Stephanie LaCava: “What was your reaction to [pivotal plot moment]?”
The New York writer’s exhilarating second novel, I Fear My Pain Interests You, features a distant and unfeeling protagonist. Someone who’s far from the charming, approachable former Vogue journalist who arrives armed with a list of questions for, um, THE FACE. Hmm, just who’s interviewing who, Stephanie?
Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.
“Cows are not sentient beings.” So reads the epigraph to Stephanie LaCava’s second novel I Fear My Pain Interests You, a twisted story of a young woman’s experience of fame and agony.
It’s a completely untrue comment that the author found on Reddit, under an article about an experiment where cows were forced to wear VR headsets while looking at fake meadows, aiming to see if the bovines produced better quality milk (they did). Not only are cows sentient, according to a study by the University of Northampton, but they have best friends, feel calm when hanging out with them and experience stress when separated. It’s a prime example of the blurring of fact and fiction into which LaCava’s book often dips deliriously.
LaCava, 37, is speaking to THE FACE from her apartment in downtown New York. She glows through my laptop screen, a shock of Titian-toned hair and bright red lipstick, excitedly beginning our conversation with a bunch of questions for me: “What did you think of the book?” “What was your reaction to [pivotal plot moment]?” This instinctive tendency to interview me, rather than the other way around, is thanks to her background as a magazine journalist, and she makes sure to check if we’re on the record yet. “Let’s just chat first!”
“I can’t believe it’s all finally happening,” she tells me about early reactions to her novel. “This [book] feels really particularly forceful and personal, and everyone keeps having – which is amazing – a really strong reaction to it.”
LaCava, born in New York, moved with her family to France because of her dad’s job when she was young, settling in the posh Parisian suburbs of Le Vésinet, where she spent a lot of time alone, engrossed in novels and Nineties fashion magazines. When her parents – her mum was an educator and her dad travelled with tech corp IBM – would drag her along to dinner parties, she’d rifle through their hosts’ cupboards to find books to read rather than having to socialise. “I’ve got no formal training [in writing], but my God, I eat books and have since I learned how to read.”
After graduating from Colgate University in Hamilton, upstate New York, with a degree in International Relations and French, the pivot to writer came via Vogue’s fashion accessories department, before she moved over to writing features. LaCava’s freelance bylines include profiles of the likes of musician and performance artist Cosey Fanni Tutti for Interview and further work for Harper’s, The Paris Review, Artforum and The New York Review of Books. More recently, she contributed an essay to Horror Caviar, the first cookbook by A24, but she’s mainly been concentrating on her own books – I Fear My Pain Interests You is her second foray into fiction, following 2020’s The Superrationals, and, before that, a memoir, An Extraordinary Theory of Objects, in 2013.
LaCava has the air of a literary It Girl-about-town, drawing from the lineage of Joan Didion and Eve Babitz’s of eras past, through to the Zadie Smith, Torrey Peters and Bolu Babalola types of the present. You can find her in The Cut in 2012 talking about her beauty secrets (imbibing matcha tea, blackberries and two spoonfuls of raw cashew butter for a rather joyless breakfast). “Who’s that girl?” asked the Daily Telegraph’s fashion section that year, describing her as a “stylish American Francophile”, and she was interviewed about her love of Ann Demeulemeester heels in Hey Woman!, the now- defunct online mag.
When, a few days after our interview, I catch her in London doing a reading from her new novel at a Soho garden party thrown by her publisher, Verso, she’s dressed in a black velvet corset and matching neck ribbon, immaculate and chic. In front of a rapt audience, she laughs about one passage from her book that references Kate Bush. This, she’s at pains to say, was long before Stranger Things-induced fervour sent 1985 track Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) back into the charts.
Much has been made of the “hot girl” or “cool girl” book genre recently, in terms of the people who read them, their authors and their protagonists. “You thought getting into Berghain was challenging? Securing a preview copy of LaCava’s novel is a testament not just to your coolness but to intellectual rigour,” 032c columnist and creative director Jordan Richman wrote wryly, an implied nod to the feeling in certain literary quarters that LaCava is too-cool-for-school, and so is the hype surrounding her.
In I Fear My Pain Interests You, the “cool girl” is very much present. The main character, Margot, is glam but also distant and, quite literally unfeeling. She suffers from congenital analgesia, an extremely rare condition where a person cannot feel (and has never felt) physical pain.
Margot’s story is an exhilarating exploration of a condition which, at face value, sounds incredible. Imagine not feeling like your world is shattering when you stub your toe? In real life, though, it’s a curse. People who have it are likely to die young – pain is your body’s natural warning sound – and sufferers have been known to take their own lives.
“There was a clipping I pulled from a study that had been done at the Salk Institute [for Biological Studies], I think in 2010, that I printed out.” LaCava was researching the condition before writing that section of the book. “I still remember the picture [being] absurdist, almost surrealist. And I remember being so taken with reading about it that I wanted to save it. It would continue to accumulate with other ideas for me to figure out where it was going to land.”
