Wednesday, March 20, 2019

What if just a cough robbed you of your life as you knew it? How would you fight your way back? Andrea Buchanan's THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING is that story and it's extraordinary.

 Oh my God. 

I met Andi years ago and we hung out at a cafe and I watched happily and with admiration as she became quite famous with the DARING BOOK FOR GIRLS. And then I heard the news. Andi had coughed one day, which set off a terrifying medical mystery that had her bedridden and brain-fogged. Her memoir, The Beginning of Everything,” about her experience with spontaneous spinal CSF leak, is essential because it tells us that any moment our lives can change--and it tells us that any moment we can find solutions.

I'm so proud to have Andi on the blog. Her life changed and she changed it again. And this book will change your life.

Thanks so much, Andi.

 Here's the facts:
Andrea J. Buchanan is a New York Times bestselling author whose latest book is THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING, which was named a finalist for the 2019 PEN/E.O. Wilson Award for Literary Science Writing. Her other work includes the multimedia young adult novel GIFT, the internationally bestselling THE DARING BOOK FOR GIRLS, her essay collection on early motherhood MOTHER SHOCK: LOVING EVERY (OTHER) MINUTE OF IT, and seven other books. Before becoming a writer, Andi trained as a pianist, earning a bachelor of music degree in piano performance from the Boston Conservatory of Music and a master's in piano performance from the San Francisco Conservatory. Her last recital was at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.

Your book was in a word brilliant. I’m wondering if you ever go back and read it and see new things or if now that you’ve written it, you never want to think about it again, given that it was about a terrible time you went through and a terrifying illness?

Thank you so much, I’m so glad it resonated with you. This is a particularly timely question, as I just spent about three and a half days last week recording the audiobook version of The Beginning of Everything, which meant literally reading it aloud word for word, cover to cover. It was the first time I’d ever done that—I don’t think I’ve ever read an entire book of mine out loud before, even to myself!—and probably the first time I’d really read it through in a meaningful way since I’d gotten the first pass pages back in January of 2018, which had been my first opportunity to read it all the way through with it laid out and looking professional. Back then, reading through it fresh off the writing process, it was the first moment where I had a sense of the whole thing existing as one story, as a real book, and it was amazing to read through it with the thrill and humility and sheer relief of knowing for sure that it worked. Reading it through this time, a little over a year later, out loud, with a whole other year of healing and recovery and setbacks and etc. behind me, was a quietly emotional experience. In a way it felt like closure, a little bit of wrapping up of the puzzling and processing I’ve been doing ever since I first got sick. Being able to revisit it again and have more context for everything, more distance from everything, I was able to see which things I’ve been able to let go of, and which things still snag my heart.

When tragedy happened to me, I felt as if a layer of life had been ripped off and I truly saw what it was to be alive in the world—which was terrifying to me. From your astonishing book, it feels as though it was the same way for you. How do you manage, day to day, to not be in terror of something like –or any other strange and awful thing-- happening again? In a way, the title THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING is perfect, because I feel that it addresses this newness.

It was difficult, especially in the beginning, when I was forever in fear of relapsing, of doing some small thing and having the CFS leaking again. I had spent so much time tracing and retracing my steps, trying to find every tiny little thing that could have led to this, every small disaster I hadn’t noticed at the time, every risk I’d taken that I’d riskily dismissed, that it was hard not to be hypervigilant for the next thing, and the next. But at some point, I realized, this task was both fruitless and endless. There would never be one thing, one solid, graspable, definable answer for why what had happened to me had happened; and even the things I could point to—the cough, for instance—were things that had barely registered for me at the time as dangerous. And while that sense that everything could be horrible at any time, at all times, could feel claustrophobic and terrifying, it actually became the thing that freed me. I realized that if it was true that some small, insignificant thing, some tiny moment I’d barely noticed, truly had been the thing that made it all unravel for me—then it had probably already happened again without my noticing. There was a freedom in accepting that I had no control over it, and in accepting that the “bad things” had already happened. Because realizing that made me realize that my worry was useless. My worry wasn’t protecting me, it hadn’t protected me before. So why should I think it would protect me now? Realizing that helped loosen the grip of that existential terror just a bit.

For most of your illness, your brain was in a terrible fog, yet every page of your book is so intimate, so visceral, that it makes me wonder about how our memories work. In a way, the you that had recovered was writing about the you that was still in a fog. How difficult was this to come to terms with?

