MELISSA CHADBURN: In order for me to do this interview I need to know everything about you. Tell me about your father.
CARMIEL BANASKY: Perhaps you’re kidding, but I love talking about my father. He’s a very cool man. He’s also my (second) publicist — I didn’t give him the job; he just took it. He goes around Portland, Oregon, where I grew up, trading my book for haircuts, or meals at his favorite restaurants (many meals — he’s now given a copy to each chef at this farm-to-fork place he likes). He often sends emails to The Oregonian and New York Times (he won’t hear it when I tell him this may be fruitless and perhaps a tad inappropriate, but whatever). When he’s not pursuing his new career as a literary publicist, he is kayaking or volunteering with children in the cancer ward at the hospital. He likes spending time with old people and crazy people, or old, crazy people. The mad ones love him. He’s also, only in the last decade or so, become very religious. Judaism was a hobby before, now he goes to synagogue most days. He sends me texts that say, “I felt God-or-whatever-you’d-like-to-call-it on the river while kayaking today.” He wants me to feel comfortable with the God stuff, which I do — it has made him a happier, softer person all around. And we both meditate seriously, so we connect about that a bit.
Do you want to be here? Why or why not?
Here in this room with you? Yes, because it’s cozy and you’re pretty. My apartment doesn’t have heating … Or here as in here on earth? Totally. Life is rad. And I’m starting to do Zumba — please don’t laugh — so I’m not in my head ALL day anymore; I’m in the world/my body for about an hour each day. That’s new for me.
For the reader, these questions are questions that a character, Nicolette, asks of her subjects as she paints portraits of them. She insists on knowing everything about their lives and sometimes sleeps with them and then, in this case … paints their demise.
You have meta skills.
Seriously what is it that you really want people to know? What question have you not yet been asked that you wished you were asked.
I never know how to answer this question. Knowing what I want to be asked is knowing what parts of me I want known. David Foster Wallace wrote something along the lines that we only ever get a keyhole-size glimpse of anyone — the room of them. So what do I want LARB readers to know …
Maybe the question, What is writing to you? or Why do you write? (as opposed to why did I write this book) — this is something I haven’t been asked yet. Before I moved to LA a year and a half ago, I was on the road for four years at writing residencies and house-sitting gigs, working on my novel. No home base. I was completely homeless in the most luxurious way. But my book, writing, was the one constant in my life — it was my home. That’s a pretty cheesy thing to say — oh well! If writing a novel is building and maintaining home, then it is also a way to expose more than just that one keyhole-size view of that one room — and not just to readers; writing is a means to reveal more of your self to yourself.
Isn’t it lucky we get to do this, or have figured out how to make writing happen in our lives?
This year seems the year of novels that depict complicated female friendships. I mean, I guess I’m thinking of Ferrante when I say that, but TSOCB really captures something else. The relationships and friendships are sexually complicated as well. I have to admit here that many of my closest friendships have been slightly sexual. Shit I think that’s saying a lot about me but, it shouldn’t; I mean this is still pretty taboo I guess. So I’m glad you’ve written about it.
Two friendships in particular came to mind when I read Claire Bishop.
I have a flash of my best friend as a young girl standing on the edge of her driveway. She repeated lines from movies, with her flat lips. "How does it feel to want?" This image of her taunting … "howdoesitfeeltowant howdoesitfeeltowant howdoesitfeeltowant?" played in my mind over and over again.
Another friendship: in my early 20s I had a roommate. A sex positive Hare Krishna. She smoked pot. She was thin and tall. She often wore a tank top or a cut-off T-shirt, the stairsteps of her spine peeking out. I’d follow the trail all the way up to the baby hairs on her neck. She had lotus flowers tatted down one side of her body. They began under her arms, and over her hips, stopping mid-thigh. She drove a brown Chevy Nova. She also had flat lips. She used to masturbate in the car a lot. As a passenger beside you or while she drove. For her … sex was power. We took ecstasy together one night, and she said she thought when we’d live together we were going to be together. I told her I could do it.
This is an awesome description. But what are flat lips? I guess I have flat lips? (Do most white girls have flat lips?)
Yea, unfortunately I think it can be a white girl thing. Wait … Scarlett Johansson.
"But you want to go away to school," she said.
This was her understanding of why you told her no?
No this was why it would have been impossible in her mind for her and I to be together … like together.
