Lucy Corin Thinks Obsessively About Space and Narrative Time

April 2, 2013
The Bernini staircase in the Palazzo Barberini
Dots from the late afternoon light in Lucy Corin’s study.
View of the Bass Garden
The dome of Borromini’s San’Ivo alla Sapienza
Lucy Corin on the Spring Trip (led by Kim Bowes) with a Cyclopean Wall. Photo: Allegra Iafrate
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Lucy Corin is the winner of the John Guare Writer’s Fund Rome Prize in Literature-- a gift of Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman, and an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of California, Davis.

What part of the United States did you come from?
San Francisco.  I was born in Chicago and have lived in New Jersey, Western Massachusetts, South Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Rhode Island, New York, and New Mexico.  So, I’ve been all over the US and at least visited almost every state, but this is the first time I’ve been in another country for more than a few days.  (Okay I spent a summer teaching in Ireland once but it doesn’t count because I speak the language.)  

Why did you apply for the Rome Prize?
Unlike everyone else, writers don’t apply for the Rome Prize. I got a letter in the mail from the American Academy of Arts and Letters telling me I was a finalist and asking what I thought it would do for my writing if I won.  I wrote about the novel I’ve been working on (The Swank Hotel).  I wrote about the relationship between thinking obsessively about space and the idea of narrative architecture without really knowing about architecture; self-consciousness with being “American” in a provincial way, having travelled very little; thinking obsessively about narrative time when actual history tends to feel like “lava, dinosaurs, Abraham Lincoln, yesterday.”  In the very most embarrassingly broad terms, Rome is the place to think about the western history of time and space, and to do it surrounded by people who are ready to expose and complicate every assumption I ever had about the place is nothing less than ideal.

Have you had any "eureka!" moments or unanticipated breakthroughs in the course of your work here?
I was on an academy visit with art restorers and stepped behind a screen into a burst of rich almost roiling reds.  I was so close to these extraordinary frescoed horses and soldiers that I felt I was standing among them.  I remembered that my mother had a restoration job for a short time when I was a child, and that I sometimes ran around the museum on my own after school before she got off work.  I remembered a story about her having been invited to study painting in Florence and not being able to go, and I finally had the sense that the way Rome could be in my book was that it would be a place to which a character was denied access.  I felt this whoosh of emotion that comes with unexpected coherence.

What aspect of your project are you most looking forward to?
Well, I love writing.  I love isolating myself in my study.  The hard part is coming out before I’m totally out of steam because that can mess up the next day.

What part of your project has been or do you anticipate will be the most challenging?
Understanding when it’s done.

What's surprised you most about living in Rome?
My inability to just “pick up” Italian as if by osmosis.  I say this rolling my eyes at myself.

How have you managed the balance between your work (time in the studio/study) and engagement with Rome and Italy (travel, sightseeing, interactions with locals)?
I wake at 7 and work on the book until 1.  After lunch I can read or go into Rome.  I go on every possible Academy excursion.  If I take a full day off I spend a full day in and don’t leave my study except for meals and one hour of exercise. This is to say I am pigheaded about my schedule.

How do you anticipate your Rome Prize Fellowship will influence future work?
I feel more autonomous, more capable, more able to own my ambitions and understand, without denigration, my limitations. I also know that the more time I have to write, the more I build stamina, and that knowledge will influence the way I organize and prioritize my writing time in the future.  This time has allowed me to approach the long form in a way I’ve never been able to do before.  

What is your favorite spot at the Academy? or in Rome?
At the Academy, it’s when the dots come through my study window-shade in late afternoon, or when I see the light shift to a certain white outside my window and know that if I run upstairs to the roof balcony there will probably be a rainbow. In Rome I love the Villa Pamphili with the green parakeets and all the bizarrely well-behaved dogs.  I am also deeply in love with the Bernini staircase at the Palazzo Barberini, which is all about lightness, sweetness (a very calm lion walks along with you) and seems to me to make the Borromini spiral staircase on the other side of the building feel heavy and tight, and makes me a little sad, especially because it’s his small white churches that I love the most, so far, of all the buildings I’ve entered in Rome.  The two staircases are powerfully emblematic to me.  I’ve been thinking a lot about staircases in the book these days, and these two got me started.