By Daniel Ford
Carmiel Banasky’s debut novel, The Suicide of Claire Bishop, has garnered rave reviews from the likes of author Colum McCann, Publisher’s Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews. Her book also landed on last month’s “5 Books That Should Be On Your Radar!”
Banasky recently answered some of my questions about her journey as a writer, what inspired The Suicide of Claire Bishop, and why authors should always be kind.
Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or is it something that grew organically over time?
Carmiel Banasky: I remember saying (when I was five?) that I either wanted to be a writer or a Broadway star! I was a dreamer if nothing else. But somewhere along the way, I forgot about those pursuits until college, where I realized I was a not a great actor, but I could write. I majored in creative writing but I always shied away from saying I wanted to be a writer or that I was a writer. I sensed I wasn’t good enough yet. After undergrad, I tried my hand at grassroots organizing, and attempted to open a Planned Parenthood branch in Oxford, Miss.—I failed. But that’s when I learned to listen, and learned how important being a good listener is to writing. Catching the nuances. I wanted to document (by fictionalizing) the stories I was told that were so insular, that would never be heard by anyone but those in that room. (There’s something to be said for ephemeral beauty, but that’s another discussion.) I was afraid it would come off as exploitative, but what came out wasn’t half bad, and passed the permission test with local friends. A little while later, those became my first published stories (in Glimmer Train). I moved to New York City “to write” vs. “to be a writer,” and eventually fell into the MFA path, which I resisted for a while. While at Hunter College, I was finally given permission (or gave myself permission) to call myself a writer. So that’s a long-winded way of saying: I think the desire to “become a writer” revealed itself over time. Now I try to “grant permission” to my students to call themselves writers no matter where they are in the process—being a writer does not necessarily mean being a published author. The identity can be empowering. Why not claim it?
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
CB: Ursula K. LeGuin was very important to me. I had never felt so attached to and invested in fictional characters until I read The Left Hand of Darkness. I spent weeks composing a letter to her, as beautiful a letter as I could craft. And she wrote back. (And told me the letter was indeed beautiful.) We wrote back and forth a handful of times, and though our brief correspondence had little to do with writing, it had a huge impact on the kind of writer I wanted to be: LeGuin makes her own rules, has never followed industry trends, is successful in any genre she tries her hand at, and doesn’t shy away from the political underpinnings of all writing. Tenacity, bravery, and prowess are evident in everything she puts out there.
John Fowles was another writer like that for me—he made me want to write by showing me what fiction is for: connection. His character Miranda, in The Collector, was one of those characters that made me feel less alone in one of my youthful I-don’t-belong-here phases at the start of college. And earlier still, books like The Stranger and Franny and Zoey were very important during the angsty high school years. They revealed how strange fiction could be—what the rules were and that they were there to be broken. Salinger was probably my first craft-teacher. Study every last page of his—that’s how you learn to write a great ending to a short story.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
CB: My process has changed over time. I was a “residency rat” for many years—hopping from one writing fellowship to the next. Residencies provide a beautiful space and all the time in the world. Writers and artists all around you are working hard at their desks for ten hours a day, so you better do the same! But now that I have a job, and a room of my own, I prefer a more structured writing schedule, which means less hours at the desk per day. Yet! It seems like the same amount of work somehow gets done…I hope.
For my next book, I am outlining for the first time. I wrote for a bit, found the voice, then stepped away to determine where the story was going. It’s the first time I’ve done that, and it feels good—freeing rather than limiting. The story can shift away from the outline as I write, or stay on the path. Usually, without an outline, I discovered the story as I go. This is also a fine way to go about it, but I have run into plot holes in revision that maybe I wouldn’t have otherwise.
I sometimes listen to music without lyrics while I write, but not often. I wish I had more time in my life for music! But I don’t want the emotion of the music to inform the piece I’m writing, unless I’m really looking for that push.
DF: We’re huge fans of the short story genre here at Writer’s Bone. Your fiction has been published on Glimmer Train, PEN America, American Short Fiction, Slice, Guernica, and others. What is it about the format that appeals to you?
CB: I loved writing my novel (or I wouldn’t have stuck with it for so long) and so far I love my current one (which might even end up being two books). But for me the main pro and con to the form is that the novel is so abstractly huge: it can take any kind of turn, down any street in any year. The Suicide of Claire Bishop is written in two voices and spans many decades. It was such a large story that it took a long time for me to be able to see it as a whole, to hold the whole map of it in my head at once. But the novella! The novella tends to be expansive but not overwhelming. And I certainly have a soft spot in my heart for short stories, which I won’t ever stop writing I hope.
However, despite inclinations, I don’t feel like I have much choice in the matter. I never choose to sit down and write a story or a novel because I feel like writing in one form over the other. I choose the content, and the content dictates the form. I even resisted writing a novel for a time; I wanted to be like Borges and only write short stories. But I just hadn’t found the material that lets itself be known it can be nothing other than a novel. I know some writers turn short stories into novels, and it often works well (Karen Russell’s Swamplandia comes to mind). But I’ve always felt like I can see exactly what form and length a subject matter is going to take, probably before I’ve gotten to page two.
