Finding the Story: A Conversation with Lilly Dancyger

May 7, 2021   •   By Yvonne Conza

LILLY DANCYGER’S NEW MEMOIR, Negative Space, a mixture of reportage and visual art, is a significant debut. Using her exceptional journalistic skills, Dancyger recounts the indelible life of Joe Schactman, her father, an artist and a heroin addict, who died when she was 12. Dancyger’s dexterous usage of time functions as a critical lens, panning in, out, and around, keeping memory fluid. Her father, a visual artist and sculptor, has passed, but he’s alive in these pages. Lilly is a lot like him, yet very much her own artist. She began this project a decade ago, her first impulse being to gather and contextualize her father’s work in the form of a monograph. And that should still happen because his work was that exceptional, as the striking and provocative reproductions curated in this hybrid memoir testify. Their high-quality compounds the loss felt by his daughter, and experienced by the art world. As proof of the book’s noteworthiness, Negative Space was chosen as a winner of the 2019 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards.


Dancyger has also done excellent work as an editor, including helming the critically acclaimed anthology of essays Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger (2019). In 2018, I hired her to edit an essay about my own father. During the editorial process, she told me that the contradictions and details I had left out to avoid shock value were in fact necessary and added: I write a lot about my father, who was a heroin addict. And I’m very wary of exploiting his story for the same reasons.” In our conversation, we spoke about the dynamics of grief, the elusiveness of memory, and the challenge of finding the story.


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YVONNE CONZA: Themes relating to place, displacement, class, and power thread throughout the book, interweaving with the narrator’s grief. A lot of this has to do with your experience of gentrification in New York City, which may be its own kind of grief.


LILLY DANCYGER: Gentrification is absolutely a kind of grief and had to be part of the book. It’s such a strange experience to be so homesick all the time, without ever having left your hometown. I’m still here, in New York, but the city I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. I had a dream once, that I was on the M14 bus (which goes up Avenue A), and through the windows of the bus I could see Avenue A as it used to be. I could see it vividly — every storefront what it used to be, the street vendors, even the light looked different, as I remembered it. I tried to get off the bus, so excited to finally get back home, but the bus wouldn’t stop and I couldn’t get off. I woke up crying. It’s definitely an ache similar to missing a person who’s gone.


I consider Negative Space to be very much a New York City story (even though parts of it take place in California), and the layering of so many different parts of my life that happened in the same neighborhood creates the atmosphere: I played in Tompkins Square Park as a little kid, and then I hung out there as a teenage drop-out, and then I still lived right next to that park as a young adult when I started writing this book. There are layers of memory building on each other, creating different patterns and depths like collage — I wanted to capture that feeling on the page. So, I had to talk about the ways the city has changed and the ways it’s stayed the same through all of these different time periods.


What are the not-so-obvious absences created by gentrification?


I feel the loss most deeply, not when I want to go to a restaurant that no longer exists (although I will never stop craving Yaffa salads), but when I’m in the old neighborhood with some time to kill and I realize that none of my friends are there anymore. I used to be able to just make a couple of calls and someone would be around to grab a coffee. Or I could at least pop in somewhere and say hi to a favorite bartender or shop owner. Or I could go to the park and know I’d run into at least one person I knew. Walking around the East Village now, I feel incredibly lonely. That’s a big part of why I eventually left, too. I held out longer than most of my friends, but being a last hold-out just made me really sad and bitter all the time, to the point where it felt like it was bad for my health.


In telling this story, what challenges were presented by the element of time? 


The biggest challenge regarding time was that I didn’t do the interviews in a perfect order where each new piece of information was revealed in a way that allowed my father’s story to unroll chronologically. So, I had to allow some flexibility there, and put some pieces of the discovery timeline in a different order than the order in which they happened in real life. But I decided that the chronology of the story being discovered was more important than the order in which pieces of that story were discovered. Once I decided to allow myself a little bit of license with that, it got much easier to fit the puzzle pieces together.


The way you handle time as a literary function is very purposeful and dexterous. Did you develop rules for how you shifted from past to present scenes?


Yes, how to weave between the different timelines was one of the hardest things to figure out about this book. Eventually I settled on having my father’s story be the “dominant” narrative, or the one that got to be cleanly chronological and set the pace. Then I wrapped the story line of my reporting and uncovering his story around it, introducing each new section of his story with an interview or some other scene of the “present” discovery story. Finally, I slotted bits of my backstory in between chunks of his story where there was thematic resonance. It helped me a lot to have one main thread that the others fell in around, rather than trying to juggle them all as loose, flexible pieces.


