The Suicide of Claire Bishop
(Dzanc Books, 2015)
Carmiel Banasky’s debut novel, The Suicide of Claire Bishop, begins with the titular Claire sitting to have her portrait painted in her apartment in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. The portrait will take several days and Claire has been instructed by the artist, Nicolette, to not look under the velvet curtain covering the canvas until the painting is complete. Claire, of course, sneaks a look at the canvas before that, and what she sees is a rendering of her own suicide. However, this isn’t Claire’s first brush with the idea of her own death. Her entire adolescence and young adulthood, she’d believed she would inherit Huntington’s disease and not live long past her early twenties. She’d married Freddie, the man whose idea of a birthday gift was to commission the portrait in the first place, not expecting to be around all that long. Seeing her own suicide in such detail spurs Claire to finally contend with living the life she hadn’t anticipated.
Running parallel to Claire’s story is the story of West, a New Yorker with schizophrenia. In 2015, he sees the painting of Claire’s suicide in a gallery and immediately becomes obsessed with it and its elusive artist. Whereas the strict social structures of 1950s America are ever-present in Claire’s sections of the novel, the structures of West’s worldview are M.C. Escher-like. Everything is interconnected and interrelated. Evidence is everywhere but conclusions are hard to come by.
I wanted to talk to Carmiel for a lot of reasons, not least of which was her construction of West. Literature often foists the mentally ill onto the page as spectacle, made interesting by way of radical difference. But West’s way of looking at the world felt familiar. It is not hard to identify with a man who believes that everything he observes he observes for a reason, that everything is a symbol of something larger. We’ve all had those thoughts: “I don’t believe in coincidence” is common to the point of cliché. But what if you were a slave to that idea?
Carmiel and I were put in contact by a mutual friend, and she was kind enough to take time out of her promotional schedule to talk about West and Claire and her novel.
Ryan Krull (Rail): So I’ve got to start by talking about West, who, for me, was one of the oddest and most relatable characters I’d read in long time. The ways in which his schizophrenia manifests itself are exaggerated versions of how we all behave privately in our minds. Was it a conscious decision to make him more relatable by way of his symptoms?
Carmiel Banasky: That was really the project of the book. I don’t think all readers are going to feel that way. They might feel put off by West. I didn’t start off with any kind of agenda, but when I went back to revise and I needed something to keep me going, it was the idea that I wanted his experience to be relatable, both for people who have experienced schizophrenia and other types of mental illness, but also for people who’ve never had those experiences. I wanted to bring the reader as close as possible to West’s logic and consciousness, in an uncomfortable way, like there’s no escape. Reminding myself of that reminded me why I was doing this at all.
I wanted to counter the only images we see of schizophrenic people on the news, which is when there’s been violence or crime. I’ve had two friends who’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia and I’d never read anything like their experiences. I wanted to create something relatable on the page.
Rail: There are certain things that West does that would seem crazy if we weren’t allowed access to his interior life. But you take us into his head in such a full, richly imagined way that we see the logic behind his behavior, which, put in context, is no longer so easy to call crazy.
Banasky: His reality is his reality. Everything he says and does makes sense in that context. Plotting out his logic was something that was really mathematical for me, and even though it might not make any sense in another context, I wanted it to be completely sound within his reality.
Rail: What other novels did you look to to help you get that logic down?
Banasky: Septimus, from Mrs. Dalloway, was the first of many character influences. Septimus really sees the world in a way in which all these things that seem unconnected are inextricably connected and make up this beautiful world around him, maybe too beautiful for him to live in. Virginia Woolf was definitely the first and most important, not only for the logic, but also for her language. Her syntax and diction changes when we get close to Septimus’s head. The flow of language mirrors the way he sees the world. I also should mention Specimen Days, by Michael Cunningham. The way he zooms in and out of one tiny corner of New York City was an influence on the way I saw West’s brain working.
I read a lot of memoirs, too. It’s so interesting that Septimus’s mind seems so unique and you think certain really specific experiences are particular to one person, but in fact there are a lot of commonalities across the board for people with schizophrenia. For instance, the mode of thinking in which everything is interrelated, the need to connect the dots. Those things can seem like a gift to a fiction writer, and I had to back away from that. I didn’t ever want to romanticize illness.
Rail: I think of Virginia Woolf as a lot of things, but accessible is not one of them. The Suicide of Claire Bishop is a really accessible novel. It made me think of Vonnegut in that way, like it was written for everyone.
Banasky: My audience was at first a really tiny circle of literary-minded friends, so the book was probably a lot weirder in earlier drafts. And then, at a certain point I decided I really wanted my mother to like this book. I wanted her and her friends to really get something out of this and to be entertained and challenged. I wanted as wide an audience as possible to relate to West’s experience, which is a type of experience most people have never thought about before.
Rail: But at the end of the day you’re always your own first reader.
Banasky: Well when I started the book I wasn’t thinking about publishing at all. Publishing seemed like a pipe dream. Accessibility is all about relatability, not pandering to an audience but also not pushing anyone away by condescending. It can be a fine line between literary and pretentiousness. How do you write as smart as you want to write but not show off?
Rail: Yeah. How do you do that?
Banasky: I used to show off and try to prove how smart I was. But then I learned what Colum McCann called deceptive simplicity. He drilled that into my head specifically when I was writing the first draft of this book. You have to trust yourself and trust the content and characters you’ve created. I really do measure the success of this book based on what my mom says. She hasn’t shied away from telling me my writing is “weird” in the past. She’s biased because she’s my mom, but she really connected to this one.
Rail: We haven’t talked much about Claire yet. West’s narration is defined by his interpretation of the world around him. But interpretation implies subjectivity and, in contrast, Claire’s life in the 1950s feels very objective. What happens to her is what happens to her.
Banasky: Claire’s life in the 1950s is so unlike West’s in 2015. For her, there was only one narrative. Her life was supposed to follow one narrow trajectory, which it ultimately did not. She thought she was going to live one type of life, but then she finds out she’s not going to inherit this illness and all of a sudden she has this whole life ahead of her that doesn’t fit what she thought it would be. I was interested in the aftermath of that drama, her coping with thinking she has a disease then realizing she doesn’t. I wanted the language to convey that and be more restrained. She tries to fit into the story of what a life should be, and then she must unravel from it.
Rail: Is that why her sections are in third person as opposed to West’s first person?
Banasky: Claire’s third person is a close third, but I wanted there to be a distance between her and herself. She feels a detachment from her own story in a way that West definitely doesn’t. And her backstory is written in an even more distant third person because her backstory has become for her just that—a story. It’s become a detachment and she hasn’t ever really been able to address it head on. And ultimately that’s what the book is about: how do you define yourself? Is it through a diagnosis, a non-diagnosis? Is it what you come up with from scratch on your own? And how can you trust yourself if your narrative is always changing?
When we do define our lives, it’s usually with a story. But is it a good thing to stick to that story? You don’t want one story repeating in your head the rest of your life making you who you are. It’s better to evolve.
RYAN KRULL teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.