Sunday, March 20, 2011

Jill Bialosky Talks about History of a Suicide

Jill Bialosky is a beloved editor and an incredible writer (the best of two worlds, no?) and her new memoir, History of a Suicide, is stunningly great. Entertainment Weekly raves, "Bialosky writes so gracefully and bravely that what you're left with in the end is an overwhelming sense of love, Time calls the book, "a source of solace and understanding." I'm honored to have Jill here.

You’ve published a few books of poetry and two novels. You’re also a celebrated editor a Norton. What’s it like being on the other side of the publishing fence. And what was it like to write a memoir, especially on something that was so painful?

I love the act of writing. It is the way in which I explore issues and ideas that are relevant to my life and I hope to the lives of my readers. I like the private, interior world of creating. And I have to say I also like the escape from it. Writing by its very nature is an obsessive occupation and it is important, at least for me, to be able to leave the work at a certain point and engage in the everyday world I associate with my vocation as an editor. When I publish a new book, I am like any other writer. I have to stop myself from checking my Amazon ratings and not personalizing or over-thinking every review or comment. Publishing a book is an incredibly vulnerable experience. And yet it is gratifying to receive letters and emails from readers who have been touched by a book I have spent over ten years writing and ruminating upon.

And of course every writer feels like a positive review is a gift from god.

Let me address the second part of your question about what was it like to write a memoir on a particularly painful subject.

I came to the memoir form accidentally. I had been writing about my sister’s suicide when she was twenty-one sideways in poems and in fiction since she died twenty years ago but at a certain point the form for the subject no longer suited. I felt I needed to take off the veils of fiction and poetry and attempt to write about the experience of what happened in order to understand the act and the experience of living with suicide. During the course of the journey I kept trying not to write about it, it seemed too painful and personal to do so, but the persistence of my sister’s memory and my desire to give grace to her life would not allow it. I felt as a writer that I had a certain duty to try and capture the experience of suicide and I also felt this pressing desire to redeem my sister’s life and write about suicide as a multi-faceted, complex event. This desire persisted and perhaps it was the persistence that made the work urgent for me.

Your memoir is attracting so much fantastic attention—what nerves do you think it’s touching in readers to make it so incredibly successful?

Thank you, Caroline. It’s been interesting. I was worried that because the subject was dark it would be difficult to get attention for and to find readers, but I am finding that the opposite is happening. People seem to be hungry to engage in the conversation about suicide, particularly the lifelong impact a suicide has on survivors. Many readers are reading the book because, like me, they have been hungry for answers. Many readers have been able to relate to the internal pain Kim suffered that I describe in the book and have found comfort in the shared reality. I am also finding that people are reading the book whether they have been personally touched by suicide or not. My book is very much about connection and family and about the fragility of the inner life. It is a story about the desire for survival and about tragedy and loss. It is a human story and it has been rewarding to find that readers are connecting with it.

I loved it that you recognized that one loss informs the other, and you write movingly of the loss of two of your babies. How do you think loss changes us and informs our lives?

That is a profound question and I am not sure I have the answer for it. I have come to believe that those we have lost are still with us, they shape our experiences, the way in which we love and care about others and they enrich our lives, even if their loss resulted in tragedy. Many people have asked me if writing my book has been cathartic. I don’t think of it that way because that would mean that the pain and suffering has ended, and that is not the case. But there is a certain freedom in being able to come out from the dark shadow the stigma of suicide has cast over my life and that has been a gift. Losing my babies and losing Kim were devastating. They have shaped who I am and what I care about, they are a part of me and I live with their shadows.

I read that you wanted to write a memoir about suicide that was not depressing—and you succeeded brilliantly. I found this memoir incredibly moving and also life-affirming. It’s so brave and so full of love. I wanted to ask, how did you find yourself personally changing in the writing—and afterwards?

Thank you, Caroline. Writing the book was filled with moments of great pain and anxiety and also joy and exhilaration. There were times when I was writing about Kim during the years in which she was struggling where I would lie down on the couch in my study and weep. But there were also moments that were incredibly exhilarating, especially when I was writing about the early years of her life where she gave me and my family such joy. She was a spirited, gifted girl and it was great to bring her back to life. I was also intellectually engaged by many of the texts that I read about suicide, particularly works by other poets, novelists and philosophers and I found the work stimulating. As I mentioned earlier, it is liberating now for me to have written this book. My sister’s suicide for so many years was my dark secret. I couldn’t talk about it to others. It was too painful. Now I still feel those moments of pain but they are balanced by no longer feeling the same sense of shame and responsibility that I had felt before I wrote the book. Many memoirists and novelists will say that they are changed after writing a book, simply because they are no longer the person they were before they wrote it. They have gone through the journey. I suppose I feel that way too.

If your sister had been able to write her own story, how do you imagine it would have been different?

I’m not sure. I do feel that in my book I was able to capture Kim’s inner world. I used her diaries and papers and letters to help with this process. I felt close to her and as sisters we shared similar inner worlds. And yet, I am sure her book would have been incredibly different. I am sure that if one of my other sisters wrote about Kim’s experience it would be different too.

Virginia Woolf wrote that what makes memoirs interesting is the way in which they reflect the person to which the experience has happened. And in writing about Kim I was of course writing about my own life.

Ah, the ubiquitous question: What are you working on now?

I have several projects going on at the moment. I hope they take flight. I am working on a sonnet sequence that I started this past summer and also on a novel. And I have another idea for a nonfiction work that would be meditative, about family and our experience as human beings with complicated minds and hearts.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Your questions were perfect. Thank you.


Beth Kephart said...

you always ask such good questions, Caroline—questions that reveal that you have read well and deeply, not as a task but as a fellow journeyer.

Jessica Keener said...

You have amazing strength. I simply can't imagine how you endured such personal losses and yet you forged these losses into multiple gifts. I am anxious to read your book. Suicide has touched my life, and I'm guessing it's touched just about everybody's lives.
Wonderful interview, Caroline.
Thanks, Jill.