March 06, 2012
I owe a debt of gratitude to Jonathan Franzen.
It was because of him that I met Mira Bartók, whose book The Memory Palace I mentioned in an essay about Franzen’s misguided attack on eBooks. In one of those twists of meta-synchronicity that makes me suspect I’m in an episode of Star Trek, Bartók read my essay, “tweeted” it, and I—having only joined Twitter a couple weeks earlier—saw it.
I thanked her—again via Twitter—and the rest, as they say, is history.
In the weeks since our meeting, I’ve had the great good fortune to have an online dialogue with her, about art, Israel, life, memory, and her process. She’s funny, incisive and thoughtful, and despite a difficult childhood, lives life according to a simple no-nonsense ethos: Life is hard; go easy on each other and make art.
The Memory Palace is two stories twining together in a delicate dance: Mira’s experience growing up in a family living under a cloud of severe mental illness; and the second tale about trying to rebuild her past and her damaged memory after a car she’s in is struck by a semi-truck. (Her traumatic brain injury is an unfortunately-delayed diagnosis of a contrecoup—her head being smashed between two points in a back-and-forth motion, bruising her brain.) Each chapter of the memoir opens into a room in Mira’s “memory palace,” the mental construct she concocts to restore her flagging memories. It unfolds like a dream: with arches and doorways, strange vistas and totemic figures, these details anchor each fleeing, hazy memory to a specific place in her mind. Through these doorways and rooms her story is re-formed, and we walk with her through her confusing and messy life with a tragically mentally ill mother.
Bartók is a Chicago-born artist, writer and commentator for NPR. She has written twenty-eight books for children and her writing for adults has appeared in several literary journals and anthologies. Her paintings, illustrations and artist books have been exhibited all over the United States and abroad. She lives in Western Massachusetts where she runs Mira’s List, a blog that helps artists find funding and international residencies and North of Radio, a multi-media collaborative. You can find her at: mirabartok.com.
The Memory Palace, which was released last year on Free Press, is up for The National Book Critics Award on March 8, 2012. —QM
It’s been a little over a year since The Memory Palace was released, but much has changed in publishing in the same short period. Are the changes affecting how you approach your current projects?
That’s a great question; no one has asked me that!
I think that we now live in a time of both extreme fear and extreme artistic possibility. The publishing industry, like many institutions and people during times of economic hardship, has become more short-sighted and smaller in its vision. They are more likely to publish celebrities or capitalize on well-established trends. But at the same time, many people, myself included, feel like, “Well, what the hell? Let’s go for it.” I’ll stick to my vision. I am willing to compromise in order to get something out there, in the spirit of good collaboration with a publishing team, but I’ll still push for those things that really matter. I will never write for a market or do art for a market. I can only be driven by the project I am obsessed with.
For in the end, it’s all about obsession, passion and authenticity.
Because of budget constraints and the poor economy, there were also constraints on how MP would be realized. Do you have plans for a special edition?
I wanted it to be in color with larger pictures. But I also wanted it to be more accessible price-wise. If I felt like my book was going to have a small niche audience, I probably would have gone to a more experimental press, gotten a smaller advance but perhaps created a more beautiful book. But I felt like the story itself was more important than the artwork, and that my book was probably going to be read by a lot of people. It’s all about choosing your battles wisely. And if my book does really well, I will go ahead and try to make a full-color limited edition.
Many publishers are scared of doing projects that are more visual in nature because of the obvious extra printing costs—heavier paper, better design, etc. which all means a higher priced book. But then there’s always that place that takes a chance. Usually it’s a smaller press, like McSweeney’s or an unusual press like Small Beer Press out here in Western Massachusetts. But in my case, I think that the story was really more important than the art. Yes, it would make a cool iPad app or book and maybe down the road it will be that. And I actually filmed the creation of my palace wall, so I have a lot of stop-action footage. I used some of that in my book trailer.
