Patricia Lockwood, 39, is a poet, critic and memoirist whose first novel, No One Is Talking About This, was shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize, as well as the Women’s prize for fiction. A contributing editor at the London Review of Books, she lives in Savannah, Georgia.
On the night of the Booker ceremony, you looked absolutely thrilled for Damon Galgut when his name was announced.
I was. I was also relieved on my own behalf. To win the Booker is a very big thing, particularly when you’re younger and you have a debut novel. I was relieved that it was Damon because he had been held in the torturous flames of the shortlist for so long. He’d been through two normal ceremonies [in 2003 and 2010] and he said those are really brutal because you’re just sitting at a dinner for three hours and you have to eat while not knowing who’s going to win and everybody’s getting a little bit drunk, which seemed exciting compared to what we had. It was quite tense. I was offering everyone pills and no one was taking them; they were like, what are these pills, and I was like, it’s a dog anxiety pill, they give them to dogs, you’ll be fine.
Anyone who saw that online clip of you ejecting a crystal egg from your mouth when you (and the other shortlistees) were asked how it felt to be nominated might have been hoping your name would be called, just to see what you would do on stage…
I did have the egg on my lap and I knew that if I had to go to the podium I would sort of have to run up the stairs, take the award, set it down again so I didn’t break it, turn, pop the egg in my mouth, turn back to the microphone and extract the egg… it seemed like it was going to be really complicated, but I was ready. The egg reminds me of my niece. I take it around when I travel, I feel like I’m showing her things. I think everyone thought it was a reference to the wellness thing [from the novel, in which the protagonist inserts a crystal egg into her vagina] and I never explained that it’s actually a meaningful crystal egg. I don’t usually have it in any of my orifices!
Did you have any qualms about fictionalising your baby niece’s death in No One Is Talking About This?
I was writing the first half of the book [about the protagonist’s Twitter addiction] and thinking it could just go on for ever. And then I got a text from my mother, about my sister’s pregnancy, and I began to write about that situation, moment by moment. The qualm was not there because at that point I did not know my niece would die – she wasn’t even supposed to be born [she was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder in utero]. My sister’s fear was that this would be an episode in her life that people would want her to forget; I think, in her mind, the fact that I was writing made that less likely. It’s jarring to be nominated for awards for a book that you wrote to keep a beloved person alive. You want to keep inhabiting the reality with the beloved, not the reality that contains prizes and accolades.
Was there a worry, as someone who is very active online, that it would seem an excessively punitive narrative about the seductions of social media?
For some people, the book’s takeaway is a bit like, “Yeah, so, the internet: it’s not the same as a baby, is it?”, but I don’t mind. If it had been constructed inorganically, it would’ve been a gotcha, but for me it never felt that way – I was just following the thread of my life.
It’s also a very funny book. Do you see yourself as a comedy writer?
I’ve long had the idea, only in fantasy, that there was an alternate timeline where I would have been a standup or sketch person. Look at my notebook and all of the lines are that way. It’s the thing that is the most natural to me; even when I’m writing essays, what comes immediately to mind is a joke.
Your essays, especially the one on John Updike, are such a joy, in part because they’re so far outside the normal register of literary criticism…
I work myself into a pitch of ecstasy where it’s like all my forces gather inside my chest into a ball and I can just aim it straight at the piece. I think Brits like my criticism more than Americans do, but it was never a conscious decision to shake things up. I never really felt like I knew how to do that very sort of authoritative critical prose that I had read so much growing up. I don’t feel I should take pride in the fact that it comes out from me differently, but just allowing that little bit of laxity does help rejuvenate a form.
You once tweeted a five-line story imagining Jonathan Franzen shushing his pregnant wife by saying: “No, it is I who am pregnant… Pregnant with the next great American novel.”
I remember the morning I wrote that Franzen tweet. It was when I lived with my parents and I’d just gotten out of the shower and I thought, “That’d be funny”. I mean, that was the extent of it. I do think it meant in people’s minds that I was like his most ferocious critic, which wasn’t true. There is this envy of him, because it’s a sort of wealth to not be on the internet at all, right? He doesn’t have to be.
What are you working on now?
After I had Covid [in 2020], I simply did not realise you could continue to have symptoms for so long; I think there was a sense that it should really all have stopped after six months. I had neurological sequelae that bordered on what you would call psychosis, but I kept notebooks throughout and I thought they could be shaped into stories. They felt exciting; talking about your own work, you don’t want to call your sanity into question, but maybe it’s interesting if you do.