CNF Conversations: An Interview with Patrick Madden

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Patrick MaddenSublime PhysickUniversity of Nebraska Press, 2016.

Patrick Madden is the author of Sublime Physick (2016) and Quotidiana (2010), winner of Foreword Reviews and Independent Publisher book of the year awards, and finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award. His personal essays, nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and noted in the Best American Essays six times, have been published widely in such journals as Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, the Iowa Review, McSweeney’s, the Normal School, River Teeth, and Southwest Review, and have been anthologized in the Best Creative Nonfiction and the Best American Spiritual Writing. With David Lazar, he co-edited After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays and now co-edits the 21st Century Essays series at Ohio State University Press. A two-time Fulbright fellow to Uruguay, he teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts, and he curates an online anthology and essay resource at www.quotidiana.org.

About Sublime PhysickA follow-up to Patrick Madden’s award-winning debut, this introspective and exuberant collection of essays is wide-ranging and wild, following bifurcating paths of thought to surprising connections. In Sublime Physick, Madden seeks what is common and ennobling among seemingly disparate, even divisive, subjects, ruminating on midlife, time, family, forgiveness, loss, originality, a Canadian rock band, and much more, discerning the ways in which the natural world (fisica) transcends and joins the realm of ideas (sublime) through the application of a meditative mind.

In twelve essays that straddle the classical and the contemporary, Madden transmutes the ruder world into a finer one, articulating with subtle humor and playfulness how science and experience abut and intersect with spirituality and everyday life.

Watch the book trailer for Sublime Physick here…in which Montaigne and Sebald get drunk together.

For teachers who’d like to adopt this book for their classes, Madden has provided a number of helpful teaching resources, including a 40-minute lecture on his writing process and writing prompts for each of the book’s essays. You can find those here.

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Julija Šukys: First of all, Pat, thank you for this wonderful book. It’s a beautiful, melancholic text, penned, or at least published, at mid-life. We’re almost the same age, you and I, so I connected to the simultaneous gaze backward to childhood, forward to aging and death, and downward to the children at our feet. Tell me a bit about the organizing principle of this book. You write that the “essays all derive, in some way, from the physical world, and all reach, always insufficiently, toward the sublime.” Can you say a little bit more about this?

Patrick Madden: Thanks, Julija. I’m really glad you liked the book. I think that the middle of life (whether “midlife” or not) is a long period of relative stasis (I know I’m oversimplifying), so I hope that these essays can speak to lots of people, in the middle of life. As for the organizing principle of the book: I wanted to collect essays under a general characteristic that holds true not only for my own essays but for essays generally, and I discovered that phrase, sublime physick, while researching Amedeo Avogadro, the 19th-century Italian chemist who theorized that equal volumes of gas contained equal numbers of molecules, no matter the gases. We’ve since named Avogadro’s number (6.02 x 1023, the number of molecules in one mole) after him. Aaanyway, I learned that he held the chair of fisica sublime at the University of Turin. I thought it was a lovely oxymoronic term, because it suggests both the concrete and the abstract, the physical and the sublime. While I realize that this department was the equivalent of our modern-day “theoretical physics” (thinking about the science of the natural world), I played with all sorts of definitions and combinations that give insight into what essays tend to do. So this book collects many essays that have science themes and metaphors (I did my bachelor’s degree in physics), and they all make connections between the world of lived experiences (the concrete) and the world of ideas (the abstract), sometimes with a reach toward the spiritual (or sublime).

As you know, I had a group of students read your essay, “Spit,” and the endeavor was wildly successful – my students are still talking about you. In many ways, “Spit” is a classic essay: it combines scene, research and reflection flawlessly. It’s conversational and intimate yet deeply, deeply intellectual, and it vacillates in the most surprising ways between the big and the small. It appears to be about one thing (saliva!) and turns out to be about something else entirely (redemption, forgiveness, self-forgiveness). Tell me about the writing process of this essay.

I am smiling. They were a great bunch to talk with, and I’m glad the essay had a good effect on them. I hope one thing they can take from that essay is that they can write about anything, even frivolous or unappealing things, and they can write without knowing from the start where they’re going or what it all means. One night as I was putting my daughters to bed. I realized that one of them was learning to whistle, another was learning to snap her fingers, and the third was learning to ride a bike, and I had a flash of memory to when I learned how to spit. I thought this was an odd thing to remember, especially because I don’t usually have a good memory. So I began to write an essay about spit. It was all very superficial at first: I gathered all the memories and associations I could make with the literal act of expectorating. Of course, I knew that this would never work as an essay. I needed something significant, an idea to explore. I soon remembered what is probably the essay’s climactic moment, when I returned home for a weekend during my freshman year of college and I discovered that one of my friends was now hanging out with a different crowd, doing as they did. I got upset, we argued, and in the escalation of emotions, I spat at him. Because my friend had since died, very young, I began thinking about forgiveness. Beyond that, as I was trying to get some DNA research done on my ancestry (by sending a cheek swab for analysis), I met, through email and phone, a distant relative who’d never known anybody he was genetically related to. Even though our common ancestor lived centuries ago, he was pleased to get to know me. As we shared our experiences, I learned that he’d recently gotten into some legal trouble, so that the life he’d worked so hard to build was falling apart. I began to see him as a tragic hero, undone by his fatal flaw and events beyond his control. This was a challenge to the dear notion that people can repent and change. So I wrote toward this uncomfortable question: What is repentance? How can we forgive? And so forth. I felt that this was a substantial idea at the end of an initially inane essay.