It’s true I’d wanted to go to Sarah Lawrence. That’s where Alice Walker went to school. No longer. I would be with her. Forever and ever. The next morning I kept to my promise. I went to the store and got us bagels and coffee and orange juice. She woke up hungover and looked at me like a stranger. The fictive dream was done. I was humiliated.
Ah! No! We have all been there. That intoxicated talk is still intoxicating.
This is a side people don’t get to see of women too often. Women who don’t merge or women who merge and then don’t. Women who are fickle in love.
Or women who love each other so much they think they are in love, or vice versa — who say they are in love, but it turns out to be just a beautiful, if sexless, affection. (I think we see portrayals of that dynamic between heterosexual duos on TV and whatnot, but not between female friends.)
One of my closest female friends and I certainly have had some sexual tension — but I think this is an extension or offshoot of a really lasting, big love for each other. For the two of us, it’s a form of affection as viewed under mood lighting, and that aspect of our relationship feels fleeting. It might be a little confusing, but it’s pretty normal. We’re sexual creatures! Sexuality is another layer of how people relate to each other. Sometimes that is momentary, and sometimes sexual attraction and/or a sexual encounter can beget a deep affection and friendship. That’s happened to me in the past as well with men: I had a friendship with a man for years — we were attracted to each other but one or both of us was always in a committed relationship. We finally were single at the same time and both agreed, “Let’s try this sex thing to see what it is between us or to get it out of our system.” It strengthened our friendship but did not deepen our sexual attraction to the other (that’s the nicest way I can say that the sex was just awkward! Yikes!).
I just think that literature is doing women a disservice by not showing our full complexity. Our true super power seems to be in the way in which we can love but we can also fuck. Just fuck or fuck and love and all the variations of the thing. There is a question here but I guess I wanted everyone who read this to imagine sleeping with me before I move on.
Ha. So sex is power but talking about sex here at LARB is also power. Cool. We could say or make them imagine anything right now, really, we have them hooked. Now, everyone: imagine Melissa flying and doing flips in the air while you’re sleeping with her.
But seriously, yes, I wanted to portray a complicated friendship between Claire and Mary. There is a real love there, but Claire doesn’t know what kind of love, or what she wants from love. Claire lets things happen to her. Mary happens to her. Mary is the strong one. Claire lets Mary choose her and she falls into Mary’s orbit. And Claire is confused by Mary’s desire for her — Mary is experienced with both men and women while Claire is a prude in many ways — which was also their dynamic before their romance. By the end of the book, Claire has found more agency, but alone (spoiler). She is comfortable with her knowledge of herself, finally has a gravity of her own, and makes the choice to not pull anyone into her own orbit, not to merge orbits with anyone else.
So speaking of complicated, you have a great capacity for empathy, and really what that means is you have a great capacity for exploring all the complicated aspects of things. You’re an accomplished and talented writer.
Makes me think of this George Saunders lecture. You know the one on craft where he begins:
Often your first sentence will be kind of lame, a place holder. So Bob was a big jerk, you know. Not exactly Dickens. So you say, okay, well, what do the mean? You know, you say to yourself very gently, could you give me a little more information? […] So if you say, well, okay. Bob snapped at the cashier and made her cry. Now we’re kind of getting somewhere. And we say, well, oh, that’s too bad. That’s too bad for Bob and the cashier. Why — why do you think he did that? And then you say, well — and you revise. Bob snapped at the cashier whose way of brushing back her hair reminded him of his ex-wife, or his deceased wife. And suddenly from being a jerk, Bob has gone to be kind of a deep well. He’s somebody who’s grieving enough to take it out on somebody else. And then, again, here comes plot because now Bob has to come to grips with his grief, or he’s going to turn into really a bad guy.
Yes, in your Saunders excerpt, that path to character development is such a great way to get to examine yourself in the world, to see your own prejudices and hang-ups, which is where empathy starts. Everyone in the world is a serious jerkface if you just glance, then quickly look away. It takes practice to not look away. Novelists don’t look away or write someone off with one word. Every single “jerk” has hidden volumes. Every jerk has a novel in him — that was what Virginia Woolf actually said before she revised her adage, right?
And of course there is that urge toward redemption that you could say Saunders is known for. He loves his characters and I love him for that love, that sincerity. (Meanwhile, another writer might not save Bob from himself.) We want to humanize and redeem; that’s in most people’s nature. We want to connect, relate, but then we want to redeem because a part of us knows we are complicit.
