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'What is the self and how can I trust it?': an interview with Carmiel Banasky

The Prairie Schooner Book Prize is now open through March 15th. Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson will interview poets and fiction writers throughout the prize period, in celebration of the art of the book. This week, Carmiel Banasky talks mental illness, representation, and the question of accessibility in experimental and popular fiction. 

How many books have you published, and where?

The Suicide of Claire Bishop is my debut novel, published by Dzanc Books in September 2015. It has been quite a ride!

Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript. Did you plot organically? Did you outline? How did the story come together? 

My novel is a two voice narrative, and both protagonists get fairly equal page time. I had Claire and knew her story would take place over several decades, starting in the 50’s. But I only knew I had a novel, the material I would be excited to work with for years, once I had found her counterpart in West, a young man with schizophrenia in present day. They’re tied by a portrait Claire has commissioned in the start of the book, which turns out to depict an image of her potential suicide.

I usually hear a character, start writing in that voice, and keep going, hoping that the character will reveal the plot to me. This tactic invites detours and false leads; it requires a lot of rewriting. I did write myself into a few holes. Of course I now wonder how my experience would have been different if I had outlined. Would I have avoided some false leads and saved time? Would I have also missed some beautiful hidden places and complex character development that I wouldn’t have stumbled into if I’d followed an outline? I did outline, in a way, much later in the revision process when I worked out the logic of West’s delusion. Though it is a delusion, it follows a meticulous logic. He fits or forces the details of the plot and setting into an algorithm. So the order in which I worked it out mimicked the way West approaches the world—but it was also the most difficult way I could have chosen to write!

Wow—that’s so interesting. So you had the sense that your process was, in a very real way, led by your characterization of West. Is this always the way your process works? How does it alter, for instance, when you’re not writing about schizophrenia?

Ha, I like that way of putting it—but it may be a romantic way of looking back on basically poorly laid plans. However, I suppose I wouldn’t change the process if I were given the chance to travel in time (another of West’s delusions) and do it all over again. I learned too much by making wrong turns! (Maybe that’s THE practice—to view all of life in this way, not just writing.) Currently, my process looks very different: I write a whole draft to find the voice and the characters—then I outline and pretty much start over again! So I know my characters well enough to let them define the outline, but it’s still a much clearer, cleaner arc to work from.

I don't know if I articulated it this way when writing The Suicide, but I think theme is what connects the writer and her characters. It is the question that both writer and character is asking. Theme, to me, is not a topic-word like "identity;" it is the Big question the book is investigating. Many books might be asking the same question but attempt to answer it through whatever specifics they explore. Maybe everything I write will in some way ask the big theme-question "what is the self and how can I trust it?" Claire and West go about life inadvertently answering this question, differently from one another, while I attempt to answer it by writing these characters. So hopefully theme always allows for process to be led by character to some extent, though with West it was much clearer how that happened.

Did you notice any writing tics or themes once you’d gotten through a first draft? How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the story in a meaningful way) and which were not?

I had to diligently make sure that Claire and West’s voices stayed within their specific rules and limitations, and that they only shared characteristics intentionally, when they are more joined thematically or when Claire’s mind starts slipping away from her or she is less in control.

How do you prevent yourself from giving in to character bleed? Any tips or tricks?

The language I used in Claire's sections is, hopefully, OF her time, informed by history and the political climate she finds herself in. Same with West, who reads things like A Brief History of Time and works as data miner. His thought processes and therefore language are informed by everything in his life, including anything from terrorist threat level charts and his upbringing in an intensely PETA household--all this insists on a difference in language and style. West is also guided by his schizophrenia, which lends itself to the fanciful and poetic. I tried to keep Claire within tighter language parameters, until she begins to slip into Alzheimer's later in the book. 

What was the editing process like? How did you get from draft to draft? Did you find yourself excising large portions? Adding?

As I mentioned above, I took many wrong turns plot-wise, though those places taught me about my characters. I had about 30-50 pages of West in the hospital in one draft. And I researched a lot to figure out how to write that section! But it didn’t make the cut. It wasn’t active enough. All the action and movement of his delusion was taking place outside the hospital. He was trapped in there, just thinking. But I learned more about schizophrenia that way, and how West’s brain works.

When I had more of a bird’s eye view of the novel, I also saw where Claire’s character arc was missing a beat and I added the 1968 section, when she is exploring her sexuality, much later in revision.

How did you decide where to submit the finished manuscript? 

I sent my manuscript out before it was ready to a few agents, got a few helpful rejections, then kept revising and polishing for another year. I sent out again to just a couple agents the next round and found my match. I revised with her for a month or so, then we sent out to publishers. I really had imagined all along that my book fit with Dzanc or a press like them, and that’s what happened! They made a lot of sense to me. And I loved working with Guy, my editor.

