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.
Jonathan Smit, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Adam Haslett about his book Imagine Me Gone (Little, Brown and Company), which is among the final five selections in the category of Fiction for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Jonathan Smit: To start off, I’d just like to say that this book worked wonderfully for me on every level—language, subject matter, character and story. It carries the reader along on a thread of tension that never relents at the same time as it creates a deep connection between the reader and the characters that make up the family that, for me at least, is the real subject of the book. It also takes great narrative risks, which is another thing that makes the book such a rich reading experience.
The book is structured as a series of chapters that are first person narratives by the members of the family—the mother, Margaret; the father John; and the three siblings, Michael, Celia and Alec. We get to know them through their own words, in the midst of their personal awareness, lack thereof, uncertainty, vanity, guilt, shame etc. at different stages in their lives. Did this form originate with your initial conception of the novel or was it a way of telling this story that you arrived at as the book took shape?
Adam Haslett: I started with the section of Michael and Alec in the cabin and had to figure out if it was going to be a short story or something longer. Then, as I moved toward thinking about it as a longer piece and thinking about an earlier point in the family’s story, I had a strong sense of the voice of Margaret in her first section when they’re getting ready to leave on vacation and packing the car. Once I’d established a first-person voice for that, it became clear that the book would need to have the first-person voices of everyone in the family telling their own stories.
JS: Can we talk a bit about how time works in Imagine Me Gone? Another structural decision that I’m very intrigued by has to do with the first two segments, the first told by Alec, and the second by Michael, which tell the reader in effect how the book will end, or at least where it’s heading. For me, this imbued everything in the narrative that follows with a subtle poignancy, hope in tension with foreknowledge, or to put it another way, it shifts the reader’s attention to a certain extent from what will happen to how things unfold. Was that your intention? Can you tell us something about how and why you chose that structure and where that decision happened in your process of writing the book?
AH: Well, those were the last two sections that I wrote, but I think I knew early on that I wanted some kind of prologue to the novel. I also wanted, somewhat as you said, the reader to know that something had happened without knowing precisely what that was, to create a sensitivity in the reader to elements of the story that might not have seemed quite as noteworthy without that seed having been planted early on. And at a certain point, it became clear that moving those two sections to the front of the could be a way of achieving that.
JS: In a way, much of the narrative force of the book ripples outward from the John’s suicide at the end of a long struggle with depression. A thrilling element of this book as well is how fluid and unconventional the notion of narrative is—some examples are John narrating the day of his suicide, and Michael’s wildly subjective interpretations of medical intake forms. These departures from conventional constraints or notions of what constitutes what’s “credible” in a first-person narration felt very alive and very credible to me on their own terms at the same time that I couldn’t help hearing a chorus of fiction workshop caveats in the back of my brain. What elements of the story made these kind of departures from so-called conventional narrative feel essential to you? And was the freedom to depart from these kind of narrative constraints or so-called rules hard won for you as a writer?
AH: The books I love the most, that I’m most drawn to, convey this sense of the internal life of their characters—the dynamic of the character in the voice, and I think that that can sometimes be accomplished in situations or in a context that allows the character a certain kind of access to that, to their own interior life, that might not be there in another. So I thought it was important that John should be able to describe the last day his life from his own point of view and what it means to get to that point where you don’t see a way forward, where the weight of his condition is no longer sustainable. And for Michael, I think in a way that the medical forms maybe provide him with a structure that frees him to think about aspects of his life, to isolate them in a way, that might not have been available to him otherwise.
JS: Michael, the eldest child, is an amazing character—for me at least the most compelling, intelligent and ultimately heartbreaking voice in the book, partly because while he’s the most biologically if not psychologically compromised of the three siblings, he seems to also be the most desperate of the three to build a meaningful life for himself. The most creative and the most quixotic. He’s also not improbably the most psychically mystifying, with his three imaginative cornerstones—house music, the psychic legacies of slavery and Proust. Could you tell us something about the process of finding and imagining the character of Michael?
AH: He’s the most autobiographical character in the book, based in many ways on my brother, who also has had to deal with those issues in his life. And I drew on some things directly from that and then there are things brought in from other places. But the dynamic of that sense of someone with that kind need to locate things in the real world with which to anchor their sense of themselves is something I was familiar with, as well as the intense investment with those things that comes with that. And I think the creativity in a sense and his self-awareness of how that’s operating for him is also a part of that.
