I' first met Leora Skolkin-Smith through Readerville.com, a now defunct and once vibrant online readers and writers community. We quickly began friends and began swapping pages. I'm thrilled to have Leora here talking about HYSTERA , the WINNER of the 2012 USA Book Award and the 2012 Global E-Books Award. HYSTERA is also a Finalist in Literary Fiction and a winner in The International Book Awards, 2012, and The National Indie Excellence Award, 2012, as well as being chosen for The Princeton University Series. Leora is also the author of EDGES, which is in production as a feature film. Scroll down because after the interview is an excerpt from the book! Thank you, Leora, for being here!
This is a very intimate and raw portrait of mental illness; what brought you to write so honestly about the subject?
I wanted to write about mental illness because I was deeply bothered the popular medical and cultural presentations of it in commercial mediums. I strongly felt that the continual oversimplifications in the media and elsewhere threw more confusion and darkness into this disturbing and beguiling state of human behavior and, in the end, muffled the cries from those in the throes of it. In recent years, drugs such Prozac have been used in memoirs and accounts of depression which I felt was only a partial, inadequate answer. I desperately wanted and needed a deeper exploration and journey and one that was not based on easy resolutions, "kitchen therapies" or being "fixed" which our current society has relied on, but, instead on an exploration of engaging philosophical and sexual questions of existence itself, questions about identity and intimacy that transcend our purely medical and limited understanding of mental illness and see it as part of a continuum of human experience throughout history.
Why did you use Patty Hearst in the novel? Patty Hearst was a symbol in so many ways for me of my troubled and splintered era. First, she symbolized the sexual identity struggle confusion of the times as norms and roles were in flux, then the turbulent economic and class upheaval our society was undergoing in the early 1970s. She had transformed from a rather pleasant looking college student in straight skirts, the well-behaved daughter of a multimillionaire Into a wild haired radical dressed as a male guerrilla soldier, holding up banks with a machine gun flung across her shoulders and shouting slogans about social equality for the unseen, unheard masses, the poor and cast away. The labile nature of identity itself was shown through her transformations. But yes,she was also a prisoner to her own sickness in a sense, her masochistic sexuality, she had fallen in love with her kidnapper.
Lilly believes she is growing a “bulb” from between her legs; what was that all about? The bulb was about so much! I wanted the "bulb" to express the ineffability and mysteriousness of her illness and mental illness in general, and of our vulnerable nature itself, I guess. Again in response to the overly simplified and concrete medical models constantly used as one dimensional diagnostics, it simply felt so right to express her states, as a poetic metaphor might, with all the resonance and power possible through language and imagery, and I went with it. I wanted to create the sense of enigma, of bafflement that felt truer to me then the rational truism we apply to illness. It still somehow belonged to the poets to express and had no ready made answers. Though the pharmaceutical revolution has changed everything in many good ways, towards cure end stabilizing I still like to believe there are states, and questions about the nature of identity and existence that remain ineffable. I never thought of the bulb in purely Freudian terms. it came from old prints from the Renaissance and the Middle Ages of personal, unexplainable "spiritual journeys of the soul" so to speak.
What role did you mean Dr. Burkert to play in the novel and in Lilly's life?
I think Lilly, is very much a daughter of her era. She sees men as entitled, especially in receiving unconditional nurturing and sustenance from the women around them, as women remain hungry and deprived of such riches of support. When Lilly enters the monastery She asks why Jesus is on the lap of Mother Mary while she feels so abandoned and left out, as if her needs for the same for the same nurturance were in fact invisible and illicit. She sees her mother as suffering from that unfed hunger, an unstable self. Her relationship to the mother who abused her is altered by her realization that her father's demands were insatiable, and drained the possibility of independent existence away from him. Her mother must remain his caretaker, and Lilly was partly responsible for the prison her mother finds herself in after her father becomes brain-damaged, dependent and helpless as a child. This I think is the abuse Lilly feels from men, being rendered invisible in terms of her own neediness, her own helplessness, having to serve only their often unreasonable hungers while starving herself, dwindling away. She is sucked dry by obligation to the men she must take care of, their unquestioned demands on her life and energies. Dr. Burkert is of course, very different just by virtue of his role as physician. He challenges her despairing view that all men are, like her father, unable to offer her caring back. Also her sexual attraction to him further helps her reintegrate a damaged and very undifferentiated sexual identity that had thrown her into psychotic fears and paralysis. He is a catalyst for a change in Lilly if she can accept his help.
You write a lot about British-occupied Palestine in all your novels; can you elaborate on what this means for you?
