An Interview with Julie Sarkissian, by Celia Johnson

There are a lot of things readers hope to find in a debut novel, but perhaps most of all they look for something refreshingly new. Lucy Sarkissian offers just that with her debut, Dear Lucy. In this book, you’ll meet a cast of characters unlike any other, from a heroic young woman who is unfailingly hopeful to her fiesty pet, a baby chick. And the story is consistently surprising and entertaining. Sarkissian is a master storyteller. I chatted with her about how her characters emerged, why her couch is the worst (and also the best) place to write, and more.

Dear Lucy by Julie Sarkissian book cover

The characters in Dear Lucy are completely different from one another, yet their struggles and dreams intersect in surprisingly poignant ways. I wondered, as I read, how these characters arrived in your imagination, and in the book. Did you have them all in your mind before you began? Or did some of them emerge as the story progressed? 

Good question! I would say that Lucy and Mum mum were always in my mind, and their dynamic is one I feel like we recognize, the ambivalent attachment of a self-absorbed mother who feels like she was made for more than being a mother to her devoted daughter. The dynamic is familiar, but the fact that Lucy really does makes Mum mum’s life miserable at times – Mum mum isn’t just being melodramatic when she makes those claims – adds a level of sympathy, I hope, or at the very least understanding, of what Mum mum is suffering through. Just because she is an inadequate mother doesn’t mean that she isn’t also totally overwhelmed and bewildered and hurting.

Missus and Samantha were developed more slowly. They remained elusive and shadowy in the beginning of the process, and I had to draw them into the light. Their motivations were unclear to me, but they both possessed a life force that compelled me to put their words on the page, and then forced me to analyze those words.

Lucy often struggles to find the right words, and yet she understands the power of language arguably more than any other character in the book. Did you find it difficult to strike that balance of strain and wisdom?

It was hard. It was particularly hard to determine what exactly Lucy could recognize about the components of language. She knows what letters are, she can recite or mimic letters to the reader, and – as you say – she understands the power of language, but she can’t put those letters into words that she can read and discern meaning from. So being authentic to what she would or wouldn’t be able to retell to reader but still describe her fascination with and deference to the written word was a tough balance. I still have doubts I got it right!

There is much attention to small details in the book (the splinters in a tabletop, the feel of fresh eggs, the shape of words), and still the plot moves along at a decisively rapid clip. Did you have to cut a lot of material to maintain the pace?

Thank you! That actually is huge compliment to me because I worked so hard to get the plot to move along. One thing I cut a lot of was my “poetic” endings. I have the tendency to want to end sections with a lyrical expression rather than a line that would keep the reader wanting to turn the page. My editor was instrumental in helping me achieve balance between form and function; beauty and information at the end of my chapters.

Would you describe your writing space?

It’s a terrible habit but I actually work from the couch! I have a desk but I think because I wrote most of the book on the couch it’s hard for me to feel creative on the desk. Or maybe there is a simpler explanation – the couch designed solely to be comfortable. But the way I sit is causing major lumbar spine issues. I’m basically in pain all day long from a result of writing on the couch and vow the next day I will work on my desk. And then the next morning – I head back to the couch. I’ve got to break the cycle.

Julie Sarkissian's Room

Do you have any unusual writing habits?

This habit perhaps falls under “disgusting” rather than “unusual” but the first thing I do in the morning – after making coffee – is watch TV. And the TV I watch is pretty vile. I’m a bit embarrassed to list the actual programs, but let it suffice to say they are the kind of reality shows that most educated, decent human beings consider not just trash – but unethical trash. I think this is a product of working in restaurants for years. Not my choice of programming – there is no excuse for that – but the hour at which I watch TV. Most people watch TV after work – to decompress and give their intellectual mind a break. But since my sophomore year in college I have worked nights as a waitress. I would often get home after midnight, and since I always lived in close quarters with other people, and because of the late hour, I would go straight to bed. So working nights sort of skewed my schedule in an odd way where I wake up and relax, then work on my writing, then shower, get dressed and go to my day job – or more accurately – my night job.

Now that you’ve completed your debut novel, is there anything you plan to do differently with the next book, in terms of your creative process?

I hope that I’m not as hesitant to commit to hard and fast plot points. I made the job of writing Dear Lucy unnecessarily hard by leaving some very crucial elements of the plot incredibly vague for much of the process. For example, I had three different ideas of who the father of Samantha’s child could be, and for years – years! – I keep writing the book and developing Samantha without choosing one. I felt like all three were interesting, and I was intrigued by all three notions, but I was in denial that they were mutually exclusive. I kept hoping that someone how the answer would be made for me, but alas, I was the one that had to buckle down, analyze the evidence available to me, and make the decision. I know now that some decisions are just that – decisions. Waiting for a sign from God is just going to make things more confusing – not less.

And speaking of a next book, is there one in the works?

There is! I wrote a full draft of a book about pirates, gypsies, first love and the 1960s and I have recently decided to change the tense. I’ve never before changed the tense of something over 300 pages long! It turns out it is rather laborious. But at the same time, this serves as a full edit from the first page to the last, which is also something I have never really done before – at least not without my editor or agent’s involvement. My editing, and writing Dear Lucy was so piecemeal. I edited as I went – working on one passage for a month, editing it until it was exactly how I wanted, and then moving on. So for book #2 I am more conscious of writing a cohesive “draft” or something. We’ll see if I did indeed learn anything from the first time around that I can apply to the second!

Julie Sarkissian is a graduate of Princeton University, where she won the Francis Leon Paige Award for creative writing, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. She is an instructor at The Sackett Street Writer’s Workshop and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Celia Johnson began her publishing career as a book editor at Random House and Grand Central Publishing. She left editing to focus on writing and to serve as Creative Director for Slice. She is the author of Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway: Stories of the Inspiration Behind Great Works of Literature and Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors.

Author photo by Franck Fabien

Room photo by Julie Sarkissian