An Interview with Joan Wickersham

August 24, 2009


Joan Wickersham’s fiction has appeared in a wide array of literary journals. She has also written essays and reviews for publications such as Glamour and Yankee, as well as a regular column in Architecture Boston magazine. Her first novel The Paper Anniversary was published in 1993. In 2008 her most recent book The Suicide Index: Putting my Father’s Death in Order was a finalist for the National Book Award. The book is a memoir about her father, his death by suicide, and her attempts to come to terms with her loss (read our full review here). We recently had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Wickersham via email.

Evanston Public Library: Your father killed himself in 1991 and your book was published in 2008. That’s a long span of years, but I gather you were working on telling this story for a large part of that time. How soon after his death did you know that this was something you wanted to write about?

Joan Wickersham: I knew pretty quickly that I wanted to write about my father’s death. What I didn’t know was whether I’d ever be able to write about it in a way that reflected the complexity, the mess of the experience. So much of the story is about the struggle to understand the causes and the impact of his death – but that kind of struggle doesn’t lend itself to any conventional linear narrative. It wasn’t a straightforward tale of enlightenment – “I was blind but now I see.” It was more that I was blind, then I saw something, then I was blind again, then I saw that what I’d seen before was only a partial truth. So I kept trying to write the story in different ways (novel, chronological memoir). And then I would put it away in frustration.

EPL: In the past you’ve mentioned that for awhile you tried writing the story as fiction. What triggered the change in your mind to abandon fiction and write this book as more of a memoir? Given the subject matter, the proximity of the events to your rawest emotions, and the sometimes harsh light that is thrown on everyone that you write about (yourself included) was it a hard decision to write this as non-fiction? 

JW: The Suicide Index is a memoir in the sense that the events in it are true, but it plays around with other genres as well. There’s one chapter, for instance, that’s written in third person, from my father’s point of view, about a visit he made to his father in Munich in the mid 1970s. There’s another that wrestles with the conventions of the biographical essay, and a couple of other chapters written in second person. I didn’t think too much about genre when I was writing it. I just thought about all the different pieces of the experience, and tried to tell each piece in the way that intuitively felt right. But I felt it was necessary, in publishing it, to acknowledge that it was a true story. I wasn’t imagining what it would be like to go through a father’s suicide – I was sharing what it actually did feel like.

EPL: In the book you write about the years of emotional numbness you felt in regards to your father’s suicide. Did you approach writing the book thinking that it would help provide you with some sort of emotional balm or closure? Was the writing cathartic for you in any way?

JW: As a writer, I’m instinctively drawn to stories as a way of understanding the world. And suicide is one of the great mysteries – we know it happens, but we can’t really comprehend it. So yes, there was a strong need to write about this. And writing really did help, once I finally figured out how to tell the story.

EPL: One of the things which strikes me as particularly brave and suicideindexdifficult about undertaking this book, was that you basically are attempting to tell a story about something which you know from the outset has no real conclusion. You know that you’ll never reach a solid answer about why your father did what he did that is anything more than conjecture on any given person’s part. So how did you approach the book knowing that in the end everything you thought and wrote in an attempt to get at the “Why” of the matter would just circle back on itself and leave your questions as unanswered as when you began?   And also, in this situation (which you mention at the end of your book) how did you know when you had reached a satisfying ending for the book, given that it is a book about your ever changing thoughts regarding the suicide, which presumably, continue to change even today well after the conclusion of your book?

JW: I think that’s a great description of the book, and also of one of the fundamental paradoxes of suicide. You are always searching for the definitive answer, while at the same time you know that there isn’t one. But I think that, more profoundly, accepting that there is no answer is the answer. And you can only get to that after a lot of wrestling around with the questions.

EPL: As I mentioned earlier, you certainly pull no punches in the book when writing about yourself and your family.  There are some scenes that I would describe as shockingly candid and intimate.  I wonder what was their reaction to your book? Did they feel it was fair and honest depiction of your family, and in particular your father? 

