FIRST SEVEN LINES:
“Come nights, the girl crawls into bed to wait for her father to tell her a tale before sleep. He is down the hall working and she can just make out the sound of rapid typing from beyond his open office door. Because her room is one of the Institute’s closets, converted into a child’s private space, it is less a playground and more a chamber; the bookshelf also serves as a headboard and the door fails to open fully before hitting the foot of her bed.
At 1 a.m., the Scholar enters his daughter’s room, where he finds her manipulating her hands to make shadows on the wall.
Good morning, young one, he says. And happy birthday.
The daughter drops her hands and folds them neatly over the cuff of her blankets. Hello, she says.”
Shelf Unbound: Would you start by describing the style and subject of your novel?
Lindsey Drager: I see you have begun with the most difficult question! The book is a kind of gender-bending gothic cautionary tale. At its core, it is a story about how our parents fail us. I was very interested in exploring storytelling and authorship, how the stories we tell become fluid myth or hardened fact as they are passed on and along. It’s this liminal space I found myself returning to throughout the book and many of my concerns circulate around thresholds and limits: between adulthood and childhood, myth and history, work and play, art and scholarship, past and future. The Lost Daughter Collective is as much about how we read and misread books as it is about how we read and misread bodies.
Shelf Unbound: You approach themes of gender from various angles. In the first half, you give the men voice in the form of their “Lost Daughter Collective” meetings where they grieve their dead or missing daughters and in the tales that the Scholar tells his young daughter. In the second half, Peter is father to a transgender child – his “daughter” is actually a boy. What interested you in exploring gender in this novel?
Drager: Part of the answer to this has to do with the canonical women writers I find myself captivated by: Virginia Woolf, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and the Bronte sisters, to name just a few. So much of the work of these women was complicated by their fathers, all of whom were scholars of one kind or another, and all of whom exercised some degree of control—literal or metaphorical—over their daughters’ work. For example, Mary Shelley’s 1819 Mathilda centers on an incestuous relationship between the title character and her father which ultimately leads to Mathilda’s suicide. Because Shelley’s own father (the writer William Godwin) feared the text would be read autobiographically, he ensured the manuscript was hidden in his lifetime and it never saw publication until 1959. As I read more biographies of women writers, what struck me was the ways in which men were shaping women’s voices on and off the page, and I wanted to explore the ramifications of that power dynamic. I also wanted to challenge and maybe even subvert the idea that “parent knows best” through telling the story of a child exercising gender creativity. I have learned from personal experience that this is one circumstance in which children teach adults about how the world works, and if adults don’t listen—if adults choose not to believe or to dismiss these children—the consequences are risky and in some cases dangerous. I wanted to tell a two-fold story: one in which a father and a daughter contend for power and both fail, and one in which a father and daughter contend for power and both succeed, and—fused together like Escher’s “Drawing Hands”—the stories jointly offer a cautionary tale about how and when to listen.
Shelf Unbound: You also both study and play with words. The young girl grows up to be a renowned “Ice Sculptor” and says in an interview: “He thought that by stripping the world of a word, it would be saved. But he hadn’t considered that language lives, and when it dies, it haunts. When he said classify, I heard calcify. This is why I have not changed.” Have you always had a fascination with words?
Drager: I am the kind of writer who thinks of language as my medium. I don’t think everyone working in fiction, particularly long-form fiction, would say that, but I am very much in awe of and curious about how language shapes the way we understand the world. When I was young I remember being fascinated by word play, particular riddles and puns, and I used to spend hours working with homophones and heteronyms because they are such strange phenomena. Early in The Lost Daughter Collective, the Ice Sculptor says, “My father is inside me by law, irrevocably, the same way there will always be laughter in slaughter.” I remember being quite young and staring at the word slaughter until I discovered the word laughter inside, and it was a kind of mesmeric moment, recognizing words contain and exhibit a kind of magic. I think this book is in some ways an ode to and a reflection on the problem of language—how it is both a vessel for liberating our interior and also the means by which we exercise control over one another.
