By: Michael D. McClellan | There is something so refreshingly different about both Julie Sarkissian and her 2013 debut novel, Dear Lucy, that it’s easy to lose yourself in the world of the title character from the very first sentence. The awkwardness of the grammar immediately sweeps you up, beautifully conveying the voice of this tender, innocent, and developmentally challenged teenage girl, creating an emotional bond with Lucy that draws you in and keeps you turning pages. Hers is a voice of wonder, one that can’t fully comprehend the dark, weighty issues that underpin the story’s fable-like structure. It’s also a voice that illuminates Lucy’s desperate need for acceptance, and one that fuels a fierce loyalty borne in no small part from her unique disability. Layer in Lucy’s keen eye for detail – Sarkissian deftly leverages the character’s compromised IQ – which provides you with a skewed glimpse into her life gathering eggs on the chicken farm, and augment that detail with first-person narration by central characters Samantha and Missus, and this mysterious fictional world brims with possibility from the get-go.
Before we turn this into another blasé book review let’s pump the brakes, take a step back and gain a little perspective. We’ll dive into the captivating, poetic pages of Dear Lucy soon enough. Sitting down with Sarkissian, I’m struck by her charming nature and overall well-roundedness. She’s an author with serious writing chops, that much is readily evident from the moment you meet her, but she’s also equally adept at discussing her Ivy League education or debating the hip-hop holy war between Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. And she doesn’t take herself too seriously, a mild surprise considering most other writers praised by the legendary Joyce Carol Oates might opt to go the self-absorbed, pretentious and unapproachable route.
Not Julie Sarkissian.
That’s not how she rolls.
Lively and engaging, Sarkissian’s journey from rural Southern California to a Simon & Schuster book deal begins in the tiny community of Modjeska, where she was raised in a way that feels oddly out of touch with today’s digitally connected world.
“I grew up in a tiny community called Modjeska Canyon in Southern California,” Sarkissian says. “It was very rural, which might surprise you since it was located in Orange County. There was an interesting mix of people – you had the conservative cowboy and rancher types who had their horses and raised animals, and then you had people who were much more liberal, intellectual, and eccentric. It was so rural that I grew up with a sense of being isolated from what was normal. If our little canyon was in Vermont, I don’t think I would have felt that way – I think it would have felt more like common culture. But Orange County is known for its gated communities and affluent population, where the focus is predominantly materialistic and superficial. And in the middle of all this materialism was our little canyon with our small, modest ranch-style house that my parents built themselves. I grew up without a television. I was potty trained in an outhouse. My parents grew all our own fruits and vegetables – they actually had an award-winning garden. Because of these types of things, I was really cognizant of how different we were, and I don’t mean that in a negative way at all. It was more a sense of otherness.
“I think this sense of otherness that came from growing up in the canyon had an influence on the book, and in fantastic ways. But it wasn’t until I was asked about where I grew up, and whether my childhood had anything to do with the book, that I even gave it a thought. That’s when I realized that there was a connection between my upbringing and the character of Lucy and her sense of being different. I could see some of myself in her being different, and wanting to relate but not knowing how.”
Sarkissian’s upbringing may have been unconventional, especially within the me-centric framework that is California’s Orange County, but it played a significant role in shaping her academic future. She excelled in the classroom from a young age, graduating high school with honors, but the real education of Julie Sarkissian came during those backpacking trips in the Sierra Mountains, and in the canyon community void of sidewalks and street lights and home to just a single business – a country store called Danny’s that sold the candy all of the children worshipped and spent all week stealing change to buy. It was here, in this day-to-day rhythm of life that Sarkissian developed her ear for prose. But the insular world of the canyon would soon give way to the academic nirvana of Princeton University.
“For me, the biggest culture shock that I experienced was going from Orange County and Modjeska Canyon to Princeton,” Sarkissian says. “It wasn’t so much the bigness of the campus, but rather the fact that the environment was so privileged, elite and cloistered. And while the people were mostly warmhearted – I made good friends, and I married someone from Princeton – I just felt out of place, like I’d fallen asleep on my bed in Orange County and had awakened on Mars [laughs].