Some time ago, I was introduced at a reading as “an essayist,” and immediately felt a sort of revolt inside me that said “No! I’m not an essayist…” A few seconds later, I reversed this and thought, “Hang on, maybe I am an essayist…” It’s been a long road, but for what it’s worth, I increasingly define myself as such. By contrast, you seem to have understood early on exactly what kind of writer you were. In “On Being Recognized,” you quote Arthur Christopher Benson: “The point of the essay is not the subject, for any subject will suffice, but the charm of personality” (117). What is the point of the essay for you, Pat? Can you talk a little about your journey to the essay? Did you flirt with other genres before you settled on this one? Do you ever (as I did recently) get accused of fetishizing the essay?

“Fetishizing the essay”! I like that phrase. I’ve never been accused of that, but only (I suppose) because it’s so obvious that I do it. People feel it’s unnecessary to even make the statement about me. Of course, I deny the premise, as “fetishizing” assumes that the obsession is “excessive or irrational,” and this is obviously false. In any case, I never really had any other literary goals, and though I like reading other genres, I’ve never seriously tried writing in them. Joseph Epstein says that essayists are all failed at other literary and artistic pursuits (e.g., Lamb the failed playwright and poet; Hazlitt the failed painter), but this is not the case for me. Unless I’m a failed physicist, I guess. Yes, maybe that’s it. I came to the essay because it promised a great freedom. I had a physics degree, but already before I had graduated I felt the narrowing constraints of lifelong expertise in a very small subject area. In physics, this smallness is doubly true: each physicist’s field is metaphorically small, but also a cutting-edge physicist will probably be working with subatomic particles, invisible even to microscopes, and the work tends to involve colliding accelerated particles then sifting through the computer data for years in order to get a read on what flashed into and out of existence during a nanosecond of interesting results. Aaanyway, I felt claustrophobic at the prospect of dedicating my life to this. Meanwhile, in the two years after graduation, I served a Mormon mission to Uruguay, which gave me a lot of time to think about my future. Gradually I realized that I loved to think wildly, without restraint, flitting from one subject of interest to the next as the spirit moved me. And eventually I discovered or decided that writing essays could be a way to keep my life open and free, to study what subjects inspired me for as long as they inspired me, and then move on. So I came to the essay knowingly, intentionally, and with great hopes. I think now that I was naïve, but also very lucky, so that my life has worked out to be what I had hoped for.

By the way, I don’t know who introduced you as an essayist, but I feel that the title is a great compliment. Most people who would use it to describe you would do so knowingly, meaning that you’re an experimenter and explorer. Continue reading

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with William Bradley

WilliamBradley

William Bradley, Fractals. Lavender Ink, 2015. 

William Bradley’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including The Missouri Review, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fourth Genre, and The Bellevue Literary Review. He regularly writes about popular culture for The Normal School and creative nonfiction for Utne Reader. Formerly of Canton, New York, he lives in Ohio with his wife, the Renaissance scholar and poet Emily Isaacson.

About Fractals: In his seminal book The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Benoit Mandelbrot wrote, “A cauliflower shows how an object can be made of many parts, each of which is like a whole, but smaller. Many plants are like that. A cloud is made of billows upon billows upon billows that look like clouds. As you come closer to a cloud you don’t get something smooth, but irregularities at a smaller scale.” In this collection of linked essays, William Bradley presents us with small glimpses of his larger consciousness, which is somewhat irregular itself. Reflecting on subjects as diverse as soap opera actors, superheroes, mortality, and marriage, these essays endeavor to reveal what we have in common, the connections we share that demonstrate that we are all fractals, in a sense—self-similar component parts of a larger whole.

coverWilliamBradley

Buy the book here. 

Julija Šukys: In Fractals you write of your numerous battles with cancer. It’s about remembering and forgetting; about scars both physical and psychological; about a loss of and then a return to faith (in another form). Finally, this book is also a kind of love letter to the women in your life: to your mother and wife who have sat beside you as you weathered storm after storm.

Thank you for talking to me about your book.

Fractals is a great title for an essay collection. A fractal is, of course, a never-ending pattern that repeats across different scales. Here, we see big and small essays, each of which circles similar but not identical territory to its adjacent texts. The collection has a looping structure or, as Benoit Mandelbrot described it, a cauliflower-like one. Can you talk a bit about how you pulled these pieces together and came to a final form? What was your guiding principle? Did you write any of the essays specifically for the collection? Can you tell us about essays that didn’t make the cut?

William Bradley: I didn’t know about fractals at all for the longest time. I was a very poor math student when I was a kid—it took me five years to get through three years of high school-level math because I kept failing—so I think maybe other people knew this stuff before I did. But once I did read someone referencing fractals, I started reading up on them even more, because I found the idea of the small thing containing the aspects of the larger thing kind of fit in with a belief system I was kind of clumsily assembling for myself—it seemed like it was Montaigne’s idea of each of us carrying the entirety of the human condition expressed in mathematical terms. So I loved that. I also loved the idea of each essay being a fractal, every book being a fractal. Once I started learning about fractals I started seeing them everywhere.

The book itself has taken many forms before I found the one that worked. Once upon a time, it was a much more conventional cancer memoir. I sort of gravitated away from memoir and towards essays in graduate school, though I didn’t realize I should be writing an essay collection and not a memoir for another several years.

I started writing an essay about fractals while also working on the cancer memoir, but it gradually seemed to me that some of the “chapters” in the memoir would work better as distinct essays, and that a lot of the “connective tissue” linking them together was actually pretty bad. So I got rid of that, and suddenly they seemed to have more in common with the essay about fractals—“Self-Similar” in the collection.

I do have other essays that at one point might have been part of the collection, but ultimately didn’t seem to belong. Some of these were more political, or were kind of off-puttingly angry, or just kind of argumentative. I’m working on another essay collection focused on masculinity and violence right now, and some of those seem to fit better with that collection.

In “Nana,” you explore the issue of writing and silence in a really thoughtful way. I’d like to have you share some thoughts on writers’ responsibilities to loved ones and ancestors.

