Dear Mary Kay,
After I finished Man Alive!, I felt as though I had spent a week living with the Lerners—and from now on, they would be part of my life. You have drawn such a vivid, thick portrait of this family: I can see, hear and smell them. So rarely in contemporary fiction do we get characters so fully fleshed out (forgive the pun with Owen). So, let’s start with Owen: Tell me how you came to this character. Did you imagine him first as a child psychiatrist ethically struggling with his work—medicating children for behaviors that in another era might have been benignly accepted as part of human variation—who is then literally thrown off his feet by a bolt of lightning? Or did you first imagine a person who was hit by lightning, and then decide that your character was a child psychiatrist?
Thanks for the praise—your characterization was one of the many things I treasured about Tinderbox! My inspiration came from an Oliver Sacks article in the New Yorker about a surgeon hit by lightning who hears piano compositions. Honestly, I closed the magazine and, riffing on the article, thought: “a pediatric psychopharmacologist is struck by lightning and now all he wants to do is barbecue.”
I have an inexplicable weakness for electricity, along with complicated feelings about appropriate behavior (particularly the smart kid with no social skills). I’d already been fixating on a quote from the psychotherapist Adam Phillips; namely, “The art of family life is to not take it personally.” Really? That advice sounds reasonable from a distance, but try applying that in the trenches of a beleaguered family. So I put Owen Lerner in the middle of that paradox: he’s the source of both the advice and, after his lightning strike, his own family’s pain.
And now, right back at you! You are a practicing psychoanalyst who portrayed a capable, compassionate psychoanalyst and parent in Myra, your main character. She walks the minefield of daily life, choosing whether to act on behalf of her family, self, or patients. I’m interested in you and Myra sharing a profession. But also, I keep hearing how journalists make good fiction writers, and I wondered after reading your novel: is psychoanalysis a genre of fiction? Here’s what I think I mean: does psychoanalysis lead the patient, in understanding his or her narrative, to a personal serving of nonfiction—nonfiction for one?
I love that you came to the core conception of your book in a single flash of inspiration—and that you had a central question you were trying to answer! I wish I could work that way: for me, the conception and the questions accrue. What is so brilliant about your conception is how many paradoxes it contains: a pediatric psychopharmacologist who tampers with the synaptic connections (which involve electrical currents) of his child patients, acting we might say like God, has his biochemistry altered by a massive electrical current, a lightning strike, what we commonly call an act of God, and is thrust into a childlike state of mind (akin to his patients) and one of humankind’s most primordial acts: putting meat over a blazing fire!
With your question to me, you are touching on one of my central preoccupations: the relationship between psychoanalysis (and here, I include psychoanalytically informed psychotherapy) and the creative writer. I’ve been ruminating about this subject for years, starting in graduate school with a paper about Freud’s relationship to the creative writer: how as a youth Freud seemed destined to be a literary artist, but then, according to Eissler, retreated from “poesy and fantasy” into the emotion-cleansed study of neuropathology following a traumatic unrequited crush, his turn to psychoanalysis ultimately bringing together an integration of his natural literary mind and his acquired scientific mode of thinking. Roy Schafer has written extensively about understanding the therapeutic process as the development of narrative, and I’ve expanded on this in an essay “Novelizing and Analyzing.” More recently, I’ve been looking at the links between the personal essay and the psychotherapy—in particular, what therapists have to learn from the self-interrogation of writers such as Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant” or Baldwin in “Notes of a Native Son” or Didion in “In Bed,” and, conversely, what teachers of the personal essay have to learn from therapists regarding how to set the frame for the work.
So, I’ve talked around your question rather than answering it, and that’s a trait novels and the therapy process share: questions open into other questions; the story thickens. You asked also what it was like to write about a character who is a therapist. For me, it is always a pleasure to write about something that is in my bones. There’s the old saw: write about what you know. But I think there’s another impulse for fiction writers too: write about what we don’t know, which means some blend of imagining our way into an unknown world and learning about it by research.
This brings me to my next question to you. You seem to have done a lot of research for Man Alive!: about child psychiatry, about lightning hits, about burns and skin grafts, about head injuries. How and when in the process of your writing did you do this research? Where on the continuum between having all of the facts precisely right—you mentioned the novelist as journalist –and feeling at liberty to imagine did you fall? And, for you, how is it different to write about domains you know from your personal life versus those that you don’t?
It makes perfect sense that Freud is a closet novelist, eavesdropping on (and even affecting) some of the most personal confessions on record! Your description of the writing process as “questions open into other questions” is terrific, and it actually applies to research, too.
Ah, research. The internet has saved me from having to read entire books for a single novelistic detail; however, the nesting-doll nature of hyperlinks can make the hours fly with no new words on the page! (The best tip I got from Chris Baty, the man who encourages people to write a novel in a month, is to keep to the 3-Google-search rule. After 3 sites, you must return to your writing.)
