Q&A with Novelist Stefan Merrill Block

On Tuesday, July 12, 7pm we have the great pleasure of welcoming novelist and Texas native Stefan Merrill Block to the BookPeople podium. We loved his first novel, The Story of Forgetting (and so did plenty of other people – the Austin Chronicle named it best book of the year 2008, it was chosen as Best First Novel in the 2008 Rome International Festival of Literature, and our friends over at the Writers’ League of Texas gave it their 2009 Fiction Award, to name just a few of the honors it received.)

His latest novel, The Storm at the Door, is based on the story of Block’s own grandparents. The Associated Press calls it “…a remarkable work of literary fiction, a beguiling look at the interstices of language and sanity, memory and history.” Publisher’s Weekly raved about it, saying it’s, “Masterful … heartbreaking… [an] incredibly moving story of life, love, and mental illness … It’s this generation’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

BookPerson Liz Wyckoff recently corresponded with Block to ask him a few questions about the new novel, his writing life, and what it was like to research McLean Hospital, one of the most famous homes for the mentally ill.

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Q: In your author’s note, you describe The Storm at the Door as “a work of fiction inspired by [your] grandparents’ true history.” But rather than falling neatly into one genre, the book seems to be a literary half and half—one part fiction to one part nonfiction. How would you describe your experience navigating that blurry boundary between fact and fiction in the book?

A:  I’m glad you read it that way. The story I wanted to tell in this novel was, in no small part, about the storytelling I’ve always done with my family. Growing up, my mother’s parents were my closest absences: my grandfather died long before I was born, and my grandmother died when I was still quite young. Through my very close relationship with my mother I’ve always felt that I know my grandparents deeply but also incompletely. Years before I thought of writing this book, I had conjured my grandparents as fictional characters in the way that people often do with their lost relatives: my idea of them was a composite of memories, the little details that people had told me, the artifacts that remained, and a lot of my own imagination.  In a way, writing this book was like cheating; I just put down my oldest fictional creations onto the page.

I’ve been using a dinosaur simile to describe the relationship between truth and fiction in this book.  Many of the dinos we see at museums are composites of found fossils and simulated materials.  In order to recreate the creatures, paleontologists must take what they find and then craft the rest.  Similarly, when people read my book, they will see many of the original objects and facts, and also the places where I have had to build upon them to complete my story.  As with a whole T-Rex skeleton, to make the thing more lifelike required some new and synthesized materials.

Q:  This novel includes fascinating, and sometimes horrific, details about The Mayflower Home for the Mentally Ill—your fictional rendition of the real-life McLean Hospital, where poet Robert Lowell, mathematician John Nash, and your grandfather resided as patients. While composing the novel, how did you balance your time between research, writing, and fact-checking?

A:  This is probably a naive method that more years of writing will dispel, but I really don’t believe in doing much deliberate research for the sake of a novel.  This is not to say that I feel my novels shouldn’t be researched but that the research part of the project should just be some curiosity or need that comes up naturally, a topic that obsesses me before I even consider writing about it.  So, I’ve read everything I could find about McLean and its patients in the time my grandfather was there, and much of that reading I did long before I started to write, just because I wanted to know more about my grandfather’s life.  When I wrote the novel, I didn’t go back to those books for a long while.  I didn’t want, as Robert Lowell worries in his poem “Epilogue,” to be “paralyzed by fact.” I let my imagination, inspired by the reading I had done in the past, move freely.  Later, in the editing phase, I did go back to those books to compare what I had written against the historical record.  I tried to make the two align as much as was possible, but my first priority was to tell a good story.  In the end, I decided that I had fictionalized McLean Hospital thoroughly enough to warrant a name change, which is why I call it “Mayflower Home” in the novel.

Q:  You’ve written much of this story in first-person, from the perspective of a grandson researching his grandparents’ tumultuous relationship. However, the narrative sometimes dips into a close third-person point of view, allowing glimpses into the minds of other, more peripheral characters, such as your grandfather’s eccentric roommate, Professor Shlomi Schultz. Can you talk a bit about your decision to include multiple perspectives in the book, and what that adds to your grandparents’ story?

