Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Transformation. Mystery. Madness. The whole nature of reality. That's all in Carmiel Banasky's acclaimed The Suicide of Claire Bishop, from Dzanc Books

Let's start with the praise--and I agree with all of it:

"Banasky’s memorable, intricate, and inventive debut novel uses vulnerable characters to probe themes of time, identity, perception, and love. In 1959 Manhattan, Freddie Bishop commissions an artist known only as Nicolette to paint a portrait of his wife, Claire. Unexpectedly, the finished work depicts fragmentary moments in Claire’s life, ending with a leap off the Brooklyn Bridge. Despite Nicolette’s reassurance that the painting will protect her from the fate it depicts, Claire—fearful of her family’s history of mental instability—attempts unsuccessfully to destroy it. When schizophrenic West Butler sees the painting in a gallery in 2004, he becomes convinced that it is the work of his artist ex-girlfriend, also named Nicolette. Spiraling into a delusion of conspiracy and time travel that explains her disappearance from his life and the contradiction in dates, West concludes that the canvas can change reality as well as help him find Nicolette. In the course of stealing it, he meets a man with knowledge of the painting’s past, setting up an encounter between him and Claire that will have transformative effects on both. With its dancing time frames, recurring motifs, glimpses of history, and shifting realities, all united by striking prose, the novel is both an intellectual tour de force and a moving reflection on the ways we try to save ourselves and others.

Publishers Weekly, starred review

 Carmiel Banasky is a writer, editor, and teacher from Portland, OR. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, PEN America, American Short Fiction, Slice, Guernica, The Rumpus, and on NPR, among other places. She earned her BA from the University of Arizona and her MFA from Hunter College, where she taught Undergraduate Creative Writing. She is the recipient of awards and fellowships from Bread Loaf, Ucross, Ragdale, Artist Trust, I-Park, VCCA, Santa Fe Art Institute, and other foundations. She's tried her hand at grassroots organizing while living in Mississippi, and studied for a year in London. After four years on the road at writing residencies, she now resides in Los Angeles and teaches with LA Writers Group.

I always believe that something is haunting the writer before he or she begins to write a novel. What sparked the writing of The Suicide of Claire Bishop?
Years before I started writing my novel, two friends (from different places in my life) were diagnosed with schizophrenia. They told me about their episodes in great detail; they told me about their fears and how alienated they sometimes felt around old friends. I had never read about these experiences in fiction—at least not as they described them. I had also never read in literature an experience like my own uneasy reaction, the fear that bubbled up in relation to mental illness. Madness and the fragility of our brains became, yes, a haunting. I knew I would write about it someday. When the characters of West and Claire came to me, I knew I had a novel to write. I knew that this was the material I would stick with no matter how long it took. This was the big-I Important to me. So I asked permission to use my friends’ experiences as fodder, and set to work.

I deeply admired the shifting structure of the book, moving from 1959 Greenwich Village to 2004 New York, from a housewife sitting for a portrait to the inner life of a schizophrenic obsessed with finding a lost lover.  So this brings us to the question of how do you write? Do you plan things out (which, of course, will be revised) or do you simply write and then make sense of your pages when you are finished? Do you have rituals or routines?
First, I make a big, quick mess of things. Then, for the next several years, I try to clean up that mess. I knew the beginning and end soon after I started drafting. I knew that my characters would start at point A and would end up at point B—I just didn’t know how they would get there. I didn’t outline or plot out first. I wrote to find the story. After I had written a couple drafts, I could take a step back and see the larger picture; I could see where I needed to fill out Claire’s arc, where she needed to develop (i.e. I wrote the 1968 section in a later draft), and I could see where I had overwritten, or where two sections were doing the same work. Early drafts had West in a hospital for a hundred pages, which I later excised because he couldn’t do anything, and therefore change in the way I knew he had to, while in that setting.
 The hardest part about writing without an outline was discovering West’s logic. West, who has schizophrenia, is on a mission to find Nicolette, his ex-girlfriend who is either missing, due to some malicious plot involving Hasidim, or is avoiding him. He creates the mystery he is trying to solve. Everywhere around him are clues, which he stitches together—but within that mad story is very sound logic. After I had written a few drafts, I had to go back and make sense of the mystery element. I had to build a puzzle from the pieces I had created—which was very hard work. But even with this hindsight, I wouldn’t go back and change my process because, in a way, I ended up writing West in a fashion reflective of how West’s mind works.

