J. Vanessa Lyon, LUSH LIVES

J. Vanessa Lyon, LUSH LIVES

Zibby interviews art historian and author J. Vanessa Lyon about Lush Lives, a deliciously queer novel about bold women unafraid to fight for what they love, set in the high-stakes world of art and auction in New York City. J. Vanessa describes her lifelong love of art as the daughter of an artist and antiques dealer. She also shares what it was like to work at an auction house right after college and how she brought that subculture to life in this story. Finally, she describes her publishing journey (with Roxane Gay as her editor and publisher!) and the book she is working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Vanessa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your novel, Lush Lives. Congratulations.

J. Vanessa Lyon: Thank you. I’ve been excited to do this. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, my pleasure. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about?

Vanessa: Lush Lives is about an emerging artist named Glory who’s been living in Los Angeles. She inherits a brownstone in Harlem from a great-aunt who she didn’t really know or like, actually, and goes to New York, is faced with this house full of about a century’s worth of objects and life. She takes a few of the objects to an auction house on an appraisal day and meets Parkie. She meets a young appraiser who’s a little bit younger than she is named Parkie. They sort of appraise each other, and romance ensues. From that point forward, amidst the pressures of extreme ambition that face so many women who are professional women, and particularly in their late twenties and early thirties — it’s a story about them meeting and then falling for each other and then trying to figure out how to work through their ideas of success together and separately.

Zibby: And you have a family scandal in the background, business scandal lurking behind the scenes.

Vanessa: Indeed. I don’t want to give too much away.

Zibby: Upping the intrigue. I won’t give anything away. It’s both corporate and individual and all of that.

Vanessa: There’s a lot going on.

Zibby: There’s a lot going on, yes. I’ll stick to non-spoiler anythings. When Glory — Glory’s the aunt, or Glory’s the person?

Vanessa: Glory is the artist. Lucille is her aunt.

Zibby: When Glory shows up at the auction house with Lucille’s silver-plated vase or plate or whatever it was — this is how good my memory is. I’m so sorry.

Vanessa: Coffee pot.

Zibby: There we go. Coffee pot. I had the metal. I could see it coming out of the bag.

Vanessa: I was impressed. You had me at silver plate.

Zibby: She confronts the attitude that can come out of some of these more established houses. I went to lunch at Sotheby’s once. I was nervous the whole time because everybody is dressed so beautifully and walking so authoritatively. I’m like, could I just get a salad? Then I’ll get out of your way. It’s a whole thing. Do you feel that way?

Vanessa: It is a whole thing, yeah. One of my first jobs out of college was at an auction house. Of course, this book is born — not of course, but it is the case that this book is born a little bit out of my kind of ambivalent nostalgia for that particular world that you’re describing, which is so seductive because it’s all these beautiful objects and fast-paced because you have to just — the point is, figure out what it’s worth, turn around, sell it, find a buyer. Also, there’s a kind of academic vibe, of course. There’s a kind of feeling of knowledge and how much knowledge people have about all these, what seem really obscure things, objects. Exactly what you’re describing. I was in my very early twenties. I came in as a junior specialist. Suddenly, I realized it was quite a bit about what you wore. It was quite a bit about conveying that you fit in with this very WASP, very — I was coming out of a liberal arts college where I had gone to school with a lot of these people. That’s why I was there. Still, very white, very WASP, really very particular kind of idea about self-presentation. It’s part of the scene. I wanted to get back into that now.

Zibby: Even her name, Parkie Van-whatever, it’s so perfect.

Vanessa: Parkie de Groot, exactly.

Zibby: Parkie de Groot, yes, of course. Amazing.

Vanessa: Here’s a secret. My specialty is in Netherlandish art, not Dutch so much, but Flemish. She’s of Dutch extraction, which is important because New York. She’s coming out of old New York. Her name means Parkie the Great.

Zibby: Love it. I took a whole class from Christopher Wood. Do you know who he is, the professor Christopher Wood?

Vanessa: Of course.

Zibby: I took art history every semester in college. I loved it. That was one of my favorite classes ever.

Vanessa: My advisor was from Yale, so you might have even crossed paths with her.

Zibby: Who was your advisor?

Vanessa: Elizabeth Honig.

Zibby: Amazing. She wasn’t my teacher.

Vanessa: Yay for taking art history. That’s great. I love it.

Zibby: I love art history. I love it. I almost majored in it, but then I had to take a bunch of classes I didn’t want to take. That happened with English too, by the way. It’s a miracle I ever got out of college. I ended up majoring in psychology.

