A Weird Hall of Mirrors: A Conversation with Coco Picard

Coco Picard

I first met Coco Picard over Zoom in the summer of 2020 as we outlined her novel, The Healing Circle, via LucidChart: typing plot summaries of each vignette into a shared screen, color-coding the squares full of text, wrestling the book’s nonlinear structure onto a timeline. We were in the same small group at BookEnds, a year-long novel revision program at Stony Brook University, and yes, outlining someone’s novel as your introduction to each other is just as vulnerable and nerve-wracking and intimate as it sounds. I’ve loved Coco’s work ever since.

The Healing Circle is out now with Red Hen Press. Ursula, mostly referred to as “Mother” in the book, has been battling cancer for years, with the support of a group interested in alternative healing methods called “the healing circle.” Now, Ursula has abandoned her children and home in California to pursue an experimental miracle cure in Germany, only to find herself dying in a hospital room, alone except for an unusually animated aloe plant. In bed, staring out the window at woods that seem to be creeping ever closer to the glass, Ursula reflects on her life and begins to speculate that she has already died.

I chatted with Coco virtually in the weeks before her pub date, and I was once again engrossed by the themes, characters, and craft elements we talked through during our BookEnds year. Incredibly, I learned even more about Ursula and Coco’s inspiration behind the story of Ursula’s life and death––a testament to the layered and evolutionary nature of art.

Congratulations on your debut novel! After reading this book in many of its earlier forms as a PDF on my iPad, it was a joy to hold the print galley in my hands! To turn its pages! To mark it up!

I can’t really believe it. I do love the fact that people I know are holding it before I am. It makes it feel real. 

I want to start with your journey with this novel. Normally I hate the term journey when it’s used in this context, but I feel like Ursula and the healing circle would approve. What was the seed of this novel? How long did you work on it, and what were the challenges of writing it?

The very earliest seed was my mom dying. She also had Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, basically from when I was nine until she died when I was 23. My biggest difficulty in writing the book is that I was trying to write about her. And I was also trying to write about me, or I was writing the book from my perspective, and I could never do it. Nothing that I wrote from that platform felt real, or I don’t even think it was any good because I was trying to squeeze out my real experience. But then I got out all of the real factual details, and I ended up coming back like, why would somebody––maybe not my mother specifically––but why would anybody leave everything they have behind to get a miracle cure? That was the question that made the book start to make sense because then I could be inside the mother’s perspective. It was interesting to think about how her death was affecting her children, but she can’t really handle it to some extent because she’s so preoccupied. I took myself out of it, started writing from the perspective of the mom, and then the scenes that had been present, or that I remember dealing with when she was in the last part of her life, suddenly started to surface in other characters. I feel like the book is this weird hall of mirrors where I’m every single character but none of them at the same time.

I started writing it in grad school, which was around 2010, [six years after my mother died]. At that point, deep in the weeds of grad school pretension, it was called Arctoi. It was way more witchy. I think the opening vignette of the book is one of the only things that survived. There are probably other things I’m forgetting that got blended in.

One of the things [in the book] that’s based on a true story: [my mom] was friends with this bourgeois group of California women. I feel like their group was far less formal than the women in the healing circle. Ursula’s friends are like, “Let’s start a group called the healing circle!” It wasn’t my sense that was the situation with my mom’s friends. They would do, like, faith healing. My mom went to the Philippines once to do psychic surgery. She took me once to do psychic surgery outside of Reno. I think I was 14, maybe?

What an experience to have as a 14-year-old.

It was so sketchy! It was in some back room of a church, and there weren’t a lot of people there––it wasn’t like a formal church. I remember there was some kind of ceremony, and then I went into this back room and was lying face down on a massage table. I was curious, but then when I was there, I kept my eyes shut the whole time because I was terrified. It’s also really funny to think about a psychic surgeon seeing a 14-year-old, convincing them that you have to remove things from their body. You know what I mean? Like, what [could be] wrong with you? I don’t remember the sounds, but I remember my impression of the sounds. Basically, there’s hot oil, and somebody is running their fingernail along you, and that’s supposed to be where this incision is happening. Then they pull things out and throw them in a bucket––probably it was a chicken breast or something. I remember being like, “That’s a big thing that somebody just took out of me. That doesn’t really make sense.” 