Writing and meditation are both great reminders that we are not as separate as we seem or are taught to embrace in our culture of individuality. To really empathize, we must be able to imagine ourselves capable of the most atrocious acts as well as the greatest depths of love and joy. I think humanizing the “jerk” through story is also a way to villainize/jerkify the rest of us — look, the writers says, we can relate to many aspects of Bob, so we could also be capable of these same actions if met with the same circumstance. Humans are capable of oppression, of great harm. If we can tap into and acknowledge our own potential shittiness (instead of saying, “Who, me? No, no, you got the wrong guy, I’m liberal and educated, I couldn’t possibly be sexist or racist”) — if we can face the kernels of ourselves that are capable of harm, then we can open ourselves up for real love and the means to ask forgiveness for that complicity.
Did I just go off on a wild woo-woo tangent?
No, no, woo-woo is rad. So much of your novel digs deeper and deeper like this for example here:
Across from her, a woman who’s just come from a job interview and knows she didn’t get it. She has that look people perfect for the subway. The one no one will ask you about.
If Nicolette were here she would argue that this woman wasn’t coming from some boring interview. Why would she go to an interview when she just found out her husband was dying and she’s been riding all day to avoid the pain of it? And I would say, actually she hates her husband and got a voicemail saying the operation was a success and now she’s pretending she didn’t feel that pang of disappointment, and she’ll lie and say she didn’t get the call, no cell service. Then Nicolette would say that I can’t see the magic and beauty in life because I want another magic that doesn’t exist. And I would try to say something about her being beautiful, but I would fail.
I want that argument.
GAH! So perfect. Brilliant.
Thanks! With West, who has schizophrenia — I wanted very much for the reader to relate to him, to not be able to look away from him, because he is part mirror. Instead of Saunder’s Bob-the-jerk, West is “crazy.” People in his world often turn and walk the other direction when he comes mumbling toward them. But the reader can’t because the reader is him. (I suppose they can shut the book … don’t do that!) My line of questioning, to find out who West is, started there, with my own snap judgments, confusion, and ignorance about schizophrenia and mental illness/difference.
And, in turn, in the excerpt you have here, West is examining his own line of quick associations and prejudices, which reveal who he is as well as Nicolette (his ex).
Yes. Yes. I wanted to say something about writing from the POV of West, who has schizophrenia, and I think there’s this voyeur in us who might want to have access to the mind of a schizophrenic — the process, the correlations between the utterances he or she is making and what he or she is thinking. It’s very satisfying.
My birth mother suffers from mental illness and it’s terrible how much empathy has to do with this business of writing, but how little emotional spare change I have for her. I am a little ashamed of how impatient and short-tempered I can become around her. By email it’s much easier to communicate. I think when we are interacting with people in public we often have a tendency to take on their stuff, like their shame. But we really kind of project that onto them — so maybe a Judgy McJudgerson thing — and that can get in the way of an actual, authentic interaction. Am I making sense here? Please stop me if I’m just blabbering on. Anywho, my point I guess is that the text allows everyone to have the dignity of their own experience, and for West to be more fully seen — because the stakes with engaging him on the page are lower than in real life. I always like novels that challenge me to be a better person. Thank you for that.
The underlying irony (within the context of this conversation and in our less-than-empathetic interactions with people with schizophrenia) is that one of the symptoms of schizophrenia, and the one most easily romanticized, is a fun-house, confusing experience of empathy: West does not experience the same boundaries of body and mind that you and I do. If you scratch your arm, his arm might itch and he’ll need to scratch it, too. He experiences empathy in a literal, sometimes physical way. This is complicated further and maybe undermined by a more solipsistic delusion through which he might view a situation.
And yes, maybe the low stakes of the page — hopefully — invite a reader to more readily relate to West, and to admit how thin the line is between “us” and “them,” between your train of thought and his. And my choice to write West in first-person present tense was an attempt to take away some of the voyeuristic quality of writing the Other.
At play here is also the idea of desire hidden within fear. Is our fear of madness tinged with a desire to experience madness, especially if it is seen as a letting go of control? That, in part, characterizes Claire’s relationship to her mind. She holds on so tight to her sanity that her intense fear of losing her mind exposes a lurking desire to let go of that tight grip.
And don’t worry, we all treat our mothers in ways we wish we didn’t. But of course you have more layers of difference than most. So — I hereby lift some of your guilt in proportion to how much you strive to empathize with and understand her … Did that work? Do you feel less guilt?
And, besides, looping back to our desire-fueled fears: isn’t the real issue, always, the fear of becoming our mother?
Melissa Chadburn’s essay “The Throwaways” received notable mention in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her first novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.