This book was extremely difficult to write, in part because of that reason. I wasn’t recovered when I wrote it; writing it was part of my recovery process. And so it was a real struggle. I didn’t feel too far off from that foggy, disconnected brain. I ended up having to do a lot of reporting on my own life—researching through medical notes from my physicians, plus text messages and email updates I’d sent while I was sick, and the odd journal entry I’d made when I had some moments of lucidity from time to time. The half-sentences I’d tapped into my phone here and there, and the strange bits of writing I attempted while sick—a fairy tale, it sounded like; a poem—were like cryptic messages from a ghost. Who was that person? What did that even mean? But I tried to use those, to help reconstruct that time, and recapture it. Probably the most difficult part for me in trying to write about it—aside from the things that every writer wrestles with in writing every book, namely, Is this any good??? Does this actually work???—was that I was trying to create a narrative of a time when I existed outside of narrative, unable to understand or even tell the story of what was happening to me. So the act of giving it a narrative meant revisiting that traumatic time, where my trauma had insulated me from fully experiencing narrative, and that in itself was traumatizing, too. It’s part of why I address so directly in the book the process of creating narrative, and the limits of storytelling, and the fundamental unreliability of narration.

Your rehab with the piano made me wonder yet again about the ways our brains work. Music soothes us, so does repetition and refinding what we knew before. You mention more than a few times that you are an unreliable narrator—but aren’t we all really unreliable narrators, our experiences colored by emotions

Yes, absolutely, even with the best intentions and the most thorough research and using the most precise language. The “I” that tells the story is always subjective. This fascinated me and troubled me precisely because of the way my experience of myself became so fraught and strange due to the dissociation caused by my physical condition. There were times when “I” felt absent, when it seemed as though my brain went on existing without the need for mind, and the process of healing felt like a gradual reintegration. But those moments of separation, of this strange clarity about the dual nature of brain and mind, haunted me, and really called into question who is telling the story when we’re dealing with a so-called first-person narration. During much of my illness, I felt like a second-person, the me that was Me tucked away somewhere while my first-person brain got on with the business of staying alive. Tackling this directly in the book, with those chapters that wrestle with the notion of unreliable narration, the way women in particular are often seen as unreliable narrators of their own history in the doctor’s office, and the desperate need for storytelling while acknowledging the crushing limits of storytelling, was my way of working through this.

I always wonder about process, usually if writers learn from their past novels or if every novel is a brand new terrifying thing to contemplate. However, your case is something very different, as you are trying to make sense of something that had no sense. But the question I want to ask you is more about your NEXT book. How do you think you will now approach writing differently?

I always tell people, when they ask for writing advice, that the best process is the one that gets the book done, and that each book teaches you how to write it as you go. That was hard advice to take myself as I worked on this book. It fought me every step of the way, and every day I doubted it, every day I thought about giving up. There was no moment when I read over something and thought, Yes! This is it! This is great! Instead, every day was slow and frustrating and filled with questions and uncertainty. A lot like healing. It was only in the end, once it was finished, that I was able to see it come together, and I remember reading those first pass pages with something it took me a moment to identify as pride—a word I would have never used to describe anything about my own work. I learned a lot about myself as a writer by writing this book, and it was a learning process getting to know my new brain, my brain post–CSF leak, my brain post-trauma. I’m excited to bring that to whatever comes next, and I’m glad to have had the humbling experience of working through something that seemed impossible and coming out the other side okay.

I have to ask: Are you feeling okay? Do you feel normal or is there a new normal?

I am definitely okay, for now, CFS leak-wise. The procedure I had to fix my spinal CSF leak worked, and although full recovery from that took a while (about two years for all the post-procedure symptoms to go away and for my brain to fully heal), I’m happy to say that I’m all better in that respect. My new normal is a bit complicated, though, as I’m dealing with a chronic health condition that was exacerbated by the CSF leak and has become its own problematic thing. So for now I’m trying to rest and relearn my limits and try not to poke the hornet’s nest of my own body being hypervigilant against itself.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I started knitting about 9 months ago, when I was in the grips of this aforementioned health situation that limited my activity. Actually, I had learned to knit when I was little—my mom taught me to knit and crochet when I was 8 or 9. But a super talented friend inspired me to pick it up again, and after a visit to a cool yarn store near my house, I was in! Lately I’ve been trying to do a lot of lace—I finished a lace shawl for myself and I’m working on another one to give as a gift, plus I started a cowl with a bit of a lace pattern. It’s tricky and occasionally frustrating (and I never realized until I started doing it how bad I am at counting???), but it’s good brain-work, and in the end you have an actual thing you made that’s wearable and beautiful and kind of like a visual representation of what time looks like in yarn.

