An Interview With Kerry Neville
Kerry Neville is the author of a previous story collection, Necessary Lies (BkMK Press Books). Her new story collection, Remember to Forget Me (Braddock Avenue Books), is a raw and beautiful collage of heartbreak, pain, loss, and remembrance. Neville creates characters who struggle with mental illness, failed marriages, and the challenges of parenthood, resulting ultimately in a carefully painted portrait of human experience — a compelling voice to anyone who has struggled with depression and loneliness. Neville’s characters are honest portrayals of what it means to be human, to be broken, lost, and lonely, but to always also be hopeful.
Joy Reinbold: The collection feels really well put-together and each one fits among the others thematically. As you composed and compiled this collection, did you have any distinct purpose or goal for it?
Kerry Neville: I wouldn’t call it a goal so much as at the time of writing the stories, I was preoccupied (and still am) with a difficult and unsentimental truth-telling which grew out of the many hours I spent in 12 Step meetings while writing these stories. I was listening to friends in recovery share their stories without the soft-focus filter, revealing the shameful black bits and pieces of their lives to our fellowship group, but knowing that we were listening with empathy because we’d been there, too. The facts of our stories were not the same, but the decimation of addiction and the struggle to get back in alignment with an ethical life that had integrity was what we shared. Addiction is a type of exile because you feel desperately far away from loving fellowship, from any sort of compassionate connection to yourself, even hoping for self-annihilation. As I was getting sober and stable the small gestures of kindness and consideration — someone listening to my story — offered tentative hope.
I felt the need to write hard and true, focusing in these stories on the ways we fail each other and ourselves, and the ways we try to get right with the world again. Focusing, really, on the permutations of exile and all the ways we might experience disconnection from country, home, family, friends, and the self, and from love, compassion, and connection. I arranged the stories in a call and response sequence, a circular conversation, not exactly a chiastic, ring structure but with deliberate repetitions, with themes, ideas, and even words repeating or building on each other in alternatives and variations.
An interesting side-note, an editor at a publishing house who passed on the collection said that my stories were “too hard and unsparing” and it would be difficult to market this as I was a woman writer. Though I was disappointed, I took this as testimony that I had already succeeded.
JR: In your story collection, there are certain ideas that come up in many of the stories. For instance, the loss of a spouse (whether to divorce, suicide, or Alzheimer’s); the loss of a child (whether to miscarriage, a tumor, or depression — even the loss of a beloved dog). Mental illness, loneliness, and the desire for human connection feature prominently in all of your stories. You’re very open online — both on your blog, “Momma May be Mad,” and in articles you’ve written for HuffPost and Washington Post — about your own struggles with mental illness. Were the characters you wrote an intentional attempt to portray that inner struggle?
KN: I don’t believe I was trying to portray my struggle, as that would be a rehashing of my case history, but trying to explore the ways in which we find tentative hope even amidst the most difficult of circumstances. And the genesis of most of these stories came out of encounters I had with people who confided in me — listening to people who felt invisible. I felt a moral imperative in writing these stories of dispossession — who do I need to listen to and write about? And how do I write beyond my own limited experiences?
The novelist George Eliot once wrote, “What we call our despair is often only the eagerness of unfed hope.” I love this idea because many people (me) who struggle with mental illness are diagnosed by the medical establishment or assumed by those closest to them as being forever ill and broken — biologically or willfully and inherently unredeemable except through scattershot pharmacological solutions. And yes, medications stabilize “chemistry,” but they don’t offer spiritual healing. What Eliot seems to suggest is that our “eagerness of unfed hope” is about reconciling and living with expectations and decimations, over and over, and believing that living again and loving again is worth the battering.
JR: Your story collection begins with an epigraph from Mahmoud Darwish. The lines speak of leaving and exile, and remembering to return. Many of the characters in your collection are far from home. Darwish himself was an exile. And he has also been referred to as “the voice of the fragmented soul.” Was that something that you too were trying to accomplish in your stories: to be the voice of the fragmented soul?
