Carmiel Banasky’s physiological tour de force The Suicide of Claire Bishop is going to be one of THOSE books. You know, one of the novels that everyone is talking about this fall. Complete with schizophrenic characters, art theft, Greenwich Village in the 60s, paranoia, Hasidism and the possibility of time travel, The Suicide of Claire Bishop is a whirlwind of a complex and utterly brilliant story. I’ve already recommended it over on Writer’s Bone and now I’m thrilled to bring you an interview with the author. I dove deep with Banasky and she chose to dive even deeper. This is an interview for readers, yes, but especially for writers. The Suicide of Claire Bishop debuts tomorrow (September 15th) so read on and be sure to pick up your copy this week.
Steph Post: The Suicide of Claire Bishop is written from two different character’s viewpoints, with different point of view styles. The narrative jumps back and forth between Claire Bishop in 1959 and West Butler (in first person) in 2004. While they are are linked by the portrait of Claire, every other aspect of their stories is very different, from events to voice to time period to gender. Even the fact that Claire is sane and West is schizophrenic. I’m curious about the process of crafting one novel containing two very different narratives. Did you write the novel straight through, alternating between characters as you went along, or did you write first one story and then the other? And how did you keep the dual stories focused and on track for the ultimate meeting of Claire and West?
Carmiel Banasky: I wrote a lot of my novel straight through, alternating their voices. (Though in my first drafts, I started with West before shifting back in time to Claire.) But big plot pieces came to me later, only after I could see what Claire and West’s character arcs were from a more aerial view. There were missing periods of growth and change or despair that I could only write having seen how both narratives parallel or move away from one another. I think much of the sixties sections I wrote later. And once I had one of them visiting their hometown and staying with their mother, I knew the other character had to as well. In many ways, their narratives are similar to me, or they reflect one another in an old, marred mirror sort of way: while one steals the painting and the other has the painting stolen, they both struggle with family, identity, pressures from society. They are both forced to question the fragility and control one has over one’s own mind and self, and how a diagnosis can define a life, or not.
From the outset, I knew that West was going to aid Claire in achieving the thing she’d been pondering all her life (maybe it’s obvious but I’m avoiding using a spoiler key-word here!). I knew the purpose of their meeting from the beginning stages of drafting. But, even though I knew what point A and point B were, I didn’t know what route I would take between them. I excised a lot that seemed OUT of focus on the track to get West and Claire where they had to be in the end. For West, his timeframe is shorter and his plot follows more of a mystery structure: finding and deciphering clues, even if they are only in his head. I felt like I had to focus his attention by allowing him to interpret everything he comes across as a clue connected to the painting or the painter, Nicolette. With Claire, anything could happen as we follow her over many decades. I had to choose the highlights that both disrupt and guide her character arc. Maybe the questions I posed were: What unsettled her from herself? What moments got her out of the comfort zone of the stories she was telling about herself? I’d like to think everything that made it into the book is vital in telling the story of how West and Claire become who they become to one another.
SP: Aside from the obvious fact of two stories and two characters dominating The Suicide of Claire Bishop, the themes of opposites and dualities are reflected throughout both the narrative and the style. There are the obvious character traits- male and female, sane and insane, 1950s and 2000s- but I was most interested in how your language conveyed this same sense of duplicity. Line such as “There Claire was, and wasn’t.” and “I am a lie. But I am not a liar.” Was this an intentional style decision, to mirror the schizophrenia of West and the uncertainty of Claire, or did the language come naturally to the story?
CB: I think the answer is two-fold: 1) These lines are probably instances of where my voice meets or overlaps with my characters’ voices. A “natural” language, like you said. And 2) I wanted to create moments, through language and through thought processes, to show how similar Claire and West really are. In Claire, I set out to portray a character who was sane, but who had been close to madness, or the idea of it, all her life. Claire is as obsessed with madness as she is fearful of it. When their voices overlap stylistically, it is Claire sinking further into her own brand of madness, or West lifting out of his. Our brains are so fragile, and West is not so different from the rest of us. He just makes a lot of hairpin turns while the rest of us stick to what seems to be a straighter path. That may be a horrible metaphor. But in any case, both paths follow a certain logic. I wanted West to feel relatable. One way to achieve that was to align the styles I used for both characters. Claire’s sanity is not so far removed from West’s insanity. The line between the two is thin.
SP: While there is, of course, a tradition of madness in literature, I was struck by how Claire is defined by her sanity. The artist Nicolette, after depicting Claire’s suicide in her portrait, comments, “You lived your life afraid you’d go mad… And now you’re disappointed.” It is this disappointment, and the seemingly infinite stretch of life looming ahead of her once she realizes that she does not have hereditary madness, that marks Claire’s character. What prompted you to write about un-insanity (for lack of a better word)?
CB: A good friend had a similar experience and shared it with me. I was already beginning to write both of these characters, and I was a sponge at that point in the writing process. I grasped onto that story when I heard it and immediately asked my friend, a poet, for permission to use it in my novel. She granted it, and was one of my first readers. It was exactly, thematically and plot-wise, what I had been waiting for. (I love that time in the writing process. Was it Saul Bellow who said something about having his suction cups at the ready?) In retrospect, maybe I was looking for a backstory that linked Claire and West through a difference. Claire thought her trajectory would look like West’s. She is so convinced and attached to this narrative of going mad, of unknowing herself by losing her mind, that when she learns that that the narrative is actually something other, she does in fact lose track of who she is. She no longer knows herself. The unknowing and redefining still occur.