I had the privilege of seeing the pre Israel world through the eyes of my Jerusalem born mother and as a baby taken there before the state of Israel was really strong. I think all my work as a novelist carries a sadness and a pining tenderness for the lost world of an earlier Palestine/Israel. I loved the world I saw there as a young children. My mother was born in the old city of Jerusalem as was my grandmother and my great grandmother, Some of my maternal family members go back as far as the 1600's in Jerusalem. My grandfather was in business with his Arab colleagues in Jordan and my uncles attended the University of Beirut. As a baby, then as a child, then as a young girl and woman I spent much time in my mother's country, cloaked in intoxicatingly beautiful, often mystical stories of lives spent amidst these earlier limestone streets and pine trees, and as Jews, of lives spent and shared with a multicultural neighborhood of Muslims, Christians, and Armenians. The hate and bitterness of war between the Arabs and Jews had not yet poisoned the air because in British Palestine, the streets were not yet divided, and there was a mystical sense of things all around the Biblical places which made the whole earth feel magical to me as a child. Jerusalem was also a very sensual place, full of exotic scents and tastes, stories and ancients spirits I never knew in my Westchester home. As I said, I loved it there as a child, before 1967 when the war seemed to change everything.
Lilly finds comfort and direction in the Hebrew texts her mother, a bookbinder, repairs and restores. Can you say more about the meaning these books have for her?
I think the symbols Lilly finds in her mothers book-binding books bring Lilly back to a sweeter, and more important relationship with her mother, one that isn't damaged and one she can rely on to bring her meaning and identity. She, like her mother, can lose herself in an imaginative rendering of her world. Her mother taught her the power of finding such quiet self -fulfillment and self-definition through solitude, pursuing an art, a craft. It was a chance to reintegrate the chaos of selfhood, make confusion cohere.
But also essential, those ancient enduring Hebraic symbols bring Lilly back to that Jerusalem of her childhood, to a universal belonging to worlds larger than herself. And finding those symbols puts Lilly back on a trail home.
What are you writing about now? What kind of themes are obsessing you?
I am writing a nom de plume about my relationship with Grace Paley, whom I knew for over thirty years, experiencing her as mentor and mother. The distortions and claims after her death shook me up quite after her death shook me up quite a bit, she was being erased and her crucial, glorious past as an important writer of our times, as an important literary figure of our time was being drowned out by voices who hardly knew her or her work but professed to. I felt a soul rape, and I mean this in the deepest way. I thought, how dare they? Grace wasn't like this, Grace didn't say this. Grace barely knew them and they say she did, and intimately at that. Larger more important questions arose, what do we we owe history? The truth?An allegiance to something larger than our personal egos like uh..a literary canon? Have we come to worship narcissism and will the next generation be deprived of literature as it was authentically created by true innovators like Grace Paley. I couldn't sleep at night if I let the imposters win, it became my own private war against what I felt was a destructive literary age of celebrities.
What question didn't I ask?
Can't think of one!
Excerpt from Hystera
Inside the locked ward on Payne Whitney’s fifth floor, Lilly stepped onto a steel platform. The examination room was harshly lit, the bulbs behind plastic squares on the ceiling— fluorescent and burning. The metal examining table sparked from too many electric darts and moonbeams. It was an April evening, in 1974. The city’s night lights streaming in from the window would have been enough to illuminate the room, Lilly thought. The arrows of moon pierced her blue-jeaned legs. "You’re a dark girl." The nurse said. "You look a little like Patty Hearst. Lillian, is that your name?" Lilly nodded, staring up at the large woman who confused her. The nurse fisted her hands, big as a serviceman’s, glossy nailpolish shining on her nails, reddish-brown like her long hair. The nurse was sturdy and strong, her copious breasts bulging under a tight blue tank top. Lilly was a mess of unbrushed hair and pale features, the odor of imported Italian sardines in olive oil on her stained Tee-shirt. I want to rest now, she wished. She turned to stare out into the darkened evening. A spring rain was slanting on the pane behind the metal bars. "We're going to keep you here in the hospital with us a little while," The nurse said. "I'm going to examine you, Lillian. My name is Beverly." "Examine me?" "It's just routine. Nothing elaborate." "That's not possible." "I beg your pardon?" "I can't be examined." "Dear, all of us can be examined." A sheet of thin white paper was pulled all the way down to the metal stirrups, attached to the base of the examining table. "Lie down on your back now, Lilly." Out the window, a soft indigo veiled the sky; the wind swirling, incessant. Lilly eased herself down, flat on her back. The cool air was a wet cloth slapped on Lilly's forehead. But, her breathing was short, panicked. "I need you to squish yourself down further on the table here, Lillian." Beverly said. "Did I frighten him?" Lilly asked her. "Who do you mean, Lilly?" "The doctor who spoke with me in the interviewing room." "Oh, heavens. It would take a lot to frighten Dr. Burkert." "But is that why I'm here?" "Howard Burkert's one of our best third-year residents. No, no. You didn't scare him. Dr. Burkert thinks you're really feeling some discomfort in your pelvic area. We need to know whether you have a physical problem, or if it's something else." