Grisham writer-in-residence finds success, inspiration from personal adventures

Posted on Nov 27 2017 - 7:58am by Sarah Smith

Whether hitchhiking through New Zealand, breaking horses in Mexico or making a pilgrimage in Japan while writing books, it’s just another day for author Catherine Lacey.

Lacey is the Grisham writer-in-residence at Ole Miss and the author of two novels, “Nobody Is Ever Missing” and “The Answers,” which have both been reviewed by popular magazines and newspapers such as Vogue and The New York Times.

Lacey describes herself as a creature of habit and has always liked “impractical things.”

Her friend Kathleen Alcott described Lacey as a person who is extremely interested in social justice, and she said Lacey’s writing isn’t just her profession, but that everything about her work connects to her life.

“She thinks, as though it is her job, about how to be good to the people in her life,” Alcott said.

Lacey’s dedication to writing extends beyond just spending a few hours a day in her office. It branches out to everything she reads and watches, as well as to conversations she has.

“She does not eat any junk food,” Alcott said. “She treats all the hours she is not writing as an education in high culture that will feed back into it.”

Lacey’s journey through life and writing has taken her all over the globe, sometimes inspiring the characters readers get to see in her novels. She said the things these characters do are not what the people actually did but that the characters are similar in demeanor to the people she met.

Lacey said she based one character on a woman called “Jaye” she met in New Zealand while she was participating in World Wide Opportunity on Organic Farms.

Lacey said she learns from her experiences traveling.

Jesse Ball, Lacey’s colleague, said Lacey spends a good part of her free time abroad. In fact, traveling is how they met and became partners.

“She was breaking horses at a ranch in Mexico,” Ball said. “I was selling bottles of water out of a truck.  She came to buy the bottles of water a little too often, so I knew something was up.”

Ball described Lacey as “a combination of an astronaut and a hobo.”

Despite Lacey’s success as a novelist, she didn’t always see herself on a path to fiction writing. At the beginning of her writing career, things were very different.

After receiving help from a professor in New Orleans, Louisiana, she decided to go to Columbia University to get a master’s degree in nonfiction writing. There, she tried her hand at writing magazine-style pieces.

She then got a job as an assistant to another novelist. She said he was bad at keeping up with his day-to-day, so she helped him stay on task. About a year into her job, she’d been working on her novel and decided to ask for agent recommendations, which began her road to publication.

After being rejected by several agents, the one she had been wanting to work with told her that her novel needed some more work.

“It broke my heart,” Lacey said. “I thought I had done everything I could do to it.”

Still, Lacey worked on it, and after a few months, she sent it back to the agent. This time, it was accepted, but her work wasn’t finished.

As her editor asked questions about why she wrote certain scenes, Lacey realized which things needed work and what was good. She said this process was about growing as a writer and making her book better.

“You’re not always a good writer in the beginning,” she said.

Lacey said it was a long and tiring process and that things don’t just happen instantly.

She described the writing and publication process like golf: So many times, writers believe they have one chance and have to do things in a certain way, like a golfer who is told he has to get a hole-in-one the first time, and that if he doesn’t do that, he isn’t successful.

Lacey said this line of thought isn’t accurate and that just because someone can’t write a novel within a month doesn’t mean he or she is not a writer at all.