JW: This was something I worried about a lot. All family memoirs are inherently problematic: memory is personal and subjective, but families are tangled up together – you cannot write about your own experience without also writing about other people. I didn’t want to hurt anyone; but at the same time I felt that if I was going to write about my father’s death and its impact and my search for answers, I needed to do it honestly. And suicide is messy. Everyone is asking “Why?” and coming up with answers; no one quite agrees, everyone has a version, and that’s part of what I wrote about. Luckily people have reacted very well. I do have one close relative who decided not to read the book, and I understand why – it’s too painful to go back and read someone else’s take on the experience.

EPL: Another interesting aspect of your book (and perhaps the one that’s been written about the most) is the index format. It is an incredible way of putting some sort of order to the chaos of the human mind, particularly when that mind has been circling over the same grievous territory for such a long period of time.  Where did you get the idea to present an entire book in index form? Once you made the decision to use this form, did that free you up and make it easier to write the book in a way that was more true to the way your brain was processing the event, rather than force yourself to impose a chronology on your thoughts?

JW: I had written about a third of the pieces that eventually made up the book, but I was having a lot of trouble putting them in order. The agent I’d been corresponding with said she thought the book needed an arc, an emotional progression; but I didn’t feel there was a natural chronology either to the events or to my understanding of them. Also a friend who read the pieces said, “You need to find a way to give the reader some relief” – meaning both a break in the intensity of these events and emotions, and relief in the way that a relief carving introduces a different texture into a building façade. There was a chapter called “Numbness: An index,” and one night I suddenly wondered how the whole book might work as an index. It was an intuitive choice, but I think it worked because an index is kind of numb: an almost ridiculously formal, ironic way to impose a structure on events that can’t be put in order any other way.

wickersham2EPL: At one point in the book, you mention how after your father’s suicide there is a strange camaraderie that forms between yourself and many other people whom you coincidentally meet who have also lost someone to suicide.  You illuminate the reality that many, many people are dealing with these issues, “all the things that are teeming, unseen behind the walls of all these houses.”  What has been the reaction from your readers?  Did they find your book comforting?

JW: People have been sending me extraordinary, moving letters, responding to the book and telling me about their own experiences. I think there’s a pent-up feeling of loneliness surrounding suicide. People often feel so isolated after someone close to them dies this way – nobody quite knows how to talk about it. The loneliness, and the silence, is painful. The letters say “Me too.” The writers talk about being comforted, and in turn I’ve been comforted by reading them. But – another paradox – what’s comforting is that there’s a frank acknowledgment on both sides that there is no “comfort” in any conventional sense. The shared bond is “Yes! You get that!”

EPL: There seems to be a very strange dichotomy in our culture regarding suicide.  On the one hand we seem irresistibly drawn to the possibility of celebrity suicides, endlessly gossiping and speculating about who and why.  But on the other hand, when a suicide happens to someone in our own lives, it is often hushed up, sometimes to the point of never being spoken about.  This is one of the things that struck me when reading your book, as it is one of the most honest, fearless things I’ve ever read about suicide.  You seem wholly unafraid and unashamed to admit and confront the fact of how your father died.  What do you make of this cultural double standard–the grim Hollywood allure, and the shameful forbidden act?  How do you think suicide should be viewed from a societal standpoint?

JW: I think the prurient interest in suicide as a gossipy news story, and the silence around it in real life, both come from the same place: It’s deeply disturbing. But suicide does happen – twice as often as murder, according to one statistic – and I think the silence around it is dangerous. As a society, we’ve gotten more candid about other painful things – alcoholism, domestic violence, depression. We need to talk about suicide, honestly and without sensationalizing it. There’s always been a stigma attached to it, maybe with the idea that the stigma will act as a deterrent to someone who’s contemplating suicide. But I don’t understand how the taboo around talking about it serves anyone. If deterring suicide is possible, then understanding the real and terrible impact of it can only be helpful. And if it’s an act that comes out of extreme mental illness, then the idea of a deterrent is irrelevant – again, less ignorance and a greater, more subtle understanding is called for.


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