Vanessa: I went to a school with no requirements, so really, all I did take was art history. I sort of did the opposite. I should’ve taken more other things, probably, but I didn’t.

Zibby: I had never taken art history or even thought too much about art. Recreationally, museums, blah, blah, blah, but not in depth until college. Then once I took a class, I was totally turned onto the whole field. How about you? Where did your love of art come from? When did it really get…?

Vanessa: It’s almost hard to figure out an answer to that, in a way. My mother’s an artist, and so I grew up watching her draw and paint. I thought of that as sort of a normal thing for people to do. It also attuned my eye to just analyzing, thinking about images. Then later, my mother, when she met my stepdad, they were in grad school for English, actually, but they started, on the side, dealing in antiques. That became, ultimately, their business. Then I grew up with objects. It was a natural major for me. Although, I had thought that I would become an opera singer at some point in my high school years. I was mostly just somebody who did musicals. I took voice lessons and had an idea of that. I was just saying in another context, I had everything that was required to be a diva except the voice, so I had to actually give up that dream. I went into the history of art instead. Also, that’s where the pretty girls were, so that was part of it.

Zibby: Oh, okay. What was your favorite play that you were in, ever?

Vanessa: Oklahoma, for sure.

Zibby: Who were you?

Vanessa: I was Aunt Eller. Pajama Game, which nobody does anymore.

Zibby: My school did that.

Vanessa: Loved that show too.

Zibby: Or my camp, maybe. I was Anne Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank, I’ll have you know.

Vanessa: Oh, wow. Hardcore.

Zibby: My camp performance. Not that I was an amazing actor. Then my mom was like, “Maybe they thought you were the only one who was smart enough to be able to memorize the lines.”

Vanessa: Memorizing lines is no small task. Then being able to actually perform them, that’s impressive.

Zibby: Not so much for my acting ability, but that’s okay.

Vanessa: That’s kind of a heavy role for camp too.

Zibby: Yeah. Now that I think about it, I’m like, why were we doing that play?

Vanessa: Let’s go to camp Diary of Anne Frank.

Zibby: I know. I was in seventh grade or something. The whole camp gathered around. We had to wear all — anyway, I don’t even know why I’m talking about this.

Vanessa: None of the Fiddler on the Roof nonsense for camp. That’s funny.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Tell me more about writing this love story and all of that and how you thought of your characters, how you developed that. Just go into that whole part of it.

Vanessa: The book part.

Zibby: The book part.

Vanessa: It’s easy to just talk. This is one of those books that was — it’s a COVID book. I started writing with the onset of COVID. I teach in rural Vermont. I was in my house and knew I was going to be there for a while. It was politically a really hot, difficult moment. I happened to be in the last throes of a romantic relationship, but we were stuck together in the house.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Vanessa: Yeah, for two years, as people were. I thought, I’m going to write my way out of this somehow. I had never written fiction before. I just thought, I’ve got to do, with my so-called spare time — I had more of it. We just rotated from room to room teaching online, both of us. In between there, there had to be something. I started writing romance really because I was so sad. I really was. I was just so sad about everything. I thought, I’ve got to imagine a world where these different kinds of women, in particular, these queer women, are finding happiness and where it ends happily. It’s not about burying your gaze. It’s not about tragedy when people are different. It’s about resolving those differences and figuring out ways that you complement each other. I just started writing that world. I wrote under a pseudonym, the romance. My first one was called Meet Me in Madrid. Then I wrote a novel called The Groves. Audible produced that with a really fun cast as an original. It’s got seven amazing actors. Then from that, I was just like, now what do I want to do? I thought, I want to do something more historical. I’ve been teaching Nella Larsen’s Passing for many years and thinking about it. Her background is so similar to my own. I wanted to, in this case, create a world where the past and the present, the Harlem Renaissance and now, could sort of move between the characters and their stories, but without doing a historical novel. None of it, as you know, is set in the twenties or thirties.

Through literature, through the idea of love letters, I like to think of it as, it’s a love letter to love letters, in a way. It’s kind of my way of expressing my affection for this kind of language between women over time. That’s how the book started. Then the characters really — it’s so funny that you opened with talking about Sotheby’s. The auction house I worked for was regional at the time, but it did become Sotheby’s for a time. Now it’s back to being its own thing. I had so many characters to think about from that world. Parkie is a combination of so many women that I’ve known, and Glory too. I direct a visual arts lecture series at my school. I bring in ten to twelve underrepresented, typically, contemporary artists every year. This is my seventh year, so I’ve met a lot of contemporary artists, which is weird for a Baroqueist, which is what I am. I’m really a seventeenth-century-ist. My world opened up when I started meeting mostly, but not entirely, young contemporary artists. I just thought, I want to write about them too. Glory is very much based on a lot of these really exciting, young, driven contemporary artists that I’ve gotten to know whose names are sort of dropped into the book at various places.

