I had trouble coming up with questions to ask myself, so I asked my wife, who is a psychologist in a prison, to ask me questions like I was one of her inmate patients.
I see that you were placed in the mental health system. What prompted this?
I wrote a book about my favorite authors and their metaphysical ukuleles. It’s as crazy as it sounds.
What makes it crazy?
I didn’t mean to do it, exactly. I started out bored one day in New Mexico, kind of stranded in a diner, so I started writing about Herman Melville’s time with in the Marquesas, living with a tribe he believed were cannibals. The story seemed more real to me once I gave Melville a ukulele, so I went with it.
Over the course of the next five years, I kept at it. I got obsessive about different authors, wrote about times in their lives that were surprising or interesting to me in some way, and gave them ukuleles. Every time I thought about making it a collection, I stopped doing it. After five years, though, I had a dozen stories, several of them had been published, a few had been anthologized or won awards, and I decided that I had a collection after all. I dubbed it The Metaphysical Ukulele. Ig Publishing just put it out.
Tell me about your history of institutional placement.
I currently work at a state university that is housed on the grounds of the former Camarillo State Mental Hospital. When I first started there, artifacts of the hospital were everywhere. There were moments when it was easy to believe that I wasn’t a professor at all. I was a patient living a delusional life. This inspired me to write the novel Madhouse Fog, which is set in a psychiatric hospital housed on the grounds of a former university.
I started writing the ukulele stories while I was shopping Madhouse Fog around. They were a way of getting my head out of that bizarre world and into a different, more whimsical one.
Have you had any thoughts about ending your life or made any attempts to do so? If so, tell me the details.
There was a day when my life almost ended, and it forced me to change directions. I was working as a framing carpenter. Two other carpenters and I were building the floor on a second story. One of the other carpenters laid down a sheet of plywood for the subfloor and walked away without nailing it down. I didn’t realize that, stepped on the sheet, and took the shortcut to the ground. I broke my hand and separated my shoulder. Florida being what it was (and probably still is), I had no insurance and no workman’s comp. So I just kept working with a broken hand and separated shoulder until they both healed.
After that, I made changes. I quit framing houses. I wrote the first draft of my first novel within six months of the fall. I got a master’s degree. I started writing for magazines. I cofounded a punk rock magazine called Razorcake. I published my first book, then my second and third. I got a doctorate in literature and got a job at a university. I published my fourth and fifth books. All so that I would never have to work construction again.
Tell me about your criminal history. And what is your history of substance abuse?
I was about one drink shy of being an alcoholic when I was in my twenties. I sobered up toward the end of them, but my first four books were built out of that boozy, working class world. I stopped writing those types of books partly because I felt like four was enough, partly because I had moved into a more white-collar world, and partly because I was sick of reviewers calling characters based on me and my friends “white trash.”
My last two books—Madhouse Fog and The Metaphysical Ukulele—have moved beyond the substance abuse angle, but they are more criminal. There are murders. One of the stories in the ukulele collection is narrated by an unnamed detective who bears an uncanny resemblance to Philip Marlowe. One story has Chester Himes threatening to decapitate his landlord. Another story has drug smugglers evading Mounties in a hot air balloon. And so on.
What are some goals you’d like to achieve and what are some areas you feel you still need to work on?
I want the Pulitzer. I want the Nobel Prize. I want The Metaphysical Ukulele to be so ubiquitous that other writers are sick of seeing it and take potshots at me on literary web sites. I want my sales numbers to put Haruki Murakami’s to shame. Hell, I want sales that put J. K. Rowling to shame.
As for what I need to work on, I guess I need to either lower the bar or start writing the kinds of books that win Pulitzers and hit bestseller lists.
SEAN CARSWELL is the author of six books, most recently the short story collection The Metaphysical Ukulele. He teaches writing and literature at California State University Channel Islands. You can read by and about him at seancarswell.org.