Stefan Merrill Block's new book, The Storm at the Door, explores the territory between fiction and non-fiction as Block recounts the story of his grandfather's involuntary commitment to McLean Hospital, the renowned New England facility for the treatment of mental disorders. McLean's more famous patients have included Ray Charles, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, James Taylor, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, and Zelda Fitzgerald. The writer's grandfather, Frederick Merrill, was interred at McLean in the 1960s at the same time as Lowell. Neither the exploration of family history through fiction nor the fascination with maladies of the mind are new to Block. His first novel, The Story of Forgetting, began with an attempt to understand his grandmother's slow descent into Alzheimer's, and this book begins with a scene in which that same grandmother, at the very beginning of her illness, burns the letters her husband wrote to her while a patient at McLean. Either story could have provided material for a riveting memoir, but Block chose instead to write them as novels—as complex ambitious works that do much more than simply fictionalize these family histories. I first sat down to talk with Stefan in the fall of 2008 when The Story of Forgetting was short-listed for The Center's First Novel Prize. At that time, we spoke about his path to becoming a published writer and his interests and influences. More recently, he answered questions about The Storm at the Door by email and at an event here on June 23, 2011. This interview includes material from all three sources.
You didn’t follow the traditional path for writers of fiction today. You didn’t attend am MFA program and you don’t write short stories. You’ve said that the first thing you wrote was The Story of Forgetting. Can that be true, that you just sat down and the first thing you decided to write seriously was this novel?
I didn’t “decide” in any real sense. I needed to write because writing was—and is—the only thing that doesn’t feel like a waste of time to me. I wrote, I wrote, and I wrote—something like 1,500 pages–and then it started to assemble itself as a novel, so I trimmed. Still, it was a mess, even at 500 pages, I was ready to say, “You know what? This is what I needed to do. This is the purging I need to do to become a writer.” I was ready to throw away what I had written, but the woman in my life at the time convinced me to send it out to an agent. I went online and googled the name of authors I loved, and the name of the William Morris agent Bill Clegg came up again and again in relation to them. So I sent some messy version of what eventually became The Story of Forgetting to him, and he accepted it. And we worked hard on it together, which was thrilling and so heartening. He’s a brilliant reader and a brilliant editor. I probably wrote 100 new pages during that time. Then he took it to publishers and it went to auction.
But the basic shape of the book was there when you sent it to Bill?
Yes, the shape and the characters of Seth and Abel, and the relationship with Mae. And the idea of Isidora. But I had been writing a very different kind of story. It was more escapist and more fanciful until I wrote the chapter about Abel in love with Mae. I wrote that in two hours, and the serious novel evolved out of that chapter.
But the land called Isidora is the oldest thing in the book. It was based on stories that my mother and my grandmother told me. My grandmother is the major inspiration for the book. We lived with her, and she died of Alzheimer’s. I was thinking about stories that she told and that my mother then told me, about how these passed-down stories create and maintain some sort of family identity.
One of the most interesting things about the novel is that underlying sense that the way we are able to describe what we know, especially what we know about the mind and how it forms–and loses—memories, is so partial.
In a way, there is no better window into the nature of selfhood than Alzheimer’s disease as we watch what we consider the self, which is so tied up with memory, being stripped away. In The Story of Forgetting, I think I was looking for that transcendent thing that makes us something more than our science, and Alzheimer’s disease, almost more than any other disease, can allow for that kind of insight–like a reverse track of the ways we neurologically turn into fully functioning humans.
The question is: What remains? I think in the case of my grandmother, who often wouldn’t know who I was or who my mother was or who she was or where she was or what year it was, what she exhibited and felt, I believe, was love for us. That remained. And that happens in the book, too.
And Isidora, the imagined country outside memory is not a frightening place; it’s a beautiful place.
Yes, though Isidora is a complicated idea for me. I’m not suggesting that Alzheimer’s disease is positive, but I think the book is for me, as the family’s Isidora stories are for me, and, in fact, as all fiction is for me, an attempt to transform unmanageable chaos, to take the elements of what we observe, but can never really know and to construct some mythological other place that makes sense to us. I had a professor once who was probably given to overstatement, it’s true, but who said, “All Western literature is about the fall.” That’s an interesting idea and in some ways it does underlie The Story of Forgetting. At some level, I do feel there was at one point a state of innocence and of direct connection to the living moment that has been lost to us as we gain knowledge and consciousness. That’s really the fall—that we once lived in closer correspondence to the now and to nature, but as we gained language, we separated ourselves from that direct connection to the living moment. And so Isidora is about the possibility of returning to that beautiful place of the now.
As writers, we take the elements of experience that we can’t understand and transform them. And what it is transformed into for me is often, especially with this first book, elevated a bit. It’s not quite reality. When I’m writing, I’m trying to get at some sort of truth, but no one form of narration, no one form of storytelling ever leads me there, and so I seem always to write in multiple genres. I’m not trying to do pastiche or anything. I’m just trying to get at something that can’t be gotten in a single way. And so each form or genre, fairy tale or myth or realism that is woven into The Story of Forgetting represents one system of understanding, and interwoven they contribute an to overall understanding, or at least I hope they do, of the thing that exists in the spaces between all those forms of storytelling.
And I wonder how much of this is a generational thing. Sometimes I think about that, that I’ve grown up knowing only the Internet and knowing that I can take information from ten different places and that everything is hyperlinked. I’ve always had the Internet as a tool, and I write with an Internet machine, this Internet machine that produces the book, so perhaps I write the way I do because of the tools I use.
