Reading The Suicide of Claire Bishop, the first novel by Carmiel Banasky, one can be overwhelmed (in the best possible way) by the themes and narrative strands that it draws together. There are several decades of political unrest and dissent; there’s art; there are heists and plots. It helps that the novel’s two main characters are each extremely compelling: the title character, inspired to change her life after seeing an artist’s unexpected portrait of her; and West, a young man with schizophrenia who sees patterns and conspiracies where none exist. At times it’s thrilling; at others, it’s tremendously moving. I talked with Banasky via email to learn more about the creation of her novel.
Each of the two central characters was very compelling, in very specific ways. Did either one come to mind first as you were writing the novel?
I started with West, and with the intention of writing about schizophrenia in the first person, many years after two friends of mine had been diagnosed. But I knew he alone was not a novel. I was in that beautiful, liminal stage of the novel-writing-process. I was open and had my suction cups at the ready. That moment when everything you hear or read about seems relevant and lends to the project at hand. That was when I heard, in the context of a poem by my friend Sarah Eggers, an anecdote about Frida Kahlo. She had been commissioned to paint a portrait of a woman named Dorothy Hale who had committed suicide. But instead of painting a commemorative likeness, she depicted Dorothy jumping from a building and falling to her death. It was crass, insulting — to Dorothy’s friend who had commissioned it — and beautiful. I took that anecdote and twisted it to be about Claire Bishop, very much alive when she sits for her portrait only to find her potential suicide has been painted. Once I found Claire, and discovered how she complimented and challenged West’s narrative, I knew that what I had was it–the material that would hold me for years.
The sections of the novel written from West’s perspective were, at times, intentionally jarring, as it took me inside of his head. How did you come up with the way that you conveyed his perspective on the world?
It took a lot of research — I interviewed people with different forms of mental illness, read memoirs and novels, listened to talks. Elyn Saks was a great resource, as well as Oliver Sacks. I had to find a way of conveying West’s state of mind as accurately as I could, while dramatizing it, while not forsaking the story. And I had to find his voice as one has to find the voice of any character. Reading the poet Richard Siken, though his content has nothing to do with schizophrenia, helped me hear West, as did listening to Philip Glass.
It was a huge exercise in craft. I wrote and rewrote, testing out many different syntactical ways of conveying a deeper or shallower state of delusion. Would run-on sentences make sense? How do people speak when deep in an episode? How do those speech-pattern symptoms mesh with West’s voice? What kind of word associations (or word salad, as it’s called) would West make compared to someone else with schizophrenia? In one of my very last revisions, I went through and excised as many instances of the word “like” as I could. If West thinks in metaphor, it is not apparent to him, necessarily, that it is a metaphor. A thing is what it is, as he explains, which includes all the things it is like, our associations with it.
Did you have any specific artists in mind as you thought about Nicolette’s painting?
Stylistically, Frida Kahlo, as I mentioned above. I also love Alice Neel, a portrait artist who was not taken very seriously until much later in life. One reader saw it as reminiscent of Nude Descending a Staircase. I’d like to think that I describe it just enough to conjure the painting in a reader’s mind, but not so much that I define the style the style for them.
The sense of solitude that envelops Claire when she ventures upstate late in the book felt almost tactile. How did you find the right way to convey that there?
I wrote that section while staying in the snowy woods in a house in upstate New York — but I was not alone; I was with friends on a writing retreat. I had a warmth and community that Claire never did. I’m currently reading my friend Howard Axelrod’s memoir, The Point of Vanishing. The subtitle is: two years of solitude. I’ve never experienced anything like that. I could only imagine that kind of isolation. But with Claire’s mother slowly disappearing, becoming a different person under the weight of Alzheimer’s, it’s a different kind of loneliness–to be physically with someone who feels so far away. She also realizes, in this section, that she may never find a romantic partner to share her life with, and that she may never have children who would care for her the way she is taking care of her mother. But this is also the section where Claire becomes most comfortable with herself. Her aloneness doesn’t have to mean loneliness. She has always been so afraid of being seen, and here she is newly exposed to her mother. And her mother, at least in some moments, does see her. And that is a gift.
Conveying her solitude was about figuring out how to portray the passage of time–and how our context alters the way we measure and feel time. In this way, Claire’s experience in the house in Ovid is a manifestation of West’s ideas of linear time and how our perceptions might affect the phenomenon.
I know that it’s a real place, but nonetheless: the name of Ovid, New York is a very evocative one. How did you settle on that as Claire’s hometown?
Ovid is very close to the very real asylum, Willard, which I researched a lot. And yes, I couldn’t just not use the name Ovid when it presented itself. It felt out of time, along with all our other Ovid associations. It is where Claire gets to reassess, become a child to her mother again, and a mother to her mother, as she cares for her in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s. In retrospect, if I really try hard, I could make a connection of the death-shadow of Eurydice lingering just out of sight — the idea of death always hovering around Claire, made more real and tangible here, in a way, through magical thinking in the snowstorms…or maybe that’s a stretch.
The protests at the 2004 Republican National Convention is alluded to, and compared with Vietnam War-era protests. Do you find a continuum between the two, or was the comparison made more to create a sense of contrast?
I wanted to allude to Jill’s character arc by showing his extreme involvement during the Vietnam War to indifference by the Iraq War. Perhaps this can be seen as the story of youth apathy over these decades as well: more information but less conviction, is what it looks like from one angle. From another, however, Claire becomes more politically engaged as she ages. When I bump up West’s very personal story, the bubble he lives in, against the political story of the time, they hardly glance off one another. They stay separate. Whereas Claire’s bubble does pop, at least for a moment, when confronted with the larger story of the time. She is forced turn her gaze outward, away from herself. And she grows up a bit because of it. For instance, her regard for people of color changes between the 1950’s and the 1960’s. And she starts to read the news, and history textbooks, and to see how small she is. But even in the end, she still inhabits her particular bubble.
It’s mentioned briefly that West’s mother also has a history of political protest. Where would you say that the questions of art and the questions of politics that run through the novel converge?
There is the generational gap, again. West is in no way political, but his mother is, and Jill was. These are the battles that define their lives, while West’s battle is internal.
But maybe the contrast between the two protests, or West vs. his mom, has to do more with my experience than any general belief about our generation. I used to work in grassroots politics during the Kerry campaign and for a while after. But I burnt out quickly. I felt like I had to choose writing or activism; I didn’t have the energy for both (even though I’ve always looked toward writers like Grace Paley as models of what it might be like to be invested in both at once, for one to inform the other). So, Jill, who left politics behind as soon as he took it too personally, as soon as the war was too close, is more a reflection of my own political engagement.
The questions are broader for me: should writing and art be political? Is art inherently political in some way? Does a writer have a responsibility to say something of meaning if people are actually listening?
My own “agenda,” as it were, was to widen the conversation and undercut the fear system around common portrayals of schizophrenia. But the articulation of that came far into the revision process. When I sat down to write the first draft, I just wanted to tell a story, and to tell it well.
For me, the politics of writing are a process of self-growth and examination. The politics are in the revision. When looking back at a draft, I get a chance to see myself and my flaws. Where are my blind spots? Where am I racist or sexist or ageist and don’t even know it, and how are these biases revealed through my word choices or character development? How are a character’s actions separated from the author’s attitudes? How do we learn to empathize more deeply through the practice of writing?