The Suicide of Claire Bishop is many things—an “intellectual tour de force” (Publishers Weekly), “fantastically captivating and beautifully rendered” (Claire Vaye Watkins), “a fearless portrayal of madness and its consequences” (Colum McCann), and more. It’s also the debut novel of Carmiel Banasky, whose short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, PEN America, Guernica, American Short Fiction, and others. Sabrina Wise got to talk with Carmiel during her whirlwind visit to Portland, Oregon, her hometown—the morning after her standing-room-only reading at Powell’s Books. They talked about everything from madness to language to finding literary friends. Read on for the full interview!
SABRINA WISE: The Suicide of Claire Bishop unfolds in two time periods, the 1960s and the early 2000s, and what fascinates me is how many parallels there are—how little has changed, how many of the same mysteries stay unsolved. How did you figure out that these two characters and their times belonged in the same book? Did one inspire the other?
CARMIEL BANASKY: I had West, one of my protagonists. I knew that I wanted to write about schizophrenia, but I knew that I didn’t want him to stand alone in the book. I knew it wasn’t just about him. In that beautiful time in the writing process when you’re just taking in material and everything seems super relevant to your project, I heard the story about Frida Kahlo and her painting, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale. She was commissioned to paint a commemorative portrait of a woman who had committed suicide. Instead she painted the woman throwing herself off a skyscraper. It was crass and beautiful. So that clicked. I was like, that’s my book.
I wanted to see how these eras play out in these characters and for these characters, and how they’re informed by their time periods and contexts and settings. Would West be a completely different person if I placed him in 1959? He would be regarded differently and be less accepted for sure. What kind of ideas about time travel and Judaism would he have in that context versus now? How much of our personality and makeup is informed by our eras is an interesting question to ask.
SABRINA WISE: You’re already mentioning some of the contentious issues Claire Bishop takes on. In the novel you deal with everything from mental illness and religion to death and the role of art. What was the most challenging theme for you to wrestle with?
CARMIEL BANASKY: Probably the one closest to home was the fear of madness. That was really important for me to write about. I had two friends who were diagnosed with schizophrenia. I noticed this fear in me: these were brilliant, functional friends and I saw their brains change. I saw how fragile our minds are. I don’t see myself as different from them. To see how thin the line is between madness and sanity was something I worked out and thought through by writing this book. Nicolette, the artist, has a manifesto in the book; it’s the only time we hear her voice. I think she is the closest character to me. I gave her flaws that I see in myself. That manifesto was probably the hardest part to write and I only could come to it and give her a voice after I had written almost all of Claire and West’s parts.
SABRINA WISE: I want to ask more about Nicolette, the artist who ties the two stories together. She embodies this thrilling, even mystical power of art, but sometimes stops mid-painting because she is afraid she’ll fail to paint her subject. Do you identify? Have you experienced similar fears as a writer?
CARMIEL BANASKY: Yes. Part of how I talk about the book is that I’ll never get this “right.” There’s no way I was able to portray schizophrenia “right” as far as everyone is concerned. But what is “right?” What is the “right” way to portray my subject? That can either paralyze you as an artist or you can embrace what you don’t know with humility, and be humbled by your own characters and subject matter. I never stopped mid-work like Nicolette does, but certainly that fear is present.
SABRINA WISE: There may be no “right way” to portray schizophrenia, but the book does a beautiful job exploring mental illness in a compassionate, unflinching way. You’ve shared that you drew on your friends’ experiences in order to write West. Can you talk about how you navigated that translation from real life to fiction? What was your research process like when some of your sources were so close to you?
CARMIEL BANASKY: I asked their permission to write these stories. I did look at their emails to me, and their language patterns, and I learned from that. Elyn Saks is a great resource, the way she remembers her own word salad and word associations. You can map out the way her brain is working and the links and leaps she’s making. So that was really interesting to learn from, craft-wise. And then I had to put the story first and make it accessible, because if I portrayed West’s speech patterns as they might really be then they might, at times, be too difficult to follow.
