Your book seems a little morbid, just from the title. Is it morbid? Why are you so obsessed with death?
I’m not! At least, not any more than the next weird writer. The Suicide of Claire Bishop isn’t necessarily about suicide. It is about the fear of death more than it is about death. And sometimes what we fear most is actually what we desire, which is what Claire discovers in each episode of her life. She is very much afraid of and shies away from looking at her own depression. The book opens when she is sitting for her portrait, but instead the artist paints an image of her potential suicide. This painting of what she’s most afraid to look at in herself knocks Claire out of the stuck-place she’s in. We stick with Claire from her thirties to her eighties. As time goes by, she clues into what she really wants, who she is, what she’s hidden from herself—and it has little to do with what she’s been chasing (stability, a “normal” life, a nuclear family). So, no, I don’t think my book is overly morbid. I would call it hopeful, in fact. It’s about the connections forged between people who feel very separate and alone—often more alone with others than on their own. It’s about people getting comfortable in their own skin, shedding others’ expectations, and trying to figure themselves out.
What’s up with writing about schizophrenia? Have you ever experienced it?
I have never experienced it, but close friends have. I had never read in fiction the experiences my friends told me about—how frightening their episodes were, how confusing it all was, how different and difficult it was to go home and see old friends and family after being diagnosed. The ways in which others saw them differently after such a diagnosis, and the way they saw themselves differently. Through my character, West, I wanted to portray their experiences in a way that made them feel represented, as this is a population not typically represented in literature. And, equally, I wanted others to connect to West, to see themselves in him. To feel empathy rather than sympathy.
Do you think you portrayed the experience accurately, exactly right, according to everyone everywhere?
No… I did a lot of research, but it never felt like I could do enough. I’ll always feel a little fraudulent, I’m afraid. (I’ve heard many writers say they feel that way, no matter what they’re writing about.) I cannot know exactly what this experience is, but I feel a great deal of empathy for it, and a great deal of love for my characters. There is always the risk of romanticizing or poeticizing the disease as well. I was very wary of and tried hard not to do this, and yet I also wanted to maintain my own voice, and have lushness in the prose. I also had to choose to allow West some clarity, at least for the moment, to get him to go certain places or accomplish certain tasks. These choices were all within character, they bubbled up from within, I’d like to think, rather than my authorial hand coming down from above. But I felt I sometimes had to choose story over a more exact representation of what coming out of an episode might look like. Luckily, story and the portrayal of his disease most often were the same and led to the same end.
What’s one way you think about schizophrenia? How can it be understood by someone who knows little about it?
Schizophrenia is usually typified by aural hallucinations: voices, echoes of sounds, and noises from other times in the day. Often these voices are harmful or mean to the bearer. Sometimes they present commands. These self-deprecating voices seem, however, to be coming from without, not within. Things lose their boundaries. In a way, there is an increase in empathy—if you start scratching at a mosquito bite on your leg, a person with schizophrenia might start scratching as well, not to mime but because they do not comprehend the same bodily separation. Time, also, may lose its linearity. Language becomes different levels of difficult. Emotions and metaphors might be perceived as literal.
Elyn Saks refers to it in her memoir, The Center Cannot Hold, as the disappearance of the core of one’s self, one’s sense of reality. At first West knows, because he’s heard it repeated a million times by doctors and others, and because he’s experienced it himself, that people inserting thoughts into your head is not possible. But it feels real. So the awareness later morphs into: why is that reality any more valid than this reality? This reality feels real, while the other reality is what you’re telling me is real. What does one do when one can’t trust their own mind, their own self? It’s a frightening place to be.
But the point is that the last question is so relatable, in and out of the context of schizophrenia. Claire asks a parallel set of questions in her narrative.
How do you depict all that on the page? What are some ways in which schizophrenia is often depicted that you try to do differently?
Films, and some books, have represented the typical aural hallucinations as visual (i.e. in A Beautiful Mind, Nash’s friend is represented as a solid figure in the room with him). But that feels less accurate to me. I tried to explore West’s episodes through shifts in perspective and language, through other speech patterns entering into his or objects losing their borders, and thought-experiments becoming very plausible indeed. For West, sometimes an aural delusion does feel visual—shadowy figures haunt him when he is deep in an episode, or a friend’s face might become evil looking.
And the images we normally see of schizophrenia, especially on the news, are connected to violent behavior. (Other behavior wouldn’t be news, as we know it.) I wanted to undermine that narrative as much as possible.
Would you say that what you’re doing here is a symptom of schizophrenia?
What am I doing here?
Schizophrenia is so often, at least colloquially, misunderstood as something more akin to multiple personality disorder. It is not.
I was trying to make a joke.
You’re very serious.
That’s what people tell me.
What do you do to relax a little and LET LOOSE, as the kids say?
I don’t think that’s what the kids say. I watch a lot of TV on Netflix! Does that count? I love Doctor Who and can’t wait to have time to watch the new season.
That’s… the dorkiest thing I’ve ever heard.
I also like Star Trek. TNG. AND I go out dancing and to bars… sometimes… I meditate and go hiking and camping and to the beach, even though I’m a little bit afraid of the waves… OK?
What do you hope the nerdiest writer will find in your book?
By nerdiest, do you mean best? I hope someone plots out the bee motif that West clings to. It’s not necessarily a logic puzzle, in the end, but it is intended to feel that way to him. It is something that seems to keep cropping up for him coincidentally, while the reader will see that it is one of those symbols that slips from Claire’s timeline and narrative into West’s. Maybe someone will also piece together West’s logical proof, which he lays out in numbered premises and conclusions throughout the book. Or maybe someone will map out all the ways in which Claire sees the painting…
Your book touches some on the politics and feeling around politics in each era of history. Do you consider yourself a political person? Is your writing political?
I used to do grassroots political organizing for the Kerry campaign, and then for Planned Parenthood in Mississippi (don’t ask). But when I started taking writing seriously, I stopped being involved politically. Which is a shame. But at that time, it didn’t feel like I had room for both passions in my life. One didn’t allow room for the other. I felt I had to choose.
Now, however, I see “being political” as an act of self-growth. It’s not much, but I’m doing some anti-racist work now with a couple of groups. It seems newly and entirely relevant to who I am as a person and as a writer. My political self and my writer self are very much made of the same matter.
CARMIEL BANASKY is the author of The Suicide of Claire Bishop, published by Dzanc Books. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, Slice, Guernica, PEN America, The Rumpus, and on NPR, among other places. She earned 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, and other foundations. After four years on the road at writing residencies, she now resides and teaches in Los Angeles. She is from Portland, OR.