Going back to the inciting question of why someone would leave everything for a miracle cure––were you partly writing this book to understand what motivated your mother?

I think so. When I first attempted to write this book, I was 30, and in some ways, I was still writing from a place of anger and sadness. That’s also partly why the writing wasn’t successful. But then, being a mother and being in my 40s, I realized how insane it would be to just leave everything. That’s crazy! I feel like a lot of times, at the end of a person’s life, their behavior gets notably strange. There was a way in which my mom’s behavior was in step with what had been going on. But still, as a 40-year-old, I don’t know why you would make that decision. 

That’s interesting because you write Ursula’s character with such empathy. That’s what I feel for her at the end: empathy. 

It’s funny because, I don’t know if this was your impression of the book when you first read the earlier draft, but I remember talking to [my partner,] Devin, and being like, “I feel like I’ve written the meanest book ever!” Ursula’s backstory has no resemblance to my mom’s backstory, but part of answering why somebody would do this was imagining past trauma that might inform [that decision] and that maybe as a kid you wouldn’t know.

We have to talk about the American obsession with wellness, a major theme in this book. The healing circle begins as a tangible way to help Ursula pay for her cancer treatments, but then morphs into this, as you were saying, group of bougie women in pursuit of happiness. When they’re talking about “healing,” it feels like they’re really talking about fulfillment and a sense of purpose. Plus, the book draws a parallel between consumerism and wellness. The women are clearly racking up a bill with some of these healers, and so many of the providers have handlers, they’re on stages, they’re selling weird teas––it felt very commercial. I found myself reflecting on questions that I’d like to raise to you: What is wellness, what is survival, and what’s the difference? What about the state of modern medicine and conceptions of wellness were you hoping to examine? 

I love that field of questions. I don’t know that I have solid answers. One of the things that I was really interested in thinking about was my mom’s approach to New Age pursuits. She would have discussions with her friends about whether or not the gurus were phony or full of themselves or just out to get money, versus who the true ones were. This is in The Healing Circle too––there’s really no discipline. Everything is given the same weight whether it’s doing a Prancersizing class or crystals or psychic surgery. To me, psychic surgery seems like an intense step, but then somehow that’s exactly the same as seeing a psychic. If you imagine, say, a practicing Buddhist, I feel like often these disciplines have codes and rules, and part of how you get a sense of meaning is through this practice. I’m not a religious person, so that’s just my sense. There’s something really American about the way that the healing circle is all over the place––let’s just try it, let’s dabble. I think that these systems have power when you are completely within them, so I don’t know that you can just skirt along the top and take a little bit of this and a little bit of that, like it’s a buffet. Everybody wants the fix but we’re not really interested in the commitment or the work that a real lifestyle shift might entail. 

Then my sense, with my mom anyway, is that she felt empowered in this mystical pursuit when she might not have felt empowered in her day-to-day life. My dad was a business guy. I was born in Tokyo, and I lived there until I was six and then we moved to Hong Kong. I feel like one of the things that characterized the culture of that moment––we moved to Hong Kong in the late ’80s, early ’90s––is that businessmen and their wives meet up for lunch, and then the women go shopping or see a local temple while the men go to strip clubs and pay for sex. There was a tacit agreement that it was okay if the women spent a lot of money because the men were guilty. Maybe for some people it wasn’t dysfunctional, but I think in our household, whatever variation of that existed was dysfunctional. So it’s interesting to think about how these women try to find power in other places.

We’ve talked about the people who are seeking out the healers––now I want to talk about the healers. Many seem to assign personal responsibility for sickness, unhappiness, unfulfillment, etc., instead of faulting corporations, modern life, etc. There’s a section later in the book where Ursula watches a news story about plastic water bottles, and Ursula recalls how she prohibited them in her home because she heard plastic chemicals can lead to cancer. “Mother’s healers haven’t said anything about plastic; they attribute her disease to unprocessed anger and resentment, not the consumption of petroleum-based products.” It’s interesting to consider personal responsibility when it comes to seeking wellness in a world where many modern health problems are caused by inequity or poor infrastructure––systemic issues that personal responsibility can only go so far in solving. This book does a good job of examining that. 

