Julia Cohen’s and Abby Hagler’s Original Obsessions

An Interview with Lilly Dancyger

Original Obsessions seeks to discover the origins of writerly curiosity — the gestation and development of these imaginings — focusing on early fixations that burrowed into an author’s psyche and that reappear in their current book. In this installment, Julia Cohen and Abby Hagler interview Lilly Dancyger, author of Negative Space.

Julia Cohen’s and Abby Hagler’s Original Obsessions

An Interview with Lilly Dancyger

Original Obsessions seeks to discover the origins of writerly curiosity — the gestation and development of these imaginings — focusing on early fixations that burrowed into an author’s psyche and that reappear in their current book. In this installment, Julia Cohen and Abby Hagler interview Lilly Dancyger, author of Negative Space.

A youthful protagonist collects and investigates her late father’s sculptures, letters, and journals, interrogating “The mythic hero who doesn’t exist without his monster” (97). In Negative Space (SFWP, 2021), addiction is the monstrosity Dancyger’s family faces and she writes, “Addiction is a hunter contained within the hunted, an enemy you can’t run from because it lives inside of you” (97). But what happens when you stop running? When you cut of the branch of “inevitable fate” from the family tree? As the narrator grows and matures, her father’s NY hunting grounds slowly transform into her own sense of home as new, sustaining kinships form. The daughter-as-detective learns that she cannot solve anything so much as gather clues to an absence and explore the potent feelings that emanate. Ocean Vuong eloquently reminds us of what monsters can be: “From the Latin root monstrum, a divine messenger of catastrophe, then adapted by the Old French to mean an animal of myriad origins….To be a monster is to be a hybrid signal, a lighthouse: both shelter and warning at once.” Dancyger embraces this hybridity. What begins as an archeology of grief and tender curiosity ends with clues returning to art and self-acceptance. The memoir itself becomes an artifact of agency.

from Negative Space:

I have my father’s soft and faded Sun Records shirt that still, after all these years, smells like him. Sometimes when I’m really missing him, I bury my face in that shirt and take a deep breath. To me it doesn’t smell like a junkie, but like my Papa.

After talking to Audrey and my mother about how strung out and filthy he was then, when he didn’t look out of place at the Donnelly and smelled so bad people didn’t want to be in a car with him, I took the shirt out of my drawer and held it up to my nose. I wondered if these new images of the man who wore it would change how I felt about the smell. I balled the shirt up and stuck my nose in it, taking a deep breath. Then I breathed in even deeper, trying to get as much of the smell as possible as I was flooded with memories of running to hug my Papa at a bus stop after I hadn’t seen him in weeks, of sitting in his studio with him while he told me stories about his favorite painters and we giggled about puns, of lying with my head on his chest, the rise and fall of his breath rocking me to sleep as he read me Greek myths.

I was reminded of standing outside of the Loft, of knowing that the vast, magical place I remembered could not physically fit inside of the normal-sized building I was looking at. And I realized that I’d been thinking of the two realities—the one I remember and the one that adults around me saw happening—as in irreconcilable conflict with each other. I’d been thinking of truth as something stronger than memory, something that could—and even should—erase what I remembered if they didn’t match up. I thought that if I shone a light on all of these demons that had been lurking in the shadows of my childhood, I would tear myself out of illusion and into the brightness of reality. But the more I heard about the lowest points in my father’s life—about how he appeared, from the outside—the more I realized that this reality wasn’t any stronger than the one in my memory. I may have been able to learn more about who he was as a man, but even the ugliest truths wouldn’t change who he was to me as my father. 

Regardless of what was going on in those rooms, the hallway of the Donnelly Hotel was great for a game of catch. And that smell that repulsed everyone else triggers only happy memories for me. I keep the shirt wrapped up tight to preserve the smell, but I wish I could use it as a pillowcase and bury my face in it while I sleep, to dream of my father. (246)


Tarpaulin Sky: Collections reflect obsessions, inquiries, or maybe just quieter ways of exposing emotional states of the collector. I think of The Loft, the studio where your father as a young artist at last had space to store his scrap metal, tree branches, bones, and other sculpture material. As a child, you loved to participate in his collecting as a way of communicating with him even when he was living in another city. There is such a tender moment in the middle of this memoir where you snuck the body of a bird your cat had killed into your bag to give your father when you arrive. It was both disgusting and “worth it” (85), as you confirm, because your father made something out of the body, then the bones. Something from nothing, like speech. After his death, you write about feeling driven to gather his art and belongings from other people, which is used as memoir material. 

