The Ones We Love The Most
Image: Adam Haslett © Bridgette Lacombe
Can you introduce your new novel and your intentions when you first set out to write it?
To me, in essence, the book is a love story about a family. A young woman discovers her fiancé has been hospitalized for depression, but she decides to marry him in any case, and from that first act of love a family grows, faced over four decades with both the necessity and at times the impossibility of saving the people they love from what troubles them. How far will you go to save the people you love the most? That’s the question the book implicitly asks. My intention was to specify that dilemma as exactly as I could.
When you were writing Imagine Me Gone, did you feel a sense of responsibility with regard to it being a novel that portrays mental illness? Were you hampered at any point knowing that this is still an area that is widely misunderstood?
I think of the phrase “mental illness” as a kind of conceptual suitcase into which we tend to deposit a broad swath of human experience and then conveniently close the lid, label the case, and store it as far from ourselves as we can. The fact is depression and anxiety are parts of the human condition, experienced along a spectrum across the course of a life. The father and elder brother in Imagine Me Gone experience these states acutely, and their family must respond to the crises their suffering creates, but I never set out to write a book about the topic of “mental illness” per se, so wasn’t hampered by that concern. As I said, to me, in essence, the book is a love story about a family. The difficulties this family faces happen to be the difficulties of psychic life in extremis.
There are many brilliant novels depicting people close to the edge – or crossing over it – do you have a favourite?
I’d say that more than novels specifically about people on the edge, it’s books that get at interior life in compelling ways that inspire me the most. I just reread V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, which takes a very roundabout approach to getting at the development of writer’s consciousness from youth to middle age, largely by describing walking on the South Downs, and though barely anything happens, it’s quite mesmerizing. More canonical examples would be Faulkner and Woolf, writers who manage to get the pathos of their characters down into the diction and rhythm of their sentences. Sebald does the same thing, and is another favourite of mine.
Your novel balances darkness and light – the serious with the humorous - did you ever feel the need to draw back from either as you were writing? Were there any passages in your initial drafts that you felt were too funny or too sad (or too close to your true experiences)?
The absurdism and humour were essential to me to balance the dark materials of the book. Specifically with the character of Michael, the elder brother who suffers from severe anxiety, I knew I had to find a way to get his frenetic energy on the page in a manner that captured his parodic way of seeing the world, but thus also, indirectly, the desperation that lies beneath that manic self-narration. What I came up with are the various forms he parodies in the book—letters to a relative from an Atlantic crossing gone wrong, a psychiatrist’s patient intake form. More than pulling back, the challenge was to let myself go, to let my own imagination open up and run with his radical juxtapositions. They turned out to be the most enjoyable sections of the book to write.
In your novel, chapters alternate between different characters’ point of view, can you explain why you chose this structure? Did you enjoy switching from person to person? Did you feel closer to each character as a result?
It was essential to me that the reader experience the family from each member’s point of view because it’s a story about the ways that people’s love and need for one another can at times prevent them from acknowledging who the people they love most have become. There seemed no other way to capture this. When people close to us are in distress we try our best to help them. And yet because we also need them to be a specific person for our own sake, our efforts so often miss the mark. My goal was to take the reader as far into the mind and spirit of each of the five members of the family as I could, into the cross currents of their desire to both save and escape their family. And yes, writing in the first person from each point of view, did give me a sense of being close to each of these people, as I imagined my way into their voices.
Is there a sentence or paragraph in Imagine Me Gone of which you are most proud?
My view of the book is always changing, but today I suppose I’d offer up these sentences from one of Michael’s chapters:
“The members of Joy Division likely weren’t meditating on Frank Lloyd Wright when they took the stage in Manchester but those flat-fronted black cotton trousers and narrow cut shirts didn’t come from nowhere. Peter Saville, who designed all of Factory’s records, understood in perfectly well: the iconic weight of black and white balanced against the release of splendour, in this case the dark magnificence of the music itself. Which might describe the tension of Protestant affect more generally: all guardedness and restraint until the eruption of an unextirpated beauty wakes us for a moment from the dream of efficiency.”
You have said you wrote Imagine me Gone ‘full time for five years’ but everyone’s routine is a little different. What is a typical work-day for you? Are you an early riser or a late-starter? Do you fit a run in before you start or a walk in the park at lunch?
A typical work day is nine to three, meditation before I begin, lunch and exercise once I’m done. I get my best writing done as my blood sugar drops in the early afternoon. It seems my internal editors are, thankfully, more easily fatigued than my intuition.
Where is ‘home’ to you?
New York City is where I’ve lived most of my adult life, and though it’s a hard place to consider home, particularly as a non-native, it has become that over the years. Massachusetts is my original home, and I suppose it’s what I’d call my imaginative home, being the place I lived as a child.
Do you have any advice for first-time novelists?
Probably the most oft quoted piece of advice is “write what you know.” I’d revise that to say “write what interests you.” You don’t need to know a great deal about a subject at the outset—I wrote a novel set partly in a Federal Reserve Bank and had never set foot in one—but interest in the subject is a way of signaling to oneself that you want to learn about it, and I think the curiosity behind learning and writing are not dissimilar. Thus, as far as subject matter goes, I could refine my answer to say, write about what you want to learn about. As for the practice itself, writing prose takes time. Keeping a regular schedule is vital, in my experience. There is so much failure built into writing—so many drafts of things you’ll never end up using or will use only a sentence of—that you have to be willing to spend a good deal of time working even if there is no satisfying ratio between the time spent and the finished pages won. So I would be determined, I would turn off the internet, turn off your phone, and write however many hours a day you can manage. We live in a wildly distracted age. In order to hear the voices inside myself that want expression, I find I have to try to quiet or even silence the louder more common ones of everyday modern life.
If you could sum up your life in five books, what would they be?
Absalom! Absalom!, William Faulkner
Nobody Knows My Name, James Baldwin
King Lear, Shakespeare
The Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
What is next?
Most immediately, some political journalism in this dark time, and after that I’m not sure.
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