“Nana” starts out:

I had promised my mother I wouldn’t write an essay about her mother until the old lady died. . . . [S]he made me promise that I would not reveal to the world that my grandmother had once, over a breakfast of coffee and English muffins, wished out loud that I would die in order to teach my mother a lesson about grief.

Just as we think you’re going to spill the beans (and you sort of almost do…), this essay ends up being about not writing the threatened piece (except that in not writing it, you’ve also already written it!). Can you talk a bit about negotiating with the dead and how you determine which silences to break, which secrets to keep, and which wounds it’s best to leave undisturbed? Do you have other ground rules for writing about your family, about your wife Emily, for example?

My biggest rule is that my essays are about myself—I don’t usually try to tell other people’s stories. Other people appear in my stories, but the reflection should always be about my relationship with them, my thoughts about them. So I might write about an experience my wife and I share, but I wouldn’t try to write about her relationship with her beloved grandmother, because that’s her story to tell.

But generally, I don’t think I need anyone’s permission to write about my own thoughts. That’s why “Nana” is written the way it is—all these things I don’t really know about my grandmother, but suspect may be true. In fact I recently talked to my mother about this essay and learned that I got most of it right, but some of it wrong—my grandmother did not find her father-in-law’s dead body, the way I thought she had. But her frustration with her husband’s refusal to talk about his suicide was real. But again, the essay really winds up being about my own desire to spare my mom’s feelings rather than the story of this troubled woman who said really mean things to people.

I didn’t actually set out to write an essay about my relationship with my mom when I started writing about what my grandmother said, but I actually learned a lot about myself as I was writing that very short essay.

You use the word “chrononaut” in your collection. I love this word – it suggests an image of writer as time traveler, but also as adventurer. “Cathode,” the essay that felt most like a trip back in time was for me, was amongst the most gutting in the collection (it felt like we were spying on a past version of you). In this piece you look back at a friendship – a not-quite-sincere friendship – with a boy in your youth. So much is intriguing about this text: its lack of resolution, its questioning of memory, and of the facts. The reader gets a sense of how the past versions of ourselves can seem foreign when we look back on them (ourselves). It’s infused with cringe-worthy regret and maybe even shame. Very powerful.

How did the essay come to be so short – was this its original form or did you whittle it down from something larger? Do you think its power comes from its form? (I do…)

Oddly enough, given the essay’s preoccupation with memory, I don’t remember how I went about writing “Cathode.” I think maybe some magazine or journal had a call for essays about memory, and I came up with this idea of my memory being like an old television set where the picture slowly came into view. But I also think I was probably trying to imitate Nabokov, who wrote about memories being projected onto a movie screen.

And yeah. That essay’s really about my own shame at how cruel I could be as a kid, even though I thought I was the hero of the story I was writing for myself. I think most boys are probably similarly cruel—even when we see someone in pain and know we should offer some type of support or comfort, we don’t because we don’t want to become the ones who are picked on or ostracized. Or at least that’s how it felt for me.

It was definitely designed to be short. I don’t think the idea of the television image that sort of bookends the essay would work if I’d put, like, 3,000 words between those sequences. And it’s true that I don’t really remember much of the event—just the image of this sad boy making an obscene gesture at the kids who are supposed to be his friends, and the feeling that I should have been nicer.

Why did you call this text “Cathode”?

I don’t really remember why I titled the essay “Cathode,” but I suspect it was because I liked the idea of my memory working like an old cathode ray tube television set, like the one I’m watching towards the end of the essay. I do remember looking up old television sets and how they worked, and obviously something about the word “cathode” appealed to me. I think because it’s something I associate with a past that I’m sometimes nostalgic for but that I know wasn’t actually better than the present moment (in much the same way that cathode ray televisions are not, in fact, better than the LCD and plasma screen televisions we have today).

Given the book’s obsession with the pop culture I watched on old television sets– soap operas, game shows, horror movies– it seems kind of appropriate for the entire book, too, though I admit that idea just occurred to me because you asked about it.

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On Clutter

Pack Rat by davedillonphoto

Today, I return to my manuscripts. I’ve got both an essay and a book that I abandoned unceremoniously some four months ago. I can’t wait to get back to them.

But there were good reasons for my break from writing: there was our house in Gozo to pack up, our life to get back in order upon our return to Montreal, and Sebastian to entertain before day camp started up. Finally, I had paying work to finish and a new book to promote.

Before leaving on our 8-month Maltese adventure, I sifted through every belonging in our house and did a huge purge. Upon returning, we de-cluttered again, considering the use, value and necessity of each object as it emerged from its box. (Time and distance really do give you a good perspective on the things you own and drag around.)

Keeping clutter down in our house is tough for me. I’m a pack rat by nature, having descended from a long line of war babies whose instinct was to keep things just in case. For example, though my maternal grandmother’s house was spotless and tidy, its cupboards and closets were lined with neat little labelled packages of thread, photographs, letters, wedding shoes, fishing lures…you name it. She was a secret pack rat — literally, a closeted one.

My mother’s house, on the other hand, was just packed – totally randomly and without labels or order or pretence. When she moved out of her condo and into a nursing home (when her Multiple Sclerosis made 24-hour care necessary), I spent days shredding decades-worth of papers, among which I found several envelopes of cash and caches of family letters (I kept both). I sorted through broken furniture, piles of books, nonfunctional stereos, old records, dusty silk flowers, jars of pennies and foreign currency, dishes, and vases galore. I managed to get rid of most of the clutter, fighting my impulse to keep this or that just in case, but I shipped home the boxes and boxes of family photographs that had filled my mother’s living room wall unit. None of the photos are organized or in books. They are in envelopes or tossed loose into cartons. Most aren’t even labelled.

The idea of going through them now overwhelms me.