I’ve recently experienced the joys of having a good editor—what makes the editor/writer relationship productive?

There is a trust there. He wasn't very heavy-handed, but his suggestions and nudges led me towards making some big changes that were bubbling under the surface of the manuscript. He also wanted me to cut my prologue all along. I said no--I was so tied to the idea of teaching my readers how weird this book will get via West's voice in the original prologue--until the very last minute, when I decided accessibility was more important!

What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?

Oh, I suppose just to not fret during the submission phase, that it would all work out one way or the other. To be happy with what was. I now have the same ambitions, but without that feeling of grasping or feeling left out. I did utilize the waiting times to start in on the next project, advice I got from other novelists at the time.

What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

It really takes a village. It’s not surprising, I guess, how many people are involved in making a book happen and happen well, but I don’t think all those people who believe in the book are given much credit in the final conversation. There are editors, copy-editors, cover designers, agents and their interns, publicists and their interns, friends and family, teachers and readers and mentors, etc., etc. I am so grateful to this community that revealed itself through the publishing process.

It seems like a great gift—to see your work through the eyes of other creatives who believe in it. Did you have any particular surprises or moments of delight in that process?

I mentioned above that I edited for accessibility in my final drafts. One surprise was giving my mother the galley and her loving it in the WAY she loved it. My mom has always been proud of me, but she never connected to my writing or characters in my more experimental stories. She felt those stories weren’t meant for her, too weird, and it made her feel excluded. The way she loved my novel moved me and made me take the idea of a wider audience much more seriously. I had written my first draft with my small literary circle in mind as my audience. But why? I think it was out of fear. Being experimental was always a crutch--I had to show off my smarts in other ways because I was afraid I didn't know how to write a solid story. Was I still leaning on that crutch, I wondered in my last push at edits? And the prologue may have been a crutch, so I threw it away triumphantly. And I'm happy to say I have much more confidence now in my own storytelling ability, through practice, through reading, through studying structure. Now, when I choose to go weird, it is for a very good reason.

What is your favorite part of your first book? 

That’s an interesting question! I don’t know—each part was so unique and took a different part of me to write it. I loved researching the sixties and writing about protestors. I loved writing an artist manifesto from the point of view of the painter and diverging in form, inserting an “artifact” in the book. I loved being able to write as truthfully as possible about mental illness and showing what the domestic side of it can be like: when West returns home, I got to explore how his old friends and his family would regard him now that he was “sick.”

Why do you suppose you were drawn to the subject of mental illness? Mental illness and the question of representation are subjects that seem to be uniquely intertwined. What led to the decision to make the inciting incident of the text the visual representation of the character's mental illness?

I had two close friends who were diagnosed with schizophrenia. I was fascinated by their experiences, which isn’t often represented in fiction, at least not in a non-stereotypical way. And I was fascinated by my own fear of it once it was so close to home. The idea of diagnosis was also a major question for me: is it limiting or freeing, or both? Does explaining one’s experience give one permission and validation, or is it pigeon-holing? To me, a metaphor for this is representation, or rendering. Once an experience is written down or painted, given words or locked into an image or story, does it now feel written in stone, or does that externalizing of it give one the opportunity to let it go? The novel, if it answers these questions at all, shows that it’s a little bit of both, and that it is up to Claire and West to take agency and decide their lives for themselves.

I don’t have anything to add here, except that I really love the answer to this question because it’s both about the problem of categorizing as representation, in the medical sense, and about the process of writing—both create “stable” bodies/artifacts out of a messy, unstable process. That is both a beauty and a grief of art and diagnosis.

Very well put. I have friends, who are all writers of course, suffering from mental illness who are afraid of receiving a diagnosis (will it make it too real? Could they avoid the experience by avoiding a diagnosis?), and other friends who have felt free because of it. A diagnosis might take away some of the blame people place on themselves because it states this thing is hereditary or in some other way not at all their fault. Maybe in making art, using that as a metaphor for this question, there is both a claiming of agency and responsibility, by putting something into words, and a broadening and letting go, as those words may reveal that the story is much bigger than itself. 

Carmiel Banasky is the author of the novel, The Suicide of Claire Bishop (Dzanc, 2015), which Publishers Weekly calls "an intellectual tour de force." Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, Slice, Guernica, PEN America, The Rumpus, and NPR, among other places. She earned her M.F.A. from Hunter College, where she also taught Creative Writing. She is the recipient of awards and fellowships from Bread Loaf, Ucross, Ragdale, Artist Trust, I-Park, and other foundations. After four years on the road at writing residencies, she now teaches in Los Angeles. She is from Portland, Or.