An Interview with Lilly Dancyger

Rosa Boshier González

Memoirist, editor extraordinaire, and dedicated literary citizen, it’s hard to miss Lilly Dancyger either out in the world or across the internet’s literary platforms. I first encountered her work in 2021, after reading her genre-bending memoir Negative Space, a meditation on grief, art, addiction, and the life of Dancyger’s artist father.


Dancyger’s second book, First Love: Essays on Friendship (The Dial Press, 2024), is an incisive yet tender ode to friendship, and the collective work of growing up. “I sent my first love letter when I was six years old,” Dancyger begins the collection, describing a letter she penned to her beloved cousin Sabina. With each essay zeroing in on one of Dancgyer’s peers, Dancyger reminds us of the ecstasy and urgency of friendship as she and her friends guide each other through a lifetime of tragedies and joys. Relationship serves as a link within Dancyger’s selfhood. This gathering together of chosen family offers alternative modes of kindship that include the occult, photography, and more. An ambitious collection, First Love plays with form, weaving in cultural criticism, pop culture, and personal experience, from Sylvia Plath to punk music to the cultural mythology of sad girl Tumblr and the flattening of victims through America’s true crime obsession.


Over the phone, Dancyger and I talked about the power of speculative nonfiction, the myriad ways there are to mother, the art of the essay, and New York City’s role in her writing.


Gulf Coast: First Love is a wonderful collection that focuses on your friendships with other femme-identifying folks but it's also about mothering, grief, queer desire, photography, travel, and more. Why is friendship the hinge between these themes?


Lilly Dancyger: I've always thought of the closest friendships in my life as kind of a prism where I get to be a different version of myself in the context of each one. Each friendship is its own world, with its own concerns, its own way of being, its own interests and fascinations, so it felt like a fitting focal point from which to explore lots of different themes and ideas that are interesting to me. The balancing act with an essay collection is how do you position yourself so that you can dive off into lots of varied ideas and talk about lots of different things without feeling scattered. The topics and themes should still feel connected. In my collection, friendship is a clear cohesive through line, but it also naturally opened up into all these different topics because my experience of existing within lots of different friendships at the same time does too.


GC: How did you conceive of this idea for essay collection? Which pieces came first?


LD: It was a long process.  I had the initial idea that I wanted to write a book of essays about friendship while I was still working on my memoir Negative Space. There was a point where I thought I was done with the memoir, so I started outlining and brainstorming for the collection, but then it turned out I actually wasn't done with the memoir and I had to go back and work on that for another couple of years. When I finally came back to the collection, I had changed as a writer. You come back to an idea from two or three years ago and you're not going to have the same relationship to it anymore. I was excited by the initial idea but it felt like it needed something more. At first it was going to be just a very straightforward narrative personal essay but when I came back to it, I was like, this needs to be bigger than just me. I started thinking of the cultural criticism elements and of how far out into the world, and into these topics, I could reach from within each story of friendship.


GC: There’s a proliferation of objects in First Love: The fire escape that you and your friends sat on to process your lives, your rose tattoo for Sabina, photography, the sand dollar, magic, the pentagram necklace. What's the role of objects in your writing? is that something you think about as you write?


LD: I don't go looking for a representative object necessarily. But I’m somebody who naturally tends to imbue objects with a lot of symbolic meaning, who has a lot of sentimental trinkets, things that I keep because they remind me of a time or a person. They become very significant for that reason. So when I'm trying to describe an experience or an emotion it comes naturally to me that there is often an object that holds a lot of that meaning and makes it solid.


GC: In your Substack you wrote about New York as its own character in the book. Was that a conscious decision or was that just a byproduct of you being a New Yorker?


LD: New York is always going to be part of the story for me. Almost all of the essays in First Love take place here so it's unavoidable, but yes, it is also conscious. I try to not fall back on assumed familiarity. When you're writing about a place that has been written about so widely, that is the backdrop for so many movies and TV shows, and exists so strongly in the popular consciousness, it would be easy to fall back on shorthand and assume that everybody knows what you're talking about, that they can picture it themselves. I try not to do that. I try to make the city feel present and specific, as palpable as it is to me and as it is in these stories, as opposed to the broad strokes, generic idea of New York that anybody could present.


GC: Are there certain books or essays that you feel like capture New York particularly well? What makes good writing on the city, or on place in general?


LD: Most of the writing that I love about the city tends to capture an older New York that doesn't exist anymore. Patti Smith in Just Kids and also M Train writes about New York really wonderfully as somebody who has become so emblematic of the place.


As for writing about place in general, I would say the same thing that I was talking about earlier about trying not to fall back on shorthand or generality and being very granular, very specific, writing in those little details. I thought about this a lot in my memoir also. I had to make a choice about when to name specific locations—all the bars and music venues—or do I just say, “at a bar.” Most readers won't know what Sidewalk Cafe is but the readers who were in the city at that time will get that little pop of familiarity. I decided to keep that specificity in there for the people for whom it will resonate but also still to give enough detail that if you don't know what that place is you're not pushed out of the story.


GC: In “Spell to Mend a Broken Heart,” you map your relationship to magic as a young person to your experience of grief. Can you talk to us a little bit more about that connection between grief and magic?