When we returned from Gozo, instead of putting these boxes back in our basement closet where they sat undisturbed for years since I’d moved them out of the condo, I left them out in a pile. Seeing them every day would mean I couldn’t ignore them, and I vowed to triage and order the images into some sort of family narrative. But even as I resolved to do so, I confessed to Sean that I couldn’t see how. I hadn’t even started, and already I felt resentful of the tedium that would stall my writing even longer.

“You’ve been saying you need a frame for the book, so write about it. Use the process,” he answered.

And a light went on. Sean had given me the key to finishing the book about my paternal grandmother and her life in Siberia.

I start this new phase of sorting and de-cluttering (and research) today.

I’ll let you know what I find.

[Photo: Pack Rat by davedillonphoto]

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And the Whirlwind Begins to Slow…

It’s been an amazing few weeks: there have been fantastic reviews of my book Epistolophilia appearing from coast to coast. I’ve been out to British Columbia, where I gave my first real public reading at the beautiful Vancouver Public Library, and we launched the book with a splash on June 7, 2012 in Montreal. It was wonderful to see so many familiar and unfamiliar faces. Thanks to all for coming.

As the weather heats up, the literary scene begins to slow. This summer I’ll be doing more intimate events, and plan to use the break to integrate virtual book club visits (via skype) into my author program. Check back for a reading guide and book club instructions soon.

But today, Sebastian and I are headed outside to tend our neglected garden. Supporting a new book takes a lot of time and effort, and the poor plants have suffered. With a bit of sweat and toil, though, we should be able to get it back in shape.

Next week, my big boy starts day camp, and I’ll return to my desk in earnest.

[Photo: Sebastian Gurd]

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Author Interview in Foreword Reviews this Week

Here’s an interview I did with ForeWord Reviews, a great publication that focuses on books published by independent presses. You can access the original here (scroll down to the bottom of the page):

Conversational interviews with great writers who have earned a review in ForeWord Reviews. Our editorial mission is to continuously increase attention to the versatile achievements of independent publishers and their authors for our readership.

Julija Šukys

Photo by Genevieve Goyette

This week we feature Julija Šukys, author of Epistolophilia.

978-0-8032-3632-5 / University of Nebraska Press / Biography / Softcover / $24.95 / 240pp

When did you start reading as a child?

I learned to read in Lithuanian Saturday school (Lithuanian was the language my family spoke at home). I must have been around five when, during a long car trip from Toronto to Ottawa to visit my maternal grandparents, I started deciphering billboards. By the time we’d arrived in Ottawa, I’d figured out how to transfer the skills I’d learned in one language to another, and could read my brother’s English-language books.

What were your favorite books when you were a child?

E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory come immediately to mind. These are books that I read and reread.

What have you been reading, and what are you reading now?

I recently finished Mira Bartok’s memoir The Memory Palace, which I found really extraordinary. I’m now reading Nicholas Rinaldi’s novel The Jukebox Queen of Malta, which was recommended by the writer Louise DeSalvo. My husband, son, and I are nearing the end of an eight-month sabbatical on the island of Gozo, Malta’s sister island, so I’m trying to learn more about this weird and wonderful place before we head home to Montreal.

Who are your top five authors?

WG Sebald: To me, his books are a model of the possibilities of nonfiction. They’re smart, poetic, restrained, and melancholy.

Virginia Woolf: I (re)discovered her late in life, soon after the birth of my son, when I was really struggling to find a way back to my writing. She spoke to me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

Marcel Proust: I read In Search of Lost Time as a graduate student, and the experience marked me profoundly. This is a book that doesn’t simply examine memory, but enacts and leads its reader through a process of forgetting and remembering.

Assia Djebar: I wrote my doctoral dissertation, in part, on Assia Djebar, an Algerian author who writes in French. Her writing about women warriors, invisible women, and the internal lives of women has strongly influenced me. Djebar, in a sense, gave me permission to do the kind of work I do now, writing unknown female life stories.

Louise DeSalvo: I discovered De Salvo’s work after the birth of my son when I was looking for models of women who were both mothers and writers. DeSalvo is a memoirist who mines her life relentlessly and seemingly fearlessly. She’s a model not only in her writing, but in the way she mentors and engages with other writers.

What book changed your life?

There are two. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and her collection Women and Writing, especially the essay “Professions for Women.” I read these at the age of thirty-six when my son was approaching his second birthday. My work on Epistolophilia had stalled, and I was exhausted. I was trying to create conditions that would make writing possible again, but I was struggling with some of the messages the outside world was sending me (that, for example, it was selfish of me to put my son in daycare so that I could write; or now that I’d had a baby, my life as a woman had finally begun, and I could stop pretending to be a writer).

I remember feeling stunned by how relevant Woolf’s words remained more than eighty years after she’d written them. What changed my life was her prescription (in “Professions for Women”) to kill the Angel in the House. Before reading this, I’d already begun the process of killing my own Angel, but Woolf solidified my resolve. There’s no doubt that she is in part responsible for the fact that I finished Epistolophilia and that I continue to write.

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Epistolophilia: A Few Thoughts on the Occasion of a Book’s Birth

The day before yesterday I received a note from my publisher saying that copies of my book had arrived in the warehouse, and that I could begin announcing its publication. Though my official date of publication is March 1, 2012, the baby’s come early. It’s a strange and great feeling to know that my book is now ready for readers.

The process of writing and shepherding Epistolophilia through the production process has been long and sometimes difficult. The germ of the book began sprouting some twelve years ago when I first came across a collection of letters archived in Vilnius. Their author, a woman named Ona Šimaitė, had saved the lives of hundreds of Vilna Ghetto children and adults, and then had been arrested, tortured, and deported by the Gestapo.