Shelf Unbound: You write: “What Peter thinks but cannot come to say: That he thinks of his son’s birth as a series of vignettes: cropped hair, skinned knees, bad words. That he thinks of his daughter as spectral.” What do you think it means to be a father’s daughter vs. a father’s son?
Drager: This is such a wonderful and important question, and in some ways, this could be the question of the whole book: When it comes to family, who we are is always an identity in relation to those around us, but how willing are we to amend, refashion, adapt? Identity is fluid—gender identity is fluid—and I think the more open and receptive we are to this reality, the more likely we are to recognize and maybe even embrace or challenge the ways our own identities morph. Is fathering a daughter different than fathering a son? Perhaps, but also: what does it mean to be a daughter, to be daughtered, to daughter? What happens when we think of subject positions like father or son not as nouns but verbs? The Lost Daughter Collective doesn’t answer these questions, but I like to think it tries to raise them.
Shelf Unbound: Peter is raising his transgender son in a world that calls the child “disordered.” You write of Peter’s confusion and feelings with such compassion. What were you wanting to do with this character?
Drager: I think more than anything I wanted Peter to illustrate a version of what goes through adults’ heads when a child comes out to them as transgender or gender creative. From my own experience as an adult who sanctioned and supported the gender transition of a child very close to me, I can tell you there is bewilderment. There is anxiety and fear. Sometimes there is mourning. Always there is a sense that time is unfolding very rapidly. I tried to render all of this in the book, particularly the sensation of time passing—within the quick flip of a few sparely populated pages, Peter’s child moves from playing dress-up in the house to requesting a new pronoun to injecting testosterone.
But along with of these feelings, there is also great pride. You grow humble in learning that the laws of the world are not rigid and static but malleable, nebulous, elastic. With Peter’s character, I wanted to offer one portrait of this experience so readers might begin to understand the surprise and confusion and ultimate satisfaction that comes with listening to a child tell you their reality and then working to shape the world around it.
Shelf Unbound: Your novel references Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan—were you captivate by these stories as a child?
Drager: Interestingly, it wasn’t until much later in life—in college, really—that I found myself fascinated with these stories. It was in a class on international literature for children that I first read these texts and realized how gothic and haunting they are. For example, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan opens with a discussion about children realizing by the age of two that they will have to eventually grow up (and therefore, grow old). “You always know after you are two,” Barrie tells us. “Two is the beginning of the end.” Those are the opening lines of the book! Likewise, Baum’s Wizard of Oz talks about Dorothy being made of meat. Because The Lost Daughter Collective is concerned both with gender politics as well as how we gain or lose agency over our stories, these texts became important touchstones for me. They are books about missing girls and lost boys but they are also stories that have been sanitized, and I wanted to expose that fact.
Shelf Unbound: Who are some authors who have influenced you and how?
Drager: I’m deeply indebted to the experimental women writers who came before me, writers who laid the groundwork for strange books that use less to say more, that embrace lyricism, and that play with text as a visual medium. These are writers I try to pay credence to in The Lost Daughter Collective by offering them cameo appearances (“Virginia,” “Mary,” and “Charlotte”), but there are also more recent writers who are working in this vein: Rikki Ducornet, Carole Maso, Selah Saterstrom, Kathryn Davis, Kate Bernheimer, Thalia Field, Diane Williams. Aside from these writers, I find myself consistently consulting three others whenever I run into a narrative problem: Donald Barthelme, Michael Ondaatje, and Herman Melville. Each of these very different writers are invested in the fiction of ideas, and I tend to read their work as both fiction and philosophy. And, of course, there are the bedtime stories I was told as a child, stories crafted spontaneously, improvised, and not meant to last. I’m sure they still loiter in the dusty, latent corners of my mind, shaping what happens on the page without my permission.