What you’re talking about, to me, also seems very American. Even in terms of how the individual is compelled to address climate change––we feel responsibility for climate change. At the same time, there’s a counter-narrative that says, “Well, recycling is stupid and it doesn’t work anyway, so whatever you do doesn’t matter,” but I find [that mindset] rarely catches up to systemic responsibility, which is related to healthcare, too. It’s ludicrous that we live in a country where women can’t get abortions, but there’s no paid maternity leave or universal healthcare. There’s a pressure, or presumption, that it’s up to the individual to be responsible for their own happiness and health. For instance, if you eat Doritos, that’s what makes you sick, not the fact that you live in a food desert. The characters in this book live within their means to eat well or to try out these [alternative healing methods]––they’re not dealing with material survival. They epitomize that dilemma in an absurd way.

Ursula’s ongoing cyclical battle with leukemia and the healing circle aren’t the only circular elements in this book––there’s also fascism. Even within the scope of Ursula’s life, there are so many fascists! Her father is a Nazi sympathizer, and her son, George, fans the flames of fascism in his academic work. There’s also an undercurrent of politics in the book, through George and the TV that Ursula has in her room where she watches the news. The news stories that pop into the book focus on various systemic collapses, like the migrant crisis. Why did you bring these real-world elements into Ursula’s bardo? 

Part of the book comes from trying to understand how we can be at this moment, living in a dismantled system—from state and local governments, physical infrastructure, education, research, arts and culture to a regulatory authority that has been steadily divested since the ’80s in deference to independent profit-seeking managers. We live with the consequences of that approach with no obvious means to change the tide, and the durational degradation of the environment, the ever-increasing threat to body autonomy, racial justice, voting rights, and affordable housing are all byproducts of the last forty years. The pressure is real but it’s continually centered on individual experience. For instance, why can’t I make rent or afford gas or live a carbon-free life or—during that first wave of the pandemic—why am I struggling to work my remote job while managing childcare and/or remote learning? It feels like we’ve gone backwards, and I wanted to think about how that could happen. It’s crazy to me that we live in a moment where a big chunk of the population is racist. Maybe that’s too simple, but for instance, police brutality is such a huge problem, and there’s a huge chunk of the population that doesn’t think that’s a problem. How can you transition from WWII, which seemed like this real prominent message about why xenophobia and racism are terrible, and yet here we are in a country that is tending toward fascism? I wanted to think inside of that question as it might happen within a family. 

Let’s shift to talking about craft. With its nonlinear structure, I remember that outlining this novel was a useful exercise to see connections between seemingly unrelated sections, and to build a skeleton for the book and flesh out the many B plots. In a book that moves this fluidly between timelines, it would be difficult to identify sections that aren’t pulling their full weight. But looking through my notes from BookEnds, I saw references to several scenes that didn’t make it in, such as the thread about the detective show Ursula watches as she’s dying that, in this final version, got whittled down to one scene. How did you choose which bits of flesh to cut from your book? 

A lot of it ends up being intuitive. I’m motivated by embarrassment. (Laughter) In the largest version of the book, all of the stuff that I added––it’s still true. It’s part of how I think about the book and what I know about the book, but it’s no longer in the surface of the book. I would read [a section] again, and I’d feel twingy imagining someone reading it. It’s a very abstract feeling. Sometimes, I think that embarrassment is useful or good, formally. Like, it should be there and it serves the book, conveys something important to the reader. But most of the time, I think I’m embarrassed because a scene is trying too hard, pulling focus from the overall trajectory of the book or simply isn’t necessary. So I try and take away the things that I don’t want to stand behind. 

