Interview with R. Cathey Daniels - 2022
Interview #16 (Fiction, Literary Fiction, Psychological Thriller, Coming of Age Tale)
R. Cathey Daniels’ debut novel, Live Caught from Black Lawrence Press, was published in April 2022. Daniels won first prize in the 2018 Retreat West First Chapter Competition, and was a semi-finalist in the 2020 University of New Orleans Press Novel Contest. Her short story, "Boy In Waves," was a semi-finalist in the North Carolina Writers’ Network 2021 Doris Betts Fiction Prize and was published in storySouth. She is a 2016 graduate of the Stanford University Novel Writing Program. Connect with Daniels @CatheyDaniels and visit her website, rcatheydanielsauthor.com
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Randal Eldon Greene: Hello, R. Cathey Daniels.
This story about a one-armed runaway who is taken in by an unorthodox priest was both unexpectedly poetic and, at the same time, filled with the most tension in any book I've ever read. I want to know where the idea for Live Caught came from and to get a sense of the process it took to transform that idea into this taut, mellifluous story.
R. Cathey Daniels: Well, in 2013 I had immediate need of a novel idea because I had been accepted into the juried, two-year Stanford Novel Writing program. So I pulled an elderly craft guide from my elderly bookshelf and opened it to the first page on writing prompts. Not a trick I’d ever used (and haven’t used since!) but I went ahead and picked a prompt. It went something like this:
Don’t think! As quickly as possible, write three opening sentences. Choose the one you like best, then just keep writing!
Yes—and ugh—pretty uninspiring. But the Don’t think! part appealed to me. Why? Because it gave me latitude to fail. Not my fault! I wasn’t even thinking! If I’ve figured out nothing else throughout this writing process, I’ve figured out this: Writer’s need a safe place to fail. So I followed the prompt, rapid-fire typing out my three opening sentences (enjoying every minute!).
Of the three, here’s the opening sentence I chose: Beyond the light of the farm, a coyote skirts the fence line, heads north under the moon’s halo, then circles back. You asked, Where did the idea for Live Caught come from? Well, it came from that first sentence, it came from setting: Oh look! There’s a farm! With a fence line! And a coyote! And by gosh that coyote is circling.
Then, to my mind, setting begot mood and tone. A dark mood. A dark tone. Here we are outside at night under a moon’s halo and that coyote, why did she skirt that fence line? Why is she circling out there in the dark? Heck if I know. But someone had to see that coyote under that moon’s halo, right? So I put a one-armed man on top of the barn (now there’s a barn!) bracing himself against the slant of the barn’s roof under the moon’s halo and holding a shotgun as he contemplates shooting the coyote. Well now, I have to ask, Why shoot the coyote? Is the animal stealing from the farm? Is it a danger to the man? That seemed way too easy (and boring). So I gave the coyote a limp, which was a neat mirror to the one-armed man. And now the two enemies have something in common, a sort of understanding between them. There’s tension in that understanding, but there’s also a kind of poetry, right? Even though that coyote can’t possibly know that man is one- armed, she can sense the danger of him. And she can sense his hesitation as well. As we said, he’s contemplating.
So what’s that contemplation look like for this man bracing himself against the barn roof ? Well, he’s thinking to himself, “Why is that coyote limping? Oh! It must’ve been shot! Of course. Earlier in the day. But by whom?” Which leads us to another character, an antagonist, this one-armed man’s older brother, who obviously should’ve hunted the coyote down and finished the job he’d started. Why does this one-armed man assume the shooter is his older brother? Why is he sitting on a barn’s roof? And why the heck would a coyote circle back toward an earlier danger? Do we have hints of plot and theme here? Yes! From there my characters began to grow, plot began to emerge and even theme sprouted from that farm’s soil under that moon’s halo. That was pretty much my process for this novel. Sentence by sentence I tried to insert as much tension as I could tolerate and I tried to write with whatever poetry I could muster. So, I’m really happy, Randal, that you call Live Caught a “taut, mellifluous story.” (But I had to look up the word mellifluous!)
Randal Eldon Greene: And that coyote does make a reappearance. Having read the book, I also see one of the prominent themes embedded in this initial idea.