DF: What inspired you to write your debut novel, The Suicide of Claire Bishop?
CB: In The Suicide of Claire Bishop, there are two narrators—Claire Bishop and West Butler—with intertwining narratives. Both came from very different places but with many thematic overlaps.
Frida Kahlo was commissioned to paint a commemorative portrait of Dorothy Hale, a woman who had committed suicide. Instead, she painted the act of her jumping from a building. It was crass and beautiful. That anecdote was the impetus for Claire Bishop’s plot line: Claire sits for her portrait, but the painter instead depicts the image of her potential suicide—jumping from the Brooklyn Bridge.
I have had two friends diagnosed with schizophrenia. Their experiences, which they shared with me, were, among many other adjectives, surprising and new to me. I had never read anything quite like it in literature, especially not in first-person. The images of schizophrenia we see in the media often involve violence—it isn’t news otherwise, the logic goes. (The same can be said for many underrepresented populations.) The impetus for West was to create a character who is relatable, loveable, and empathetic. I wanted his disease to be one of many characteristics, and never to act as a barrier between him and a reader. Rather, I wanted his spectrum of “strange” and “normal” to be an invitation to connect. I hope all readers, both those who have experienced something similar and those to whom mental illness is foreign, to recognize themselves in him.
DF: What were some of the themes you wanted to tackle in the novel?
CB: Like many writers, I suppose, I’m obsessed with the idea of the self, and how elusive that concept is. How do we know ourselves? What does it mean to be me vs. you? Where are we separate? Where do we overlap? These questions of identity are definitely tackled in my novel (and seem to be creeping into my new work as well). Does a diagnosis define who you are? What do you do when the only story you’ve had about yourself turns out to be false?
Mental illness, religion, faith, love, marriage, family—these themes are also in there and are probably all sub-themes to the question of self-knowledge.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters in The Suicide of Claire Bishop? How do you develop your characters in general?
CB: My characters are usually a conflation of anecdotes/stories I hear about other people, and magnified or almost caricaturized aspects of my own neuroses, fears, and ideas. I’ve never written autobiographically. The idea for West was to create a character that looks like my friends with mental illness, but who isn’t them. By that I mean it’s hard for many people outside of the mainstream, people of color, subcultures, etc., to find a character in literature/film that looks like them, even if other aspects of those characters are relatable. That is an important and powerful gift that literature can give anyone, especially those who are marginalized: here is someone who looks like you who deserves to have a novel written about them.
DF: How long did it take you to write the novel, land an agent, and publish it?
CB: I’ve been working on The Suicide of Claire Bishop for six years—from first conception to between covers. I wrote the first draft in grad school, revised for four years after that, found my agent in the summer of 2013, revised with her a couple months, sold the book a few months after that (winter 2014), revised on and off for the next year with my editor, and here we are. I wrote other things in that time as well, but the novel was always the focus.
DF: Your debut has gotten some serious love from the likes of author Colum McCann, Publisher’s Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews. What has that experience been like and what’s next for you?
CB: Publishing a novel is weird! I’ve been working on this thing by myself for so long in a very private sphere (with many writers friends, and my editor and agent helping me of course)—and now it is out there in the world. It’s public. It’s a very strange, abstract, anxiety-provoking experience for me! But I’m also proud to see this culmination of really hard work.
And no one tells you how just much self-promotion/hustling goes into it. It’s exhausting and uncomfortable but absolutely necessary, no matter what kind of press you’re with. This is a different kind of hard work, which feels like it has little to do with writing. But as a novelist friend said recently, you’ve spent years on your book, it deserves a few months of your energy to promote it. Luckily I’ve had friends and mentors telling me how it works throughout the process—in particular my friend, Scott Cheshire. I think every writer with a book coming out needs one champion and guide through it all. I hope to pay this kindness forward someday soon.
In the end, it’s about the personal face-to-face (or email-to-email at least) connections that you forge. I feel gratitude like I’ve never felt before—for my teachers like Colum McCann and Claire Messud, for my agent Carrie and my editor and publicist at Dzanc. They work so hard and are so good at what they do! And it’s about that sense of accomplishment. That’s the ongoing practice: it’s hard for me to pat myself on the back—the reptilian brain is always waiting for the other shoe to drop. To get to say, “I made that,” is a great lesson.
And what’s next? Hopefully, after the book tour, and being out there, I’ll get to regroup in my room alone like the introvert I am, with my awesome standing desk and view of Los Angeles, and get back to writing fiction. I am yearning to get back to work on the next book.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
CB: Be kind! That includes being kind to yourself. That berating voice—“I’m not writing enough,” “I’m not good enough,” etc., etc.—doesn’t aid the work. It doesn’t make you a better person or writer. As soon as I gave myself permission to write less or to write badly, I started writing more, and with more freedom. You have to show up at the desk to get the work done, of course, but once you are there, it won’t do you any harm, no matter how cheesy, to take a deep breath and remind yourself that you’re awesome.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
CB: I make chocolate—it’s delicious and easy. Coconut oil, cocoa powder, salt, honey. Maybe a dash of vanilla. If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll make homemade cashew-butter chocolate cups. Mmm.