We are thrilled to welcome Lilly Dancyger to The Debutante Ball this week! NEGATIVE SPACE is a touching and deeply honest memoir about grief, art, a daughter’s love, and trying to build a story out of fragments and empty space. Keep reading to learn about her journey to publication, her proudest moment as a writer, and her incredible memoir, NEGATIVE SPACE. Share or comment below for a chance to win a copy of her book.
Lilly Dancyger is the author of Negative Space (2021), a reported and illustrated memoir selected by Carmen Maria Machado as a winner of the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards, and the editor of Burn It Down (2019), a critically acclaimed anthology of essays on women’s anger from Seal Press.
Lilly is a contributing editor at Catapult, and assistant editor at Barrelhouse Books. Her writing has been published by Guernica, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Longreads, The Washington Post, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and more. She lives in New York City, and she spends way too much time on twitter (where you can find her at @lillydancyger).
Have you ever traveled to do research for your writing? Where did you go?
I traveled a bit to interview people who knew my father while writing Negative Space—and to photograph his artwork, much of which is at the homes of family and friends. Nowhere too far flung… I just went to Philly, a couple of places in Upstate New York, LA, San Francisco, Portland, and St. Louis. And I interviewed an old roommate of my father’s in Berlin, but I was already there for other reasons, so I’m not sure if that counts as traveling for research! Some of the interviews could have taken place over the phone (though I definitely prefer in-person for intimate conversations—I was asking people to talk about their dead friend, and heroin addiction, and heartbreak… definitely better done face-to-face!) but needing to photograph the art was a good excuse to travel and to talk to people in person while I was there.
Although when I flew to Portland, the airline lost my luggage with all of my photography equipment in it, and all the rental places were closed because it was a holiday weekend, so that was a little bit of a bust. But I made it back to take the photos another time! (And the airline eventually returned my equipment…)
The road to publication is twisty at best–tell us about some of your twists.
Yes, my road to publication was very twisty. There were a lot of false starts early on where I thought I was done and started querying, only to realize that I definitely was not done and still had substantial rewrites to do… that happened a few times before I finally landed a deal with a small press in 2016. But then I ended up cancelling that deal, which was probably the biggest sharp turn. I wrote about that experience, and why it was the right decision, for Electric Literature.
Then after I cancelled that deal, when I was doing further revisions before starting the querying process all over again, I was approached by an agent. I’d already decided that this was going to be a small press book, but this agent felt like it could sell to a big house so I figured why not give it a shot. We went out on submission and the manuscript was roundly rejected. I then decided to part ways with that agent and go back to my original plan of submitting to small presses and contests on own—another twist—which was when I finally found the right press for Negative Space, the Santa Fe Writers Project.
Do you have a regular first reader? If so, who is it and why?
My first reader is really four readers—my writer’ group! We’ve been meeting every week for going on four years now, and I don’t know where I’d be without them. We read one person’s work each week to give feedback and suggestions, and we also just check in and troubleshoot and talk about how to achieve our goals and talk each other down from writing- and publishing-related anxiety spirals. Writing itself is a solitary act, but that doesn’t mean you have to do the whole thing alone—everyone needs a support system, people to bounce ideas off of, and talk us up when we’re feeling insecure about our work. I definitely recommend every writer form a writers’ group.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Probably the Tin House Summer Workshop a few years back, and specifically the mentorship that I did with Melissa Febos in addition to the regular workshop. She read my full manuscript and gave me the feedback that made the last pieces of Negative Space fall into place. I think it’s definitely worth it to invest in workshops and feedback from authors and editors you respect!
Tell us about one of your proudest writing moments.
I recently got to see Negative Space on the new nonfiction table upfront at The Strand, and that was really the moment when it all clicked and finally felt real. I’ve been going to The Strand since I was a little baby in my parents’ arms. It was such an important place to me as a teenager, especially—I used to spend hours and hours just hanging out there, reading books I couldn’t afford to buy. I read whole books there, just going back day after day and sitting on the floor in one of the back corners. And I always stop and browse those front tables on my way in, so seeing my book there was really surreal and affirming. It was also a store that my father really loved, so getting my book about his artwork on that table felt like the best gift I could give to him.
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