You mentioned setting. There is an incredibly strong sense of place in this novel. Two places, really. There's The Block, where the wayward priest holds sway, and The Farm, where the dangerous presence of an older brother looms. Are these places of pure imagination for you, or are these settings plucked from your lived experiences? If they are imaginary locals, I need to know you managed to imbue setting itself with such personality.
R. Cathey Daniels: Ah, that sense of place. Love that you picked up on that. In Live Caught, The Farm sits in a valley under the twin mountain peaks of Rosey Face and Chub Ridge. You’ll find that farm in just about any valley you drive through in the mountains of Western North Carolina, especially back when I was growing up in that area. The roads were, and many still are, narrow two-lanes that snake from the valley up through the mountains, and you had to learn to navigate hair-pin turns, often in deep fog. I feel like that relates in some ways to my protagonist’s, Lenny’s, quest. Also, there was no telling what you might come across as you climbed through those mountains: Teenagers drag racing around the curves, hogging both lanes; a bear ambling down the double center line, a giant oak tree felled during a rainstorm blocking the way. There was great danger in those mountains, and great beauty too.
I have to note that my late mom, a long-time mathematics professor at Brevard College, loved those mountains and made them a character in my own life. For the latter part of her life she was a painter and she just about always brushed a mountain into her watercolors. We joked that if she were to paint the Atlantic Ocean, there would be that mountain rocking on the waves out on the horizon. It’s funny, after I finished my novel I was looking over some of her paintings that I’d never seen before, and realized many of her scenes were also my imagined scenes in Live Caught. So I believe these were real scenes that likely we’d both witnessed along those country roads.
As for the other primary setting, The Block—or the “church” where Father Damien, as you correctly note, “holds sway” over his carnivalesque gang of “Celebrants”—well I’ve no idea where that came from. I’ve never visited such a place, not that I can recall. I think maybe The Block just grew from my own personal need to create a church I where I could be attentive, and where I would be at peace to attend. I’ve visited many churches during my youth and early adulthood, from country Baptist to Methodist to Catholic to the local Jewish synagogue—and while they were all well-meaning, none made an appeal to my own personal sense of spirituality.
Foreword Reviews in their May/June Issue noted that Live Caught has an “urgent biblical tone”, and though I’d never thought of it like that, I have to agree.
Randal Eldon Greene: I'd say the tone of Father Damien, at least, is more Unitarian Universalist. Of all the colorful characters in this novel, the priest stands out. The pseudo-Quaker accent he sports reminds me of Ahab. His mission to rid his flock of their religious superstitions so that they can enter the presence of God is an obsession that, though it doesn't match the deadliness of Ahab or contain vengeful odium, certainly contains Ahabian flavors of fervor and imbalance.
R. Cathey Daniels: I’d agree. Ahab is likely an apt lens through which to view Father Damien.
Filled with fervor? Yes. A bit off balance? Yes.
But to my mind, at least, Father Damien is also in possession of a constantly melting heart. Is that true of most of us? Aren’t our hearts always melting? Even when we take our toughest stance, maybe more so when we take our toughest stance, our hearts still want to be felt. Is that true? I feel like it’s true.
Anyway, that’s the human trait I love most about Father Damien. He urgently wants his congregation, his Celebrants as he calls them, to see the light as he sees the light. But he will bend. He will rethink his position. And knowing he may not be correct in his passion, he can be kind, he can find compassion for the other. I think we see that toward the end of the book. Of course, his fervor stirs skepticism among his flock. Or at least puzzlement.
He’s a priest obsessed in a crusade against Blind Faith. He wants his Celebrants to think for themselves, to ponder the nature of spirituality, to think through whether they are helping humankind or hurting humankind through their actions. He wants that so terribly that he will do just about anything to lead his parish away from Blind Faith and toward self-reflection.
In the first of several sermons the priest gives in Live Caught, he calls out to his congregation: “Blind faith? Belief without thought? I tell ye true! Ye falling for a sucker Siren!” And he follows that train of thought throughout the book in increasingly dramatic fashion. So his heart is on constant display. Ditto his logic. Plus his skepticism. To me that’s a powerful combination. Show me someone who can be passionate but turn a critical eye back on that passion, and I’ll show you someone who is listened to, both for good and for bad. Where does Father Damien land? Where does he land Lenny, the protagonist in Live Caught? And where do we, the readers, land?