“For me, the biggest culture shock that I experienced was going from Orange County and Modjeska Canyon to Princeton. It wasn’t so much the bigness of the campus, but rather the fact that the environment was so privileged, elite and cloistered. And while the people were mostly warmhearted – I made good friends, and I married someone from Princeton – I just felt out of place, like I’d fallen asleep on my bed in Orange County and had awakened on Mars [laughs].” – Julie Sarkissian
“I hate to say anything disparaging at all against Princeton University because it’s an amazing institution, and it was such an honor going there, but I like to say that I love being a graduate of Princeton. I just didn’t like being a student there. I think a lot of students who go to public schools and then go to Princeton feel somewhat the same way. It’s nothing against the school per se; I went from being a big fish in a small pond – I wasn’t the valedictorian in high school, but I was a straight A student and the class president. You think that carries weight, and then you go to Princeton and that’s everyone’s story. You quickly realize that there are suddenly way more people who’ve accomplished much more than you’ve accomplished. It seemed like a lot of the students came from prep schools, or New York private schools, and most of them were much more prepared for the Princeton experience. They were coming from elite, high-achieving environments. So that was a large part of my feeling out of place.”
Sarkissian’s academic journey continued in New York, where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School, the prestigious institution founded in 1919 by John Dewey and dedicated to the intellectual and artistic freedom of its students.
When I decided to move to New York, everything clicked,” Sarkissian says. “I was looking for a cultural diversity at Princeton, but in many respects it was very East Coast, and very affluent. In New York there was a funkiness, an edginess that didn’t exist at Princeton. I was drawn to that. I think it relates back somehow to my parents, and them being these sort of hippie liberals who brought their own bags with them to the grocery store years before anyone else thought about cutting down on plastic and reducing the carbon footprint. So, for me, I instantly felt more at home in New York than I ever did during the time that I spent in college.”
Like many aspiring artists, Sarkissian worked odd jobs to make ends meet. One job in particular stuck, with lasting influence.
“I waited tables at Princeton as a part-time job, which was super uncommon,” Sarkissian says. “And when I got to New York, I started waiting tables at Edwards Restaurant in Tribeca. I was twenty when I started working there, which was during the summer of my junior year of college. Sometimes I’d make as little as fifty dollars working a four hour shift. But I met some of the coolest people, most of them aspiring artists or at least aspiring at something. I related to these people because they were educated, artistic, and sacrificing for non-traditional careers. I loved that about them. It was a great summer, low stakes, just writing and hanging out with my friends from the restaurant and chilling with my friends from college.
“Flash forward a year. I’m graduating from Princeton and getting ready to go to The New School. Edward Youkilis calls me, and asks me what my plans are for next year. I let him know that I’m moving to New York full-time, and then he asks me to come back to his restaurant. I was flattered, because I’d only worked there two months during the summer, and I was the low person on the totem pole, but he still remembered me. So I went back to work there, and it immediately became an integral part of my life in New York. I was at Edwards five nights a week, and during the day I wrote and attended graduate school. It was special. To this day I still work a shift there.”
Has her time at Edwards Restaurant influenced her writing?
“It’s hard for me to speak to the influences on my writing,” she says quickly. “The connection between the rural nature of where I grew up and the rural setting of Dear Lucy seems honest and true, even though I wasn’t fully aware of the connection when I was writing it. Waitressing at Edwards allowed me the intellectual and creative freedom to be able to write. I chose a job that wasn’t intellectually taxing, and it really worked for me as a writer. It allowed me the mental energy to devote to writing.
“It’s hard for me to speak to the influences on my writing. The connection between the rural nature of where I grew up and the rural setting of Dear Lucy seems honest and true, even though I wasn’t fully aware of the connection when I was writing it. Waitressing at Edwards allowed me the intellectual and creative freedom to be able to write. I chose a job that wasn’t intellectually taxing, and it really worked for me as a writer. It allowed me the mental energy to devote to writing.” – Julie Sarkissian
“I recently authored a piece for the New York Observer about how, when customers find out that I went to Princeton, or find out that I’ve written a book, they’re surprised that I’m waiting tables. Some of them fall into the stereotype trap and assume that I’m not brainy, until they find out some of these details about me. But I’ve never felt too good for my job, or too good to be a waitress.”
As we continue to talk, it’s clear that stereotypes don’t apply when it comes to Julie Sarkissian. She’s a natural extrovert, and completely comfortable providing unfettered access into her world as a writer. Like the process of finding an agent and getting published.
“I think my experience was pretty standard,” she says. “I put together the manuscript for Dear Lucy at the end of 2008 – it was essentially a version of my MFA thesis at The New School – and that’s when a lot of fear set in. I was really terrified to take that step from my panel advisor reading it, and my best friend reading it, to turning it over professionally and then experiencing real, crushing rejection. It was overwhelming.
