“In a way all stories are about mental health”: an Interview with Molly Quinn

by Gayle Rocz

Filed under: Blog, Interviews |

Molly Quinn’s writing has either appeared or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, and Post Road. She was recently published in our Spring issue with the short fiction story, “Babies in the Water.”

Gayle Rocz: Your short fiction story, "Babies in the Water," is based around the relationship between a grown, unstable, and distant daughter, Kim, and her mother who is suffering from dementia. Their relationship is rather strained because Kim believes her mother intentionally poisoned her as a child. How did this scenario present itself to you? What were some influences that helped you create this situation between these two characters?

Molly Quinn: I’m interested in relationships between caregivers and the caretaken, and how these roles inevitably blur and sometimes reverse. Sometimes compassion turns into pity. I’ve seen this pattern to some extent in every family system, at the hospital where I work, and in our culture at large. It’s maddening because it’s so hard to call out: those who thrive from others being unwell can hide behind the guise of competence. I knew I wanted to write about Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy—when a caregiver induces illness—because it’s the most extreme example of this kind of scapegoating. Kim’s mother, unable to contend with her own vulnerability, intentionally makes Kim physically weak so she can get her needs met through her daughter. I realized this made the mother too purely villainous, so I gave her dementia. Not only does this show her frailty and humanness, it pushes Kim into the caretaker role, challenging her perception of herself as a victim.

GR: Throughout "Babies in the Water," Kim's mother appears to be completely within her mental illness. However, the two share brief moments of tenderness and clarity. When Kim says, "I know how you made me sick," the narrator states that "Her mother locked eyes with her. Searching them, Kim saw, for an instant, what she was looking for. Her mother knew that she knew." As a nurse, have you experienced moments like this, when people are able to break through the haze of their mental illnesses to find clarity? Why did you choose to include these moments of tenderness and clarity within this story?

MQ: Often with mental illness, there is no haze. Sometimes people are acutely aware of what they’re going through, which can make suffering particularly painful. Even when someone’s perception seems bizarre or absurd, I try to remember that my view of the world is only a perspective. People whose minds work differently have a unique window we can learn from, and those who have lived through the worst trauma often have the most wisdom.

In cases of dementia, I’ve experienced many moments of connection with my patients. When logical conversation isn’t an option, emotions are communicated through eye contact, facial expression, and body language. I wanted to capture this kind of tenderness in the story for the sake of tension, to show there’s a relationship of sorts at stake. Even in her resentment, Kim recognizes her mother is just a human being who must navigate confusion and fear at the end of her life. When Kim confronts her, I dangle the possibility of a genuine reckoning between them. Even if her mother does grasp what’s happening, she chooses not to admit it, leaving Kim retraumatized without hope of resolution. This moment of clarity lays the ground for Kim’s cruelty. Making her rage and frustration palpable implicates the reader when she acts them out at the end of the story.

GR: I also read your short story, "Little Red Mouths," that was published in the Kenyon Review Online. I noticed some similarities between the two stories, mostly in that they deal with mental illness. The main character in this story seems to be dealing with anxiety. Why do you feel compelled to write stories that deal with mental illnesses? What is your goal in writing these stories?

MQ: Between my family history, my own struggles with anxiety, and working in a psych ward for fifteen years, it was inevitable that I would end up writing about mental health. In a way all stories are about mental health because all stories are about human minds, but there’s a lot of fear around admitting this because of stigma. Having witnessed many healing processes, including my own, I believe the most essential piece is realizing our common humanity: understanding that we’re not alone in our suffering, that it’s a part of life. I hope these stories do some small part in normalizing mental health issues and inspire others to tell their own.

GR: Are there any other writers or pieces of writing that have influenced your writing style or subject matter?

MQ: I’m sure they have but it’s not something I keep track of. Figuring out my style seems self-limiting. Instead I try to cultivate curiosity—I read as much as possible and see what comes out. Voices that are always in my head include Zadie Smith, Carson McCullers, Stephanie Vaughn, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anne Enright, and Roddy Doyle. Nobody writes about mental health like Elizabeth Strout; her observations are so sharp and honest. Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is the most delightful and imaginative collection I’ve read in a while. Right now, I’m finishing Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, and it’s inspiring me to spend even more time alone than I already do.

GR: Finally, what are your current projects? Will your upcoming collection of short stories be similar to the two previously mentioned?

MQ: I’m getting close to completing this collection, which I’m calling “A Danger to Ourselves” after my piece that was published in the Iowa Review. I think this is the right title because it addresses the misconception that people with mental illness are violent to others, when in reality they’re much more likely to hurt only themselves. The entire collection is themed around mental health. Many of the stories are set in the psych ward where I work, and some are interconnected. Others are about those coping with issues like alcoholism, chronic pain, and sex addiction outside of the hospital. I’ve also started outlining a novel, which I won’t say much about except that the protagonist is a nurse.

Gayle Rocz is a Prairie Schooner intern.