KN: Yes, this is exactly what I was/am hoping to accomplish. I’m a miner, with pick-ax and shovel, riding the elevator down into the dark, and words are my canaries, flying ahead into dangerous tunnels. I don’t believe in a linear life: A to B to C to D…to Z. Each day we assemble our selves for the world, each day we make sense of our shifting selves. What memories rise to the surface to create me today? What fears, shame, desires, and needs shape my actions and reactions today? What dreams must I let go of and what dreams must I hold fast to today?
JR: Several stories are about Eastern European expatriates and American expatriates living in Eastern Europe, including “The Assassin of Bucharest,” which has been nominated for a Pushcart prize. In “The Assassin of Bucharest,” the concept of exile comes up again, this time as a self-imposed exile (escape?) from a world that was transformed by loss. Is exile a metaphor for some larger idea in your work; what about exile captures your imagination?
KN: I think a roundabout way to answer this is by reading this poem, “Ovid on the Dacian Coast,” (1965) by Dunstan Thompson:
The marsh birds wheel and shriek
Above him, as he takes
Word after word from their bleak
Coast of love: his heart breaks.
In place of gold, he sets
A banished life between
Driftwood, and out of fish nets
Roofs his loss with sea green.
Thus lives unexiled, though
Abandoned, stranded, scanned
By the Dog Star only, for so
Based, his poems are his own land.
Our homeland is created in the act of telling stories, written or oral. In our imaginative capacity to reconnect ourselves to the world through words — this is what interests me in writing about exile. Those of us who feel disconnected and dislocated? Our first impulse might be to forget what we have lost, to erase the memories of heartbreak, of dispossession, to move on from pain. Isn’t that what our culture demands? Forget and move on. Forget and move on. Forget and move on. But for me and for my characters, trying to forget loss only prolongs exile. Restoration and redemption (can I use such a grand word?) happen inside the rigorous, meticulous, and pitiless act of remembering. A gerund: continuous and always. It is how we become “unexiled.”
JR: My favorite story in the collection was “Mourning, in Miniature,” about a husband and wife in the aftermath of a miscarriage. Both experience a profound sense of loss, but that loss manifests itself in drastically different ways. For the wife, this manifestation is in her depression and anorexia. Do you conceive of this story as one about the betrayal of the body, either by failing to carry a child, or by continuing to live after loss?
KN: Not betrayal by the body per se, but betrayal by internal and external forces of our hopes and dreams. How do we live in a world that might seem smaller, crueler after loss — whether loss of a pregnancy, of a marriage, of a loved one, of even a dog? In what ways do our hearts contract and how does loneliness, grief, and despair rend this muscle of compassion? How might we repair our hearts’ fabric again?
JR: The title story of your collection, “Remember to Forget Me,” is about a man whose wife has Alzheimer’s. Despite the fact that this story is about loss — both the true physical loss of a daughter, and the extremely poignant mental loss of his wife to Alzheimer’s — the story feels unmistakably hopeful. The husband’s resignation to his present situation and the loss of his wife feels more victorious than defeatist. This concept is seen in most, if not all, of the stories in the collection. Did you set out to find happy(ish) endings for all of life’s awful situations?
KN: Nobody in these stories truly gets what they want, even in the “happy-ish” endings — the characters have to reimagine another possible way forward and find a way to live with what “is” rather than what they hoped “should be.” I’m a realist but not a nihilist. I once had a psychiatrist tell me that I was a “hopeless case,” and on paper, he had every reason to believe this. I was described as being chronically suicidal with unremitting bipolar disorder. I had tried every medication, gone through a year’s course of electric shock treatments, and a priest friend even performed an exorcism. But when this doctor said that to me, something inside me rose up in resolute defiance. “Fuck you,” I said, and walked out.
