Libby Flores

Carmiel Banasky Interview

     
 

What would you do if an artist was commissioned to paint your portrait, but painted your suicide instead? This is the question that Carmiel Banasky puts forward in The Suicide of Claire Bishop (Dzanc Books). The novel, released last September, has been described by Andrew Sean Greer as “a story of obsession and art, haunted and complex.” Colum McCann called it, “a fearless portrayal of madness and its consequences.” The book’s structure is split into two points of view and two different time periods. The reader is introduced to Claire Bishop in 1959 as she sits for what will be the ominous portrait. Then in 2004 we meet West, a young man with schizophrenia who is obsessed with precisely the same painting.
 
Carmiel Banasky is a writer and teacher from Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, Slice, Guernica, PEN America, The Rumpus, and NPR, among other places. She earned her M.F.A. from Hunter College, CUNY, where she taught undergraduate creative writing. She is the recipient of awards and fellowships from Bread Loaf, Ucross, Ragdale, Artist Trust, I-Park, and she is also a 2016 PEN Emerging Voices mentor. Banasky lives and teaches in Los Angeles. She was kind enough to answer my questions about voice, process, the purpose of art itself, and how fear often drives choice.


     
 

You use two very different points of view to tell this story. Did the genesis of the story come from these two characters?

     
   

Yes. I knew I had a Novel (with a capital N) that I would spend years of my life working on, only once I had found both characters. I first conceived of Claire when I heard an anecdote about Frida Kahlo—she was commissioned to paint a portrait of Dorothy Hale after she had committed suicide. Instead of painting a commemorative image, Frida painted Dorothy’s fall from a Manhattan high rise. It was crass and insulting, to say the least, and beautiful. In my novel, the artist paints Claire’s potential suicide. By twisting this anecdote, I found a path to write about all the themes that were important to me. But it wasn’t yet a novel. West, who finds the painting in present day, revealed himself to me when I started imagining what would become of Claire’s portrait. Whose hands would it end up in? The painting is the physical and thematic link between West and Claire, and the vehicle by which West both creates and solves the mystery of the artist.

     
           
 

What challenges did you face writing Claire’s point of view and returning to West’s point of view?

     
   

They really informed one another. I found each character was a generative tool for the other’s narrative. I gave myself certain rules to play with (and sometimes break). One rule was each general movement had to be mirrored in the other’s narrative. For instance, both Claire and West go home to see their respective mothers in their respective childhood towns.
   One challenge was to keep their voices distinct. On the technical level, the differences are obvious: Claire is in third person, past tense; West is in first person, present tense. But what of my own voice, the voice of the writer? How does my innate style inform or infiltrate each voice? Where do I reign in versus let go? Sometimes the language in West and Claire’s sections is similar and this is intentional. But most of the time I tried to contain the poetic to West; Claire, as a person, is more restrained and so is the syntax in her chapters. Her sections venture into lyrical territory only when she is stepping closer to West’s mindset, or at least indulging in a curiosity about it.

     
           
 

West is schizophrenic. You use voice, diction, metaphor, even grammar and syntax to drop the reader into his mind. Why specifically schizophrenia and what were the particular tools you used to focus in on his point of view? What was challenging about it?

     
   

One thing with writing about a character with schizophrenia is learning how best to communicate in the most compassionate way. For instance, saying “West has schizophrenia” is a preferable phrase to “West is schizophrenic.” His schizophrenia is only one aspect to his character, among many. That has been a great lesson.Carmiel Banasky
            I had a couple friends who were diagnosed with schizophrenia at different points in my life and our friendships. I was fascinated by both their experiences and also my gut reaction of fear when it happened. To see how a mind can change was a shocking to me. I had never read their experiences in all of the fiction under my belt, not exactly at least. And I had not come across many characters with schizophrenia in which violence didn’t play a prominent role, even though most people with schizophrenia never act violently.
            Being as true to what I thought the experience of schizophrenia might be (from research, interviews, and talking with these friends), while not forsaking the narrative drive, became the biggest challenge. Luckily both elements (West’s experience and the plot) were most often one and the same.



     
           
 

There is a concept that West calls the “original pain.” Can you describe this concept and why this is so powerful for him in particular?

     
   

This is West’s way of realizing that we all have our stories—why we act the way we do, why we maintain certain behavioral or reactive patterns—and that one way to bump ourselves out of our patterns is to figure out what story we’re telling ourselves and to try to locate its opening lines. But it’s often difficult to find the true beginning of a pattern, i.e. when was the first time you felt abandoned? As an infant? For West, he has erased a specific memory (which I won’t spell out here—spoilers!) in his adolescence that, I think, is both a starting point to one trajectory in his life, as well as the moment that knocked him from his original way of being. He figures out that there are many moments of “original pain” throughout childhood, and attempts to collect them.

     
           
 

The painting is the central object in this book.  Which reminded me of something I once saw Stuart Dybek lecture about, I believe he called it the magical object; it is essentially an object in a story whose meaning builds and becomes greater than it originally inferred. The painting that is initially done in 1959 evolves greatly even until the last page. Can you talk about the painting as a magical object?