We first meet Margot on a plane from New York to Montana, fleeing her former life in an attempt to put serious distance between herself and a broken relationship with a toxic older man. An aspiring actress and the daughter of rich and famous punk musicians, she’s tortured by her inability to not be recognised, thanks to a telltale birthmark. With the character’s waif-like frame and LaCava’s disaffected narrative style, it’s hard not to draw surface-level comparisons with the pill-popping and coffee-chugging protagonist from Ottessa Moshfegh’s New York-set 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation. But where Moshfegh’s young narrator is unlikeable in the extreme, LaCava’s is easier to sympathise with. Margot’s parents neglect her in various ways throughout her life, in an atypical exploration of privilege.
It’s enough, even though it’s not modelled on any real-life tabloid-botherers, LaCava stresses, to turn your thoughts to the uniquely-named children of musicians and celebrities.
“It’s funny how everyone keeps talking about how the book is so cool and detached,” LaCava says, frowning. “Because I’m the exact opposite. I remember one of my university friends saying to me, ‘You really need to understand what it means to be aloof,’ because I was always so intense. It’s so funny to me that somehow I’ve vomited out these characters that are probably how I should be more like in my real life.”
Although she insists the novel isn’t autofiction, little details are nonetheless plucked from her life. Margot’s allure, and her love of jewellery and designer clothing, is clearly on a par with LaCava’s and, at the Soho party, she introduces me to a friend after whom one of the characters (a benevolent one, luckily) is named.
“I’m very happy being alone a lot, reading and writing. But the problem with that is that you don’t get to take in the things that are necessary to then do the writing all the time. From a young age, I’ve forced myself to become a social person to survive.” Since the age of 11, LaCava has suffered from depression, “When it was given a formal name, that is,” she clarifies. “As it’s not circumstantial, it’s something that will never go away for me. Writing, as clichéd as it is, is a way I deal with it – the exorcism most of all, [as well as] dancing, physical intimacy, finding joy when I can.”
Back when she was getting her Vogue bylines, writing about beauty drops, spa openings and Rick Owens exhibitions, LaCava didn’t see writing novels in her future. “I always wanted to write, but it was daunting. [Fiction] never felt viable.” While doing her day job, she’d always be up working on her own writing at 6am, honing a voice that’s sharp and unique, painting a rich visual universe with few brushstrokes. “I’m quite an odd writer,” she says, “especially for someone who writes in the English language. My sentences are a bit more clipped. It’s a very strange book too, right?” she adds, that journalistic self-awareness again bubbling up. “I was lucky that someone took a chance on it.” She attributes some of this to her growing up in France. “There’s a foreign language aspect to some of my writing, but there are different nuances that come from knowing other languages,” adds this speaker of French, Hebrew and English.
The aforementioned cows are a recurring motif in the book, as is a French verb, ressasse, that LaCava uses frequently. It means “to chew over”. Is this, alongside the exploration of physical pain, a comment on environmentalism and dairy farming, I wonder?
“Would you believe I have never eaten red meat!” she exclaims. Similarly, her writing leaves you to draw your own conclusions. LaCava takes ideas and filters them through an abstract lens. I Fear My Pain Interests You plays out almost like a mystery, leaving the reader to tie up loose ends, before culminating in an unsettling, shocking ending.
As well as writing and collecting books, LaCava – whose dream is to own an antiquarian bookstore – runs her own publishing company, Small Press, which puts out limited runs of works that tend to sell out. She started it as a way to develop her interest in visual artists, screenwriters or directors who write, too. Its first release, in 2018, was Litterature. With only 500 copies and bound beautifully in linen, the book contains a series of drawings by Francis Picabia (1879 – 1953), a French avant-garde painter and poet. A recent release is a conceptual children’s art book, Two Kids, One Grown- Up by John Baldessari, because she found others of that genre “too didactic”, she says. “I’m interested in things that maybe don’t have mass appeal, and that a mainstream publisher maybe wouldn’t want to touch.”
Before she jumps off the Zoom call, LaCava – aware, like any good journalist, that our interview has had to navigate bouts of dodgy wi-fi – offers me her number, saying I can ring her any time. Even though she moves within socialite literary circles that might make someone seem unapproachable (a world that has been memed by the likes of parody Twitter account Bougie London Literary Woman), it’s hard to not be charmed by her. “I’m a lot to process, I know,” she says, her teeth shining brilliantly. “I’m quite… complicated.”
As we wrap up talking about the book, our conversation quickly becomes meta as we discuss our writing and interview techniques, and how they can bleed out into real life. “I’m endlessly fascinated and curious about other people, without bounds,” she says. “People are always like, ‘Why am I being grilled?’, or ‘You can’t ask me that!’ I wanna know the how, the when, the where, what are you feeling? I have very few skills in life, and the one skill I do have is interviewing people. I’m very open myself and that tends to help [put people at ease]. You know what I mean?”
HAIR Tina Outen at Streeters MAKE-UP Kuma at Streeters EXECUTIVE PRODUCER Chloe Mina PRODUCTION COORDINATOR Rachel Coster PHOTOGRAPHER’S ASSISTANT Pierre Bonnet STYLIST’S ASSISTANT Laura Spriet PRODUCTION ASSISTANT Alex Senti SPECIAL THANKS TO Andrew Sauceda