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Carmiel Banasky

Carmiel Banasky is a writer, editor, and teacher from Portland, OR. Her first novel, The Suicide of Claire Bishop, is published with Dzanc Books. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, PEN America, American Short Fiction, Slice, Guernica, The Rumpus, and on NPR, among other places.

Blurbs

"A magnificent, astute debut that portends greatness, The Suicide of Claire Bishop whisks us through one of the most epic eras of American history. While her heroic scope rivals that of of The Goldfinch and her boldly lush storytelling nods to Let the Great World Spin, Carmiel Banasky’s pages unfurl with an intense artistry all their own. A fantastically captivating and beautifully rendered book!"

– —Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Battleborn and Gold Fame Citrus

“Daring, precise, and linguistically acrobatic, this novel brings a history of America alive, from the war protests in the sixties to turn-of-the21st-century art theft. A fearless portrayal of madness and its consequences, Carmiel Banasky's debut novel tracks the life of a suicidal housewife and her unlikely, schizophrenic counterpart. This is a new writer to savor, reminiscent of Nicole Krauss, Michael Chabon and Andy Sean Greer.”

– —Colum McCann, National Book Award-winning author of Let the Great World Spin

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The Suicide of Claire Bishop

An Interview with Carmiel Banasky

01/01/16

Carmiel Banasky and I sit at Crema Bakery & Café in SE Portland a couple days after her recent reading at Powell’s City of Books. We chitchat about Portland (where she’s originally from and where I currently live) and the giddy significance of reading at a landmark like Powell’s (a bit more on that later). After the interview, we talk for a while about agents, publishers, writing conferences, and things you might say when seeing somebody’s baby for the first time—like “hope he doesn’t grow up to be a serial killer.” Carmiel’s a delight, and her book is filled with the same wit, weirdness, and touches of humor.

Carmiel’s debut novel, The Suicide of Claire Bishop, is out now from Dzanc Books. It’s a story with two concurrent protagonists: Claire and West. A decades-old painting binds these two characters together. Claire is the original subject of this 1959 painting; fast forward to 2004 and West becomes obsessed with the idea that it was painted by his ex-girlfriend, the enigmatic Nicolette. The more West weans off his schizophrenia meds, the more real this connection becomes. As the story progresses, coincidences and clues pile up, and the reader wonders whether West is onto something. The novel moves deftly across generations and crafts an interwoven narrative of two lives, inexplicably bound together yet worlds apart. The novel delights in its own contradictions and challenges the reader’s assumptions of truth and untruth. In short, it’s a book about doubt; it’s about negative space; it’s about the fragility of the human mind. So where to begin? When the tape recorder rolls, I decided to dive into the most obvious question first; I’ve heard Carmiel answer this question before, but she always has more to say on the subject.

* * *

James R. Gapinski: Why did you write a novel about schizophrenia?

Carmiel Banasky: I have been trying to find new ways to tell this story, but the basics are that I had two friends who were diagnosed with schizophrenia. I was just blown away by their experiences, but mostly I was blown away that I had never heard of those experiences before, and I had never read those experiences. I was just trying to write something that I wanted to read, and I wanted to write an experience that they could recognize on the page in a way that they might not have read before in literary fiction. It was also about my own fear of their experiences too. These were my friends, who I had known on both sides of their diagnoses—and just seeing how fragile the mind is—I wanted to investigate my own fear of madness too, and our own fragility as humans and our bodies. If I ever had an agenda, it was to make sure that West was relatable and that this disease was not so off-putting. The images that we see as schizophrenia are so often linked to violence because that’s what makes the nightly news, you know?

JRG: Yeah, I know what you mean.

CB: We’re not going to see a peaceful portrayal of schizophrenia on the news, so I just wanted to offer this other narrative.

JRG: We’re not seeing that on the news for sure—but we’re also missing it in other literature and pop culture too. I feel like people get this one view of what schizophrenia means, and it’s used in a specific way on the page for this over-the-top effect. Besides these sorts of violence stereotypes, what other preconceived ideas did you have to fight against or research more?

