Culture

Stefan Merrill Block

Culture

Stefan Merrill Block

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How long did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

Well I’ve always written, I didn’t know that it could be a serious career. Where I came from in Texas I never met a published writer, maybe a journalist once and that seemed so heroic to me. To think that one could make a career of writing novels—it seemed like saying you could become a professional wizard.

Your first book, “The Story of Forgetting” got a lot of acclaim and a lot of good feedback. How do you feel about that?

I’ve been thinking about it a lot as the second novel’s coming out: how in a way there’s nothing more private than my writing. At this point in my life my prominent focus is on my work. I try to put every thought and feeling I have into the project, and then releasing it to the world is such a feeling of exposure and vulnerability.  It’s very moving (and seems impossible to me) to know that my story touched somebody else. And it’s also funny how praise is hard to take on. It’s only the negative comments that I believe. So I can say intellectually that I got some good reviews but when I think about “The Story of Forgetting” I think about the people who had problems with it. I think doubt is an important element in a writer’s work. I think that if we thought that we were great, we wouldn’t produce anything of value. I have this theory: when my writer friends are questioning something they are doing its almost always great. When they’re proud of it, it’s almost always terrible.

Describe your childhood in Texas.

I had a very solitary childhood. I was homeschooled for those crucial years, the years of navigation from childhood to adolescence. My primal thoughts about myself were formed during that time. My mother was kind of an un-schooler. It was an education led by curiosity without curriculum. We’d wake up in the morning and have a chat and then I’d go out and spend my day researching whatever thing I was interested in writing about or whatever. At the end of the day (or week) I would present her with what I had done. So my idea of work and how I spend my days was formed then and it is identical to how I spend my days now. So that prepared me for the work of writing, but also for the solitude of writing.

Did you grow up in small town?

I grew up in Plano, Texas. It was a town in complete change. When we moved there it was like “Little House on the Prairie.” Just a few modern houses and endless farmland.  And within a few years the population of our town like quadrupled. It went from being a moderate sized town to a city of 250,000 people. It’s now the archetypal suburb: you know subdivisions and strip malls; it’s like a patchwork of ideas and buildings that were plucked out of other places. It’s kind of like a gigantic airport. Everything is spotless and cemented over. Everything is designed for simplicity and for convenience. It’s also a very troubled place, more so than other comparable suburbs. The city had this reoccurring problem with teenage suicide. When I was a kid in the 80s, within like 6 months, 5 kids from my high school killed themselves. All these reporters arrived they called Plano the “Suicide Capital of America”, and there was all this speculation.  And then from 1996 through 2000, when I was in high school, there was this terrible, terrible epidemic of first time heroine overdoses. And then, another cluster of suicides which included my friend and our school counselor, who was finally the last one. The school counselor exactly replicated his suicide. It’s a very immaculate, productive and deeply troubled city.

You mention that at age seven you already developed a more than curious interest in your grandfather. Why is that?

I think that in most of my writing my characters are alternate versions of myself. In a way it would be impossible to write a character that wasn’t… if I couldn’t imagine myself inhabiting that space, then it would be difficult for me to write. In the case of my grandfather, he was my first alternate version of myself. He was my first fictional character.  He died 15 years before I was born and in a somewhat mysterious way. I never knew him but I could feel the loss of him. And even his personality through my mother. I do look a lot like him, my mannerisms, my speech patterns are a lot like his. And people have always commented on it… and been moved by this feeling of reincarnation. He was also a writer. I haven’t read much of what he wrote because my grandmother burned most of it. And, I didn’t know this at 7, but he was diagnosed as manic-depressive and it was that diagnosis that really ruined his life. It’s possible that he was, it’s possible that he wasn’t. But his troubles with madness seemed to be the thing that caused him the greatest distress in his life. And at a certain age I was diagnosed with precisely this disorder.  And that is when I realized that I had to engage myself with this project in a more serious way.

Your new novel Storm at the Door is about  mental illness. Was writing this novel a therapeutic or a torturous experience?