“I wasn’t sure how to proceed, other than I knew the next step was to get an agent. Turns out my friend at Edwards had an editor friend who worked at Simon and Schuster, and one day everything came together at the restaurant and I was introduced to her. She could tell that I was really uncomfortable, but it turns out she was my guardian angel in a lot of respects. She told me that, even though I wasn’t ready then, that I’d be ready at some point, so she gave me her email address and said she’d be happy to help me find an agent. From her standpoint it probably seemed like such a small gesture, but for me it meant everything. I think it really speaks to the strong power of weak connections, because if you can use an editor’s name like that in a query letter, it really increases the chances of an agent reading your manuscript.
“And that’s what happened. I went with Judy Heiblum at Sterling Lord Literistic, and we edited the book together for about a year and a half. It was pretty grueling work. We eventually were able to sell it to Simon & Schuster, and that led to another year and a half worth of edits. It was mentally and emotionally exhausting at times, but I think it was pretty much the standard path that most authors travel on the journey to publication.”
For Sarkissian, the publication of Dear Lucy marked a major milestone in her life. After years of hard work, it was time to blow off a little steam – and what better way than with a launch party?
“It was so much fun,” Sarkissian says, smiling. “Since moving to New York, my dream had always been to host a book launch at my favorite bookstore, BookCourt in Brooklyn. That’s what we did. My family and friends were so incredibly supportive. Heather Robb of the band The Spring Standards, and Peter Lalish of the band Lucius were there to play live music. It was an amazing time – they played book-themed songs like Paperback Writer by the Beatles and Everyday I Write The Book by Elvis Costello. It was very emotional. I remember thinking that, if this is all that came out of writing this book – that I was able to have this moment with the people that I care about the most – that it would all be worth it, even if we only sold the copies at the launch party. Of course you think differently later – you want to sell as many books as possible. But the book launch was a definitely highlight in my life. I cried during my thank you speech. There were lots of cupcakes, lots of wine, and most importantly, lots of love involved.”
Which brings us to Dear Lucy.
The title character is a young girl with special needs sent to live on a farm away from her selfish mother who can’t manage her daughter’s issues. It’s here that Lucy makes her first real friend, a pregnant teenager named Samantha, and it’s here that we get our first glimpse into a fractured world that isn’t exactly what it seems on the surface. Lucy finds herself on the Farm as the novel opens, under the care of an elderly couple while her overwhelmed mother carries on with her life in the City. Sarkissian’s decision to be intentionally vague with setting and period gives the book a certain timeless quality, and the reader is left to construct their own version of Lucy’s world.
“The decision to keep the elements of time and place ambiguous also happened on an unconscious level,” Sarkissian says, reflecting on the book’s structure. “I was intrigued by the way terms like ‘the farm’ and ‘the city’ sounded. It played into Lucy’s childlike sensibilities and the simplicity of her worldview.”
What did Sarkissian see in her mind’s eye when writing the book?
“That’s hard for me to say,” she replies quickly. “I believe I write from the ear rather than the eye, which may sound somewhat strange. With Dear Lucy I didn’t see a real place. But I did hear the character’s voices. I’ve said this before, but the landscape the characters inhabited looked and felt like a bare-bones stage production, with only the most necessary props available to fill in the gaps.”
“I believe I write from the ear rather than the eye, which may sound somewhat strange. With Dear Lucy I didn’t see a real place. But I did hear the character’s voices. I’ve said this before, but the landscape the characters inhabited looked and felt like a bare-bones stage production, with only the most necessary props available to fill in the gaps.” – Julie Sarkissian
Another interesting and distinctive aspect of Dear Lucy is the poetic way in which it’s written. The book is mostly narrated through the innocent and lyrical perspective of the title character, with additional layering coming from the narratives of Missus and Samantha. It fits together beautifully, and Sarkissian weaves it all with a naturally poetic ear.
“I love poetry,” she says. “I love reading the works of great poets like TS Eliot and Robert Frost, among others. Poetry was a big part of my life very early on, and it certainly had an influence on how Dear Lucy was constructed. A major decision was made to cut down on the lyrical expressions at the end of the chapters, and that’s where I leaned on the experience of my editor. And those were the right choices, because it helped to achieve a workable balance between beauty of the prose and the pace of the story itself.