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

I can’t think of one! These were all fantastic. Thanks for sparking this conversation!

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A brilliantly epic saga about art (think Tiffany), the ends and beginnings of lives, communes, and the dazzle of secrets. The sublime Lisa Gornick talks about her racking-up the raves novel THE PEACOCK FEAST.

I first met Lisa Gornick through her novels, which I loved and was astonished by. But I didn't get to actually meet her in person until she published Louisa Meets Bear, and I was smitten by her intellect, her warmth and I wanted nothing more than to hang out with her. Her latest novel, THE PEACOCK FEAST, about generations of family and the secrets that seem to keep them, is so dazzling, that I found myself rereading pages.  And I'm not the only one, because look at some of the raves pouring in:

 "An intricate, emotionally complex and glorious chronicle . . . Swerves and fatal mistakes abound . . . [in] this magical novel.”

–Jane Ciabattari, BBC-Culture

“[A] wonderfully complex, many-stranded novel . . . The Peacock Feast is marvelously rich in character, event and locale . . . A thoroughly rewarding novel and, though not terribly long, a truly mighty one.” 
—Katherine A. Powers, Newsday
“Lisa Gornick…has crafted a perfect novel in The Peacock Feast… [A] luxurious novel . . .It’s a book that beckons readers to get lost in its tapestry.”
New Jersey Star-Ledger
“Fun, trenchant, immersive . . . but on top of that I got historical and psychological mystery, art history, and several different lush settings . . . Exactly the book I needed.”
–Rebecca Makkai, Electric Literature

Lisa has been hailed by NPR as “one of the most perceptive, compassionate writers of fiction in America…immensely talented and brave.” She is also the author of Louisa Meets Bear, and Tinderbox—all published by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Picador—as well as A Private Sorcery, published by Algonquin. Lisa lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.

I'm so thrilled and honored to have her here, Lisa. Thank you so, so much.

I always think that writers are haunted into writing their books. What was haunting you to

write The Peacock Feast?

One snowy February day, now over a decade ago, I wandered into an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art about Laurelton Hall, the dream-like estate Louis C. Tiffany, known largely for his works in glass, built in Oyster Bay, Long Island on 588 lavishly landscaped acres. Unlike many of the mansions of the Gilded Era that were reproductions of a French chateau or British manor, Laurelton Hall was a stylistic hodge-podge heavily influenced by Tiffany’s interest in Orientalist arts. There was a fountain court modeled after the Topkapi palace in Istanbul, a loggia with columns topped by ceramic blooms inspired by the Agra Fort in India, and a blue-tiled minaret that housed the heating system. What stopped me in my tracks, however, was a photograph (now the frontispiece of the novel) of a procession of five young women dressed in white Grecian gowns with straps that encircled their breasts and buttocks. The woman leading the group wore a cap made from the head of a peacock with its beak resting on her forehead. She and the two behind her held silver salvers on their shoulders with a roasted peacock atop, while the others carried bouquets of peacock feathers. Who had conceived of this horrifying but gorgeous tableau, like an illustration for a Grimm’s fairytale? And who were these young women? By the time I began to have a sense of the answers, the seed for a novel had been planted.

Grace’s details of being raised in a commune were amazing. What was your research like?

I’m so glad you asked about this because the story of Grace’s parents’ move to Riva Crik—the fictional commune in Mendocino County where Grace and her twin brother, Garcia, are born—is easily overshadowed by the Tiffany strand of the novel. I started with an idea about how the hints in 1963 San Francisco of looming change seep into the consciousness of an adolescent, himself on the precipice between childhood and adult life.  Forgive me for quoting from the novel, but it more concisely captures the interface between external and internal reality than I could do by paraphrasing:

Leo did not know about the lysergic acid experiments being carried out in Menlo Park to the south or that the Haight would become the sanctuary for seekers and lost souls from Maine to Texas, but he could sense it. It was as though he’d been given truth glasses and the life he led in the Presidio and Pacific Heights suddenly looked absurd: the navy blazer he wore to school, the tennis whites required on the courts at his grandparents’ club, the striped tie for Sunday dinners—costumes of a bygone era.

I was familiar with the history of the Haight from having worked at the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. As for the communes of Northern California, a lot has been written about the experiments in collective living inspired by the sixties counterculture and some of the newsletters and magazines published by the communes in those years are available, but the era came most alive for me during a visit to Mendocino when some of the original commune members, still living on the same land, generously allowed me to interview them.

Was there anything astonishing that you wanted to use and you didn’t?