I also think, especially because it was nonlinear, I ended up repeating things. Sometimes there were too many healers or scenes between the healing circle women. [I asked questions like:] Do I need all of those scenes? What do those individual scenes say differently? How could I reduce them so that they’re punchy and say the thing in the most effective way? I like cutting things. In terms of my bias, I want to say the thing in the most simple way possible, and maybe in the shortest space. Maybe I’ll write a different book someday that will want something else, but especially in this one, it seemed important to have everything be told in these flashes. 

I was also interested in trying to write an anti-monumental book. It’s still about [Ursula’s] entire life, and it is weighty and it is about all this pretty dark stuff, but how do you treat it like it might just occur, in a way that feels closer to my experience of life?

I feel like that reinforces what the book has to say about death. This book makes me ask, “What does a good death look like?” Writing a non-monumental book about death reinforces the idea that death may not be something we think about or talk about, but it happens to us all, and if we could figure out a way to do it that doesn’t suck so much, that would be terrific. (Laughter)

Totally! It would be so awesome. It would be good for everybody. I really do believe that. 

Our last question is less heavy. I want to talk about your work writing comics and graphic novels and how that maps onto prose projects. Some characters in The Healing Circle have such a visual presence: the nurse who “is the sort of person whose hair is so artistically frizzy and to suggest she eats moss for breakfast,” Madame Blavatsky, the oncologist with the giant brown eyes who Ursula even describes as cartoonish. How does your visual work affect how you write prose? How do you know when the seed of an idea is a prose project versus a graphic one?

With the last question, they come to me differently, and I don’t know that I can explain it except that I do them at different times of the day. Writing is in the morning. By the end of the day, I’m too tired to write, so that’s when I’ll do drawing for comics. With the comics, I don’t usually write before I make the images and they kind of happen together. Obviously it changes once I’m revising. A lot of times I’ll go back and revise just the writing or sometimes I’ll re-draw panels. So there’s something about how the narratives arrive to me. 

Also, the relation to time is different. I’ll work on a [fiction] manuscript for years and years and years and I pick it up and put it down, but I’m sitting with the question in my mind. Then with comics, the drawing itself takes so much time but there are very few words. If I was going to turn The Healing Circle into a comic, it would probably end up being 20 pages of text. There have been times when Devin has read a draft of some longer fiction thing that I’m working on and he’s like, “You should turn this into a comic, it would be great!” And I find it to be the most depressing prospect because it would mean that I would have to get rid of so much. So there’s something about the ratio between image and text that I think I’m unconsciously committed to. In straight writing, you have a lot more freedom. Like metaphors––you can do whatever metaphor you want. Obviously you want to make it make sense within the book, but I can talk about a character’s hair being frizzy but I don’t have to make that picture. I can rely on the reader to come up with that image. If you’re making comics, there are different liberties that you can take. In manga, for instance, it’s amazing how objects will kind of speak. The way you’ll indicate that a door is opening is that it’ll say, “Creak.” The door talking has the same weight as a character talking, which is different than in straight writing. Even if you say, “The door creaked,” it doesn’t have the same quotation. I don’t know that I think about it directly, but I think somehow it informs where the project goes. 

As a final note, we should talk about Madame Blavatsky, the aloe plant in Ursula’s hospital room. How did you decide to put an aloe plant in this book and then make her a character?

I don’t remember! I feel like I should remember, but maybe it makes sense that I don’t remember in the same way that you don’t notice the potted plant [in the book] until you do. I think I was interested in companionship. Ursula has a lot in common with the aloe plant––she’s also stuck in a bed and is becoming ever less mobile. Probably what happened is that, as I was writing, I was trying to make the room feel like a real place, which part of how I do that is by trying to be as specific as possible about what I see in the scene, and so probably I was like, of course there would be a plant, and then started thinking about the plant in relation to Ursula and what they have in common, and then thinking about this idea that the plant is actually talking to her. Is she getting to know this plant, and in that case, does that mean that, hypothetically, within the realm of this book, we could all be better friends with plants? Or is the plant channeling Madame Blavatsky? I think Ursula would really love it if that were the case––she would feel very special about that.


Photo: Becca Grady

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.