“The decision to have multiple narrators was crucial in conveying information to the reader that otherwise would have been lost if told entirely from Lucy’s point of view. Missus was the second character to have a voice, after Lucy. There was a certain suffering with this character that brought with it a degree of sympathy, despite the dark undertones of what she brings with her to the story. She pleads her case to the reader through her narration, and through it we see her humanity, however immoral or repulsive that might be.”
And then there’s the language itself. Sarkissian offers up Lucy’s unique inner dialogue from the very first pages, giving the reader an anchor point on which everything else builds. While intellectually limited, Lucy’s other characteristics – the mischievousness, the naiveté, the blind loyalty – give her a depth that instantly draws you in, wanting more.
“Lucy came to me as a voice,” Sarkissian says. “I had this image of her gathering the eggs, and the narration just took over. Her voice was so poignant – it was her essence and it never changed. I fell in love with her, and in many ways I found myself working my way backwards to unlock who she might be. It was really all about her leading me and guiding me along the journey. Her voice was the foundation of the whole manuscript.”
“Lucy came to me as a voice,” Sarkissian. I had this image of her gathering the eggs, and the narration just took over. Her voice was so poignant – it was her essence and it never changed. I fell in love with her, and in many ways I found myself working my way backwards to unlock who she might be. It was really all about her leading me and guiding me along the journey. Her voice was the foundation of the whole manuscript.” – Juilie Sarkissian
The twisting plot, as told by Lucy, Missus and Samantha, reads alternately like a classic fable and a seductively dark thriller. Mister and Missus run the chicken farm, and we quickly learn that the pregnant Samantha has agreed to give up her baby to them. But all of that changes after the birth, when she learns the dark truth about the couple’s original daughter. Enter Lucy, who is determined to help Samantha at all costs, and the stage is set for an addictively interesting journey.
“The challenge was in bringing each of the other characters alive, and being able to have them stand on their own. I didn’t want them simply serving as vehicles to fill in gaps created by Lucy’s limited intellect. The voices of Missus and Samantha were conscious decisions made on my part, because I was at a loss on how to move the plot forward in Lucy’s voice. I didn’t know how I was going to build suspense or create nuance without these other voices.”
I’m tempted to ask Sarkissian what comes next, but I pull back – she’s likely heard the question dozens of times, and it has to get a tad bit stale after the umpteenth query, not unlike newlyweds who start getting the inevitable baby question thrown their way. Instead, I want to go in a different direction, shake things up, and before long we’re talking about her past and present, East Coast / West Coast, Pac and Biggie.
If she could go to a Hollywood premiere or a Broadway premiere, which would she choose?
“That’s a good question,” she says, playfully contemplating the possibilities. “That’s tough, but I’d have be loyal to my current situation and say Broadway. I think I’d have a greater chance of sneaking in and quickly introducing myself to one of the actors. But I would happily attend both, if someone wants to extend me an invitation [laughs].”
Yankees or Dodgers?
“Dodgers,” she says quickly, “that way I can have the best of both worlds, because they were originally from Brooklyn.”
Pac or Biggie?
“Oh my gosh, that’s a really tough one! Since I’m from Southern California, I’m going to stick with my West Coast roots. Tupac!”
We move from Tupac to Joyce Carol Oates – yes, that Joyce Carol Oates, the National Book Award winner – who calls Dear Lucy “a boldly lyrical, suspenseful, and mysterious fictional world.” Best-selling author Ann Hood says that “Dear Lucy is one of those rare delights that you cannot put down, and once you do, you can’t forget.” High praise indeed, which begs the question: Who are some of the authors that captivate Julie Sarkissian?
“I credit [William] Faulkner as my biggest influence and inspiration,” she says quickly. “Joyce Carol Oates, obviously – it was such an honor to have her speak about my work. Nathaniel West, Flannery O Connor, and Eudora Welty are others who have inspired me. But I’m also inspired my author friends, and I’m very thankful to know people like Julia Fierro, who started Sackett Street Writer’s Workshop where I work. She wrote her first book, Cutting Teeth, while running Sackett Street and being a mom of two small kids. I think that’s an amazing accomplishment.”
As we prepare to close, Sarkissian reveals that she’s in the very nascent stages of a project based on the West Coast. But she gives few details, and makes it clear that there are no plans for a timetable – and for good reason.
“I’m about three weeks away from having my first child,” she says, smiling, “so that may change everything for me. So at this point my focus is on having the baby and starting our family. I’m actually a little bit terrified of being a parent and being the disciplinarian, but it’s an extremely exciting time and I’m really looking forward to the future.”