Well, I’m not sure. But, you know, it’s pretty easy to be fanatical. Not so simple to add compassion and self-awareness into that mix. I think that’s what interests me about Father Damien. And I think that’s probably what sets him apart from Ahab. Plus, Ahab was seeking darkness, whereas to me, the priest in Live Caught is after light.
Randal Eldon Greene: I truly don't think I quite understood the character of the priest. Father Damien is too complicated to grasp with one or even two sittings. In fact, that's my one complaint about your book—I wanted more time with all of your characters. A feeling of depth of background and personality came through for all of them, but we weren't able to plumb those depths to this reader's satisfaction, partly because of the decently short length of Live Caught and partly because of the fast pace of the plot. Mostly, however, it's because the point of view is Lenny's. And he is limited by his wariness, his penchant for not truly talking (he says absolutely nothing during an entire scene where a loved one of his is injured!), and a tendency as a narrator to get lost in his own thoughts.
R. Cathey Daniels: Your wish to spend more time with my characters is both a huge compliment for me and excellent feedback. I’ve been asked recently by the hosts of two podcasts to talk a little about my current project, and I think both hosts were seeking information on my current novel-in-progress. And I do have one! But, as I explained to both hosts, I don’t consider that WIP my current project. My current project is to improve, and to improve in exactly the direction you point.
Since I finished Live Caught, I’ve been reading Leif Enger, Louise Erdrich, Percival Everett and others who dive deep into the hearts of their characters without losing plot pace. That’s where I want to be. Deeper into the hearts and minds of my characters. Will I achieve that goal? Not sure. I like reticent, wary characters, both as an author and as a reader. I love open-ended characters and open-ended novels. As a reader I want to decide some things, maybe a lot of things, for myself. But as an author, it’s a narrow and precarious line to walk. You want the reader wishing for more, but not frustrated. Satisfied. You want the reader satisfied. And intrigued. You want the reader in both places. Walking that line, well, that’s where the fun is, that’s where I want to improve.
Randal Eldon Greene: If I'm not mistaken, you have found ways to dive deeper into Lenny and his immediate family through short fiction.
R. Cathey Daniels: Ha. There’s at least a third of a book that is not in the book. These are chapters where I excavated Lenny’s childhood and teenage years, and to some extent his relationship as an adult with young Romey, who he is desperately trying to protect. I needed to learn Lenny’s background, understand where he was coming from.
A few of those chapters turned into short stories. For example, "Boy in Waves" was recently published by storySouth, and that short fiction explores the family dynamic centered on Lenny’s mom, who has a PhD in Clinical Psychology and treats many of the folks throughout the countryside, including herself and her eldest son, Jude. She plays a large role in the plot, but I didn’t think "Boy in Waves" belonged in Live Caught. I felt that within the covers of this novel, that scene, that short story would be redundant to other scenes, other stories. However, I do think "Boy in Waves" says something, has some value, in its stand-alone form. There are a few other chapters that work like this. They might not have made it into the book, but maybe they could stand on their own somewhere else in the literary world. It’s a dream of mine to publish a book of short stories, and I’m sure more of Lenny’s life would come to light should I ever get that chance.
Randal Eldon Greene: Speaking of psychology, how did you approach capturing the psychology of a one-armed kid?
R. Cathey Daniels: Wow, such a great question, and deeply personal.
Lenny losing his arm, it marks him, right? I wanted to explore that mark, because we are all marked in some way. We are all “live caught” so to speak, because we all evaluate those marks and we all make uneducated and often unfair decisions based on those marks. Why do we do that? Whether it’s a missing limb or great beauty or atypical height or whatever. Why do we define others by their most distinctive attributes when logically we must know there is more complexity? This is something I’ve wondered about for as far back as I can remember.
When I was a kid, we had a neighbor, I’ll call him Mr. Albert. Well, Mr. Albert excelled in just about everything my dad needed to know, whether it was bee keeping or stained glass or woodworking or gardening or whatever. I’d tag along with my dad up to Mr. Albert’s farm to consult about one project or the other, and Mr. Albert would be out in his shed chopping wood, jarring honey, shelling beans, what have you. He was so adept at everything he did that it took me forever to realize he only had one arm. Nothing stopped him. He simply could not be, refused to be, defined by his most visible physical attribute.