JS: One of the remarkable things about this family is that, as you’ve talked about, they all seem to be deeply involved in thinking about—examining—their lives—in processing in their own individual ways what’s happening to them, and in many of the sections of the book I came across, and was brought up short by in a way, phrases that seem to shine a light into the thematic depths of the book and beyond the book into the world at large, that distill something important into consciousness, at the same time that they tell us something important about the character who’s speaking. I wonder if we could talk about a few of those phrases and how they resonate through the book.
The first is on page 15 where Margaret says, speaking of John, “He wasn’t raised to be understood in the way people think of relationships now.” Am I reading too much into this sentence by thinking that it speaks to something more than John’s Englishness?
AH: Well, I think that’s sort of the direct reference. But I think what you’re getting at more broadly there, which I suppose that’s an example of, is when there is mental illness in a family, which there is in mine, then many of the things that are transparent or invisible or simply assumed in many or most people’s lives suddenly become thick; they have to be negotiated and troubled over. So there’s that question of how well you know someone else, which is always there obviously in any close relationship, and yet for her, for Margaret, because her husband suffers from depression, it becomes life or death, a necessity in a way, in order for her to get her own bearings in the world, to try to find out what makes her husband up. So, this is a part of her trying to think through that more explicitly than other characters might.
JS: The second is on p. 264 where Michael says, “I wondered how any of them—Celia or Alec or my mother—managed to live anywhere but on the lip of his grave, eyes pinned open, trying to look away.” Could one say that Imagine Me Gone seems to be about a family that has no choice but to be doing precisely that?
AH: Yeah, I think that’s fair. I think one of the things that happens is that for the family I’m portraying here you’re always fighting the last war. For example, there’s the way in which the concern that Celia and Alex have for Michael is inflected by what happened to their father. Then the other thing that I was wanting to get at, something that I in some sense learned as I wrote through the characters, was that the form of help that Celia and Alex want to give in each of their different ways to Michael might be a mismatch for what Michael himself might need—that the need to help someone is always caught up in some way in the need of the helper. And so I think Michael’s troubles keep alive in a way the trauma of the father’s death.
JS: That handily morph’s into the next quotation where on p. 269 Margaret, speaking of a place she avoids on her walks because it reminds her of her husband’s death, says “eventually the avoidance became the reminder.” This is another striking phrase that seemed to me to resonate far beyond that particular circumstance and that particular moment and that extends to the psychological dilemmas of everyone in the family.
AH: Yeah. Again, you’re getting at the sense of the way that I think being close to or loving someone with mental illness forces you into a kind of self-examination and questioning of your own interior life, a kind of skepticism about your perceptions, and the kind of self-scrutiny that comes along with no longer being able to believe that consciousness is just transparent. And also, more broadly, even beyond Imagine Me Gone, an essential part of writing fiction for me is interior life, which I think is what fiction captures better than any other art form, and it’s where I’m always trying to go when I write.
JS: Yeah. That’s one of the really great things about this book I think—how rich all of the characters’ interior lives are, and I think it also comes up with Celia’s and Alex’s relationships with their partners who seem somewhat less invested in that kind of interior life and that becomes a kind of issue in their relationships.
AH: I guess I’d say I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way, but I think that’s accurate. I mean I think that somewhere, in both of their relationships, they’re trying to make boats to get off a desert island on which they live with the family, and, to an extent, their partners represent a way of having achieved that—it’s, as we all know, never a complete achievement. And so, to the extent that Celia and Alex are pulled back into the ongoing troubles of Michael, they’re going into a realm that it’s hard for their partners to peer into fully.
JS: On page 297, in Michael’s last section, he gives us a long quotation from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past that describes how medical remedies “produce a simulacrum of illness.” The quotation not only chillingly describes the medical trap that Michael finds himself in, but reveals his deep awareness of it. It also speaks to what one might call a pervasive pathology of treatment for psychological illness in modern society and opens up the novel from the trauma of one family to implicate the experiences of many others. I guess my question would be: how much were the broader societal implications of Michael’s experience in your mind while you were writing this?
