ABOVE: MARCY DERMANSKY. PHOTO COURTESY OF WHITNEY LAWSON.
Marcy Dermansky’s latest novel The Red Car (W.W. Norton) is a lyrical, sometimes fanciful tale about loss and coming into one’s own. Protagonist Leah lives in a small Queens, New York apartment with her controlling, needy husband. When her old mentor and friend dies and leaves Judy her beloved red sports car, Judy’s longing for her past as a young dreamer living in San Francisco is suddenly made manifest as a harsher reality. It doesn’t help that Judy’s voice remains in Leah’s head, a cajoling, loving, and sometimes harsh inner dialogue that pushes her to reach for freedom in her own life.
Dermansky’s prose is filled with a sense of wonder at everyday events, coloring Leah’s journey with pathos and magic. Leah’s uncertainty at her own life choices—Should she leave her husband? Should she sleep with her old co-worker? Should she go see the sea lions cavorting on the docks?—makes her a relatable and ultimately inspiring narrator. Throughout the novel, there is a quietly mounting sense of self-realization and triumph.
We spoke with Dermansky about unfulfilled lives, dreams, and hopes; hiding; uncertainty; and how loss can wake us up.
ROYAL YOUNG: What happens to a person when they feel like they are living an unfulfilled life?
MARCY DERMANSKY: I feel like everyone is living an unfulfilled life. When you reach that point of fulfillment, you want something more. But when you realize your life is unfulfilled you can either decide to be depressed or you can do something about it.
YOUNG: When you say do something about it, that could mean clean your room or get a new job. In the book doing something about it could mean driving to the ocean or seeing sea lions.
DERMANSKY: You can do something small like go see sea lions. You don’t just change your whole life in one big step. It’s the small things you do every day that pull over to the big things, like taking yourself out for coffee and eating a really good dessert when you’re depressed could be the start to living a fulfilled life. Even though some people might disagree because then you’re eating sugar and gaining weight.
YOUNG: When did you come to that? That’s not something a lot of people think about.
DERMANSKY: It drives me crazy, but on a day-to-day level, it feels like I wake up and judge the day I am having. Why can’t I just be content with a normal day? There are moments when I think, “Could I be doing better in this day? Do I need to change gears?” I wish I wouldn’t do that.
YOUNG: What do dreams and hopes mean to you? How do they shape people’s lives?
DERMANSKY: It’s really good to have them. I think there are some people who don’t have dreams so much—they have a job and money they earn. That sounds sort of condescending, but I think having a dream just makes you more happy and hopeful and gives you a reason to have the next day.
YOUNG: For Leah, it seems like it’s kind of crippling too.
DERMANSKY: With Leah, she believes in her dream the whole time, but she doesn’t want to admit to it. It’s kind of like you have this idea that you’re going to be great, but some people go around saying they’re the greatest thing ever until it becomes true and that’s really annoying. Leah just feels that way, but she doesn’t want anyone to know. So she hides instead. She’s protecting herself from failure. Protecting yourself from failure is probably not a good way to live.
YOUNG: You’re rejecting yourself before anyone else can.
DERMANSKY: That is 100 percent it.
YOUNG: Let’s talk about endings and how you know when something is over.
DERMANSKY: In this novel, I make it more clear when things are over than is true in my own life. That’s the wonderful thing about writing, you can take things you haven’t done properly in your own life and make it better in fiction. Some people thought Leah was passive and I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
YOUNG: She has a lot of doubt and uncertainty but she’s also very driven and jaded in a way. That’s not passive to me.
DERMANSKY: If you’re passive you don’t write a novel or get on an airplane. You could be very uncertain in lots of ways but it doesn’t matter if you do it anyway. The whole book, Leah struggles with whether or not she should leave her husband. Sometimes she thinks, “It’s a good idea, but I can’t.” She says this to herself four or five times before she realizes she can. There’s never one “ding-dong” moment. You never know for sure if you’re doing the right thing. Things don’t end all at once.
YOUNG: What about death? Is death a definitive end?
DERMANSKY: In this book, death isn’t really an ending because Judy comes back and keeps on talking to Leah. Whenever you do die people remember you, so it’s not completely over. You don’t 100 percent die when you die ever, because people still know who you were.
YOUNG: In a sense death is still an open-ended equation, which is kind of exciting. How can loss wake something up in people’s lives?
DERMANSKY: That’s the catalyst for this book. Leah’s dear friend dies and this restarts her life. I started writing this book from a really sad place. I wanted to get out and didn’t know what to do so I wrote a solution. I think loss can be useful, you just don’t know it at the time. Nobody wants somebody they love to die, to get divorced, to be broke or get fired. I was really thinking about happiness in this book. I like ending a marriage and eating a tiramisu in the same sentence. Those decisions are not equally important but in a weird way, in the actual second they could be.
THE RED CAR (W.W. NORTON) IS OUT NOW.