De-centering your father here, children are also prone to collect odd things as receptacles of their creativity and memory. I think of when I gave my nieces plain boxes to decorate, noting in the holiday cards I sent that they should fill them with whatever they wanted. One filled hers with shiny buttons and fake gemstones because she liked princesses at the time. The other filled hers with dead bugs and leaves because she’s interested in nature. I did this while remembering my own childhood secret collection: break-up notes kids in my class received to try to solve the mystery of dating before ever actually dating. I am wondering how you collected yourself when you were young. Were there certain items/objects natural or man-made that you actively gathered to make sense of the world, affirm relationships, or that helped you form your own identity? What did you search for, accumulate, store away, place on shelves, or return to as a child? What are your thoughts on the necessity of collections to human imagination? 

Lilly Dancyger: Oh yes, I collected so many things as a kid! Starting when I was really young, I had a collection of “dolls from around the world,” some of which my parents bought for me at various cool stores around New York City, or from street vendors, and some of which their friends brought back for me whenever they traveled out of the country. So instead of the usual Barbies and baby dolls, I had a hand-beaded doll from India, a corn husk doll from Mexico, a wooden marionette from Bali, etc. The very first thing I ever bought for myself was a beautiful doll from Poland, from a store in Greenpoint, when I was about four years old—I’d been paid something like $20 to model for a family friend’s photography project. I loved playing with those dolls, each one felt so special, with her own history—and they prompted me to learn about different places in the world. 

I also collected pretty leaves and feathers and flowers—pretty much every book I still have from when I was a kid is full of things pressed between the pages. 

As I got a little older, into my preteens, I got really into witchcraft and started collecting things like chalices and crystals and little jars of dried herbs and snakeskin and candles and incense and all kinds of special things for my altar, which I continually updated with new precious items found or bought at flea markets or in the park. A mini pumpkin in the fall, a bowl of fresh flowers in spring, etc. 

I think the only collection I’ve kept intact since childhood is the art postcards that my father used to send to me, and buy for me whenever we went to a museum together, which was often. I have a huge box of them, and a few on my walls, and I still buy a new postcard almost every time I go to a museum—especially when I’m traveling. 

Now that I’m looking back at all of these collections, I realize that they were all about connecting to the larger world—ways of containing things that were too huge to conceptualize all at once (world cultures, the natural world and changing seasons, art) and representing them in small, tangible things that I could hold and keep and display. 

TS: I appreciate your reflection that your childhood collections “were all about connecting to the larger world—ways of containing things that were too huge to conceptualize all at once.” Does collecting play a role in your current writing process- collecting notes, sentences, ideas, images, etc? Obviously this was integral to Negative Space in terms of your father’s art and journals, but do you have a gathering process that is generative to new material and writings?

LD: Absolutely. The first and often longest step of writing anything new for me is collecting. Long before I ever start actually writing a new essay, I start a new doc where I collect relevant links and quotes and things I want to reference, ideas, reflections, scenes that feel relevant, concepts I know I need to include, unresolved questions that I want to let percolate in my subconscious for a while. Sometimes that part of the process lasts a month or so, but sometimes it takes years. Only when I’ve collected a treasure trove of scraps and notes do I go in and start arranging them and culling them and stringing them together into a draft. 

Sometimes I start a doc like this but then I don’t end up adding to it, which means the idea isn’t preoccupying my mind and pulling me deeper and deeper into it. In that way, this process also works to weed out the ideas that I don’t actually have enough to say about, or care enough about, to really be worth pursuing. But the ideas that I keep coming back to, that I keep thinking about for months or years, those are the ones that need to be essays.