Joe Schactman’s relationship to his materials, his perspective, and his use of symbols, including the visual component, gave him a voice on the page. The artwork is central to, and works in tandem with, the story. Was cost the primary reason publishers suggested taking out the artwork?


Cost was definitely a factor in why some publishers were resistant to the images, also technical challenges. They make the layout way more complicated and difficult. But also, the images bring it into hybrid territory. This book is a mixture of memoir and artist monograph, and whenever you have a book that’s kind of something and kind of something else, that can limit your publishing options. Mainstream publishing likes neat categories. Luckily, there are small presses that like the in-between!


Taking the images out was just never an option for me. I always said that I would put the book in a drawer before I’d remove the images, and I meant it. This is a book about art. The art needed to be included. I stuck to my guns and believed that there was someone out there who would get what I was trying to do, and take the book as it was meant to be. It took a while, but I found the right place.


Schactman’s artwork, along with stories of him as father, friend, collaborator, husband, and heroin addict, piece together facts and, by themselves, don’t tell the whole story. “Heroin addict” isn’t the main factor about him, but it’s also not overlooked. Would you like to say more?


“Memoir of a child of addicts” was the neat category that this book could have been pushed into if I’d let it. The heroin addiction is the salacious part, the hook that mainstream publishing would have known how to sell. But that’s just a small piece of this story. My father’s addiction was not the most interesting thing about him. I definitely didn’t want to lean on it too heavily to provide shape for the narrative. But it’s there, of course, and if I pretended it wasn’t, or pretended it wasn’t a big factor in how his life played out, that would have been a lie — a pretty, and delusional, rewrite of my family’s story the way I wanted it to go. It was a balancing act of confronting the ugly truths, but not sensationalizing them.


What were the challenges of securing artwork owned by others?


My father didn’t keep any kind of record at all about his artwork. I have no idea where a lot of his work ended up and that was my biggest challenge. There’s definitely a ton of it out there that I don’t know about and have never seen. Maybe some people who own some of his pieces will hear about or read the book and get in touch with me.


The second-biggest challenge was that the pieces I do know about are spread out all over the country. I had to travel around with camera equipment that I barely knew how to use, set up in people’s homes, and take pictures that I hoped would turn out okay. The quality of the photographs ended up being one deciding factor in which images I included and which were cut. The book contains only a fraction of what I collected. Had his work been in one place, I would have hired a professional photographer, but since it was so spread out, I did it myself.


For 10 years, you worked on this material. Was there one thing in draft after draft that remained in the final manuscript?


I’ve wondered about that, but I haven’t gone back to reread the first finished draft to check. I would not be surprised if there was not a single line from the first draft that made it into the final version. I rewrote the whole thing over completely, so many times. It really is an entirely different book. There are some of the same key scenes and moments, definitely, but probably entirely rewritten. If anything, excerpts from my father’s notebooks and letters may have made it all the way from the first draft to the last, because I didn’t edit those.


What surprised you the most that you had to let go of?


Nothing was surprising, exactly, in terms of cuts. Some things were harder to let go of than others. The biggest thing was that, when I started adding in more of my story, building it out around my father’s, I wrote a lot about my cousin, who was murdered when she was 20 and I was 21. We were really close, and she was a big part of my early childhood, where a lot of the story takes place. Her death had a defining impact on my early 20s. I ended up taking everything about her death out of the book, because it was just too much. It started to take over the story, and to really do it justice, everything after that point would have been about those two griefs, mourning both her and my father, when I was trying to really just focus on my father. In some ways, it feels like a major omission to leave that out, but it was also necessary to stay focused on the story I was here to tell. I’m writing about my cousin for a new book project.


I wrote in the margins, in the section dealing with your father’s autopsy report, “Grief — allowing it to be complicated by anger.” It aligned with your words: “I started, for the first time to see my father’s death not as something that happened to him, but something that he let happen. A suicide of neglect, like a lie of omission.” And: “Realizing that I’d been furious at him for half of my life, and I never even knew it.” Does my note evoke any thoughts? 


Yes, that’s actually a line from the end of that chapter: “I was finally able to see my own grief more fully, allowing it to be complicated by anger.” Realizing that there had been anger underneath my grief all along was a big part of the process and a big part of the story. That’s really what that chapter is all about, and I think it’s one of the biggest emotional turning points of the story.


How do you encourage your writing students to allow these complexities, contradictions, omissions, and in-between spaces to flourish in their work?


I always tell my writing students not to try to wrap things up in a neat little bow when they’re actually complicated and unresolved. That the lack of closure can be a better ending than manufactured closure that’s not genuine. The parts of the story that don’t seem to fit together can often be where the real story is. I encourage them to look for those spots of friction and write into the complexity. That’s where the good stuff is.