Zibby: I love that. That’s awesome. Your saying that made me think how interesting it would be to have some sort of essay-writing class or assignment where everybody had to write — not essay, but short story — something about all the past workplaces in their lives. We’ve all had so many jobs. I’ve had a lot of jobs over the years.

Vanessa: Everybody, but yeah, you have.

Zibby: Most people. I don’t know. Over a lifetime, even starting with high school, people have had lots of jobs. It’s so rare for somebody to have one job and stay with it. I have one friend who has that. I feel like each job had so many funny people. I worked at Vanity Fair one summer. I’ve worked in advertising. Maybe I’ll just go and write my own short stories.

Vanessa: Those are the books I would read. It’s to do with subculture a little bit, right?

Zibby: Yes.

Vanessa: I’m fascinated by subcultures. That seems like kind of a vapid thing to say.

Zibby: No, it’s not.

Vanessa: It’s like, I love food. Well, I don’t love all food. I don’t love all subcultures, but I think a lot of them are so interesting. I have a friend who is an animator, but she goes every year to Montréal for Formula 1 racing. What is that about? She was just telling me about all the people. I thought that would be a book. I agree. I love it. I love thinking about work subcultures especially.

Zibby: Especially in these glamorous things, like your characters, glamorous places where you’re like, how is that happening? That’s not what my hair looks like today.

Vanessa: I’m not wearing vintage Chanel every day. That’s for sure. Parkie is. That’s part of it too. I like thinking about fashion quite a bit. It comes into everything I write.

Zibby: Do you like thinking about it, or do you like buying? Where are we on the fashion thing? I am not a particularly fashion-forward person at all.

Vanessa: No? I see you in your dresses on your posts. You’ve got your look going, for sure. I’m interested in traditional Italian vintage Bergamo. Azealia Banks has a song that just came out that’s like — it lists all the things that I like. I do. You might not know it to look at me, but I’m very interested in especially vintage and especially old-school Gucci and those kinds of designers. I follow it in my own way. I perform it in my own way, but not in the way of Selling Sunset, not in the way of The Gown.

Zibby: That makes sense. Selling Sunset.

Vanessa: I don’t wear gowns to teach in or to write in. That’s for sure.

Zibby: My latest dress I was in was from Zara, FYI, in my Instagram.

Vanessa: You rocked it, I’m sure.

Zibby: Tell me about your publishing journey and why you picked your imprint.

Vanessa: You ask, how did I pick them? Goodness. Roxanne Gay picked this book. What a day in my life that was. This is her first. This is her new imprint with Grove Atlantic. These are the first three books. The first one just came out a little while ago, Ani Kayode’s And Then He Sang a Lullaby, which is a beautiful book. Then there’s me. Then there’s Lindsay Hunter coming after me. We’re like this little team. It’s really fun because we’re a little tiny cohort. We love each other.

Zibby: I love that.

Vanessa: Three very different writers. Three very different books. Ani Kayode was unagented. I had an agent. We thought, let’s see if maybe this would interest Roxane. She came back and wanted it. What a life-changing experience. I’ve admired her writing. I’ve admired her as a public figure, as a public intellectual, as a person who says the hard things and has the courage of her commitments. Then she wanted this book. It was astounding. It is astounding. One thing that people sometimes think when someone that famous does an imprint is that minions are going to come in and actually do the editing, but Roxane is the editor of this book. You get your document back — you know how it is. You get revisions. You get suggestions. You’re thinking, here’s Roxane Gay saying, that’s not working. This is good. Do more of that. She was completely hands-on. It was really exciting. She helped me become a better writer. You always hope your editor is going to do that, make your book better, but also make you better for the next one. I learned a lot in working with her. I could go on. Suddenly, life changes when Roxane Gay is your editor, for sure.

Zibby: I’m sure. Are you working with her on another book now?

Vanessa: No, we don’t have a current plan to do that. I would never want to speak for anything Roxane Gay. I don’t know what her intentions are with the imprint. I’m kind of going off in a different direction right now, which is a memoir that I just finished a draft of that’s an art historical memoir. It’s my life, my race, my gender, my sexuality told through works of art and my interactions with them from Rembrandt to now. That’s my current thing, which is different. Of course, I would love to work with her again.