The title of my book, Epistolophilia, means “a love of letters,” “an affection for letter-writing,” or “a letter-writing sickness,” and it refers to Šimaitė’s life-long dedication to her correspondence. She wrote on average 60 letters per month (therefore between 35,000 and 50,000 letters over her adult life), and not always with joy. The letters weighed on her. She often resented them and blamed the time-consuming correspondence for her inability to complete the memoir that many of her friends and colleagues were after her to write.

But to me her letters were utterly compelling. From the fragments I read in that first archive twelve years ago, I could tell I loved this woman, and I wanted to know more. Eventually, I raised enough money through grants and fellowships to collect the rest of her life-writing corpus, scattered as it was to archives in Israel, America, and other Lithuanian institutions. In the end, I suppose, I developed my own case of epistolophilia.

Now that the book is officially out, I should perhaps celebrate. But I’ve been here before, and I know that this is simply another beginning. Just as a manuscript has to be tended and cared for, so does a newly published book. And switching from an introspective and solitary way of being (that writing necessitates) to a bold, confident, and even crassly self-promoting one (that a newly published book requires) can be hard. Really hard.

Writers have fragile egos and are easily wounded. I’m no exception.

Just yesterday I sent out an email announcement to friends, acquaintances and colleagues telling them of the book’s publication. I received many kind and celebratory responses. Some people reported buying the book, others had suggestions for reading venues, and even requests for interviews. But among the sixty or seventy congratulatory emails, there was a terse one, asking to be removed from my “mailing list.” It was from a woman I’ve known for a couple of years, and someone who I genuinely thought might be interested in at least knowing about the book. I was stung. I felt stupid. I obsessed for an hour or so. But then I shook it off and moved on.

The last time around, with the publication of my first book, I did virtually no publicity to support it. I was pregnant and my newborn son beat my book by about three weeks. By the time the second “baby” (the book) arrived, I had my hands full. That said, I’m not sure I understood the importance of promotion back then, and may not have proceeded differently under alternate circumstances.

But this time, I’ve vowed not to abandon my book to its own devices just when it needs me most. I’ve vowed to be brave, bold, and even crassly self-promoting when necessary. And I won’t let the odd terse email get me down. I owe at least that much to Ona Šimaitė.

So, in the spirit of supporting and nurturing my new baby, please note that you can buy the book hereEnter the code 6AS12 to receive a 20% discount. Of course, you can also purchase it through your local bookstore or preferred online retailer.

If you enjoy Epistolophilia, I hope you’ll spread the word.

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Mira Bartók

Mira Bartók, The Memory Palace. Free Press, 2011.

“Even now, when the phone rings late at night, I think it’s her.  I stumble out of bed ready for the worst.  The last time my mother called was in 1990.  I was thirty-one and living in Chicago.  She said if I didn’t come home right away she’d kill herself.”

In The Memory Palace Mira Bartók chronicles her life with her brilliant but mentally ill mother Norma, and explores their volatile relationship and ultimately unbreakable bond.

A piano prodigy in her youth, Norma’s severe case of schizophrenia created a hellish upbringing for Mira and her sister. When they were young, Norma neglected the girls, and Mira and her sister were forced to make do on their own. As the girls entered their teenage years, Norma’s illness grew progressively severe.

Finally, after Norma attacked her daughters when they insisted she get help, Mira and her sister decided that, in order to stay safe, they had to change their names and cut off all communication with her. For the next seventeen years, Mira’s only contact with her mother was through letters exchanged through a post office box.

When she was 40, a car accident left Mira with a traumatic brain injury. In an effort to reconnect to her past, she reached out to the shelter where she thought her mother was living and received word that Norma was dying in a hospital in Cleveland. The Memory Palace tells the story of their reconciliation.

Mira’s original paintings of her memory palace appear throughout the book (one of these appears below), as do passages from her mother’s letters and journal entries.

Mira Bartók is a Chicago-born artist and writer and the author of twenty-eight books for children. Her writing has been noted in The Best American Essays series, and she is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award (to be decided on March 8, 2012). The Memory Palace has also appeared on the American Library Association’s notable books list. Bartók lives in western Massachusetts, where she runs Mira’s List (miraslist.com), a blog that helps artists find funding and residences all over the world. Please visit her website at www.thememorypalace.com.

Julija Šukys: The Memory Palace tells the story of your schizophrenic mother, and your 17-year-long separation from her, during which time you communicated with her exclusively through letters sent to a PO Box. After suffering a traumatic brain injury, you decided to find her, and discovered that she was dying. In the last days of your mother’s life, you and your sister reconciled with her and managed to find a glimmer of the woman whose essence had been largely hijacked by mental illness for many years.

When you describe experiencing your brain injury, it seems to bring a new understanding of your mother’s path in life. Can you talk a little about whether or how your own memory loss, difficulty with language, and the sensitivity to noise and other stimuli that have resulted from your accident changed your relationship to your mother, perhaps even before you were reunited?

Mira Bartók: That’s an interesting question. While I don’t think I was aware of it at the time, I do think my own brain injury made me, over time, understand more viscerally how my mother’s damaged brain worked. Especially when she was in situations where there was excess stimulation, like restaurants or large crowds. And as I began to study more neuroscience, I understood even more about her struggle to just be in the world. Then you also have to add the fact that she heard voices and saw visions. I can’t even begin to grasp how horrific all that must have been for her.

As far as my injury changing my relationship to my mother, well, I think it made me both more compassionate toward her but also made me feel sad about the fact that I couldn’t rely on her to just be a normal mom. The primary caretaker I really had during that first year and subsequent years was my husband who I met six months after my accident.