CB: Colloquially schizophrenia—the term schizophrenia—is used completely wrong. It’s used to mean multiple personality disorder. When you hear someone say “I feel so schizophrenic,” what they mean is “I feel of many minds” or something, and they feel like a different person one day to the next, but that’s not what schizophrenia is at all. That was interesting to realize. The other thing about schizophrenia is that when it has been portrayed really empathetically—like in the film A Beautiful Mind—the hallucinations were portrayed visually. Because how can you portray hallucinations on the screen if not visually? Usually with schizophrenia its actually aural hallucinations. Those kind of sound hallucinations might translate and feel visual or of this space [Carmiel gestures to the café table and surrounding physical space], but it’s more like sounds that you hear echoing throughout the day, dialogue you might’ve heard that morning, it feels like it’s happening right now. That’s how some people explained an episode, or feeling like a metaphor is real. Like if someone feels like their heart is broken metaphorically, to a schizophrenic person it might feel like their heart is physically breaking. I had to figure out ways to show West’s hallucinations on the page without making them visual.

JRG: And you mentioned earlier about an intrigue with how fragile the mind is. Without giving anything a way, at a certain point in the book you get into Alzheimer’s too. Did that all stem from this same exploration of the mind, or is that a personal connection too?

CB: I did know somebody with Alzheimer’s, so a lot of my research was recalling my time with her. It was another avenue to explore how easily our mind’s change. Alzheimer’s was another way to explore how we change and ask the questions “How can we trust our own selves?” and “How can we know our own selves” if our minds can so easily change. I think about that a lot about. I tried to write a short story that I think failed—it’s in a drawer somewhere—about someone with a brain tumor who becomes a pedophile because of this brain tumor pressing on their frontal lobe, but that wasn’t who they were before this growth on their brain which completely changes them, changes how the world sees them, and their family, and how their family sees them. Just finding ways to ask that question and explore it.

JRG: You mentioned some of the research involved with Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, but what sort of research did you do into different time periods? The book jumps between time periods, but the reader is with you and accepts it.

CB: A lot of it was trying to figure out the language of the time, and reading things from that time—like newspaper articles—and I read a lot of Village Voice articles from the '60s, and language from then to now isn’t that different, but little key signifiers are important to both gain the reader’s trust that we are in this time period and to point out that context but without drawing attention to itself. That was important, and usually that was just through one phrase or one terminology. Also watching how Claire’s own language changes throughout the book. She calls black people in 1959 “American Negroes,” and in the '60s she finally has to talk to a black person for the first time in her life. Thinking about that and how Claire changes—it was as much about character development as setting development. Listening to music, reading memoirs, but also interviewing. That was fun. I got to interview a lot of people who were both young enough and old enough to remember the '60s and '50s in New York City, and they loved talking about it and wanted me to use certain stories and details.

JRG: New York is prominently featured, so are different locations like Port Townsend, Washington. There’s a definite sense of place. How much of that was born out of your residency-hopping versus research, or pulled out of thin air, or what?

CB: I lived in New York for four years—all over the city and in Brooklyn—but I didn’t really start writing about New York until I left it. I think that leaving New York was a way for me to get back at it and to be able to write about it. It was the people at residencies who I met that I interviewed mostly—the older writers and artists who I met there. Of course, between residencies I always went back to Port Townsend, and I started working at Goddard in 2011. But I’d always gone to Port Townsend at least once a year. It was probably where I really first took myself seriously as a writer at the Centrum Writer’s Conference. Port Townsend had to be in the book. I tried to cut out Port Townsend completely—for a while West did not go back home. There’s two homecomings in the book—Claire’s and West’s—they both go back to their childhood homes. I fought leaving New York and tried to cut that section out, but then it didn’t seem full or whole anymore. We had to leave New York—just like how I had to leave New York—to come back to it. To come full circle. Does that make sense?

JRG: Yes, of course. There are too many novels that are all about New York anyway.

CB: Yeah, there are a lot of New York novels, that’s true [Carmiel laughs].

JRG: What are some books or authors who have influenced you?

CB: I love Michael Ondaatje, he was a huge influence. Coming Through Slaughter had such an impact on me. Colin McCann—especially Let the Great World Spin—and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Specimen Days. Stylistically those . . . [Carmiel pauses and grins] . . . those three white men [both laugh] were very influential on this book. But the first stylist who I think influenced them—and me in turn—was Virginia Woolf. With Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway, how she portrays his view of the world, and how everything’s interconnected, and the language she uses to show his ideas of interconnectedness—I learned a lot from that on how to portray West’s ideas. The way she shifts between points of view. I love Mrs. Dalloway so much—not everybody does, but I do—and also some of Virginia Woolf’s books are not accessible, but that one is. A lot of modernists are not accessible, so learning from her on how she can still have everything she wants out of her prose and still write with such beauty. She’s always putting story first with Mrs. Dalloway, as opposed to Orlando which is maybe more about rhythm and sound than story. Also Ursula K. Le Guin. I love her work so much. We exchanged a couple letters many years ago, and that had a huge impact on me as a writer, and what it could mean to be a writer, and how to just do what you want.