I want to mention a wonderful line line from an advance review I read of your book—“don’t expect peace of mind.” To me, that is the highest praise. I think books should unsettle us and make us rethink everything about our lives.  Can you talk about this please?
One of the reasons for I wrote this book was to get readers to invest, to find solace, and to recognize themselves in West, whether or not they have had experience with mental illness. And I wanted that recognition to be uncomfortable. There is only a thin line between sanity and insanity. West, who in many ways is defined by (at least in the eyes of others) by his insanity, and Claire, who defines herself by her sanity, are not so different from one another. That is also why I chose to write in first person for West—to get the reader as close to his point of view as possible, and to not let them leave.

A painting is the thread that ties everything together, so I want to ask you, how true is art to life? If we are lost in an experience of a book or a painting, or we are lost in a real relationship with a real person, does the mind know the difference?
West would say that remembering an event is pretty similar to the actual experience of it: the same synapses fire in the brain. This also opens up questions of empathy—can we imagine another’s experience so deeply that we can truly know what it’s like? Some brain imaging experiments point to yes. So perhaps no, on a very fundamental level, the brain doesn’t know the difference. And getting lost in a relationship with a real person, like you mentioned, is not so dissimilar from getting lost in a book: the vortex and pull of someone else’s story.
But while the mind might no know the difference, does the body? I am never much in my body—I live a fairly cerebral existence (writing, reading), but I wish I moved more. I live so much of my life inside of my own or others’ art. But it’s always on my to-do list to exercise and use my body more, in order to address, perhaps, something I sometimes have a hard time with (the head-in-the-clouds-writer-syndrome): being fully in the present moment. I talk to my students about the importance of “grounding” a reader in a scene with “concrete details.” But can one really feel “grounded” there like one can when hiking or dancing or running? Then again, there is the “runner’s high,” which lifts you out of your body through the very use of it. I probably didn’t answer your question at all, but these are fun tangents and associations to explore.

There is a suicidal housewife and a schizophrenic in your novel, which lends itself to an exploration of the way reality moves and changes. Actually, quantum physics says there is no time, that everything is happening all at once and that eventually time will stop. But if there is no time—if realty can shift—how then, do we live our lives in the best way possible?
This is such a good question—and one I ask myself all the time. I think it’s similar to the other plaguing question: if there is no free will, as many physicists claim, do we simply live as if there is free will because we know no other way? Even if quantum physics says our notion of time is completely false, we still have to live in the world, in society, within the boundaries of linear time. But if there is no time as we define it, if everything is happening all at once and everyone is connected, then what better way to live than with that in mind? I think it’s a beautiful notion because it invites empathy. Time, in our linear definition, is the great separator: it separates people from one another, just as it separates events. But if we are not as separate as we think, if, like in West’s perception of the world, we don’t necessarily start and end where our bodies seem to, then there is much more room for understanding and love. (Not to get all woo-woo…) In that version of the story, I am not different from you. Meditation gets me closer to that in a bodily way, while writing gets me closer to that in a cerebral way.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
Oh, probably the same things as ever. I’m interested in exploring friendship, family, and how grief manifests within those relationships. Suicide is still a question in my writing that characters face from all sides of the issue—our different cultural notions of it, the repercussions, the universality, etc.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
 I just want to share one last thing, which has come up for me recently while talking with readers, and which I noticed a couple questions ago. Most people don’t know this, and I didn’t know until I started reading up on it: I try not to use the word “schizophrenic.” Someone has schizophrenia vs. someone is schizophrenic. West’s schizophrenia is a part of him, but it isn’t him. No high horse anywhere around here: I still stumble in my own writing and speech with this. But I have tried to make sure copy about the book holds to this rule, and I thought I might share this lesson here.

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