Your book is organized around the metaphor of a memory palace, a mnemonic device originated by Simonides that relies on imagined special organization to recollect memories. In your case, you’ve built a sort of mental art gallery that houses paintings – your own and those of others. Each image hangs in a specific spot in the museum or palace, and each anchors a story from your life. My understanding is that this mnemonic technique is difficult to master unless you begin to build your memory palace at a very young age. When did you (consciously or unconsciously) start to build yours, and how?

What we know now about the brain and memory is that this kind of system doesn’t work at all. It was created during a time when people thought that memory was a fixed phenomenon and could be stored away forever. However, I loved the metaphor of it and I also loved the fact that it was an impossible thing. Just the fact that I created a memory palace on my studio wall was an act of love and longing for the impossible. I began to collect and use images for my book early in the process of writing it—making sketches and using images from my computer as memory prompts. Then, toward the end of the book, I ended up using all those images and creating the whole thing on my wall.

For a great book about memory, I highly recommend Eric Kandel’s book In Search of Memory. I believe he won the Nobel Prize for his work in memory research and neuroplasticity.

Because of the traumatic brain injury, you have short-term memory loss. I heard you describe how you would file snippets of writing immediately after getting it down on paper inside your memory filing cabinet/palace of sorts. I’d love to hear more about this particular writing process.

In the early days of writing my book, I had such an issue with memory that I would forget what I wrote from one day to the next. So I searched in myself for a system that would help and because I come from the museum world, it made sense that I create a kind of cabinet of sorts. I put together a cabinet with slots for each chapter and whenever I worked on something I printed it out immediately and placed it in that chapter’s drawer.

I did the same for sketches or reference material. That way, in the morning, I had physical evidence of what I had done. And before I went to bed every night, I repeated as many chapter titles as I could and tried to recall what those chapters were about. I do believe that after doing this for about three years I rewired my brain to some extent, and my memory improved. Thus, the beauty of neuroplasticity!

How long did you work on the book? How long after your mother’s death did you decide to start writing? And did you choose to write the book, or did the book, in a sense, choose you?

Wow, that’s a lot of questions in a row for someone with TBI [traumatic brain injury]. Let me see if I can follow what you just said! Stuff like that is hard for us TBIers. Okay, how long did I work on the book? About four years. But I wrote the last third of it in the six months after my mom died. She gave me the end to my story. So that answers the next question, i.e. I started it before she died and before I even knew she was ill and living in a shelter.

I chose to write the book (which actually began as a book of essays about my mom, then morphed into a memoir with a narrative arc) because she kept getting in the way of my fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. I wrote this book so that I could face this difficult material and move on to the work I will do the rest of my life, the kind of work that I long to do, which is not memoir at all. It’s fabulist fiction with pictures, it’s radio documentaries, it’s multimedia collaborations and dark illustrated books for teens. And lyrical poetry.  I’m happy I did it, happy that I honored my mother in this way. Now on to making up weird little stories and drawing again!

You and your sister changed your names and cut all ties with your mother after a violent incident. Your mother attacked you with a broken bottle, and could very well have killed you. You describe having to make a choice between your mother and your art; between your mother and life itself. It’s not a choice you made lightly, and certainly not without psychic fallout – for me, the struggle with guilt and questions of what else you could have done were palpable all the way through the text. Cognitive issues united you and your mother, but so did art. I wonder if you could talk a little about your mother’s artistic talents, practice and ambitions. Have your own artistic practices – visual, literary and musical – created a different kind of bridge to your mother?

Although my mom was so ill, we had a lot in common. I felt like I really got her and she got me, somewhere deep inside beyond her illness. She was driven to create and to learn everything in the world and to play music, without thinking about pleasing people first or acquiring prestige, etc. I am the same way. Had my mom not been so sick, she probably would be playing Carnegie Hall, or at least she would have been part of a stellar chamber group of musicians and would have mentored many young people. And she might have also become a poet and maybe a great one.

After reading her diaries, I now wonder who the real writer in the family is!

This is a book about memory: about reconstructing memory, excavating memory, but also about its unreliability and its impermanence. The book (in addition to being built around the image of a memory palace) is also, as you’ve just said, structured around excerpts from your mother’s diaries.  One of the most poignant things your mother wrote is “I have forgotten everything I have ever learned.” Once a musical prodigy, your mother seems to have been aware of her artistic and intellectual losses.

I wonder if you could talk a little about where you stand in relation to memory now. Do you see the inevitable forgetting that happens to all of us as a tragedy? Is this book a kind of revolt against oblivion, or is it something more complex? Have you somehow managed to make peace with your own memory loss through writing, or that too simplistic?

What we know now about neuroplasticity, i.e. the ability to change our brain—with cognitive therapy, meditation and other like practices, exercize, biofeedback, etc. (and yes, medication), I have a lot of hope about the future of memory loss for people like me. I know from sheer hard work and determination, I changed my brain and built new neuropathways during the writing of this book. I went from not being able to remember what I wrote from one day to the next (several years after the accident, when doctors told me that I had reached the limit of recovery) to being able to write something one day and remember even a few days later. (Unless it’s just a very bad week and there are those bad weeks of fatigue.)

That said, I do not want to diminish the loss that people feel as they get older and slip into that strange state of forgetting. We are our memories, in many ways. And I have such huge chunks of lost time and lost years. It’s sad sometimes. But then, I am also someone who tries to live in the present. So I guess I just do the best I can.

You’ve written a huge number (28!) of books for children. This is your first book for adults. Talk a little about the difference between writing for kids and for adults. Is there a difference in your experience and approach to writing for different audiences?

Well, many of those books are educational books about different cultures so they are different than writing other kinds of books for children. What I liked best about them though was including folktales in them. I actually do that a lot in my adult writing too. I like to use folklore, both the structure of folktales and their sense of fabulism in my stories and even my nonfiction. I do this with my memoir too. The difference I guess is that you have to be more aware of what age you are writing for. But I don’t start out writing for any specific age group or specific audience. I just start a project and then at the end of it, I decide who its for. My next two projects are probably for older teens but I think they will be for adults as well.