JRG: What sort of context? Like “fan letters” or what?

CB: [Carmiel laughs] I totally wrote her a fangirl letter, but then it became a correspondence. I spent weeks writing as beautiful a letter as I could. Then she wrote back and told me how beautiful the letter was [both laugh], and that made my life. Then we wrote back and forth and then switched to e-mail. It was just really important to me—that tiny exchange, which lasted around seven exchanges or something. We talked about Karl Jung; we talked about love and characters. It was good. It was special.

JRG: I think a lot of writers are more accessible than people think as soon as you actually reach out and say “Hey, I like your work” and make the attempt.

Writers want to hear from readers—or some do anyway, and some are standoffish, but most want to connect with people and that’s why they’re writing. A newer writer who has influenced me is Melinda Moustakis, she’s really wonderful. She’s an example of someone who just writes so beautifully and experimentally but is also super accessible—the writing I mean.

JRG: This whole first book whirlwind thing: is it exciting or just long and drawn out and tedious?

CB: [Carmiel laughs] It’s anxiety provoking and exciting. I guess there’s tedium in there. I haven’t been writing for the last couple months. I’ve been sending e-mails about my book with all my spare time. I’ve been as proactive as I possibly can be, but it really takes a lot of time and energy to do that. But yes, it’s exciting. I’m never going to have the kind of homecoming that I had in Portland for any birthday or even like a wedding. It felt more like a bris or something the other night at Powell’s. Seeing all the people and love that I have in my life and the community that supports me and is excited for me—that has been really special. There’s ups and downs. There’s this weird high. This spotlight that I never had or ever sought out, so there’s obviously a come-down from that. Thinking about reviews, and will the book get reviewed, and questions like that—you know, questions about sales—mostly, I would like to just be protected from any information that I don’t need to know and just go about doing the events that I can and sending the e-mails that I can, but that’s in the back of my head too.

JRG: Even after you’re hit with the logistics and the reviews and numbers, then you still have this lull between your next release when you’re just working and not having all this spotlight.

CB: I’m looking forward to that—the quiet—because I would like to get back to writing and really living in the next book rather than mostly in this book and a tiny bit in the next project. That’ll be nice.

JRG: You had mentioned at Powell’s that you have a couple things on the burner. Do you know where you’re probably focusing or what your next project will be?

CB: I don’t know which one I’ll really dive into and spend the most time on yet. I have a couple things. I have drafts done of the fantasy book and of a TV pilot that I wrote—which my editor told me I should turn into a novel and then rewrite as a pilot, and I don’t know, I’m not sure how I see it anymore. But the thing I’ll probably write—which I did not mention the other night, I don’t think—is another book about suicide. And I don’t feel like The Suicide of Claire Bishop is about suicide, but it has it in the title [both laugh], and this next one is actually about suicide. I don’t really want to pigeonhole myself as a suicide writer—that sounds horrible—but that’s the story that I really want to write and has been really difficult to write. I’ve been writing it for years now, just in really short spurts, because it’s really sad and has been hard to write. I need to just do it. Maybe now is not a good emotional time to do it, but we’ll see. I think a lot about self-care for writers, so I’ll just need to figure out what I can do for myself to make sure it’s okay to write this thing.

JRG: What’s your usual self-care?

CB: I don’t have a ritual, but I do think about rituals of others. Like my friend Melissa Chadburn is writing a novel that comes out next year about a serial killer—from the point of view of his victims—and it’s so dark. So she lights a candle when she’s ready to write, and she writes for a couple hours, and then she blows out the candle, and it’s just a symbol to not take that darkness with her into life, into her every day. That helps her a lot, so maybe I need a ritual like that. Also things like making sure I’m exercising—I don’t exercise at all—but I need to be in my body, especially in times of writing dark things and being completely in my head. Meditating. Going dancing. Getting out of your room and going to be part of your writing community and talking to people who get it. That’s all part of the self-care.

* * *

If you’re interested in getting out of the apartment, connecting with the writing community, and practicing some self-care, a list of Carmiel Banasky’s upcoming events are available on her website. The Suicide of Claire Bishop is available now.

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