TS:  Throughout Negative Space, the word “mine” repeats. Gertrude Stein was right when she theorized that a word repeated often enough will eventually give way to revelation. As you move through both grief and becoming who you are, “mine” is associated with feeling possession not only over your father’s artwork, but also who tells his story. This is a point of tension with your mother in particular. Early in your project, you say, “Becoming increasingly desperate as I thought about the urgency of this need to collect, I mentioned something to my mother over the phone about my plan to start attempting to consolidate my father’s work, or at the very least photograph it for my book project and an archive. She agreed, ‘We should definitely do that.’ I balked. I had never said anything about ‘we.’ (These are mine!)” (128). These feelings are validated as you come to understand a fear of disappearance deeper than moving on or change: disappearance through erasure, forgetting. “I was afraid that this story about my father would become the story of her lost love” (129). Part of the trajectory of this book is figuring out what stories belong to you, which brings up conversations around emotional boundaries as well. As a memoirist and essayist, how have you approached the realization that nonfiction writing often means grappling with other people’s emotional work? 

LD: This is something I thought about a lot—in order to write this book, I had to embody my father’s story fully enough that I felt qualified to speak for him. That wasn’t a task I took lightly, and it took years of research before I gave myself permission to start writing what I thought he would have thought or felt at certain points in the story, or to write the imagined scenes recreating moments I wasn’t present for. 

In a more general sense, a personal story that doesn’t involve any other people is rare, so if you want to write memoir or personal essays, you’ll have to get comfortable with the idea of writing about people in your life, and dealing with their reactions to what you’ve written, whatever those may be. But you can’t censor yourself or write the version of the story you think your friends or family want to read—there’s no point in doing this at all if you’re not going to go all in, lay the story bare, tell the truest truth you can. It takes some emotional work to build up the confidence to do that, but that emotional work is a central part of writing a memoir—at least as important as honing your craft on a technical level. 

TS: Your memoir traces a childhood that has comforting moments of domestic nesting with your parents but is also notably rather transient: moving studio apartments around NY, then to your mother’s boyfriend’s apartment in Carmel CA, to visiting your dad in various locations in San Francisco, and back to NY in your teens after your father dies. You write, “When we moved back, I felt like I was finally returning, as if from a long war. But I also felt like I was starting over, with no friends, no routines, nothing familiar or grounding. Both were true. I was in the strange position of coming home to somewhere unfamiliar.” You also connect this return to feeling more palpably father’s absence:

He was everywhere here, but he wasn’t. My return to the home we’d shared, a return home that should have also been a return to him, made his absence more immediate and tangible than ever. I was so relieved to be back, but I also felt a gnawing guilt for making new memories here without him. (21)

At odds with your mother and emotionally displaced from your house, you turn outward to a community of rebels and misfits. This young version of yourself seems like someone who was giving herself to the world and the world was ready to receive her. There’s something dangerous but also heartbreakingly tender about a kid who feels more at “home” nowhere/ everywhere until you finally have your own apartment. In some ways it seems like grief propelled you out of your house for a while. How has your notion of home evolved to contain or make room for grief?

LD: I’ve evolved from a person who never wanted to be at home to a person who never wants to leave home. It’s strange sometimes to look back and remember the lengths I went to to avoid going home when I was a teenager—staying out for days at a time, wandering the streets all night, drinking in the park and taking naps in the grass, going to random people’s houses and then back out again. It feels like a different life, honestly, as someone who now feels ready to get back to my pajamas and my cat after about an hour and a half out in the world. 

I don’t think it’s exactly that my notion of home has changed to make room for grief—it’s more just that I’ve learned to sit with myself, with my discomfort, with my baggage, including but not limited to grief. I’ve stopped trying to outrun myself. I’m a much more contented person in general—which I think is a common side effect of outgrowing adolescence (and then again of leaving one’s twenties). But I’m also more able to let sadness and restlessness and anger wash over me. I approach my own emotions with intellectual curiosity rather than trying to bury them in substances or hide from them by staying socially busy all the time. Maybe that’s something I got from writing—or maybe they’re mutually reinforcing each other. The more I write about my own life, the more I understand what’s beneath the surface of everything I feel, and the more I’m able to approach those feelings with openness and curiosity. That makes me not need to escape anymore, the way I did then.