AH: Well, I think I certainly am aware of the fact that there is this huge disjunction between the intent and often intractable experience of people with severe mental suffering, and biological psychiatry and the technology and the terminology of that world—the way that those states are read, the lens through which they’re seen by medicine and society. So there’s obviously a sidelong commentary running through the book, with the psych intake form and other things, about the ambivalent and troubled relationship between mental suffering and psychiatry. I don’t think it’s editorial as much as the goal being to place the reader into the mind of someone facing those conundrums, because I think they are conundrums, by which I mean there are no simple answers. And I found in that Proust quotation a strikingly eloquent summary of that idea.
JS: On page 327 in Alec’s chapter Michael quotes Proust again, speaking of the “miracle of an analogy.” Another aspect of the way the form works, and this connects to the next question as well, is that it makes the idea of time and causality very relative. While for the most part the sequence of the sections move forward through time, the character speaking is often moving backward through time, thinking about events that have happened in the past and the reader is rarely if ever grounded in a moment by a specific date or even year. Michael goes on to speak of that phrase in terms of a “backward ache,” and that phrase again seems to constellate a huge part of the family’s experience of their loss and by way of that the reader’s experience of it. For Proust it seems to be a liberating experience, one that obviates Swann’s fear of death. But for Michael, and I think all of the characters in the book, it seems to be something else, almost a trap that holds them captive in the loss. Could you tell us something about what that phrase means to you?
AH: I think you’ve struck there on one of the keys—I think it’s because the way in which the tragedy of the loss, or I should say the pain of the person who was lost, that it was a suicide, makes the backward glance and the grief that accompanies it compounded in some way because of the knowledge that the person, who was loved so much, died in pain. So, I suppose you could say that in Proust it’s the evocation of an ordinary loss evoked in an extraordinary way—in the form of the grandmother and his own childhood and so on, he finds in that evocation a kind of miracle of an analogy, while Michael, I think, because he’s involuntarily cast backward into that, is searching for some kind of redemptive tune in that experience, but because of the intensity of his own present suffering that’s hard to find.
JS: On page 338 Celia, speaking of her practice as a therapist talks of her discarded habit of trying to fix her patients through “a desire to find the passage of experience that would explain their pain away.” And she adds, “What good plot didn’t offer that?” and I immediately thought: “This one.” One of the great achievements of this novel is that it avoids that pitfall by embracing not knowing, uncertainty, negative capability. Was it difficult in the writing of this to avoid that temptation?
This also reminds me of something you said in an article you wrote for LitHub called the perpetual solitude of the writer – “the most needed artistic resource is no longer a critique of the possibility of meaning – mass culture itself has become that resource.” And you assert in response to that a form of “production of meaning that resists distraction.” Would you say that writing a good plot that doesn’t explain away pain is one way of achieving that end?
AH: I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t aware of the echo obviously coming at the end of the book and the question of what the meaning might be. It’s one of those moments where you hope to earn the echo of self-referentiality—although I don’t think that it’s an overtly explicit self-referentiality.
It would seem almost self-congratulatory to say yes, but to answer the question as I think you intend it, sure. To go back to something I said earlier, if you stay true, as I tried to throughout the writing of the book, to the ambivalence at the center of most human experience, the double quality of it, the push and pull, the desire and the repulsion, if you’re writing about interior life and you’re tracking that, as that accretes over time in the book, it just becomes harder and harder to convincingly stamp any kind of resolution onto it because it then begins to ring untrue to the tensions you’ve set forth. So, to tie that in to the point about distraction, I think that one of the things we’re most distracted from by contemporary culture is the quieter voices of interior life. In some sense I do think both as a writer in the act of doing it and hopefully for readers in the act of reading it, it could or does serve to slow the mind to experience those things.
Adam Haslett is the author of the novel Union Atlantic and the New York Times best-selling short story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award and has been translated into fifteen languages. The collection was one of Time Magazine’s Five Best Books of the Year, a selection of Today’s book club, and the winner of the 2006 PEN/Malamud Award. Haslett has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Best American Short Stories, The O'Henry Prize Stories, and National Public Radio's Selected Shorts. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Yale Law School, he currently lives in New York City.
Jonathan Smit is in his final semester as an MFA candidate concentrating in fiction at the New School. In addition to fiction, he’s written plays and criticism. His novel-in-progress, A Density, is set in the present in New York. He’s had work published in Ducts.org and The Brooklyn Rail, and his play, The April Hour, was read at The Public Theatre in New York as part of LAByrinth Theatre Company’s Barn Series of new play readings. He lives in Manhattan and Austin with his wife and two superlative cats.