Fast forward 50-some years to ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and my late husband. He died in 2012. But prior to ALS’s ravaging attack on his body, my husband was a great athlete and a well-known scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He absolutely did not want to be defined by that illness, by ALS, and I did not want him defined that way either. That desire was so visceral, and now so difficult to put into words. But I think in creating Lenny, I was fighting against this notion in many ways, this notion of how we define people, whether it’s by weight, super-star looks, gender, race, sexual orientation, non-normative figuration, whatever. My hope for Lenny is that the reader cannot be reductive, cannot define him as simply one-armed by the end of his journey in Live Caught. My hope is that Lenny will instead be defined by his courage and his love for Romey and his complexity of thought, for his mistakes and for his beautiful insights – my hope is that his appearance will no longer matter.
Not sure I’ve accomplished that, but it was one of my goals for the book and my great hope for this character, and for the reader.
Randal Eldon Greene: The main villain of Live Caught is Lenny's older brother Jude. He comes across as creepy and manipulative—maybe psychologically damaged? As a boy he conducts "experiments" which seem to play into an inherent sadism in his character. I love how you end up complicating Lenny's child's-eye view of Jude upon returning to the family farm as an adult. Jude became a villain I could truly enjoy while still fearing his every movement.
R. Cathey Daniels: I’m so glad you feel that way about Jude. That’s how I felt, writing his character. I wanted a villain, for sure. But I didn’t want a stock villain, I wanted a villain with an arc, and I wanted that arc to be relatable, maybe even sympathetic at its outer edges. So I needed to find a way to ask the reader to give Jude half a chance. To do that, I had to ask Lenny to think deeper about his brother. Which meant I had to think deeper. And in doing that, I found that there’s a quality to Jude I think represents something inside most of us. And that quality, or flaw, (I’m just going to call it something, because I don’t know how else to name it) makes us capable of convincing ourselves of most anything. And you know, we have a love/hate relationship with that something. The part I love is that it can get me through a truly tough day. If I can convince myself I can make it through that tough day, then I can convince myself to make it through any day. But I hate that something, too, because sometimes it convinces me of inaccuracies, it leads me away from deeper insights, especially of other people. It blinds me from others’ needs and wants.
In one of my short stories (as yet unpublished), Jude convinces himself that it’s not just OK but even good and righteous to sexually assault a young girl, because that will teach her a lesson not to ride her bike out on the country backroads by herself. Jude truly believes this. He can commit all kinds of cruelty in the name of his definition of what’s "good for people". I fear that trait, hopefully to a lesser degree, lurks inside many of us individually and is too easily accessed collectively. In Live Caught, I feel that in the end Jude comes to suspect he’s been wrong, at least about a few things. It's only a suspicion! He can’t quite bring himself to admit it. But because he suspects, that leaves room for hope. That’s the arc I wanted for Jude and I think that might underpin the point where the reader can find Jude relatable while living in fear of him.
Randal Eldon Greene: While Lenny is haunted by many things in his past, his mother, Lizzy, comes across as a spectral presence. In his memories of her she seems to flit at the edges of reality, like a ghost who might suddenly pop out with a startling "Boo!" Yet when he returns for her funeral, he keeps seeing her. But it's only a likeness, a neighbor lady. The most haunting part is that in his absence, Lizzy seemed to gain a present corporeality that either he couldn't grasp as a child or which was only nascent at the time of his departure. Lenny finds that she was important to many people in the community. It's this aspect of her that, for him, is even more of an enigmatic presence than the living mother he knew as a child.
How intentional were these haunting, spectral aspects of Dr. Lizzy?
R. Cathey Daniels: Hmmm — interesting question.
I based his mom loosely on Dr. Marsha Linehan, a clinical psychologist who self-diagnosed her own borderline personality disorder before there were strong standards. Not only did Dr. Linehan successfully self diagnose (practically unheard of), but she also developed a ground-breaking behavioral therapy for that disorder which is still in use today. Just really an amazing story.
