Rachel Lyon reflects on her debut ‘Self-Portrait with Boy’

In addition to celebrating debut authors and their books in 2019, we will look back at some of our favorite recent debuts in a series of short interviews all about the debut experience.

Rachel Lyon is the cofounder of the monthly reading series Ditmas Lit, which she hosts in her native Brooklyn. She is a seasoned writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications who also teaches writing at Sackett Street Writers Workshop, Catapult, Slice, and elsewhere.

In 2018, she published her debut book Self-Portrait with Boy. The novel is a meditation on how a private tragedy can become public art. Set against the gentrification of 1990s Brooklyn, Lyon’s novel follows Lu Rile as she struggles to make it as a photographer. During a daily exercise where she takes a self-portrait, she catches a boy falling to his death. After forging a bond with the boy’s grieving mother, she struggles to decide whether or not to protect this tragic moment or use the photo to advance her career.

rachel lyon debutiful

It’s a great honor that Rachel is the first debut author to discuss what it’s like to go through the debut process for Debutiful.

What is one thing (piece of advice, writing tip, life hack) you know now that you wish you knew when you first started your debut? 
Oh boy. Well, I wasn’t entirely aware that I was starting a novel when I started my novel. In my experience, in the beginning, it was a pretty unconscious process. It took literal years of screwing around—writing a dozen pages here, a dozen pages there, without really knowing how they were connected—to get enough material together that I could finally start taking myself seriously. For years I was very much in the process—the manic, wild, haphazard, baffling process. And then, eventually, I realized I had maybe the first half of a novel on my hands, and dared myself to sprint to the end. Once I had a (very lopsided) final draft, I ended up scrapping it and rewriting the whole book, soup to nuts.
So I guess if I could go back to those often hopeless days, I’d reassure myself that eventually, the process would end, and that even though many of the words I put down would not end up in a book, they were necessary. But to be honest, I think I sort of knew that, back then. To be honest, from where I sit today, I feel like my current self would rather learn from my past self than give her advice. Now that Self-Portrait with Boy is out in the world, and I can think of myself as a novelist without being plagued by imposter syndrome, I really miss my past self’s free, unconscious way of writing. It didn’t feel productive but, in retrospect, it was. So, recently, I’ve been trying to keep in mind that only the smallest fraction of what I write, day-to-day, will ever end up published. The vast majority of what I produce will get drastically altered or thrown away. It’s useful to me to keep that in mind, because it reminds me not to be too precious with my words and paragraphs. To map out this forest, it’s necessary to stop and look at every tree.
After all the interviews you participated in since your debut was released, what is one thing you still want readers to know that may or may not have ever been asked? 
I’ve actually been surprised that no one has asked much about my protagonist’s sexuality. For me, her sexual awakening is integral to her artistic awakening. I see her sexuality as so key to the story that when the book first came out I half expected, having written about a woman character whose sexuality is complicated, to be asked me about my own sexuality—which is complicated, too. But nobody did. I wonder if that is partly because most of the people who’ve interviewed me have been men, who probably feel that such a question would cross a boundary. I also wonder if it’s because they don’t really notice, or care—or maybe Lu’s sexuality seems like a secondary, less important element of the book. Whatever the case, I do hope that this book begs some kind of question for readers, as it did for me, about the relationship between artistic creation, success, and sex. If it doesn’t, hopefully my next book will.
A debut is a beautiful thing, but from conversations with authors, the publicity and touring cycle really takes a toll on writing habits. Are you back into yours now? What’s that look like? 
I’ve been having a little trouble! My goal is to write every day, but of course, too often, life gets in the way. When things are going the way I want them to go, I get up around 5:30 or 6 and write for an hour or two before I start my day. I like the early hours best for writing because my filters haven’t totally kicked in yet. I’m not awake enough to second-guess myself. There’s still a little dream-brain left, the eeriness of night. Also when I write first thing in the morning I invariably end up having a more productive day. In my experience, the imagination is like a cat. I have to feed it first thing, before dawn, if I want it to stay quiet and satisfied all day. If I ignore it, it harasses me all day, interrupting and getting underfoot when I’m trying to do other things.
Debuts are also stressful. What are some things you do outside of the literary world that help you destress or focus? 
Oh, not a lot—or—a lot, but not well. I am a complete amateur at everything. I do yoga, but I fall down a lot. I cook, but only a very limited repertoire, mostly rice and beans and the occasional vegetable. I grow plants, but sometimes they die. I planted an avocado pit this year and the darn thing is growing into a tree! But right beside it, I’ve got this poor French lavender that’s been brown and brittle for years. I have no idea what’s wrong with it. I put it next to the avocado tree hoping maybe the avocado will inspire it, but I’m afraid it’s just become resentful.
Is there a debut in 2019 you’re excited for? What made it stand out?

I’m looking forward to Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth. Julia is a phenomenal writer and a kind, thoughtful, human and I’m very excited for her. This book has been in the book factory for a while, so excitement has been building. T Kira Madden’s forthcoming memoir Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is sure to destroy us all. I’ve been a fan of hers for years—her work is just so powerful—and, bonus!—the dust jacket sparkles! And I cannot wait for Evan James’ Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe. Evan and his work are so witty and charming and funny—his reading last year at the series I cohost, Ditmas Lit, brought down the house.

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