So that affects how the story unfolds?
Right, it’s not even in a single genre. It’s in four genres and from four different perspectives. But I hope there’s still something that connects everything. I hope there’s an underlying subtle voice that is stronger than each of the genres and ties them in an emotional way.
You said when we talked earlier that you were very aware after completing your first novel of it as analogy to your childhood.
Yes, it’s full of all the things I thought about and feared and loved as a kid, and in some ways was an attempt to put all that stuff away, you know? I was so young when I started it—22 when I began and 25 when it was published. I’m still young, but I was a kid, you know? Of course, there’s a lot in the book that I would do differently now but I’m glad I put to paper all those things that I was thinking about at a very young age.
The new book, The Storm at the Door, is a very different work, though you again deal with family history. And in both your books, you explore maladies of the mind–Alzheimer’s in the first book and your grandfather’s mental illness in the new novel.
Truly, with both books, I just wanted to write something that felt true on the page, and my writing veered down those dark alleys. I know that my tendency to write about madness is partly a product of my personal history: My father is a psychologist, and for a while I thought I would also have a career in psychology—I worked in a number of experimental psych labs. Also, as a child, one of my most important relationships was with my grandmother. It was a very upsetting, even traumatizing, experience to be so close to her as her mind and memories faltered. So my education and experience make these topics natural for me, but (and maybe I’m just rationalizing here!) I do think that my interest in mental illness is equally an artistic one. These diseases, by heightening or paring away the ordinary elements of human perception, have the potential to offer important insight into ordinary human experience. For example, in writing The Storm at the Door, my exploration of manic depression allowed me a new perspective on the processes of artistic creation. After all my reading and writing about madness, I’m now of the opinion that the artistic process is inherently bipolar; to see the truth of things clearly (or so experimental psychologists would tell you) requires a bit of depression, and to create anything of artistic value requires a kind of mania, with its attendant energy and hubris.
Exploring Alzheimer’s disease, for The Story of Forgetting, was a similarly challenging and revelatory experience. Alzheimer’s disease progresses with a trajectory scientists call “retrogenesis”—a rewinding of sufferers’ brains back to their infantile states. By deconstructing the self in the opposite direction of how it is first constructed, Alzheimer’s offers a unique window onto what makes us who we are, and what, if anything, is ultimately unique about each of us.
One of the reasons I quit my scientific pursuits—impatience and poor math skills aside!—was that I was bothered by the ways that psychologists talked about the self. Since Skinner, there has been a trend in psychology to reduce a person’s selfhood to a set of behaviors, and with the advances in neuroscience, this has found its fullest expression yet. Looking through our skulls with their digital imaging, scientists can now see us as nothing but a matrix of neurological activity. At our base, neuroscientists show us, we’re all math. Maybe this is true, and maybe my intolerance for this perspective is just a kind of cowardice, but I still feel this reductionist position misses something vital, the endless and irreducible complexity of being human. That, I think, is one of the questions that underlies almost everything I write: In an age where selfhood has been reduced to a constellation of neurological impulses, is there anything transcendently human and singular about each of us? Mental illness, which displays what part of our selves is merely biological, offers me a way to work out that anxiety.
Can you talk a little about the character of Katherine? In some ways, she’s the most enigmatic figure in the book. Her motivation both for burning the letters and for her decision to commit her husband is never neatly explained. That’s one of the parts I love about the book, but can you explain why you made that choice, and how much of the choice related to character and how much to your relationship or understanding of the actual woman—your grandmother?
I’m lucky that I got to know my grandmother at all. We had a close and loving relationship, even as she began to descend into Alzheimer’s disease when I was around nine or ten. I loved her and felt that I knew her, and yet I see now, as an adult, that I really never got to know her in her true fullness and complexity. Her burning of those letters, more than any other single act, was the beginning of my awareness of her true complicated history that had existed long before me. So there are two great mysteries contained in that act of incineration: the mystery of what those pages held, and also the mystery of why she decided to burn them. And those two mysteries are really the same as the unsolvable mystery that compelled my writing of this book, the mystery of who my grandparents really were.
It was that burning of those letters that first gave definite shape to my curiosity and wonder, and so it seemed right that the scene should open my novel. After years of reading, writing, and research, I see that I’ll probably never have a simple answer to explain that act; the answer, I think, is not a single explanation but an entire complex history of hope and loss and frustration and persistence.
When we talked before, you were worrying about whether to include photos, and we talked about how Sebald used photos in Austerlitz. What sealed that decision for you and are you happy with the result? What do you mean the pictures to do for the reader?
Yes, the decision to include the photographs came very late in the process. While I wrote, I had those two pictures on a shelf near my writing table. I often looked at them while working, and the facts of my grandparents’ actual faces kept refreshing my original vision of them, kept reminding me of the actual people around whom I was spinning these fictions. In many ways, the book is about the insufficiencies of language against the unknowable chaos of lived experience. So I think that the decision to include those pictures, at least for me, points to both of these feelings: the pictures as inspiration for the words I wrote, but also my words grasping and failing to reach the real living people. In Sebald, I think, the photos are there as part of the text, as a kind of visual grammar, modifying the reading experience. In my book, the pictures are a place outside of the text, both challenging and inspiring the stories between them. I’m glad they’re there.