Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Katy Hershberger Joseph, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Marion Coutts about her book The Iceberg (Black Cat Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Autobiography for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
In The Iceberg, British visual artist Marion Coutts chronicles the two years after her husband, art critic Tom Lubbock, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In lyrical prose and with raw honesty, she describes their “adventure of being and dying.” Their story is one of constant duality: the art and language that filled their lives. Their toddler son learning to speak, just as Tom was losing his grasp on words. The intensity and mundanity of cancer. And the impossible humor of living while dying.
Katy Hershberger Joseph: There are so many immediate feelings and visceral responses in all of the scenes in the book, and I’m sure it’s because you took notes throughout the entire process. At the time, did you know you wanted to write a book? Were they just notes for yourself or for public consumption?
Marion Coutts: No, it was all very complicated as you can imagine. Suddenly we were thrown from one situation where I’ve had a child 18 months previously and I was thinking about getting back to my career, and then we had this very sudden diagnosis. There was a huge pressure on time…and it was a huge psychic pressure on daily life. I didn’t start writing anything until about nine months after Tom was first diagnosed, and the first bits of writing I did were kind of writing against annihilation, because it was very hard to actually keep anything going.
It was kind of a response to several things. One was a response to the fact that even though we were suddenly overwhelmed by what seemed liked total catastrophe, it was obvious to me that there were lots of things to be really noticed. It was like my focus changed in a way. So a lot of the stuff I was writing was really about the sort of quotidian. I remember the first chunk I wrote was about my child and watching his behavior when he was just kind of idling around. Of course idling around with a child is one thing, but idling around with a child and you think that your family is about to end is another thing. So it was kind of a response to the frame that that pressure gave. And there was a different energy around my understanding of what time was. And a different energy around my understanding of what essentially my visual field was. And of course the visual field, how I see things, is really important to me, that being my job in a way.
But Tom was very much a working writer, he was a journalist, he was the art critic for The Independent for many years, so words were very much the matter of the house, if you see what I mean. It was like his response always would be through language. The fact of the situation of the tumor was that it was in the area of speech and language, and at that point we didn’t know what that mean, because for the longest time his language wasn’t really affected. So it was like a long, phony period of complete not knowing.
I had no thought of writing a book at that point. None whatsoever. It was very disjointed, I kept doing these little tiny Word documents. Sometimes they’d have 100 words in them, sometimes they’d have 300 words in them. Nothing was connected. But it was a kind of response, responses to thoughts, responses to things that happened, responses to the sudden medicalization of our lives, and responses to things which were very much outside that, like how we used to live, and things we valued, and what happened to them under pressure. The idea of it being a book didn’t happen until very much later.
KHJ: You write a great deal about what it’s like to be the person right next to an illness and how in a lot of ways that can be more difficult. You’re watching everything happen and you have to sort of exist in both—
MC: You curiously unshielded in a funny way. Tom agreed with me. He was always saying, “Oh, it’s much worse for you.” And in a way he’s right. There’s a strange paradox. Of course nobody ever wants to be in that position but you are in the center of a whirlwind of attention and everybody is jumping over themselves to try and help you. And it may not work, it may work, whatever. You are the drama, in a way. And as the person who is going alongside, you’re the watcher of the drama. It’s a very strange and very anomalous and tough position.
KHJ: Absolutely. You have to exist in the normal world as well as the medical world.
MC: Exactly. And what was going on massively was extreme normality. We were living with our boy. It was very important for us to have as much of a fantastic life as we possibly could during that time. So in a way the book is as much a record of that, the things we loved doing before. You don’t suddenly forget about everything you love ….It seems very important, and that kind of singularity and idiosyncrasy wasn’t destroyed. And that is as much about saying we have a right to live as anything else. It’s like, this is our existence, this is how we do it, and this is how we think we should be doing it in the face of complete massive efforts to stop that.
KHJ: Your son was so young when Tom was diagnosed, it seems like you only ever parented in this space of grief and loss. I’m curious how that informed you as a parent.
MC: It’s really complicated because of course that’s not how a child sees it….And we weren’t sitting around screaming all the time, we were having a pretty good time….People would say to me, “Oh God it’s terrible, how are you coping?” And I’d say to them, “this is the good bit.” And then they wouldn’t believe me, but actually that was very true. It was the good bit because he was still there. Tom was a very charismatic figure and his being still there changed radically throughout the two years, three months that he was between illness and dying. And [he] became incredibly complicated and almost slippery and impossible to deal with but he was still there.
That’s also a thing I was very concerned about trying to describe, this idea of luck. Because people would go, “oh it’s awful, it’s awful.” But the fact was his identity wasn’t taken. He always knew me, he took pleasure to a massive degree in his changing circumstances. He was very involved in his changing consciousness. He thought hugely reflexively about that and he wrote about that and that was just amazing to see. It was a real marvel in a way. He couldn’t not be carried along by this. And our boy was a part of that. The changes that happened—I mean there were some utter crisis points where everything went terribly wrong, but in a way they piled up so thick and fast that you couldn’t discern what wasn’t a crisis point.
