Last April, after publishing an op-ed in The New York Times about the bed & breakfast I founded and ran with my seven housemates from 2010-2014, we got a call from a Japanese television producer.
Would we mind if she came over to film us for a segment on a Japanese TV show? As rare as cooperative living may be in the states, it’s even rarer in Japan, so the she wanted to film us in the act of our bizarro live-work situation—making breakfast for our guests, having business meetings, even just walking up and down the stairs or standing idly in a hallway—all of it was fascinating, absolutely fascinating.
As the writer-in-residence with a new novel, she also wanted to get some action shots of me, sitting at my desk, writing . . . just casually, normally, with a television crew over my shoulder, and a big stack of my own books within reach.
Immediately, I thought of Etgar Keret’s “What Animal Are You,” in which the writer of the story is being filmed for a segment on German Public Television, as he is writing a story about being filmed by a German Public Television crew. I found the text online, pasted it into a word document and began editing and embellishing, but a few days later the producer said they couldn’t use the over-the-shoulder shot because they could see I was writing about them. No, I explained, I was merely rewriting what Etgar Keret had written about a situation much like this one. It didn’t matter, she said, the shot was useless but they had plenty of other angles of me at my laptop, imitating myself.
The segment ran months ago now and the B&B saw a little influx of Japanese guests, but our lives returned quickly to our bizarro-normal.
All that was left, is the following adaptation. —Catherine Lacey
The sentences I’m writing now are for the benefit of Japanese Public Television viewers. A producer who came to my home today asked me to write something on the computer because it always makes for great visuals: an author writing. It’s a cliché, she realizes that, but cliches are nothing but an unsexy version of the truth, and her role, as a producer, is to turn that truth into something sexy, to break the cliché with lighting and unusual angles. The light in my room falls almost perfectly, just a single spot to my right, so all that’s left is for me to write. This has happened before, for a photographer who wanted to take a picture of me writing. Or pretending to write, the photographer said, either will do.
But either will not do for Japanese Public Television viewers. Only a writer “really writing” will do, though actually I’m only sort of writing, re-writing what another writer has already written, with embellishments. For me at least, either will do. I am already wondering if this is enough or if the producer and cameraman are just patiently reading over my shoulder.
At first, I was filling out a form that one of my editors had sent over, a PDF I had to digitally sign, and some last questions from the production editor, but the producer said it wouldn’t work. “Write something for real,” she said, and then, to be sure: “A story, not an email. Not a task. Write something for real, the way you always do.” I told her it wasn’t natural for me to be writing while I was being filmed for Japanese Public Television, but she just laughed and told the camera man to zoom in on my scratched over manuscript pages, artfully askew on my desk. I wasn’t even working on those pages. I was working on the story Etgar Keret wrote about writing a story for the benefit of German Public Television viewers, a story about how unnatural it seemed to write for a present audience and how the unnaturalness of that experience suddenly produced something real, filled with passion, something that permeated him, so rather than tread over a territory that Etgar Keret already slashed and burned I’m just copying and editing his work, pretending it’s mine. “Everyone knows that’s how artists really do it, anyway,” the television producer says, “copying what someone else already did.” She is a very savvy television producer because she is an invention of Etgar Keret that I am currently reanimating to pass the time as the Japanese Public Television crew films me in real life at my desk. They are still filming. I am still being filmed. I just turned a paper page of my decoy manuscript to really get into character. I stared at these very words wondered if any of them could make me any money, if they might ever be translated into Japanese and entertain someone who, maybe by chance, saw the Japanese Television producer’s segment on the odd little novelist in her odd little co-op house. I wonder if I am just a very small and inefficient factory that only produces things that are useful in the most superficial ways. I have just been congratulated by the Japanese Television producer for being “so much a real writer.” It was probably a literal translation from Japanese, and it sounded very strange in English.
“Write,” she insisted again. “Great. You really look like you’re writing. Keep writing. Don’t mind us. Forget we’re here.”
So I go on writing, not minding her, forgetting she’s there, and I’m natural. As natural as I can be. I have a score to settle with the viewers of Japanese Public Television but this isn’t the time to settle it. This is the time to write on Etgar Keret’s real work. To write things that will appeal, because when you write crap or emails, she’s already reminded me, it comes out terrible on camera.
One of my roommates returns from work. He smiles and hugs me. Whenever there’s a television crew in the house, we smile and hug a little more enthusiastically. Years ago, the reporters had to ask us to “act like touchy-feely co-op roommates,” but by now, we’re pros. Not looking at the camera, we hug each other and say, “I love you, Roommate.” We’ve only been living together four years, but we all understand how things work, these adorable roommates of mine.