[Image: Mira Bartók]

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“Let us now praise famous men”: On Breaking Conventions and Women’s Biography

Alexander Solzhenitsyn by openDemocracy

This morning I read a really interesting conversation with Michael Scammel, the biographer of Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn and Arthur Koestler. A lot of what Scammel said about his path to biography resonated with me. He describes having wanted to become a fiction writer in his twenties (just as I did), only to find that he “didn’t have the stamina for it.” The urge to be a biographer crept up on him without his realizing it. And the questions of biography — of how tell a life in an engaging and instructive way — came to him naturally (just as they have to me).

Scammel talks about what a biographer must do: wear learning lightly, entertain as well as instruct, write what is genuinely fact-based, and hone the novelistic skills of setting a scene.

What a biographer must never, ever do, Scammell underlines, is lie. “The oath is against invention,” he stresses, “if you’re not sure of something, you don’t put it in.” The one way around uncertainty is to speculate, but honestly. “You have to confess and say, ‘This is what I think may have occurred, but I can’t prove it.’ And that way you have your cake and eat it too.”

All in all, it’s a great conversation. Reading Scammell’s descriptions of his process, I recognized many of my own struggles writing Epistolophilia, but, I must admit, that something was nagging at me as I read this interview — I couldn’t help wondering: well, what about women?

In the whole conversation, only one female biographer, Janet Malcolm (author of many books, including Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice) is mentioned. And, interestingly, she’s held up as an exception in her approach to biographical writing, since her books “aren’t biographies in the usual sense.”

This is no coincidence. It seems to me that there’s a gender divide in biography.

Women writing about women almost always produce texts that aren’t “biographies in the usual sense.” This is because women’s lives (and here I’m thinking both of female biographical subjects as well as female biographers) are structured differently and have different rhythms and arcs than male lives (or, I suppose, “usual lives”). It’s something I grappled with in a chapter called “Writing a Woman’s Life” in Epistolophilia. Here’s an excerpt:

Why have women traditionally written so little when compared with men? And what needs to change in women’s lives in order to make writing possible? Why have women been so absent from literary history? The answer, Virginia Woolf tells us in A Room of One’s Own, lies in the conditions of women’s lives. Women raise children, have not inherited wealth, and have had had fewer opportunities to make the money that would buy time for writing. Women rarely have partners who cook and clean and carry (or share equally) the burden of home life. Our lives have traditionally been and largely continue to be fractured, shared between child care, kitchen duties, family obligations. To write, what a woman needs most is private space (a room of one’s own), money and connected time (that only money can buy). Woolf wrote her thoughts on women and writing in the 1920s, a time before all the ostensibly labor-saving devices like washing machines, slow cookers, microwave ovens, dishwashers and so on. Most North American women now work outside the home, and most can probably find a corner in their houses to call their own. Problem solved? No. Despite all this, we still find ourselves fractured and split.

Women biographers often enter into the text to dialogue with their subjects, instead of vanishing in the shadow of her creative achievement (which, Scammell’s interviewer Michael McDonald reminds us, used to be the mark of a good biographer). Increasingly, we do not take up Ecclesiasticus’s call, “Let us now praise famous men.” Instead, more and more of us answer the faint call of foremothers to excavate their invisible and unknown lives out of the detritus of the past.

When Scammell explains his reasons for abandoning an initial attempt to insert himself into Koestler’s story, choosing instead to write the biography in the “usual third-person style,” I respect his reasoning. First-person narrative, in his context, may indeed have been distracting and mightn’t have added much value to the text.

In a weird way, I sympathize accutely, because I desperately wanted to write a “straight biography” of my subject, Ona Šimaitė in the “usual third-person style.” It didn’t work.

“The conventions are there for a reason,” says Scammell. Perhaps.

And they work very well for certain tasks, like praising famous men. They don’t, however, work so well for telling the lives of obscure women.

I learned this the hard way.

After reading this interview, I’m left with many questions. Here I am on the eve of publishing a biography of a woman, and I wonder about the gendered aspect of the genre that has chosen me. Will women biographers, feminist biographers, and archaeologists of the feminine past forever be considered exceptions, curiosities, and breakers of convention? How wide must the margins grow before they finally touch the centre? Will women’s biography ever become simply biography “in the usual sense”? And if it did, what would we think?

[Photo: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, by openDemocracy]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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This is Who-Man: On Writing, Play, and Fun

This is Who-Man. My son and I invented him over breakfast this morning.

Who-Man is a superhero whose arch-enemy is a many-eyed monster called “Crime.” Who-Man wears a bumpy suit (as you can see in Sebastian’s rendition of him above). The suit can shoot fire, but our hero rarely has to use this weapon. He has other ways of defeating his enemies: confusion.

Here’s an example of one of his crime-fighting encounters:

Who-Man hears a bank’s silent alarm and rushes to the scene of the crime. He succeeds in intercepting the robbers just as they are about to jump into their getaway car.

Who-Man: Stop! In the name of Justice and Who-Man!

Robbers: In the name of who?

Who-Man: Who-Man!

Robbers: What?

Who-Man: No, Who!

Robbers: Who?

Who-Man: Yes, that’s me! Who-Man!

Robbers: Oh man, what?

And so on until they’ve wasted so much time that the police arrive and arrest the bad guys.

Sebastian was laughing so hard when we acted this scene out that he could barely talk (he’s definitely ready for “Who’s on First”). Then he said “Let’s write a a book about Who-Man! We can make the first page right now!”

As we giggled and added detail upon detail to our story, I had a feeling in my chest that I recognized. It was the elation of creativity and play. It’s the way I feel when my writing is working.