SP: You write the character of West Butler extremely convincingly and I appreciated how well you portrayed his schizophrenia. What was the research process like for you to be able to so fully craft his character?
CB: I suppose I did a lot of asking permission in order to write this book. I had two friends who were diagnosed with schizophrenia and who had very similar experiences. They told me about their episodes. I was struck by the similarity. I was struck also by my own reaction, which was partly of fear—how my extraordinarily functional, brilliant friends could suddenly have brains so suddenly (it seemed to me) out of their own control. And finally, I was struck by the fact that I was so struck: I hadn’t read experiences like these in literature before, especially not in the first person. I wanted to write characters they could recognize (though West is completely different from both of them in most other ways). More importantly, I wanted to write a character with schizophrenia who is as relatable, loveable, and familiar as any character without schizophrenia to any reader who has or has not had experience with mental illness. I wanted to portray a whole human, schizophrenia being one of many characteristics.
I interviewed others with different types of mental illnesses about their journeys in and out of recovery. I read memoirs, novels, and some clinical books. I read essays geared toward family members of those with schizophrenia. I had a therapist friend read a draft. Elyn Saks’s writing and talks were a huge help. But the research could have been endless. At some point, I had to stop. I’m sure I didn’t read enough. There’s no way I got the experience exactly right. But I love West, that important author-character love, and I wouldn’t change him now.
There was always the question of what to put the most weight on: the story, or the portrayal of West’s disease. Luckily, these overlapped most of the time, were one and the same.
SP: Much of The Suicide of Claire Bishop is based on the concept of complicated perception, but my favorite parts of the novel are the moments of brilliant clarity where you use simple language to convey extremely difficult emotions. My favorite line comes from West as he is describing his feelings for Nicolette. He tells the reader, “I loved her so much I could rip out my collarbone.” This line floored me. Not because of its violence or its strangely poetic imagery, but because of its truth. Haven’t we all loved someone and/or been heartbroken to the point where we felt it physically, down to our bones? It’s such a simple description, but so perfect in its ability to encapsulate an otherwise slippery emotion. I have to ask then, do you have a background in poetry? Or does all of your fiction so succinctly use language to such a powerful degree?
CB: This is the type of language I learned from my friend—it’s one take on the schizophrenic linguistic style, if you will: seemingly unrelated elements coming together to create a logic that is beyond logic, that reaches a higher emotional truth. I wanted West’s language to make emotional sense even if it doesn’t make any other kind of sense. I was, however, afraid of exploiting the disease in that way, by romanticizing elements of it because some aspects felt like writerly, poetic, stylistic gifts. Lines like that are my attempt to portray the workings of West’s mind through my own literary voice.
I only write poems in secret. (Except I do have a weird historical novella in the works—fragmented poetry and prose. So some of it will hopefully see the light of day in the near future.) In general, sound and rhythm have always been the most important aspects of prose to me. But I used to, perhaps I still do sometimes but more rarely now, forsake clarity for lushness. West’s voice was a very difficult test and a great lesson: how do I allow his madness to feel logical and lyrical at once? He has his own logic, which should come across as sensical, if you are close enough to his perspective. There was also the challenge of using as few similes as possible. Something is not “like” something else to someone with schizophrenia. Things meld and overlap and many dots are connected, but simile is not commonly used. I, myself, am prone to using similes. So in one of my last revisions, I went through and excised as many instances of the word “like” (which were instances of me the author) as I could. It was a question of where my voice meets or should be reigned in from West’s voice.
SP: It is the bizarre portrait depicting Claire’s suicide that ties the characters and narratives of Claire and West together. The painting is described as “Claire at every moment of her life” as she falls from a bridge. In my mind, I saw this portrait in the style perhaps of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. In the novel, the portrait of Claire is painted in 1959. In your mind, who in that time period would have actually painted Claire’s suicide? Are there any contemporary artists that you think would be candidates to paint this piece?
CB: I have always seen Claire’s portrait (but never wanted to explicitly state this in the novel because I prefer that you had your own interpretation) in the style of Frida Kahlo, as I arrived at the germ of Claire’s narrative from an anecdote about the painter. Kahlo was commissioned by a Manhattan socialite to paint a portrait commemorating Dorothy Hale, the socialite’s friend who had committed suicide. Instead of a portrait, Frida depicted Hale’s death—her jump and fall from a tall building. It was considered an insult at first, but the painting, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, is stunning on many levels. It’s dream-like; it raises so many questions about death and suicide, and about the identity of the falling woman. I didn’t realize until later that what became of Kahlo’s painting is similar to the journey the painting in my novel takes: nearly destroyed, locked away, donated anonymously, etc. The lost and found nature of both my fictional painting and Kahlo’s painting makes a lot of sense to me.
SP: The Suicide of Claire Bishop debuts on September 15 and as I’ve said, I have a strong feeling that it’s going to be one of the heavy hitters on the fall literary scene. Aside from your own, of course, are there any novels debuting this fall or winter that you’re excited about? Any books or authors I should be keeping an eye out for?
CB: So many of my friends have books out this year! It has been fantastic to celebrate with them. Here are a few: Matthew Selasses, Alexandra Kleeman, Amy Jo Burns (paperback just came out), you know Scott Cheshire of course (paperback out now), Christopher Robinson/Gavin Kovite, Steve Totlz (his second book comes out next week). Next year keep an eye out for Michael Copperman and Kaitlyn Greenidge. I’ll probably think of more another day. These are my friends, I freely admit, and also some of the best writers I’ve ever read.