Zibby: That sounds really interesting. I would read that in a heartbeat.

Vanessa: Thank you.

Zibby: It sounds really good. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Vanessa: I have a couple different thoughts on that. I’ve been listening to a lot of your podcasts. I do listen to book podcasts in general, author podcasts. I hear people saying a lot, especially younger people — I feel so old when I say that, but yes, people who are younger than me. They do exist. There are people in their thirties saying things like, community is the main thing. You need a writer community. You need people to read your stuff. Yes, that seems great if that’s what you feel like you need. I was thinking about how as an academic, actually, we’re like the anti-community. Professors just are cutthroat and mean to each other. All we do is scathing reviews of each other. There’s really not a sense of the friendly community. It was really different for me to realize that that existed for a lot of writers who are not academics. The first writer thing that I got into that — once I realized, oh, I can apply for things — now I’m an author, so I don’t have to go to conferences where I want to die the whole time. I got into Bread Loaf last summer as a contributor in nonfiction, which was super exciting. I got to work with Melissa Febos, who is one of the writers I most respect. Carl Phillips was there, who’s a poet. He hadn’t won the Pulitzer yet, but he did win the Pulitzer recently. He gave this amazing talk. In a nutshell, it was like, who needs community? It was so funny because we’re there to develop community, ostensibly. He was giving this talk about, maybe you need it, maybe you don’t.

I was really moved by that. I thought, yeah, what if you don’t have access to that? So many writers don’t. You have your job. You have, maybe, your family. You have your animals. You have your extended family. What is this thing where suddenly, you just have all these writers? It’s not possible for so many people. I guess my advice, at the end of all that, is don’t feel pressured to have a community if it’s not something that feels right or is easy for you to access. Trust that you can still be doing your thing. Now I have a writer community. At least, I have friends. I still don’t want them reading what I’m writing. That’s just not how I work. I write what I write. My agent gets it. We go from there. It’s still good to talk to people. I do think most of us can benefit from that. If not, then just do you. Do you every day by yourself. Just do your writing. Don’t feel guilty. Don’t feel like you have to connect with other networks. Just do it. I think that’s the main thing. The second thing would just be — I started writing fiction at fifty. Why not? Writing has been a love of mine, language has been a love of mine, craft has been a love of mine for a really long time, but I had never written fiction. Just write it. That sounds so easy, but I think it’s kind of it. We all have to do it in our way. A lot of younger people, I hear them also say, I didn’t write my first short story until I was thirty. I just want to be like, oh, my god. On the one hand, a gut feeling is sort of like, what do you know at thirty? I know a lot of people know things at thirty. Also, you know a lot — I imagine you would agree — at forty. You know a lot. You will know a lot more at fifty. It’s a good time to start. Why not?

Zibby: I agree. Never too late.

Vanessa: Nope.

Zibby: I think your forties are a great time.

Vanessa: I do too. More people need to say that.

Zibby: I think there should be some sort of — maybe I’ll google this later. I bet you there’s some statistic on, in contemporary literature right now, how many people writing are in their forties versus fifties versus thirties. I bet the bulk of that bell curve is in the forties, if I had to guess.

Vanessa: I wonder. I’d be super curious. In the publishing industry, it feels like it’s run — it is. I do think this is true. It is largely run at the agent and editor level by white women in their thirties. I’ve had some really great editors and agents in that pocket, or editors because my agent isn’t. It can feel very, oh, wow, I seem like an elder to you. You have no idea, really, what my deal is. It can seem like that. I wonder about the author thing. I’d be really curious about that. I just want to second you on — for me, forties are when you’re kind of like, okay, I’m forty, I’m going to do what I — it has happened. I’m going to try to do now what I want to do. Fifties, you’re just like, fuck it. I think at fifties you can just be like, oh, it’s on now. No one cares about me in the way that they did when I was forty. I can really do whatever I want. That’s how I feel.

Zibby: Oh, my god, I love that. That is great advice, the anti-community. Stay home. Be alone. It’s all good. Great.

Vanessa: You do you by yourself.

Zibby: You do you by yourself, and don’t call Vanessa.

Vanessa: You can call me.

Zibby: Nobody else can. Too funny. Thank you so much. Congratulations on Lush Lives. This was so much fun to chat with you. Congratulations. Exciting.

Vanessa: Thank you. Loved being in this conversation. Thanks so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you. Bye.

Vanessa: Bye.

LUSH LIVES by J. Vanessa Lyon

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