LD: Loss was my entry point into magic. I first became interested in magic when I was grieving my father. In grief, any idea of another layer of consciousness or another realm of human existence becomes very desirable. That was what brought me into being interested in spirituality. But it quickly went beyond that. Grief got me in the door but then I discovered a whole bunch of other practices to be excited about and interested in.


GC: Do you still practice magic? What is your relationship to witchcraft these days?


LD: Not as elaborately I did as a teenager, but I have my moments.


GC: First Love includes an essay on murder memoirs like Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive. What drew you to that genre?


LD: I was writing about someone who was murdered; my cousin Sabrina factors largely in the collection. So of course, as soon as I started writing about her, I had to confront this whole genre and the conventions of the way murder stories are told, especially how murdered women are talked about, not just in books but also on podcasts and on TV. It made sense to me that rather than just wrestle with all that off the page and present a polished result, I wanted to bring the conflict and hesitancy and worry and preoccupation into the project itself and let that be part of the collection. I don't think there is a perfect way to do it, so rather than trying to stick the landing perfectly and inevitably stumble I wanted instead to show you that I was thinking about those things and show how I arrived at the decisions that I arrived at.


GC: You mention Rose Andersen’s use of the speculative in her book The Heart and Other Monsters to tell the story of her sister’s death. Later on in this essay, you use the same tool in one of my favorite passages in the entire book:


“I have three dried seedpods from a tree in the lot where Sabina died, and sometimes I look at them and hope that in the last moments of her life, she was looking up at this tree, not at the face of a monster. That as she was fading into unconsciousness, she could no longer feel the pain in her body, or the fear—that maybe she felt even just a second of peace.”


 What felt powerful or necessary to you about the speculative as a realist technique?


LD: I drew a sharp line in the sand in that piece about what I was not going to delve into and the questions I was not going to ask, the things I did not want to imagine. Part of defining that boundary was to show the instances in which I have come right up against that line, showing exactly how far I will go in the imagining as a way of further clarifying.


GC: Besides the murder memoirs, which other books inspired you to write First Love? 


LD: I don't know that any other books inspired me to write it, necessarily, but in terms of books I looked to for guidance through the process, I mostly looked at other essay collections and really paid attention to form, how other writers I admire balanced the stand-alone essay with the complete cohesive collection, which is hard to do. You have to make each piece feel complete unto itself but also part of a whole, like it's building toward something in a satisfying way so that the reader wants to keep reading. I revisited some favorites:  White Magic by Elissa Washuta, Girlhood by Melissa Febos, The Crane Wife by CJ Hauser, and How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee.


GC: This is your second work of nonfiction. Your first book Negative Space was a mixed media memoir about your artist father, who passed away when you were twelve. What did you learn about through writing that first book? Was the switch in form difficult?


LD: The structure of Negative Spaces is very ornate, and it was very, very challenging to get the shape of that story right. I knew, coming off of that, that I wanted to work in smaller segments. I wanted the change of pace and the ability to shift gears essay to essay. It took me over a decade to write Negative Space,which is a long time to live inside of one story and one project and be obsessed with one set of themes, so I was excited by the idea of being able take a break from one essay and work on something else, finish that, and start something new. You have to be much more agile in the essay writing process. That, of course had its own challenges—you’re working on fifteen different things and each one requires that same level of immersion.


I also had in mind that First Love needed to make sense and stand on its own without somebody having to read Negative Space, but at the same time I didn't want it to feel repetitive if somebody has read both, so the books kind of work together and separately. That was an interesting puzzle.


GC: What have you learned between writing that book and this one?


LD: I knew what I was doing a little more the second time around, but I think part of that knowing is also being comfortable with not knowing exactly where you're going with each new piece or new section or new project. The first time around I was striving for mastery, trying to get to a point where I had it under control, whereas this time I understood that bewilderment and overwhelm and experimentation are part of the process, not something to try to move beyond.


GC: What advice would you offer writers setting out to put together an essay collection?


Don't let yourself get into a rut. One of the most challenging parts for me was keeping the process fresh and letting each new essay be its own new challenge. I try to make sure I’m not repeating myself in form and structure. Not getting myopic, like, okay, this is how I write an essay. Now I'm gonna do it twelve times.


GC: You’re quite the literary citizen. You edited the 2019 anthology Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger. You founded the Memoir Monday newsletter. You teach. You’re on a ton of panels. How does your sense of literary community inform your practice?


LD: I very much think of my writing practice as a community-fed endeavor, which is easy to forget when you're in your room alone, working on a piece, talking to yourself. There are parts of the writing life that are very solitary, but it's important to me to keep in mind that I'm not just putting books out into the world on their own, I'm putting them out into this existing ecosystem of other books. They're in conversation with people who have come before me and people who are coming next. I have learned so much and gained so much from the mentorship and transparency of writers who are a little ahead of me in their careers, so I try to pay that forward. It's such a maddeningly opaque industry sometimes. There are a lot of unspoken rules and big roadblocks that nobody explains. I felt like I took a long road, figuring out how it all works. So I try to share the fruits of my struggles and make it a little less difficult for the next person.


Rosa Boshier González is Colombian-American writer and editor living in Houston. Her fiction, essays, and art criticism appear in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Joyland, The New York Times, Artforum, The Guardian, The Believer, and The Washington Post, among others.