A: A major part of the urgency that powered this book – the need to know my grandparents as I can’t in real life—was to understand the time and place in which they lived.  McLean Hospital was such an extraordinary and complex place, and I felt that to understand what it meant to be a patient there required a bigger story about the other patients and staff.  Also, I’ve always loved novels where the initial main character, like Ishmael in Moby Dick or The Kid in Blood Meridian, gets subsumed into the force of a larger story.  I appear in the opening and closing of the book, but I mostly disappear for the majority of the story, and I think that’s just how it should be.

Q:  In your interview with Teddy Wayne for The Huffington Post, you mentioned being driven by a “compulsive need” to write this book in order to better know your grandparents. Was this compulsion unique to The Storm at the Door, or are you similarly motivated in all of your writing projects? What lures you, and keeps you committed, to a life of writing?

A:  Maybe it’s a result of living in the current culture of distractions, or maybe it’s just a belief wired into my thinking, but I feel that good fiction must make a case for itself.  The fiction I love most delivers the news that no other mode can reach: it resurrects lost time; it reaches into obscure places; it offers a private, internal account of an otherwise unknowable experience; it conjures another world that can exist no place outside of words on a page.  Fiction is a place where the world can make sense in a way that it never can in unfiltered reality. What compels me forward through books is the profoundly comforting feeling of asylum that books can offer amid the chaos of reality.

Q:  To get a few recommendations out of you for our BookPeople customers, what books aided and/or inspired you during the writing process for The Storm at the Door?

A:  One of the most wonderful aspects of writing this novel was the motivation it gave me to immerse myself in Robert Lowell’s poetry. I had read and loved his Life Studies years before I thought about writing this book, but when I learned that Lowell had been on the same ward as my grandfather, I knew I needed to look more closely at his work.  Lowell’s stardom seems to have faded somewhat in recent years, which is a shame.  His poetry is brave, dense, erudite and in a state of perpetual reinvention.

Anyway, I think I’ve read every poem Lowell wrote, and I’ve also read a couple biographies about him.  What most astonishes me, even more than the dark beauty of his lines, is how profoundly fitting they are to my grandparents’ lives.  In poems like “To Speak of the Woe that is in Marriage,” “Epilogue,” and “Dolphin” Lowell seems to be describing my grandparents as much as himself.   I decided to place these poems into my book as I experienced them during the writing process, like a Greek chorus commenting on the action of the novel.  I think everyone should own Lowell’s Collected Poems.  It’s one of the books I love most.

For readers interested in learning more about the hospital and its extraordinary history and patients, I highly recommend Alex Beam’s Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America’s Premiere Mental Hospital, Diane Middlebrook’s biography of Anne Sexton, Susanna Keysen’s harrowing memoir Girl, Interrupted, and, of course, one of the great classics of McLean literature, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

Q:  You were recently awarded the Jesse Jones fellowship to write at the Dobie Paisano Ranch outside of Austin for six months this coming spring (sponsored by the Graduate School at U.T. and the Texas Institute of Letters). Congrats! What are you working on, or what will you be working on, now that The Storm at the Door has been published?

A:  Thanks! I was so thrilled to learn I had been selected for that fellowship, and the thought of those upcoming months on the ranch is a relief valve on my steaming New York anxiety!  I’m very excited about the novel I’ve started writing, and I hope to complete a draft by the end of my time at Paisano.  I’d like to tell you much more – I’ve always found it annoying when writers balk at this question, it’s like when politicians won’t announce the obvious fact they are running for an office—but I’ve learned that if I say too much about it then I start to feel obligated to make the final book resemble what I’ve described it to be.  But I will say that after two deeply personal novels inspired by my family, I’m very happy to have moved on to something more purely imagined and –I hope!—larger in scope.

Stefan Merrill Block will speak and sign copies of The Storm at the Door at BookPeople on Tuesday, July 12, 7p.

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