I decided from that day forward, that I was going to prove him wrong, prove everyone wrong, even my then-husband who told a friend that he expected me to die by suicide (and he didn’t have a real reason to think differently). What did I decide, despite my six-inch case file, despite the twenty hospitalizations over six years, despite my unsuccessful suicide attempts? That I was going to live no matter what and I was going to say yes to the universe because I had survived hell thus far (my version, anyway), and I would survive whatever life might put in my path. And maybe even thrive. A strange, off-centered optimism, but that’s what I see inside of these characters, too.
JR: The last story in your collection, “The Lionman,” is very different from the others. First, it’s set in early-1900s New York — the rest are modern stories. And it’s about a “freak” or “side-show” lion-man, a man born with hypertrichosis (long hairs all over his body) and a display of premature babies in incubators. It’s set in Dreamland on Coney Island and takes place the day that Dreamland burned down. What attracted you to writing a story about this? Where did you learn about the Dreamland fire, and Dr. Couney’s premature babies?
KN: I was sitting in the car waiting to pick up my kids from school and listening to NPR when a story came on about Dr. Couney and the baby incubators and how he’d set them up at the Coney Island freak show. When the kids jumped in the car, I shushed them because I was transfixed by the idea that these infants were in the freak show, but only temporarily because they would, if they survived, return to their families and have “normal” lives. But the actual freaks? They were stuck — marginalized by appearance, by physical deformities, living in exile from the larger world. They created their own community, a tolerant and inclusive one, but were outcasts in the larger world. Of course, that larger world is the same one that rapes Violetta, the half-woman, and mutilates Black Prince, the lion.
When I started researching Dreamland, and discovered The Lionman and he just started speaking to me as if I was transcribing his story, his lips at my ear. As if I was a medium and this was automatic writing. In my nonfiction, I often write about mental health stigma because for a long time I felt deep and debilitating shame about having bipolar disorder and for a time, going on disability. I felt shut out from the larger world, and while I found empathetic communities in my 12 Step groups, in my outpatient therapy groups, and in my fellow inpatients, I didn’t believe I would ever belong to the “normal” world again — that someone, my diagnosis meant that I could not ask for future love or joy, but had to be satisfied with memories of love and joy.
Digression: When things stabilized, this played out in the most superficial way. Like many single people, I’m hopeful for a romantic partner. When I first ventured into the online dating world, my profile got many initial “hits” (Writer! Professor! PhD!), but after a few weeks of messages and dates, once I revealed that I was bipolar and offered a few historical details, texts stopped or the date ghosted me. Even though things had been stable for seven years, no outrunning who I am: I will always have bipolar disorder and I will always (by the grace of one day at a time) be a recovering alcoholic. I’ve just decided to embrace exactly who I am, be transparent from the start: this is me in all my weirdness and difficulty and exuberance and joy and I’m not for everyone, but I am for myself.
This dating exegesis is a roundabout way to say all of the piecing together of the historical details of The Lionman and then imagining his internal life were instructive because he was whispering in my ear that despite humiliation, degradation, objectification, and dehumanization, he still had his dignity and was still willing to risk pain for the maybe maybe maybe possibility of empathetic connection.
JR: Two story collections: Necessary Lies (2006) and now Remember to Forget Me (2017). Are you at work on new stories? What’s next for Kerry Neville?
KN: I’m working on a memoir, tentatively titled, Fierce on the Inside: Returning to My Senses. This book explores my recovery from illness through six essay chapters, each dedicated to one of the body’s senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing, and interoception. Illness fractures both body and mind, so that we lose our sense of a coherent self at large in the world. Recovery is transformative: we gather ourselves back together in a revised relationship to world. It is as Virginia Woolf writes in The Waves, sitting with “bare things…things in themselves, myself being myself.” The first two chapters of this memoir, “Manifestus,” and “Losing, Lost, Finding, Found,” have been published or are forthcoming in shortened form in the journals JuxtaProse and Panorama.