Toward the end of the book, one of your father’s friends stated that he told her he never created his artwork sober. Then you respond to that statement by writing that “his art was inextricably tied to his addiction.” That comment by your father’s friend made you wonder whether, if he were still alive, his presence might hurt as much as his absence does. The scene’s economy is brilliant without being too sparse or overly dramatic. How did this scene come together?


By the time I had that conversation with the friend of my father’s, I was already aware that the story of finding the story was going to be part of the book, though at first I didn’t know that. I had to go back and reconstruct what some of the early interview conversations were like, and how I felt about them, in the moment. But this one I knew right away was important, and that I wanted to write about that interview itself, not only the information that was relayed in the interview. So, the next day, after that scene you mentioned where I’m lying on my bed, looking up at a piece of my father’s artwork that I love, and wondering about the connections between his art and his addiction, I wrote down everything I’d been feeling during that conversation and after.


I wrote a lot more than what ended up in the book. At first, I was really angry at that friend of my father’s who suggested that he only made art when he was high, even though she was just repeating something he’d told her. But the idea upset me, and she was an easy target. It’s always easier to get angry at someone peripheral, rather than the person you love who’s gone. So, the first draft was long and messy and angry, and it got pared back more and more with each revision until it was more about the question: What would it have meant, if he’d lived, that he believed he couldn’t make art without heroin? Whether that belief was true or not. And in revision, I was able to shift some of that anger back onto my father, and onto this idea that he couldn’t make art sober, which I ultimately believe is false.


I know that ballet is important to you, and when I thought about the structure of your book, it felt like a ballet. Ballets tell fluid stories, are told in movement, contain narrative action, use artistic backdrops, and feature characters.


I love that so much! I did actually think about ballet while I was working on the structure. The way ballet always looks smooth and fluid, even when there’s an immense amount of effort behind it. The structure of this book is complicated, and it took a lot of hard work to get it right. It was definitely the most challenging aspect, and it was important to me that it feel fluid even in its complexity. That ballet illusion is exactly what I was going for: one piece flowing into the next as if it were the most natural thing in the world, so that the years of work and the bloody toes and the failed attempts that happened offstage fall away.


One curious aspect of the book is that, instead of using chapter numbers or titles, you use X’s. It was a strong artistic choice. It allowed me not to feel overly cued between sections as I was reading. Does that make sense?


Not wanting the reader to feel overly cued was exactly why I didn’t go with chapter titles. The chapters originally had titles, but I took them out. They felt distracting, or overly explanatory. I wanted the story to just flow, and not be interrupted by signposts telling you what was coming next. I didn’t want to use numbers either as they felt disingenuous or heavy-handed, as if I was implying that the order was inherent in the story, when that didn’t feel true. X’s felt more like just pauses, or deep breaths between chunks of the story. Which is what I wanted the chapter breaks to be, as opposed to these stark delineations. And the X used is from the cover image, which is one of my father’s woodcuts, so it was one more way to pull his work into the fabric of the book.


Has completing this book changed your writing? If so, how?


I learned how to be a writer by writing this book. In order to accomplish what I was trying to do, I had to become a better writer at so many points throughout the process. I constantly felt like I was trying to keep up with the book, to develop my skills enough to do it justice. I think that’s also part of why it took me over a decade to write. When I started out, I was so far behind the skill level this book required that I couldn’t even conceptualize what the final product was going be or look like. I had to write a bad, cheesy, oversimplified version first, so that I could see that it was bad, cheesy, and oversimplified, and push myself to get better. And that happened about a dozen times until I finally caught up to what the book wanted to be and was able to execute it.


I’d like to think that means the next book will be easier, but I have a feeling I’ll have to learn to write all over again in order to pull it off, too.


Do you have any hopes or plans for your father’s artwork beyond this book?


I’ve been dreaming of an art-show book-launch party for 10 years, and can’t really believe that the pandemic has crushed that dream. But I am still planning to have an art show/book party at some point, even though it won’t be the launch. Depending on how things go, I’m hoping for some time later this year. But we’ll see.


One upside of delaying the show because of the pandemic is that, by this fall, or whenever it ends up happening, at least some people will have read the book already, and will be excited to see the artwork in person, so I’m looking forward to that.


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Yvonne Conzas writing has appeared in LongreadsElectric Literature, LARB, Bomb Magazine, AGNI, The RumpusJoyland MagazineBlue Mesa ReviewEx/Post, and elsewhere.London’s Dodo Ink and Scotland’s Epoch Press have included her work in the 2021 anthologies Trauma: Art as a response to Mental Health and Aftermath.