Oh my goodness, I fell down the novelist’s proverbial research rabbit hole with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.  Astonishing only tamely scratches the surface with regards to their adventures crossing the country in a psychedelically painted bus dressed in outlandish hand-made clothing with music blasting from speakers mounted on the roof and a jug of LSD-laced orange juice stashed aboard. In early drafts, many of the Pranksters—Kesey, Mountain Girl, Neil Cassady, Stark Naked—and others in their circle—Larry McMurtry, Jerry Garcia, Alan Ginsberg—had their own scenes. I also had a long chapter about Grace’s mother’s last year of high school in Houston, including the day before the Kennedy assassination when she goes with her mother to the Houston Hobby airport to join the bystanders greeting LBJ and Lady Bird as they descend the steps from Air Force Two, and then the President and Jackie, in a white dress with a poplin top and a black pillbox hat, as they wave from the door of Air Force One. You know the adage about killing your darlings. I loved some of these stories for the way they capture the seismic shifts of the time, but my sage agent and editor convinced me of the eye-rolling dangers of having my fictional characters bumping up with these sixties icons—as clichéd as having a character in 1920s Paris at the Café Rotonde where it just happens that at the adjacent table Fitzgerald and Hemingway are discussing the manuscript of The Sun Also Rises. Coincidences are thrilling in life but treacherous in novels.

So much of this extraordinary novel is about time and secrets and the intersection of lives,

particularly of two very different women. Why is it that secrets gain power the longer they

are kept, do you think?

To be prosaic, secrets are like a water leak. You may start off with a hairline crack and a few drops of water on the surface of a pipe, but as time goes on the collateral damage seeps into distant places. Part of this collateral damage, in my view, is that we lose touch with what happened as opposed to our story of what happened such that reality, memory, and fantasy become intertwined and difficult to distinguish. Writing fiction carries similar risks. You may start off with the kernel of something experienced, and then you change what happened, either to protect the persons who were involved or to make the situation more resonant, and end up with the fiction more vivid than the recollection.

In the novel, two women, separated by a continent and two generations, have both been impacted by the same event from a century before. Returning to the water leak analogy, it’s as though they live in the same building but don’t know each other or how their lives are connected by each suffering the different impacts—for one, perhaps, the ceiling mysteriously collapses; for the other, the walls are filled with mice—of the same hairline crack.

Three generations plus a hundred years is daunting for any writer. (Prudence, after all, goes

from four to one hundred and one!) How did you map all of this out? How did you keep

track, and was there ever a moment where you felt: oh, this is too much for me to do? (Not

that I think YOU have this problem, but I do when I write.) And how daunting was it to base

parts of the novel on real historical events?

Novelists look at one another’s finished work and think, Oh, that writer didn’t trudge through the swampy confusion I did! The Peacock Feast required an insane amount of work: the research (not only about the Tiffany and Freud families and the 1960s, but also about hospice work and capital punishment in Texas in the 1970s and 1980s, when youth were executed), figuring out the structure, threading the mystery the secret spurred with the hope that it would both come as a surprise and seem inevitable. Because I was committed to respecting what I know of historical reality, I had to keep elaborate timelines about the relevant dates of events in the lives of Louis C. Tiffany, Dorothy and Robert Burlingham, the Freud family, and Grace Slick—and then make sure that when my fictional characters interacted with the historical ones, the sequences aligned.

I always wonder about process, if writers learn from their past novels or if every novel is a

brand new terrifying thing to contemplate. Can you talk about this please?

One of the main distinctions, I think, between literary fiction and genre fiction is that literary fiction writers are always trying to do something new: to stretch the boundaries both of what they’ve accomplished with their prior work and what the ever-changing form of the novel itself has done. Given that aim, for me, writing never becomes easier. What has changed is that I better understand my own process: the need to allow for confusion, for days when the work feels wooden, for how God-awful my early drafts are, for the role of reading in my work—and I better understand how and when to receive feedback and what to do with it. It’s a painful endeavor at nearly every phase of the process.  The longer I work at fiction, which, in my case feels more like an obsession or fate than a choice, the more I believe the overused saying: don’t become a writer unless there’s no other way you can imagine a satisfying life.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m obsessed these days with conciseness on every level and how that relates to the compression and depiction of deep feeling, and with the resonances between structure in music and structure in novels. It’s all a bit wonky and an excuse for a lot of reading, which is a great pleasure for me.  And, like so many of us, I’m obsessed with the boundary between memoir and novels, and between truth and fiction: the ethics as well as the artistry.

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

You’ve asked marvelous questions, and I think I’ve said enough for readers to have a hunch as to whether my book will sing to them now. Thank you!