More Sea Lions: Marcy Dermansky Keeps Breaking the Rules

“They would not tell me what to do, my beloved sea lions, because they did not care about me, they did not love me, and that was also fine. They were sea lions.”

Children can spend hours in imaginary worlds of their own making — worlds in which creatures like sea lions take on as much significance as other people. Some of us lose that sense of wonder and freedom, while others cultivate it. That would seem to be the case for Marcy Dermansky, whose latest book, The Red Car, is a semi-autobiographical novel about Leah, a thirty-three-year-old woman who is trapped in a suffocating marriage until her former boss, Judy, is killed in a “car accident” that might have been intentional. Judy, it turns out, bequeathed the red sports car she died in to her former employee and friend. This is the catalyst Leah needs to change her life; she leaves her Queens apartment behind (and her angry husband, who chokes her when she tells him she’s leaving) and travels to San Francisco to get the car.

”Everything I did in this book is really to entertain myself,” Dermansky said recently over lunch at a bustling French bistro on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Animal life included: “I put sea lions in [The Red Car] and there were sea lions in Bad Marie. And I felt like that’s against the rules, like you’re not allowed to put sea lions in two books in a row.”

Imaginative play, though, serves serious emotional and artistic ends for Dermansky, who wrote The Red Car after her own marriage ended. She didn’t travel back to San Francisco, where she lived after college, but she did have a Judy-like boss she was close to who passed away fifteen years ago. “Sometimes you don’t know how to process things, and so you end up writing about the things you’re thinking about,” Dermansky says. “And so the things I was thinking about in my life came out in Leah’s story. She got to make mistakes and go on an adventure . . . I sent her somewhere I wanted to go.”

The Red Car began as a writing exercise: Dermansky wanted to write a novel in the vein of one of her favorite authors, Haruki Murakami. To prepare, she reread a bunch of his books and copied his structure: a prologue, followed by jumping ahead six years and then a decade. There are references to the author in The Red Car, including naming a character Yumiko (the name of Murakami’s niece). And like the famous author, she bases the fictional character on herself: “I really think every Murakami narrator in his own way is really Haruki Murakami,” she says. “They write and exercise and they like all the things he likes.”

Dermansky also included some of the magic realism Murakami is known for; the car Leah inherits, for instance, miraculously fixes itself (regenerate is the word she uses — I can’t help but think of Doctor Who) after the accident. When other people try to drive it, the car goes dangerously fast, as if it has a will of its own — or perhaps it’s haunted by Judy, whose voice still lives in Leah’s head.

“I’m always hearing people talk to me,” Dermansky says. “I do something, and I’m like, What would my sister think?” It took two years after she got divorced to stop hearing her ex-husband criticize her. “That’s not his fault; that’s my fault,” she says.

It took less than a year to write The Red Car, and Dermansky didn’t delete anything. “That’s not normally my experience,” Dermansky says. The result is a slim, seductive book about a complicated character who is stuck in a monotonous, unhappy life until suddenly, she’s given the keys to a new one. It’s Leah’s self-doubt and deadpan observations that fuel the engine of the novel.

”I’m always really interested in what a character is thinking, like everything they do,” Dermansky says. “If you don’t talk about their thinking, then what’s the point of what they’re doing?” Appropriately, Leah’s thoughts and voice are the center of The Red Car, tinged with humor and melancholy as she tries to figure out what her life is all about. It’s a story that doesn’t dodge mistakes but proposes to be as much about opportunities as it is about guilt: “I did a lot of not so good things, but somehow I did not doubt my goodness,” the narrator thinks at one point.

Instead of going on her own adventurous road trip, Dermansky recently moved to Montclair, New Jersey with her seven-year-old daughter, Nina. She pays her bills by providing editing services for other writers. When she’s not writing or editing, she enjoys drawing because “it’s easier than writing. You make a drawing and then it’s done.” Earlier this year, Dermansky gave me a compelling drawing she made of a bright red car. It’s quirky and original, just like she is.

Nina attended one of her mother’s readings not long ago, and she insisted they make lemonade to bring to the event. (“But an hour before the reading here I am, cutting up lemons and sugar and it’s sticky and always makes a mess. I’m having to carry it down the street and we spill it. I’m like, This is the worst idea I’ve ever had.”) Dermansky read from the most innocuous scene she could find: “I read this part where [Leah] goes to see her friend and she just shows up and there’s a box of kitten t-shirts, so I thought Nina would like the kitten T-shirts. And what I didn’t realize is, Oh, they’re kitten T-shirts but they’re all taking drugs.” Nina wasn’t listening to the reading, as it turns out, but at the end of the evening she astutely calculated how many books her mother had sold and decided she made enough money to buy her a book. “I bought her Bad Kitty. She’s really into Bad Kitty books right now.”