In this book's timeframe, Lenny’s mom, Lizzy, with her PhD in clinical psychology, was diagnosing and attempting to treat herself for borderline personality disorder while trying to treat Jude, Lenny’s older brother, for narcissistic personality disorder, with limited success. This is backstory and mostly under the radar in the book.
So you’re asking if Dr. Lizzy’s haunting, spectral aspects were intentional. Well, the haunting was intentional, but only within Lenny’s mind. No one else was seeing his mom appear after death in the form of a neighbor, and no one else had been missing from the farm for 10 years. A lot happened while he was away. You know, misunderstanding happens between people, but it can also happen between the self of today and the self of years past. (Or even the self of today and the self of yesterday, right?!) As a child, Lenny saw his mom in relation to his own needs, and she fell way short. He had no idea of the value she provided throughout the countryside and even within his own family. And, because of his decade absence, he only began to learn of this at the time of her funeral. Like most of us at the age of 14, Lenny needed more knowledge to deal with his life. But in his case, this lack was compounded due to the mental disorders his family was facing. Hardly anyone during the 1970s had the required knowledge.
So the answer to your question is yes, I did intend for his mom to take on a ghost-like presence, but only within Lenny’s head. The fact that she may come across this way to the reader, well, I wouldn’t necessarily have predicted that, but it’s a pretty cool result.
Randal Eldon Greene: Oh, I'm not surprised I felt just as haunted by Lenny's mom as he was. The point of view, while third person, is limited to Lenny's narrow perspective. I think the reader, if they truly immerse themselves into the narrative, will inevitably find themselves viewing the world through the narrative lens provided—which in this case is Lenny's.
I also know from my experience as a writer that when you go over and over and over the same narrative territory again and again and again as you rewrite and edit, you lose that immersion (or maybe I'd say you're immersed in a different way). You have more distance and can see the bigger picture—a picture often lost on the characters and only given to the readers through suggestion and subtext.
R. Cathey Daniels: Oh that’s a great insight, and truly an inspiration too: “...when you go over and over and over the same narrative territory again and again and again as you rewrite and edit, you lose that immersion (or maybe I'd say you're immersed in a different way). You have more distance and can see the bigger picture—a picture often lost on the characters and only given to the readers through suggestion and subtext.”
I love this idea, and it rings true. I’ll have to pay attention as I move forward on my current novel and see if I can spot this immersive evolution during revision
Randal Eldon Greene: One of the more comic characters is Raymond, who when we meet him is attempting to solo-raise Romey, his newborn, while the baby girl's mother is away.
The comic sidekick isn't usually a top pick for a protagonist's romantic interest. At what point did it feel inevitable that these two teenage boys would become lovers?
R. Cathey Daniels: Ah, I’m so glad you’re asking about Raymond, and so glad you see him as the comic sidekick. That’s what he was for me, while writing the novel. Whenever I needed a lift or a break, I guess, from the intensity, I could turn to Raymond and he always came through.
From his first appearance on the page, I knew that he and Lenny would find chemistry— curious but somewhat reluctant on Lenny’s part, all curiosity and intrigue on Raymond’s part. They are so young, and Lenny is so unsure and suspicious of his bombarding feelings. Raymond represents exploration and adventure and the unknown and new opportunity in the novel, all for which Lenny has a demonstrated a voracious appetite. I look at Raymond and I see the simple version of all that Lenny is going through on a grander scale. Then, of course, Lenny meets Romey, Raymond's infant daughter, and develops an immediate parental instinct. He discovers a way to protect a child like he was never protected, and this just intensifies his need to take care of her. So to me Lenny, Raymond, and Romey were a wonderful threesome of confused and conflicting complications that I enjoyed immensely. Raymond never disappointed me while writing, and I hope he never disappoints in the reading!
Randal Eldon Greene: As you're working on becoming a better writer through creating more stories, do you think you've let go of the characters in Live Caught, or do you still feel a bit caught by them, even if in a good way?
