Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Lily Pond: An Introductory Interview with Mike Barnes

The title of your new memoir is The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis. I wonder if you could start by explaining this a bit, with perhaps particular emphasis paid to your rather interesting subtitle?

For a few months the manuscript had another title, and only three sections instead of four. I thought it was finished. When I was surprised by the events, and then the writing, of the last section, I realized that its title, "The Lily Pond", had to be the title of the whole book, since it encapsulates so many of the themes and images explored throughout. But a book just called "The Lily Pond" could be mistaken for a manual on aquatic gardening or a study of Monet--hence the subtitle. It came from me asking myself a simple question: What is the book about? What are its main and recurrent elements? It's about madness, an old-fashioned term which I usually prefer to the more modern "bipolar disorder". Madness covers a huge range of extreme states: from craziness/mental illness to fiery creative passion to overmastering love and obsession. I think this scope makes it a more humane term, but also a more accurate one. The book is also about memory. This might be considered redundant: isn't a memoir by definition about memory? No. All memoirs draw on memory, but this one actively explores how memory may be lost or damaged (through illness and its treatments), how and to what extent it may be recovered, and how a coherent life story may be maintained even in the absence of reliable memory. The book is also about myth(s). It draws on world mythologies to make some of its points, but in a broader sense, it questions the daily myths of illness and wellness by which we know ourselves and others. How do these myths damage, limit, nourish, reveal? Can they be changed? Lastly, it is a story of metamorphosis: of altered states wrought by illness and confusion, but also by recovery and understanding. It is about the paradox of accepting radical ongoing transformation as the foundation of life and sanity.

Plus, I like the alliteration of those five "M"s. They sound like murmuring.

I like your use of madness as well. It seems more fitting, human, less clinical. Madness' shape more diaphanous, perhaps, than bi-polar or schizophrenic, more human. More true to life. There's nothing contained about it. It also seems to me that this is a book, in some ways, you have been working toward for quite a while. Your other books -- some of your stories, your poetry, perhaps most especially your first novel, The Syllabus -- have grappled with the subjects of madness, of memory (and forgetting), of metamorphosis. Especially M., the hero of The Syllabus. You describe memory in The Lily Pond as a Turner fogscape. Can you briefly explain?

Well, that comparison comes specifically from "Two Rooms", the first section of the book, where the period I am trying to remember is the eighteen months I spent on and off (mostly on) a psychiatric ward...when accurate recall was swamped by a perfect storm of memory disruptors: multiple electroshock treatments, phenothiazines and other powerful drugs, and the confusions and distortions of psychosis itself. So the snippets that come back to me are often like those tantalizing gleams in Turner's veils of fog. Sometimes, if I concentrate, more details will come and the object or face, a scene, will solidify and make more sense. And this also happens looking at Turner's paintings. This doesn't mean, though, that the glimpses of things could be anything, are random. I have a sense--a memory trace, I assume--of what is really there, and it has weight, a "rightness" on those occasions when I find it. For example, a year ago, my sister told me of visiting me in the hospital at a time when I was catatonic, just lying on my bed unmoving day after day. And fleeting images of her then came back to me, bits of her face, hands, the hospital wall behind her...and I trusted these. Partly because they had that weight I'm speaking of, a mass that felt like more than fancy...pieces actually dredged up from something sunken...but also because they stayed as bits, fleeting fragments. I think a wish-fulfillment fantasy would have bloomed more completely. This was one of the worst times, memory-wise. Nearly obliterative for those years, but also very destructive of my life up till then, as if a retroactive fog had swallowed much of the past. And then the memory troubles continued forward too, with fog and "gap-outs", as I call them, especially during times of illness. In recent years I have felt much clearer and more certain about remembering my life. Relatively speaking; when I compare notes with other people, they express surprise at how places I've been, books I've read, etc. could vanish so completely. But I've learned a lot of tricks that help: checks and double-checks, ways of reinforcement, and also habits of concentration and reflection to lay down and maintain a stronger memory track. And I've learned to live with the holes. Turner's fog can be unsettling, disquieting...but it also has its gentle and allusive aspect, a richness of suggestion. Whereas easy-to-see could also mean easy-to-dismiss, which is another kind of forgetting. I'm sorry: you asked for "briefly" and this hasn't been. Memory is a raw nerve.

Can you say a few words about the writing of the book?

The story of the book's genesis is told in the book's third section, "Leavetaking", where, with the help of a gifted psychiatrist, I follow, in an almost detective-like fashion, a number of mysterious clues and events that lead me to an answer which is also a course of action: telling my own story, this memoir, for the first time.

One of the key precipitating events, described in the book, was being asked to speak about my life as a writer for a university group. In preparing that talk, I realized that I had not told, even to myself, my own story—or this important aspect of it—in explicit and detailed terms. In my poems and fiction I had alluded to it constantly and tried to illuminate it from various angles. But I had never consciously tried to explore at length, in writing, the meaning for me of my decades of mental illness. This preliminary thinking led me into areas of exploration that were unusable for a short talk to a few strangers but which proved to be the beginnings of this manuscript.

After writing the first three-quarters of it, I sent it to five friends, less to get their judgement on its literary merits than to see if it spoke to them as a "human" story they could relate to. Their enthusiastic and encouraging responses led me to continue the project, eventually writing the last section about my wife's recently-diagnosed illness and, in slow steps, to consider and finally say yes to Dan Wells's offer to publish the book.

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