If writing was therapeutic then writers would be the sanest people. I think writers have the highest suicide rate of any profession. Writing about our grief isn’t really therapeutic.

Robert Lowell: I loved his character in this. Was it based on any truth?

I know that they [Grandfather  & Lowell] were both in there at the same time.  I always wanted to put Lowell in this… It’s kind of like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, you know, they are missing DNA sequences and so they put frog DNA in there to fill it out. That’s the way I feel it is with my grandfather. I feel like there’s a lot of him I don’t understand so I put Lowell in him. I mean Lowell is a second character in the book, but he’s also very much my grandfather in a lot of ways. They had the same diagnosis, the same kind of stay there, they were both poets. The Lowell of my book is a fictional character but I did use as a point of departure stories I read about Lowell’s actual stay there. And I incorporated his poems into the book.

When I read a novel, or with any media, I love it when there’s a feeling of multi-sourcing to it. We are people of the Internet generation, and I feel like my experience of any truth always comes from six or seven different places: something I saw online, something I saw in a movie, something I read in a book. So I think that when I produce, in order to tell my story as fully as I feel like I should, it feels important to me to sample from different types. You know, memoir is one form of storytelling, fiction is another, and Lowell’s poetry and photographs. So I wanted to have this sort of “Internet book.” It’s kind of like an analog in Hip Hop music, where you sample some sort of well established track and then they build their own thing off of it. I feel like I’m kind of mixing in Lowell and building my own story off of that.

What do you think of the whole Charlie Sheen situation?

I think it’s really sad how it seems people are taking advantage for him.  I mean, I don’t know, I don’t know him personally and I can’t speak for him, but it seems like his behavior is very consistent with extreme manic depression. I mean I’m all for watching celebrities fall; I understand there’s a great pleasure that can be found in it. But in this case, it seems like they are making fun of him for having an illness, which seems really disgusting. I think that if Sheen had cancer we wouldn’t be laughing at him for coughing.

The borders of what is bipolar disorder and what are not are very murky. There is this wonderful writer, Kay Redfield Jamison who wrote this book called “Touched with Fire” about manic depression and the artistic temperament. She has this theory that basically to be an artist is to be bipolar at a low level.  We all have to suffer, to be able to see clearly and have a soulful view of the world. And you have to be a little manic to turn that suffering into art.
And of course it’s murky. I also shouldn’t feel too sorry for Charlie Sheen.  It’s just, I think the danger in making fun of him is that celebrities are icons.  So when everyone gathers together to laugh at manic behavior, even though it’s at first at a celebrity, it can make it seem like manic behavior is something that’s laughable.

Tell me about your next book.

It’s very different. When I describe it to my friends they friends think it sounds outside of my oeuvre, though at a deeper level it’s basically the same as anything else I’ve ever written. It’s the story of this young man who tells us his story as an old man. It’s 1925 and he’s living in the penthouse of a luxury building in Manhattan. He’s a writer of strange and fantastical tales; a sort of Jules Verne meets Franz Kafka.  No one really knows this boy’s past, but this reporter makes this startling discovery which is that when he was a young man he had a different name and has this incredible history.   He grew up on the coast of New England, and he was a sort of boy poet who was afflicted from birth with Syphilis. So he grew up diseased but this disease allowed for his poetic brilliance at a very young age. As now as an old man he responds to this reporter’s revelation by describing the year that he changed his name; it was 1876 and he went to go find his father in this town in Texas that he had never heard of. So this 20 year-old pamby New England boy sets off on this journey through Texas to try to find his father.  Meanwhile, he is afflicted by all these psychic delusions: he believes trees are speaking to him. So as he’s looking for his father, he is on this parallel spiritual quest that’s dictating by speaking trees and speaking mountains and stuff. It’s going to be a much longer book. There’s a great, great relief in writing something that’s not about my family. But then in another way it’s the same: an affliction that has been passed on to you and psychological disorders, and of solitude. Ultimately, my topic is solitude and that is what I am writing about.

Get Storm at the Door.

Visit Stefan’s website here.