R. Cathey Daniels: Oh Randal, I’ve released those characters completely into the wild. As you know, there's room at the end of Live Caught to imagine Lenny’s and Romey’s and Father Damien’s future lives, and I’m enjoying doing just that! I think them down one path then the other and watch them succeed or fail, and I don’t want that imagining to ever end. So no, while I would never say never, I certainly don’t intend to write them permanently into any ironclad futures. Besides, I’ve got a whole gang (kind of literally!) of new characters pretty far along on their own wayward journeys. There’s Switchblade and Shorty and The Lighting Crew and Lulu . . . .
Randal Eldon Greene: Tell us about your publishing journey. What did the process of getting your first novel look like?
R. Cathey Daniels: I worked on Live Caught for approximately five years, from 2013-2018. The first two years I wrote out of the Stanford Novel Writing Program, so I was fortunate to have a lot of eyes on my words. After that program, I finished another draft before working for 10 weeks with Joshua Mohr, just an excellent writer and mentor and developmental editor. You would be hard pressed to find any author working with Josh who didn’t make great progress on their novels and gain great insights into the writing process during those sessions. I was lucky as well to work with Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley on the first chapter of Live Caught at the juried Looking Glass Writers Conference. That chapter then won the 2018 Retreat West First Chapter Contest. When the novel placed as a semi-finalist in the New Orleans Press Novel Contest I began shopping it around in agent-land. Although I received full manuscripts requests and positive comments and great suggestions for editing from various agents, I just could not make it over the finish line to land representation. So I shelved the book and started work on my next novel. But then in 2021 I just thought, well, why not give it another try, this time without the agent gateway standing in my way. I submitted the novel to open window readings at three small independent presses and shortly afterwards Diane Goettel, Executive Editor with Black Lawrence Press, called to say she loved Live Caught and would like to publish. I was ecstatic. Still I’m ecstatic.
BLP, founded in 2004, could not have made the publishing process any easier. Diane gave me three months to turn in final edits. It took me every minute of that time to polish. After that, the book went through two back-and-forth editing periods with the publisher, and those editors were just so great to work with. Every deadline, from choosing the cover to approving final proofs to creating the publicity plan was met. Live Caught was published by BLP in April 2022.
Randal Eldon Greene: That's quite the journey for one novel. It makes me curious about all the various routes that most books must take from the time of conception until it's firmly in a reader's grasp. For those writers out there who are wondering about the circuitous routes of their yet-to-be published works, what advice and encouragement do you have to offer?
R. Cathey Daniels: No doubt, the publishing journey can be circuitous. I was fortunate to have a writers group—a writers family really—who had faith in Lenny and Father Damien and Romey (and even Jude!), and their faith boosted my confidence in Live Caught and my own determination to pursue a home for it. I’m not experienced enough to give advice, but I would ask the question of any writer hoping to publish: Do you have a supportive community for your work? That could be anyone from a single careful reader/cheerleader to a whole network of experienced writers. My amateur observation is that there’s just a lot of rejection out in Writer Land, and that rejection affects most of us. So it was critical for me to have a writer family who understood what I was going through and knew the right words to say to help keep me writing.
One piece of advice I wish I’d gotten long ago, but thankfully was finally given as my book went to press, is to become a strong member of the literary community. That could mean participating in events at the local bookstore, joining a local or national or international writers guild, pinpointing supportive groups within your genre and exploring how they are improving and bolstering other writers, or simply giving some star ratings online to books that deserve more visibility. There are so many ways to contribute, and I think I missed out on that for a long time, not understanding how much value even a small contribution adds to the lit world.
One piece of advice I do feel qualified to give, and of course it’s what every other author would advise, is be persistent. If none of the Big Five come calling, or this or that agent doesn’t beg for your work, look in other directions. Broaden your gaze. Your readers are out there and they will love your words and they will support you and you will support them. And when you see your book in their hands, the path you took to get it there will suddenly seem the best path you could’ve possibly taken.
Purchase Live Caught on Amazon.
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About the interviewer:
Randal Eldon Greene is the author of Descriptions of Heaven, a novella about a linguist, a lake monster, and the looming shadow of death.
His Instagram is @RandalEldon Greene
His website is AuthorGreene.com
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Wow. Amazing how, even for a long-time fan of Cathey’s writing and her book, an incisive and thoughtful interview(er) can blow me away with new insight. Plus, now the 2nd edition can include illustrations! What a tribute to Lenny (and Cathey’s mom.)