TS: “Undetermined causes,” is an early refrain in your memoir that stems from your father’s autopsy report. You explain, “‘Undetermined causes’ became a phrase I returned to, a reminder that bad things just happen sometimes. I took a strange kind of comfort in the fact that my father’s death had no explanation, as slippery and maddening a fact as it was” (5). This phrase captures a running tension between the desire to know a loved one through gathered evidence (art and stories), and the reality of how hard it is to draw clear lines/conclusions between someone else’s relationships and life events and who they became. The younger version of yourself originally holds onto it as evidence that your father did not die from a drug overdose, as proof that he was honest about being clean and taking care of himself. As the narrator grows up and matures, the meaning of “undetermined causes” becomes more complicated—you realize that while your father didn’t directly die from a drug overdose, his death may be linked to the accumulation of harmful ways addiction affected his body since his early 20s. An understanding crystallizes around how typically there aren’t easily delineated cause/effect lines like we’re led to believe when we write formal essays in high school or college. How has acknowledging this messiness shaped your own approach to the essay form–both thinking through the potential expansiveness of content and the possibilities of honing in on a more specific point?

LD: I am definitely in favor of doing away with the over-simplified cause and effect chain in essays! There is always some degree of simplification that happens when translating life into writing—it’s a distillation, and layers will always fall away in the compression of the messiness of real life into a narrative. But I think a big part of the challenge of writing truthfully is holding onto as much of that nuance and messiness as possible, without writing something that’s just a total garbled mess. It’s a balance of simplifying enough to tell a coherent story, to draw the reader through a train of thought they can follow, arriving at a clear and satisfying point, without simplifying so much that the story you’re telling stops being true.

TS: In celebrating the release of your memoir, you publicly mention how it was 11 years in the making. I love that your release message includes a timeline recognizing how this book embodies all the “hard work & doubt & exhaustion & rejection & excavation & persistence.” I think that sometimes when we begin writing memoirs we may unknowingly still be too close to the experience we’re writing about and drafts help layer in perspective. Was there a particular layer in the revision process over the 11 years where you felt like you were returning to the revision process refreshed? Was there any advice from an agent, an editor, or a writing group that helped you to understand how the investigative structure of this memoir would take shape? Or, were there any particular books you read over these years that illuminated something helpful and sparked a new direction in the process of revision?

LD: I tried to come to each new draft refreshed. During the time I was writing the book, I was also working full time, freelancing, editing, going to school, getting married… a lot of other stuff was going on, so I was able to dip in and out of the book. Or I had to dip in and out of it—there were definitely times when I would have liked to just keep working on it nonstop, but life didn’t allow that, which in the long run I think was a good thing. So I’d work on it really intensely for a little while, and then set it aside to do paid work, and to live my life, so that each time I came back to it I’d had a little break, a chance for ideas and emotions to settle, a little more perspective. 

I got advice from so many different people over the course of a decade—some that was really helpful and some that only helped me reaffirm that I wanted to do the opposite. But I came to the investigative structure, or what I’ve been calling the “memoir as detective novel” approach, after realizing that just laying out the facts of my father’s life didn’t make for a dynamic enough framework for the story. I got comments from several people in the early stages that they wanted more of me on the page, wanted to know what it was like to learn all of these things about my father, to face the uglier corners of who he was. So bringing readers along with me through that process kind of evolved naturally by way of trying to incorporate more of my reflection along the way. The most direct way to do that was to bring readers into scenes where I was receiving and processing these revelations in real time, so that’s what I did.

I don’t buy that you can’t write about an experience you’re close to, or even in the midst of. Sometimes that immediacy infuses the writing, and makes it powerful. But I do think perspective on the writing itself is necessary for revision. So taking breaks is part of writing.

And yeah, I can kind of trace the evolution of the book through the main touchstone books I read while writing it—in the early stages I was thinking of it as something between David Carr’s The Night of the Gun and Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Then when I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water, the project took a left turn and got weirder, in a good way. And toward the end of the process T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls and Sophia Shalmiyev’s Mother Winter helped the last pieces of the structure puzzle fall into place. 

TS: You mention Lidia Yuknavitch here as well as in your memoir in relation to making your own writing weirder. We’re curious about what constitutes weird writing for you? Are there specific instances that come to mind about bringing this kind of strangeness and energy into your memoir?

LD: By making it weirder what I really mean is that Lidia’s memoir showed me how far you can push the boundaries of the memoir form—that you can invent your own rules for structure, that you can swing between tonal registers and styles from section to section, and follow the organic slipperiness of memory and truth and emotion to tell the story in whatever shape the story demands. I’d been trying to wrestle this complex story into a very straightforward structure and it just wasn’t working, and reading this book (among others) helped me loosen up a little bit. It gave me permission to break the rules I’d set for myself, and to start playing by entirely new ones, that applied only to this story.