Rachel Lyon on art and ambition in her debut novel, 'Self-Portrait With Boy'

Rachel Lyon on art and ambition in her debut novel, 'Self-Portrait With Boy'
Rachel Lyon. (Debra Pearlman)

Rachel Lyon’s debut novel, “Self-Portrait With Boy,” takes place in the Brooklyn of her youth; she grew up in a building not unlike the one where her protagonist, Lu, a young photographer living in a warehouse in 1990s DUMBO, happens to capture a photograph of a small boy falling to his death outside her window.

Lyon studied creative writing at Indiana University; back in her native Brooklyn, she teaches at the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop and Catapult and sends out writing prompts through a weekly newsletter. Her book begins with a kind of prompt: “a simple, tragic accident… and a photograph.” It’s what Lu will — or will not do — with the serendipitous photo that matters.

Self-Portrait With Boy,” published by Scribner, is a book about a woman faced with an impossible choice. Should she honor her ambition and show the photograph — the best work she’s ever done — and potentially launch her career? Or should she keep it hidden, most pressingly from the boy’s mother, Kate? The conflict is rich and thorny, raising questions about art and morality, love and betrayal, sacrifice and opportunism and the chance moments that can define a life. The novel wrestles with the nature of art but moves with the speed of a page-turner.

Lyon will read from and discuss “Self-Portrait With Boy” with Julia Fierro at 7 p.m. Feb. 12 at Book Soup. I spoke with Lyon over the phone about the origin of imagery, Woody Allen and Louis C.K., and what’s worth sacrificing in the name of art. Our conversation has been edited.

Where did the image of the boy falling past the window come from?

In the building where I grew up between the ages of 4 and 10, there was a similar tragedy. I didn’t really know about it at the time because I was so young; I found out about it later. I was thinking about how we freeze moments like that in memory, and in the book, I wanted to freeze it physically. Photography was the natural next step.

What was it like teasing the action of a novel out of a single photograph?

It was a process of stretching a story out of that still-frozen moment. In a way, it’s a one-gesture novel; I was worried at points that I wasn’t succeeding at keeping up the suspense, because it’s such a simple plot. But I think it did end up being the natural progression of that moment. She takes the picture, and then the question remains, until it’s answered: Is she going to tell Kate about it or not?

So much turns on that question. When another character, quoting Aristotle, asks Lu about the relationship between art and morality, she says she doesn’t believe in one. Where do you stand?

I really want the reader to ask that question of themselves. Personally, I feel like it’s not my question to answer. I’m not a philosopher, I don’t feel equipped to agree or disagree with Aristotle. I do think that to the extent that Lu is behaving in a morally questionable way, it’s more about her relationships than it is about the work itself. She’s being cowardly — and ambitious. It’s not a morality tale.

We don’t always see the ambition of female characters in this context, where the conflict lies in whether Lu should advance her career at the expense of a friendship.

I think that’s true. Did you read Claire Dederer’s piece “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?”? She asks that question, and then she sort of flips it around and discusses the double standard that women are held to. While a male artist is called monstrous when he commits acts of sexual violence, a female artist is called monstrous when she spends more time working than with her children.

I think Lu feels that really strongly, really acutely. She does not want to be silenced. The moments when she overcomes it — like when she’s harassing the gallery to see her work — they can feel very uncomfortable to the reader. A friend of mine told me he had to put the book down in that scene because he was so uncomfortable, but it wouldn’t feel as uncomfortable if she was a male artist. Because women are expected to behave a certain way. I think if we’re going to be freer artists and freer people, we have to separate art from the person across the board — art by men and by women.

We should separate art from the artist?

We have to look at it critically, of course. The movie “Manhattan” takes on a whole new meaning if you know about Woody Allen the person, but it doesn’t stop existing. Louis C.K.’s projects got canceled — I think that’s appropriate — and although I think we should look at his work in a different light, I don’t think we should erase it. And I don’t think it changes the quality of it, honestly. I think it should change our conversation about him as a person.

"Self-Portrait with Boy"
"Self-Portrait With Boy" by Rachel Lyon. Scribner

Have you had to make sacrifices for your work?

I’ve had to sacrifice a certain amount of ego. It takes a lot fearlessness to put your work out there, and what I mean by fearlessness is that you have to be willing to be a bit of a fool. The worst fear of all, at least for me, is the fear of seeming foolish, and when I was younger, that got in my way. I silenced myself and tried to write perfect work instead of writing the work that was messier and more myself. I’ve also sacrificed money. I can’t necessarily work full time and devote as much time to my work as I’d like to, so there’s that.

Photography is a technical art. What kind of research did you do in order to write about it credibly?

There are a couple photographers that I spoke to, and I got on the phone with somebody who works at the printing lab Duggal, where Lu actually goes in the novel. I asked a lot of annoying questions — really physical questions — like, “What kind of chemicals would she use? What kind of camera would it be reasonable to expect her to have, given the poverty she comes from, the age she is, the number of years she’s been practicing?” The guy at Duggal compared the enlarger they had back then with a cannon, which ended up in the book. It was a great image, and it came straight from him.

I took photography classes in college, but I’m a little too impatient for it. Lu is this dogged, focused artist, but I never enjoyed waiting around for something to develop.

I think most people tend to think of photography as a more immediate art than the slow food of writing. It sounds like you feel the opposite?

The novel is a long-term project, but it’s mutable and flexible over time. You spend so many days and weeks and months and years wrestling with the manuscript that it really feels like an ongoing experience. A photo, once you take it, that’s it; if you didn’t get a great shot, it’s not a great photo.

Lu creates a quilt out of photographs, which inspired the cover of the book. As a writer, what was it like coming up with ideas for other mediums?

It was really fun coming up with all of these different art projects that I’m never going to do. (Laughs.) I’d love to devote time and energy to them, but I’m just not going to.

There’s a passage in which Lu compares herself to Francesca Woodman and Robert Mapplethorpe. In your best writing moments, who do you secretly compare yourself to?

Oh, my God, I don’t know. I don’t know if I do that.


It’s whatever I happen to be reading at the moment. I’d love to write with the humor and empathy of George Saunders, the sentences of Cormac McCarthy, the brevity and wit of Lydia Davis, the intellectual capacity of Zadie Smith and the harsh intelligence of Roxane Gay. I just feel really privileged to have a seat at the table right now.