Jonathan Galassi once told me “you are the sum of your tangents,” which might have been right after I mentioned looking into the sumptuary laws of the early Massachusetts Bay Colony. My hope is that Man Alive! wears its research lightly. I imagined a man torn up by lightning, so what exactly are the consequences of that injury? Sometimes, there are spooky, jackpot payoffs, such as discovering that Owen, as a strike survivor, would likely struggle with the same neurological issues he’s been treating his entire career: ADHD, PTSD, and austistic-like behaviors!
Obviously, I love casting my net repeatedly. The challenge is often to resist the urge to go wider and instead go deeper. That is much harder work. And speaking of going deeper, my question for you is about how much tragedy we each decided to visit upon our beloved characters. Can you talk about that process, where you subject them to pain without going sensationalistic?
From one character-lover to another,
Dear Mary Kay,
A friend signed me up for “word-a-day,” and a new word arrives every morning at 4am. Today’s was antipodes, and I’m happy to have an opportunity to use it now! You have given me antipodes now to keep in mind as I settle in at my desk: Jonathan Galassi’s koan “you are the sum of your tangents” (which resonates with Tolstoy’s notion about a network of ideas that can be expressed “only indirectly, by using words to describe characters, acts, situations”) and the splash-of-water-in-the-face advice of Chris Baty: three Google searches, done!
Pain without sensationalism: my first association is to Saunders story, “Escape from Spiderhead,” where he deploys a sci-fi scenario of a character subjected to a sensationalistic pain caused by a drug, Darkenfloxx, to explore an even more powerful altruism. As for our characters, yes, they suffer, misfortunes that befall them and misfortunes they create for themselves, but they are also very privileged; they have a good fortune that the majority of humans over the course of history could only dream to have. It is heinous, of course, to grade suffering or tragedy—for all of us, our suffering is real—but I do think that there are tragedies that are of such a magnitude—the author of Wave who lost her children, husband, and parents in a tsunami; the victims of Charles Taylor’s regime in Liberia who had their arms and legs chopped off with machetes; the Newtown parents who sent their first-grade children off to school with their little backpacks and then never saw them alive again—they fall off any scale. That said, one of the things I learned as a psychotherapist is that everyone has a hidden story, a vale of congealed suffering: a sibling who died, a parent who drank, a neighbor who sexually abused. I wish I could say that what we depict is extraordinary, but I think we are telling the unspoken stories of the people in our everyday lives, imperfect people who at times fail each other and at times are heroically kind. What perhaps distinguishes our characters, in my view, is that they all find in themselves a will to recover and learn from their experiences and move on.
Now, to get a bit more personal—and feel free to opt out of this topic and just lob a question back at me: I’ve never before read so convincingly about college-aged boys: their filth, their chaos, their vulnerability. Will and Ricky—sorry, Richard! as he now wants to be called—are both terrific kids, but as the mother of a college-aged son, which I know you are too, it’s hard to think about their lives at the level of visceral detail you portray: the sticky sheets, the days that go by without food, their sexual practices, not to mention their drug and alcohol use. How did you handle this?
I imagined they weren’t mine! And I’m not being flip—as completely as I could, I stepped out of “the mother” to enter “the author” mode. Will’s descent was the hardest to write, and I had to continuously check my urge to protect him.
Your word-for-the-day subscription, however, links to a screensaver feature my son installed on my computer. If I pause too long, the screen scrolls vocabulary words. Click on one of them, and you get a definition. I used many of these when I was weaving in Brooke’s SAT-prep words, so my son was with me all along, as our children are!
I guess my last question for you is about our first conversation, when we realized our books both have shrinks, burn units, and end on Thanksgiving! What a joy, then, to love your book and appreciate that we’re exploring different territory. So you can tell me: were you a little nervous when we kept discovering shared variables???
Your fan, mkz
Dear Mary Kay,
I wasn’t nervous—but I think this was because the discovery was accompanied by the immediate connection I felt with you: such a pleasure to meet someone with so many shared sensibilities. And, I’ll add a fourth common element between Man Alive! and Tinderbox: our matriarchs, Toni and Myra, while different on the surface and in their personalities, each have a wisdom that goes hand in hand with their love for their children. After I finished Man Alive!, I found myself on several occasions wondering: What would Toni do? How would Toni respond in this situation?
To come back to your question, even though our books have these uncanny resonances, like our voices here in this exchange, they are also entirely different: the terrain they traverse, the preoccupations of the characters, their themes.
I’ve so enjoyed this conversation with you, this opportunity to see behind the curtain of Man Alive! and to reflect on your questions. We’ll have to do this again after our next novels are done!
Lisa, I’m in! On, then, on to the next one—soon.
Lisa Gornick is the author of A Private Sorcery and Tinderbox, which Sarah Crichton Books will publish September 3. She has a BS from Princeton, and a PhD in clinical psychology from Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at New York University and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia, where she is currently on the faculty.
Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of Man Alive! (September 3), as well as The Bowl Is Already Broken, which The New York Times praised as “a tart, affectionate satire of the museum world’s bickering and scheming,” and The Frequency of Souls, which the Chicago Tribunedeemed “a beguiling and wildly inventive first novel.” Honors for her work include the American Academy’s Rosenthal Award and the James Jones First Novel Award, and she has been nominated for the Orange Prize. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is a cofounder of the D.C. Women Writers Group.