     
   

I suppose painting has an explicitly magical quality to begin with, within the framework of the painter’s thinking, but what it represents changes throughout the novel. To Nicolette, the artist, she is painting Claire’s potential suicide out of being. It is magical thinking: to imagine something so that it cannot happen. But the object morphs over time. If it represents an idea, it might represent death in various ways to Claire and West. Our ever present, always changing notion of and relationship with death. It also houses all of West’s delusions—his entire worldview hinges on this painting and, yes, making it much larger than it was at its conception. 

     
           
 

Fear and desire fuel this novel. How do you think desire and fear drive your characters?

     
   

Interesting question! Claire doesn’t know what she wants, and is sort of guided through her life by the more assertive characters around her. When she was young, she thought she would go mad at age twenty-four and she made her decisions based on what turned out to be false information—those decisions were based on fear but also a fire and love for life. After that, she floated, let things happen to her. Her relationship with Mary, for instance, was a major event in her life, but she sort of fell into Mary. I think the real story of Claire is about her finding her agency, and deciding to not, necessarily, share her life with another. The desire that drives her is the one we all feel—to belong. And the lesson is, always, that we’ve always belonged and were enough from the start. It just takes her most of her life to come to that realization.
            West, in a way, is afraid of himself. To realize you don’t know yourself is frightening. So many of his decisions are based on fear: fear that his sister will leave his side perhaps. Desire for Nicolette fuels the mystery that he constructs and must solve. But Nicolette represents many things. She’s not just the object of his affection. She is a way to understand his schizophrenia; she is a person who accepted him for who he was, at least for a time.

     
           
 

There are two words that are continually omitted from the text, literally blacked out, in West’s sections. I found this to be fascinating. It simultaneously intrigues the reader, and also later informs them about what certain words can mean to a person who suffers from mental illness. Can you explain that choice and where it originated?

     
   

Those two words were hurtful to West before he was diagnosed, before he knew he had both the limitations and the freedom of a diagnosis to explain himself. Then those words took on kingdoms of meaning as his delusions progressed. The words became much more powerful than their definitions. They also represented a means for him to activate or find a power of his own: he thinks he can remove these words from the English language. When he is in his episodes and hears these words later, they are very sinister.
      When you repeat a word enough, it becomes a sound, a vibration, and no longer contains the meaning it had. You can remove its power, story, or metaphor in that way. Claire also has a relationship to individual words and plays with this to sort of conquer a word.

     
           
 

The painting reappears in various ways throughout many decades in the book. It is considered a timeless piece. Did you look to a particular painter to inspire Nicolette’s process and her philosophy?

     
   

Not necessarily, but I love Frida Kahlo’s motivation behind painting The Suicide of Dorothy Hale. It was apparently in the tradition of an “ex-voto” painting, which is often a depiction of a tragedy that was intervened or prevented, and the painting is a token of gratitude to a saint. I probably explained that all wrong. But Frida Kahlo took that tradition and made something new of it with Dorothy Hale’s image. (And I, in turn, made something else out of this story.)

     
           
 

Speaking of that philosophy there is section where the painter (Nicolette) gives us a window on how she gains access to a subject.:
      “We must get close to our subject’s devils. When we paint something, it must become real on its own account; it must stand alone as more real than the subject ever was. It energizes us enough to move beyond the image (and in turn provides the viewer with energy); we can free-float, transcend the subject in the world, so it is as if we are creating another dimension, another timeline, in which all of this is happening inside the painting. Another us exists in there—perhaps the us we desire to be.”
I found this to be a profound and beautiful section.  It reminded me of writing fiction, and the tricks a writer must play to find the world and to stay there. What inspired these sentences, and did you see the crossover with the two disciplines— painting and writing?

     
   

Thank you! I am not a painter, but I imagine any kind of artist creates in order to get to know themselves and others better. Of course it always comes down to empathy and self-growth. That’s why I write: to get to know and discover my own mind and then to broaden it. The only devils you can know in another are the ones you share. We all have the same fears and desires (to go back to your previous question), and yet you can’t ever really know another person. We only get a glimpse (maybe we only get a glimpse of ourselves as well). So Nicolette’s paintings, because they hold aspects of herself, must be more real than the subject ever was to her.
      But I’m afraid I’ve undone the profundity you read by trying to explain that part. I should have been all rock and roll with my answer and asked: I don’t know, man, what does it mean to you?

     
           
 

What do you think great art should do, and what was the last piece of art that inspired you? 

     
   

I suppose another way to say the above is that the purpose of making art is to feel less alone, to connect to others, and to allow others to feel less alone. I like what Tracy Chevalier said in a TED talk about not needing to connect to all art in a museum, or feeling bad about not seeing everything, but to find the piece that moves you to ask questions and to stay with it a while. The last piece I saw that had me asking questions was a painting at the Hammer by Gustave Moreau called “Salome Dancing before Herod.” It is intense, there is so much going on, you could stand there for hours and investigate, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her elongated hand, this distracting figure, saying, “look at me, look at me,” while all manner of chaos goes on elsewhere.

     
       
           
   
     
 

Libby Flores is from Texas but has lived in Los Angeles for ten years. She is a 2008 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared in Post Road Magazine, The Rattling Wall, Tin House Open Bar, The Guardian Book site, FLASH: The International Short-Short Story Magazine and CODA Quarterly. She is the program manager at PEN Center USA's Emerging Voices Fellowship. Libby holds an MFA in creative writing from Bennington College. She can be found at libbyflores.com.