The way my therapist friend describes it is that a [schizophrenic] patient of hers might experience some great trauma as his heart actually breaking. That wouldn’t be a metaphor to him. It would really feel that way. West thinks in metaphors but doesn’t feel them as metaphors, so I had to portray that through syntax and diction. It was late in revision that I went back through and tried to interrogate his sentences, taking out the word “like” as often as I could.
SABRINA WISE: West and Claire—who’s “sane” but obsessed with the idea of madness—both make some mental leaps that are pretty big and jarring but unexpectedly persuasive. Did inhabiting their perspectives for so long affect your own way of seeing the world?
CARMIEL BANASKY: I think that I do have crazy thoughts all the time, I just don’t take them seriously. In freewriting, I’ll let myself go places and then I’ll see how that could be something that West takes seriously. With writing, I’ve always had fun with sound, and in some of my early stuff I had forsaken clarity for the sake of rhythm and beauty, which doesn’t work in fiction. Clarity is so important. But that focus on sound helped me with West. I wanted his crazy thoughts to not be so crazy, to be ideas that some people have thought of but don’t live in the way that West lives them. As for feeling crazy while I’m writing, I think a lot about self-care for writers. It’s important to have this space where you write and are not afraid to go deep and dark, and then you step away from it somehow. My friend lights a candle and then writes her novel about a psychopath and then blows out the candle and leaves. She doesn’t take that darkness with her into her everyday life. I don’t have a candle ritual, but that idea is definitely there.
SABRINA WISE: You say how you sometimes used to focus on sound at the expense of clarity, and in a previous interview with The Rumpus, you said, “You grow up, your writing grows with you.” Can you talk about some ways this novel matured over the six years you worked on it?
CARMIEL BANASKY: I cut out so many paragraphs and pages that were just for the sake of beauty, that did not push the narrative forward or did not grow the characters. I started following rules that I’d learned a long time ago when I thought rules were just meant to be broken. They’re meant to be followed and broken in their appropriate times. I wrote myself into so many holes just because I was writing and indulging, which was fine. I don’t regret writing this book the way that I did. I didn’t outline. I knew where it started and where it ended, I just didn’t know how to get there. Then in revision, during year two or three, I said okay—it’s probably Kurt Vonnegut’s rule, where everything has to be doing at least two things – every sentence has to either move the plot forward or move the character development forward, and hopefully at the same time establish setting or context or some other element of fiction. Every sentence has to be doing work.
SABRINA WISE: Before The Suicide of Claire Bishop, you wrote short stories exclusively. Did you always know this was going to be a novel?
CARMIEL BANASKY: Definitely. Before I landed on this material, I had decided that I would never write a novel, that I wanted to be like Borges and only write short stories. But I always saw Claire Bishop as a big book. That’s when I knew that I wanted to write a novel rather than just that I should write a novel. I know a lot of writers start with a short story and then they turn it into a novel, but I’ve never done that. I’ve always known what form each thing is going to take. One project I’m working on now is a novella. I hope that it will always be a novella but someone’s going to tell me to turn it into a novel, so I’ll try, probably, and then cut away again and turn it back into a novella.
SABRINA WISE: How is it to work on new projects after six years of Claire Bishop?
CARMIEL BANASKY: I honestly haven’t found writing time in the last two months. Just sending emails about this book, which is fine. So I’ll have to re-learn that muscle, re-learn the habit of writing. I know some writers have writer’s block right after a book launch. I just have so many projects I want to come back to. There’s a fantasy novel. I’m also working on a pilot about prostitutes in Utah. And I’m writing about the first photo manipulators in the 1860s. There’s always one main project I’m married to and then when I take breaks from that there are other projects. Now I just have to decide what project I want to be married to.
SABRINA WISE: Talk about a launch. You’ve made it from the MFA at Hunter College to residencies to your first published novel, all early in your career. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
CARMIEL BANASKY: Be an involved literary citizen. I don’t know if I was—I do review a little bit but it’s hard for me to put myself out there for anything but my fiction, and I really want to. I think it’s so important to find your writing community. As far as the MFA goes, there you’ll find your lifelong readers and become someone else’s lifelong reader. I’m so glad I did it, but just like in any job or work environment, there’s going to be ups and downs. But the whole point of each phase of the writing life is community, so find your people.