My current book projects are both illustrated books. Very visual in nature. But they will be for the Young Adult/Children’s book market where you already see a lot of money going into design and production.
I’m also working on a radio documentary that will have a sound design and gallery installation component. That project is completely out of the realm of publishing, although because it deals with memory and family narrative, it will—if it’s broadcast—be a nice followup to The Memory Palace.
The brain injury you incurred left you easily exhausted, overwhelmed by stimuli, unable to remember the words you had written the day before. What process did you develop to complete MP?
I tried to convince my friends and family that going out to dinner in a group or talking on the phone etc. meant that I could not write the next day. So when I was working on the book I had to isolate myself a lot; most people didn’t understand why. People think that if you look and sound fine, nothing is wrong with you.
In the beginning, I forgot what I wrote every day. So I ended up drawing on my history of working in museums and I built a little cabinet for my book. Each section was for a chapter. And at the end of the day I placed printed pages or sketches inside each little section so I could check those drawers the following morning. I also wrote a lot of the book on a voice recorder. I usually write out loud first; that helped since I had a recording of it.
Then of course, I used pictures all the time: I forgot words or ideas so I used drawing to help.
Finally there was the huge palace I painted in the end, with each chapter opening with an image from the palace, each image standing for a past event.
Animals are almost totemic in your book; they appear at emotionally poignant moments. They represent this interior symbolism, a personal mythology. How do they play in your work and your writing?
Oh, Quenby, animals live everywhere in my brain!
I remember taking one of those cognitive tests after my brain injury where they ask you all kinds of questions for everything from deficiencies in sequential learning, to motor control, to short- and long-term memory, facial recognition, etc. I was supposed to list all the animals I could, as fast as I could. Up to that point, I had been doing so horribly on my tests.
When the doctor said ‘animals’ I guess my brain lit up! I said, “Well, let’s start with Australian marsupials, shall we?” And I the proceeded to list a litany of animals in various countries until the timer buzzed.
I love creatures. I draw them all the time. I love fairy tales and folk tales that feature animals, both made up and real. I even worked in a zoo for a while in conservation education.
On a personal level, when I was a child, aside from having a dog as a companion, I also dealt with my insane family by ‘becoming’ different animals. When I wanted to feel invisible, I became a bird in a tree. When I wanted to be left alone, I was a cat. I even went so far as to crawl under the table and pretend to claw at people. (My cat name was “Myroni,” by the way.) When I needed to feel powerful, I transformed into a horse. So naturally, my work draws from those ancient stories where humans turn into animals and birds and then back again.
And, well, most people don’t know that I carry an odd little stuffed penquin with me when I travel.
Okay, there. You all know now. I’m out of the closet about my penguin.
You write of your schizophrenic mother, “In every memory about her, there is a melody hidden inside my brain.” How does music aid or complement your memory?
In the process of writing the book I tracked down old recordings that I listened to with my mom. I also played some of them on the piano and that triggered many memories. And in my mom’s diaries, she mentioned certain pieces all the time. When I’d find one of those lines, I would track down the piece and listen. An example of this is this line she wrote in one of her diaries from the 1990s: “When I hear Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5 in A major, I always think of the girls, Myra especially.” Naturally, I immediately listened to that piece!
I work a lot with music. And as I work on these new projects, I am also imagining them as iPad books or apps, with sound and animation. I hear a sound track with certain projects. And I try, but don’t always succeed, in timing my periods at the computer so that I take music breaks, playing the ukulele or fiddle or whatever is lying around.
You find comfort in the order of Linnaeus, and feel safe in an early job in Chicago’s Field Museum. What’s your attraction to the natural sciences and how does it complement your art?
Oh, the ordering of chaos, the oddity of it all. The history of wonder. The intersection of art and science, science and religion. And the history of evolution. It gives me hope and a keen sense of wonder. I think my attraction to natural science adds a strange tension between the real and the so-called unreal.
