Writers & Company

Catherine Lacey imagines a character without race or gender in her latest novel, Pew

The American author spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about writing a novel that examines faith, forgiveness and identity politics.
Catherine Lacey is an American novelist, a Guggenheim fellow and a Whiting Award winner. (Willy Somma)

In the opening of Catherine Lacey's latest novel, Pew, a strange person is discovered sleeping in a small-town Southern church — nameless, silent, of ambiguous age, gender and race. In the course of a week, the people of the town anxiously try to determine who this enigmatic stranger might be. It's a striking premise, in a book that's taut, tender, mysterious — and surprisingly funny.

Named one of Granta's best of young American novelists, Lacey has earned acclaim for her adventurous body of work, including three novels, a story collection and a playful book called The Art of the Affair. Born in 1985 in Tupelo, Mississippi, and once a devout Christian, she left all that world behind, but it seeps into her stories in provocative ways. 

Lacey spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from her home in Chicago.

Markers of identity

"I was discomforted the whole time I was working on Pew. I didn't have an agenda of what I wanted other people to feel. But I wanted to feel what it would be like to actually sit with a character, another human being, or the idea of another human being, that I couldn't compartmentalize. 

"Eventually I realized part of the objective of the book was to have the reader slow down and look at this thing that we do as human beings, which is we judge. 

I wanted to slow down that very human impulse to categorize and judge people.

"It's not necessarily in a negative light, but we do make judgments about people that we meet, based on looks. For example, if a person appears to be a middle-aged man, we assume we know certain things about him. We make these judgments based on race, gender identity and age.

"I wanted to slow down that very human impulse to categorize and judge people."

Religion, mercy, and how to live

"I don't think I've written enough books to actually be able to figure out why I keep approaching the same idea from a bunch of different angles. It is probably because I grew up in a very religious Christian atmosphere. I took it very, very seriously. 

"I grew up in Mississippi in the 1980s and 1990s. Every spare minute we had was focused around the church. It wasn't a very conservative church, but I came to my own conclusions about what the Bible said, and how one was supposed to behave. 

I grew up in Mississippi in the 1980s and 1990s. Every spare minute we had was focused around the church.

"I'm not Christian anymore, but there's something about having the foundational years of my life be geared around a sense of certainty about what the world was, what was right and wrong, how to behave, where you go when you die. 

"I had all those things answered at the beginning — and now I don't. I'm trying to reconcile the ambiguity that I feel is the honest way to live."

The definition of forgiveness

"In America right now, there is this strong desire for a kind of absolution that's impossible for the many different sins or wrongs that we've committed, collectively or historically. 

"I knew that there had to be some sort of moment in Pew where the community came together and expressed something that they hadn't been expressing out loud. But I wasn't completely sure what that was. 

"It's only looking back at it that I can say it has to do with this American desire to be forgiven, to be absolved — to not just apologize for something, but to actually apologize to the point that these acts cease to exist anymore.

There's this desire for a total absolution of the crimes of our ancestors. But that cannot happen.

"Pew came out in 2020, and we obviously saw a lot of protests and demonstrations against police brutality, specifically against Black people. But that's a continuation of something a lot of people have been working against and noticing and talking about for the entire time that America has been America. 

"There's this desire in white America to forget that slavery happened. There's this desire for a total absolution of the crimes of our ancestors. But that cannot happen. We can't actually undo hundreds of years of oppression; it can't be undone. So there has to be something else that we're reaching for.

"It's not forgiveness. It's not absolution. It's something else. I don't have any answers for that. But I wanted to reflect how intense that desire is to be forgiven — and to scrutinize it."

Catherine Lacey's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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