I think that children are fantastically adaptable and…he was bringing as much joy to us as we were bringing joy to him. Parenting is a massively two way thing so that was just how it was. I talk about that a bit, the sort of the disjunct, the bits that were really problematic. For example there’s a section where I talk about going to pick him up from nursery and it’s almost not doable. That interface just collapses at every point. There’s normality, there’s other parents going “oh how’s your child” and you just cannot respond. So that was the norm in a way, there was lots of these having to navigate situations which just were untenable.
KHJ: It changes all of the simplicity of life.
MC: Yeah. But what happens under conditions of permanent inability? What is it? I still have to go and pick [my son] up from nursery. It was almost like an ethical problem. That was pretty constant, really. And obviously we could be shored up at certain points. Friends were doing all kinds of stuff all around us, but we still were in the world, we still faced the world. We still did stuff in the world and it collapsed back all the time. And by the end, by November 2010, Tom couldn’t read, he couldn’t really live in our house anymore so then we were in the world of the hospital, and in the world of permanent care. And it was sort of interesting if you think about the time scale in the book, the sections which cover quite a long period of time quite loosely. And that was a very difficult thing when I was editing, because there were sections which actually talk at great length about a situation which took 30 minutes. So there’s a real telescoping of focus, which is very true to how it felt.
KHJ: So much of the book is the interplay between the visual and language, the art that you were creating or not, and that he was viewing, and both of your lives in art at words.
MC: I’ve worked visually all my life. I’m a sculptor, I make films, I take photographs, and I suppose the way that I used art in the book, which I felt very important to the book, it’s like using pieces as things to think through, think around. And sometimes it was in the case of things literally encountered—we talk about going to Madrid and looking at Goya—and sometimes it was thinking about a piece of work as a kind of analogy for something quite problematic….Almost thinking, here’s the thing in the world which someone else has done. I’m going to use it to talk about this slightly complex bit of stuff. And I think that’s really important….But also it felt to me important as a very spoken book…because it had to work in a sort of intimate way, speaking to someone else telling them about [what we were going through].
One of the things that Tom used to do, it just was his habit, is that he used to write very late at night and he would sometimes speak the articles, speak the language out so you could hear this voice talking very emphatically to themselves. So it was a bit of that. And I learned a lot from him…about structure and about brevity and about that kind of rhythmic thing.
KHJ: I was so touched by a moment at the end of the book, right at the end of Tom’s life, where you’re struggling to concentrate and try to remember everything as it’s happening. I think that’s really common in so many of these moments, trying to remember every detail. It’s like holding on to sand. Was that a conscious choice? Was that something you had to go back to think much about?
MC: No my memory was absolutely brilliant at that point. (laughs) It really was, I didn’t forget anything. I think when the need arose for total forensic recall I just had it. (laughs) Which is strange. There was no question of not remembering. It was almost like thinking nothing that I’m seeing or hearing at this point—and it might have been a meeting or just some conversation—it was almost like thinking this is the most important thing that will ever happen. And if you’re constantly having those things come up, I think it really changes everything. It changes how you think, it changes how you order stuff in your head. So no, I didn’t forget. And I wasn’t going around with my pencil taking notes at all….I’m not very interested in memoir per se, I never set out to think “well I’m going to tell the story of this cancer.” That isn’t really my interest at all. I just think there was in part, apart from the urgency of certain things, there was this business about a kind of astonishment at what a life could be under these circumstances and a kind of real celebratory…. Towards the end of his life, it was almost like a kind of strange fiesta that just had to be kept on the road by everybody. Everybody was working and everybody was working flat out. Everybody was working flat out but also there was that rather terrifying sort of paradox that everyone was working flat out because they knew it would end. You can’t work like that if it’s indefinite. And that’s quite a harsh thing to deal with, that’s quite a complicated thing to deal with. You can’t put that much energy into something if you feel that it’s not going to end. So there’s always this kind of volatility, this fantastic sort of fiesta-like stuff was predicated on its end.
Marion Coutts is an artist and writer. Her work has been exhibited widely nationally and internationally, including solo shows at Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool, Chisenhale Gallery, London, and Yorkshire Sculpture Park. She has held fellowships at Tate Liverpool and Kettle's Yard, Cambridge. After the death of her husband, the art critic Tom Lubbock in 2011, she wrote the introduction to his memoir Until Further Notice, I am Alive. Her first book The Iceberg was published in 2014 to wide critical acclaim. The Iceberg won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2015. It was shortlisted for The Costa Book Award, 2014 and The Samuel Johnson Prize, 2014 and was a finalist in the US National Book Critics Circle Awards, 2017. In 2016 she was a resident writer at Cove Park. She is a Lecturer in Art at Goldsmiths College and lives in London.
Katy Hershberger Joseph is a writer and book publicist living in New York. She is an MFA candidate in Nonfiction at The New School and her writing has appeared in Brokelyn, xoJane, WashingtonPost.com, Popmatters, Death + Taxes, and more. Find her online @katyhersh.