When I started writing my first book, I spent months reading and researching and sitting on my hands, trying to resist the scholarly impulses that graduate school had hammered into me. I had just completed my PhD, and won a coveted postdoctoral fellowship. I should have written a dry literary study, gotten myself a tenure-track job, and settled into a life of literary analysis. But no.

Instead, I wanted to write something that could never be mistaken for an academic book. I decided not to give in to my training (better to write nothing than to write stuff that made me unhappy, I reasoned), not shush my creative impulses, and allowed myself to do some preposterous things. Some of the more insane ideas got cut during the editing process, but others were just crazy enough to work.

Fun and play are not concepts that would naturally be associated with the kinds of books that I write, because so far, I’ve only written about tragedies and atrocities. (Though Who-Man may change all that!)

For example: my first book (Silence is Death) is about an Algerian author who was gunned down outside his home at the age of 37 in a growing wave of violence against artists in intellectuals during the 1990s. My second (Epistolophilia) is about the Holocaust in Lithuania, and my third (working title: Siberian Time) will be about about Stalinist repression.

Nonetheless (and at the risk of sounding psychologically unbalanced), one of the ways I know I’m on to something good is that I start having fun.

In Silence is Death, I wrote a posthumous interview with Tahar Djaout, the subject of my book. A chapter of almost pure invention (though I still had to do a lot of research), it was great fun to write. I visited then wrote about shrines full of saints’ bones, interviewed nuns about the meaning of relics, and dragged my husband on a weekend trip to a funny little Iowa town called Elkader that was named for the Algerian national hero, Emir Abdelkader. All of this made its way into that first book, which turned out to be my first big step into creative nonfiction.

For Epistolophilia, I recorded the trips I made with my infant son to find my heroine’s various homes, including a French nursing home where Ona Šimaitė (the subject of the book) lived out her final years. I wrote about my pregnancy, compared the pronunciation of my heroine’s name to a Leonard Cohen song, and immersed myself in a friendship that only existed in my head. I circumnavigated the globe, collecting archival documents along the way.

That too was fun.

In the Guardian’s famous “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” (or nonfiction, for that matter) Margaret Atwood says, “Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

I would add: enjoy it. Living a life of writing is a great privilege. Whatever way you manage to do it, remember to have fun (in the name of Who-Man!) and to play once in a while.

Your writing will be better for it.

[Image: Who-Man, by Sebastian Gurd. January 19, 2012]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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A Look Back at 2011: Reflections on Preparation, Homesickness, Travel, Language, and Love for a Little Boy

More love messages from the idiot by Sebastiano Pitruzzello (aka gorillaradio)

Ah, another year. Like most families, perhaps, ours does a year-end review on New Year’s Eve. We go through our calendar and reflect on what we’ve accomplished, experienced, and learned over the past 12 months.

Looking back over that 2011 calendar, I realized that, for me, it was a year of laying groundwork: I prepared our house for tenants; planned our travels to Malta; crunched numbers and made budgets; liaised with our local school so that we could register our son in our absence; searched for and found cat sitters; planned for my book’s 2012 appearance; started lining up 2012 speaking and signing engagements; wrote and submitted two still-in-production essays; and forged ahead on book #3, the one about my grandmother’s life in Siberia.

It was a year with moments of shock and sadness too: recently my  dear friend’s small daughter was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor. Months of helplessness have followed as we witness her treatments from afar. May 2012 bring good health.

So, I greet the new year with hope, anticipation and a bit of melancholy. Yes, book #2 (my new baby) will be born this year, but my other baby is no longer one. As I cradled Sebastian on my lap the other day, I felt like I was rocking a goat. His arms and legs are so long and his body so lean and heavy that soon I’ll no longer be able to carry him. His health and robustness, I now realize more than ever, are miracles.

If (as I wrote last year) 2010 was the year of linguistic gifts from my son, then 2011 was one of discovery and growth. Our landing in Gozo was, in some ways, a hard one. My little one was homesick, and found the adjustment to life on a small Mediterranean island difficult. His calm temperament turned tempestuous and fearful. Slowly, and only over the course of weeks and even months, did my kinder, gentler boy return.

But last week: something new. We made our first trip to Sicily, where after four days, Sebastian declared his homesickness once again. But this time it was different — he was homesick for Gozo. The discovery that he loved Gozo too (that he could love his home in Montreal AND this temporary one on this beautiful island in the sea without betraying the former) was a revelation.

Part of me knew that this 8-month stint would be tough. We would be bored. We would be cold in this drafty stone house (and, boy, have we ever been lately!). Sebastian would lose some of his French skills (he claims no longer to understand the language, though I don’t believe him). But, in planning this adventure to a new and unfamiliar destination, I’d hoped to give my son other gifts. I wanted him to learn early on in life that there are many ways to live on this earth, many ways to speak, and many different kinds of beauty.

With his discovery of mysteriously double homesickness, I think the learning process I’d hoped for is well underway.

For the past year, Sebastian’s become categorical about language. Whereas he once spoke an “alphabet fusion,” switching back and forth between three languages and words of his own invention, in his fifth year, he started to draw boundaries. There was “his” way of speaking (English) that he shared with his daddy; the “school” way (French); and “mummy’s” way (Lithuanian). Out of the jumble of his toddler years, he’d succeeded in making order, and had even become a bit rigid.

The other day — a small Sicilian revolution. Upon hearing his father order pastries in Italian (not “his” language), Sebastian was impressed. If daddy could do it, maybe he could too. Perhaps speaking “another’s” way wouldn’t lead to chaos after all.

“Daddy,” he said, “Maybe I’ll try to learn Maltese.”

Happy 2012. May it bring you happiness, peace, good health and many days of creativity.

[Photo: Sebastiano Pitruzzello (aka gorillaradio)]

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