of the way I think. Of course, I don’t really think in sentences, so that might be part of the effect you are noticing.
TM: The character Marta Hillary has a long dialogue with Loudermilk about what writing is, which of course he does not follow at all, and she says, “We’re here to confront something about humanity, to confront the fact that, as humans, we are fated to make things, and we are, meanwhile, the subjects of history.” What did you confront with your own humanity as you wrote this book? What did you discover about yourself, even as you wrote a satire?
LI: When I write fiction I often discover that I know a great deal more about the fictional world (and the fictional people in it) than I know about the real world, so called. My omniscience, as far as imaginary things go, surprises and alarms me a little. Writing this book exhausted me. It took 10 years and there are probably about 80,000 words on the cutting-room floor, so to speak. The funny parts of it started to seem so miniscule in comparison to other requirements: to come up with descriptions of what happens when someone is writing or thinking about wanting to make a work of art; to describe a creepy man without so belittling him that his creepiness starts to seem unimportant; to show how the history of a given institution affects its present; and so on. I started to know more and more about these artificial people and places—and the strangest thing of all is that I probably know more about them than I know about living people I’ve met and cared for, places I’ve lived, and so on. I’ve come to feel that the creation of fictional entities is tied to life, but it’s as if it’s happening somewhere else, in a familiar but nonetheless alternate dimension. Sometimes fiction circles back and reanimates someone you’ve lost or revisits a room you used to spend time in, but more often than not it just does its own thing. I might have had an inkling about this before, but the writing of this book convinced me.
TM: The relationship between Harry and Clare remains elusive. With writer’s block and suffering from the idea of time, Clare is looking for someone to cling to and Harry, as her opposite, is a shy person who “has the appearance somehow in outline and from the rear, of being a creature able to approach others only in their dreams.” Why do their characters never meet? Clare does not speak to anyone throughout the entire novel, she is a free-floating being who does not interact with the plot. Why did you leave her hanging at the edges as a form of expression for the existential writer? If she and Harry had met, what do you think would have happened?
LI: I decided early on that Harry and Clare should not meet, that it might be more interesting to think about a world in which two soul mates (for this is what they are) are in such proximity, sometimes in the very same building or room, but do not fully encounter each other. Who knows, by the way, what happens to them after the novel is over. However, for the duration of the book, they exist primarily in relationship to artistic tasks rather than in relationship to other people. I think this has something to do with the fact that both of them make art by pretending to be someone else: they each imagine that they are writing for, or as, another.
You mentioned Clare’s isolation, and I do want to point out that both she and Harry are quite isolated. Without their writing they seem really not to exist. I think that if they met and recognized each other during the time of the novel there would be a problem, since each of them is counting on the idea that they need art—and only art—in order to exist. It might even be catastrophic for them to encounter someone else who has this belief; far more catastrophic if they were to fall in love. Believe me, I know.
TM: The idea of what an artist is or who they could be is an important theme of the novel. As Harry secretly writes the poems, what kind of artist is Loudermilk who is the face of the duo? I recently read an article about a con artist who tricks his way into Princeton, posing as a 19-year-old track star, when in reality he is 31. Art is ambiguous, and would you say Loudermilk is an artist in his own right?
LI: Yes, Loudermilk is definitely an artist. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote that there is something called an “artist of life.” I don’t remember Rilke explaining what an artist of life is or does, specifically, but I do recall that he is very clear on one thing: So-called artists of life are quite dangerous. If you meet one, run in the other direction.
TM: You said in an interview with Granta, “Everything I write wants to be with something else.” I think this is a great way to analyze your own creation process. Can you discuss your writing process? As you formed the novel, what happened first? Where did you go after it was finished?
LI: I’m glad that you liked that formulation. It’s often hard for me to articulate what I am doing, so it’s very exciting when I manage to say something that seems intelligible to someone else. As far as process goes, I have a tendency to become obsessed with an aspect of a story, a character, or situation. The good thing is that I don’t have a lot of these obsessions. The more challenging thing is that when one of these obsessions begins, it takes me years, possibly as much as a decade, from what I’ve lived so far, to be done with the obsession. I write in order to give that obsession an independent life, to free myself to think about other things.
In the Granta interview you mention, I talk a little bit about a framing narrative about another fictional writer that was the genesis of Loudermilk. I think in the past I was less comfortable with these obsessions when they began, and so I would try to bury them in other stories. I’m cautiously hopeful that I do that a bit less now; this might be the place where Loudermilk has landed me.
TM: Did you ever get tired as you wrote the absurd dialogue of Troy Loudermilk? He is every guy I’ve ever met growing up in the Southbay of Los Angeles and captures a certain surfer bro aesthetic while also being smart. Every sentence made me laugh and also cringe in horror. It seems as if he is an absurd version of the bro character, did you research dialogue or listen in on any conversations to capture the authenticity of his voice?
LI: I could pretend that I have an amazing ear or was just magically inspired to write Loudermilk’s voice, but I’m not going to do that. The truth is that I spent a long time reading publications like Maxim and Playboy and watching endless period television shows and movies. Loudermilk’s voice is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of these anthropological activities. He’s a carefully researched amalgam. I have notebooks, binders full of Loudermilkian words, phrases, and sentences. And, although I’m not going to write them, I certainly have enough material for several sequels. But even given this excess, I’m not sure I ever got tired of Loudermilk’s way of speaking. It was weird because when I began thinking and writing about him I was pretty sure he was my polar opposite, the person in the world to whom I was the most opposed, but the more I worked on this book, the more I began to see the similarities between myself and this character. He was my proxy, after all. To paraphrase the poet John Berryman in his 242nd Dream Song, “I am him.”