I’m a fabulist at heart, or what used to be called magical realism. I live on the ecotone—that borderland between nature and civilization, between the real and the imagined, between the scientific and the dreamworld of art.
There’s a subtext of religion in The Memory Palace: You go to Israel to live for a while, your grandfather is Russian Orthodox, you are rescued briefly from your mother as a teenager by a born-again Christian family. You are secular, but as an artist, religious art and iconography plays a huge role in your life, as does mythology. Can you talk about the friction (or harmony) of this?
I find most organized religions frightening. They are exclusive by nature and are the cause of such strife, poverty, overpopulation and genocide in the world. And yet, their iconography and myths are extraordinary. I see them as an amazing source of stories and pictures. So yes, there’s friction and beauty in all of this. I suppose, if I had to say I do anything ‘spiritual’ at all, it’s meditation (and spending time in the natural world). I respect Tibetan Buddhism a lot and I have great respect for the Dalai Lama.
That said, other than the big HH [His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet], I think many New Age gurus, powerful religious leaders, etc. are not only silly but dangerous. We’re all so hungry for some kind of authentic meaning in our lives, especially us over-consuming Americans. But people should just make art or grow food or build amazing communities and play music together and so on, and stop with all this crazy organized-religion business.
Oops. I think I just made a bunch of my readers mad now. Oh well.
There you have it. My opinion. Go ahead and believe what you want. Just don’t leave your brochures on my porch and don’t tell me I’m going to burn in hell. Or that I’m not a real Jew if I think Palestinians have rights too. Or if I eat bacon–which personally, I think of as the gateway-meat for by-the-book vegans. Thank you.
By the end of MP, your own mental state is compromised by a terrible accident which goes misdiagnosed for months, but which also leaves you feeling a great sympathy for your mother’s schizophrenic mind. How has the healing progress been since her death, both mentally and psychically?
Well, since I spent so much time working on my memory and my writing skills in the process of forming this book (especially after my mom passed away), I think that, due to the wonders of neuroplasticity, my brain has actually improved. Not completely, but some things have definitely improved. My memory is better and my writing ability is better as well.
When I began the book, I couldn’t remember what I wrote from one day to the next and now I usually can. Emotionally, it has been a great healing process as well because by facing certain traumatic experiences over and over while writing the book, then editing those sections and ultimately reading some of those things in public—I feel more whole in a way. The past feels more connected to my present and that’s a wonderful thing.
You came back with your sister to help your mother die in the last month of her life, in a breathtaking and moving bit of closure. But there’s always the nagging sense of guilt and the wish that you could have done more for her in life. How do you address this part of grieving?
You know, I have talked to so many people about this, even people who didn’t deal with mental illness in their family. We always feel like we wished we could have done more, been a better parent, daughter, sibling, friend. I think I feel less guilt now that I wrote the book but I am also much more aware of how life is precious. How our friends and family are precious and how little time we have on this earth to love one another. We just better do the best job we can.
In some ways, I have a very straight forward no-nonsense view of death: It happens to everyone. It’s tragic. And terribly, terribly sad. But we face it and move on. Death defines life and I guess I’m one of those the glass-is-half-full kind of people. I don’t dwell in grief. I go through it, and then I make art. I move with the living. Hopefully, for a long, long time!
Your life with—and without—your mother was fractious and unstable because of her severe mental illness. Where is peace?
The woods, the sea, the rivers, my dog, staring at moss, skating on ponds, stars, playing music, drawing, dancing, making stuff with friends, loving my family and friends, singing, reading pictures books, being in museums, listening to music, gardening….the list is long.
As a child standing in your grandfather’s Russian Orthodox church, you look at the religious paintings of saints and ask, “Can a painting save a person’s life?” What’s the answer?
It certainly worked for me! Art saves lives. Music does, books do, all these enchanted things that nourish the soul and make us truly human. And let us not forget nature. And all those animals I mentioned earlier!