Thursday, July 1, 2021

A conversation with Lilly Dancyger, author of the East Village memoir 'Negative Space'

Growing up in the East Village, Lilly Dancyger had many happy memories, from sitting and reading books at the Strand to getting ice cream at Ray’s Candy Store.

At the same time, however, she learned that there was a troubling undercurrent to her childhood as her parents struggled with drug addiction.

Her father, Joe Schactman, was an artist who made sculptures and other art out of discarded objects and was part of the vibrant East Village scene in the 1980s. He died suddenly at age 43 when Dancyger was 12 years old. (A cause of death was inconclusive.)

She spent her teens often in a rage, dropping out of school, experimenting with drugs and staying out all night wandering around the city. Years later as a writer and journalist, Dancyger revisits her own past and father's legacy in “Negative Space” (SFWP), a must-read memoir released to positive notices this spring. 

Dancyger, guided by her father’s letters and journals and interviews with his friends (not to mention in-depth conversations with her mother), creates a compelling generation-spanning narrative — part memoir, part investigative journalism. 

In the process, she uncovers a patchwork view of her father's life while also coming to terms with her own memories. “Negative Space” includes photos of Schactman’s paintings, prints and sculptures, sharing his art with a new audience in the process.

Today, Dancyger, a writer and editor, lives on the Upper West Side with her husband Soomin, also an East Village native. During a recent phone conversation, Dancyger talked about why she stuck with this book project, her decision to move away from the East Village and the importance of Ray’s Candy Store. 

After the book came out, you spotted copies of it at the Strand, a place you spent a lot of time with your father while growing up. How did this sighting make you feel?

Seeing my book at the Strand drove it home and made it feel real in a different way. I’ve been going to the Strand my entire life, and I always browse the front tables; over the last few years, I would check the main non-fiction table and see my friend’s books. So seeing my book there was really cool.

I had been waiting for when it would feel real. Even after the publication date … it felt as if I was pushing this boulder up a mountain for the rest of my life. So it is really, truly out there in the world, in the Strand — that has really sunk in.

My dad loved that store. And we used to go there and hang out for hours. He would hand me a book from wherever he was looking, and I would sit on the floor and read.

In the book credits, you mention that various publishers rejected the proposal more than 50 times through the years. What drove you to make this book a reality?

It was a combination of things. I wanted to give up at a few different points. However, it was my father’s story. And I was doing it not only for myself but also for him. It became this thing where I had committed to doing it, you know? I committed to getting his work out into the world, and I couldn’t give up on that. I’d already sunk six, seven, eight, nine years into this. I had to see it through — otherwise, what the hell was all that for?

Why did you decide to move away from the East Village in recent years?

I held out for as long as I could. For years I felt like I was stubbornly staying there, trying to be a holdout. And eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore — just the changes in the neighborhood. I was walking around bitter and angry, and it was just too painful and upsetting to walk down the street every day thinking about what has been lost in the neighborhood.

It was starting to get to me in a way that negatively affected my mental health and took up too much of my mental energy just getting angry. The whole city is changing. I’m on the Upper West Side now, and it’s not changing as quickly. And I don’t take it personally when something closes up here. I’ve just calmed down.

I’m trying to remember what Jeremiah Moss once wrote: If such and such place closes, he’s moving. I can't recall what place it was.

I used to say that if Ray’s Candy Store ever closes, I’m out of here. Luckily, he’s still there. I think he will outlive us all.

Speaking of Ray’s, in 2010, you and your friend Haley held a fundraiser for Ray’s — the Day of Ray — when he was struggling with a rent hike. Why did you decide to do this?

I had to. There are so many places that closed that I took personally and made me sad, but Ray as a human being and Ray’s as that place — it’s just so important to the neighborhood and so important to me personally. I went to Ray’s when I was a baby with my parents.

When we moved back when I was 14, after being on the West Coast for a few years, I went into Ray’s, and he remembered me from when I was 4 years old. And you know, it felt so great. I had intense emotions about being back. I was happy to be back, but I was angry that I had been away, and I felt like I wanted to be part of the neighborhood again, and I felt like I was coming in as an outsider even though I felt very attached to it already.

When I was a degenerate teenager wandering around by myself, I could go hang out in Ray’s and chat with him at like 4 in the morning. I care about him, and the idea that this gentrification would take that place from him and us was not acceptable.

I highlighted a passage in the book talking about being in Tompkins Square Park with your father: “the smell of water cooking off of asphalt in the sun is one of my strongest sense memories of childhood.” There are happy moments in the book like this. How did you balance these memories with the reality of drug use?

I wanted to show that complexity. I didn’t want to whitewash it and pretend that there was no downside to being raised by drug addicts. However, I also didn’t want to make it salacious and turn it into this drama porn because there was a lot of happiness and love, and my childhood memories are good ones. So, I wanted to make room for all of those different things that are true at the same time.

Was there a point when you realized that perhaps you weren’t experiencing a typical childhood?

It was a slow realization. I think that’s also part of my coming back to New York and coming back to the East Village was so emotionally healing for me — because then it was normal again.

When we were on the Central Coast of California, it was a beautiful, sunny, rich place. I saw that my mom stood out from the other moms — she was the only one with tattoos, motorcycle boots and a nose ring. I waited for her to pick me up with all these sunny California moms.

Back in the East Village, all my friends’ parents were weirdos and artists and a lot of them had drug problems and were kind of strange in one way or another. When I was back in the city, this was all normal, all fine.  

In the book, you meet some of your father’s friends, who describe this long-lost East Village world that will likely never exist again. Did you ever think about what it would have been like growing up in a different time in the neighborhood?

I felt that a lot when I was a teenager. In the early 2000s, I felt like it was already too late — I wished it was the 80s or the 90s. But looking back at it now, I realize that I got the last little bit of it.


On June 23-24, Dancyger hosted a book party and exhibit featuring her father's work at 17 Frost Gallery in Williamsburg ...


Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing this Q&A. I can't wait to read the book. I was surprised to read that she moved to the Upper West Side. But as a longtime resident of the EV, I get it.

Anonymous said...

My next read.

Stacie J. said...

Excellent interview, Grieve! I really loved this book and following Lilly's journey in discovering her father and herself. Many thanks for recommending it.

Eden Bee said...

Lilly is amazing! Happy for her but miss seeing her around the hood every day.



Jill W said...

Sorry the East Village is losing home grown artists like this! She's the exact opposite of who I would want to move to the UWS.

Anonymous said...

Lilly is a true artist--smart, capable and together. It is a shame we lost this young woman to the Upper West Side. We could use her energy here.

Unknown said...

Looking forward to the read..Can't yet find in Wisconsin.Can do ebook but want to hold the book...for me only way to read. Thanks