My lesser favorite roommate isn’t as good, the Japanese Television reporter says. He doesn’t flow. Keeps fiddling with his hair, stealing glances at the camera. But that isn’t really a problem. You can always edit him out later. That’s what’s so nice about television. In real life it isn’t like that. In real life you can’t edit him out, undo him. Only God can do that, or a bus, if it runs him over. Or maybe if his girlfriend asks him to move in with her.
Our upstairs neighbor is a painter. An incurable disease took his common sense from him. Not drugs, something else. Something that started in the brain and ended badly. For six months he was painting really beautiful, genuine work. At least that’s what he told me. Six months of genius before God Almighty edited his common sense out and now he just makes crap. Ever since that happened, all kinds of art collectors keep visiting our building, in high heels or suits. They arrive at unlikely hours, sometimes as early as noon. He’s unemployed, our upstairs neighbor, so his time is his own. The art collectors, at least according to my least favorite roommate who also has strong opinions on art and commerce, are whores. When he says “whores” it comes out natural, like he’s saying “turnip.” But when he’s being filmed, it doesn’t. Nobody’s perfect.
My smiliest roommate loves the whores who visit our upstairs neighbor. “What animal are you?” he asks them when he bumps into them on the stairs. “Today I’m a mouse, a quick and slippery mouse.” And they get it right away, and throw out the name of an animal: an elephant, a bear, a butterfly. Each art collecting whore and their animal. It’s strange, because with other people, when he asks them about the animals, they simply don’t catch on. But the whores just go along with it. One of them asked me if my smiliest roommate is a performance artist, if the animal question piece is for sale. I’m still not sure what I should say to that. We could all use the money.
Which gets me thinking that the next time a television crew arrives I’ll bring one of the art collectors/whores instead of my lesser favorite roommate, and that way it’ll be more natural. They look great—pretentious, but great. And my smilier roommate gets along better with them too. When the smiliest roommate asks my lesser favorite roommate what animal he is, he always insists: “I’m not an animal, sweetie, I’m a person. I’m your roommate.” And then the smiliest roommate starts to cry.
Why can’t he just go with the flow, my lesser favorite roommate? Why is it so easy for him to call possibly misguided art collectors “whores” but when it comes to telling our smiliest roommate, “I’m a giraffe,” it’s more than he can handle? It really gets on my nerves. Makes me want to hit someone. Not him. Him, I love. But someone. To take out my frustrations on someone who has it coming. Rich people can take it out on poor people. Critics on whatever they think is bad work. But those of us who belong to co-ops are trapped. We’ve boxed ourselves in. We’re supposed to like everyone. We can only communicate ourselves in “I feel” statements.
“When you call them whores I feel like the art collectors are being judged,” I tell my lesser favorite roommate in my mind. “We don’t know for a fact that they’re whores, do we? We’ve never seen them actually purchase bad art just because a gallerist or curator told them it was a good investment, so maybe don’t call them that, okay? How would you feel if someone called you a whore?”
“Great,” the Japanese television producer says. “I love it. The debate about art. The rapid clicking on the laptop. Now all we need are an intercut with shots of your roommates, so our viewers can tell how bohemian your life is. And we need to re-shoot that hug from the smiley roommate one more time. The first time he ran up to you so quickly that Heiko didn’t have a chance to change the focus.”
My less favorite roommate wants to know if the Japanese producer needs him to hug me again too, and in my heart I pray she’ll say yes. I’d really love my lesser favorite roommate to hug me again, his large arms tightening around me, a firm reminder that it is always difficult to live with people, no matter where on the spectrum of love and hate they fall. “No need,” the Japanese producer says, “We’d like to focus on your smiley roommate, on the better looking part of belonging to a co-op.”
“What animal are you?” my smiliest roommate asks the Japanese producer and I translate it into Japanese for her.
“I’m not an animal,” she laughs, running her long fingernails through his hair. “I’m a monster. A monster that came from across the ocean to eat pretty little artists like you.”
“She says she’s a songbird,” I translate to my smiliest roommate with impeccable naturalness. “She says she’s a red-feathered songbird, who flew here from a faraway land.”
Catherine Lacey is the author of Nobody is Ever Missing and was named a Granta New Voice of 2014 and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow for fiction writing in 2012. She has published work in The New York Times, Guernica, Believer, McSweeney’s Quarterly, and other magazines. She was born in Mississippi.
This piece was originally posted on FSG's Work in Progress.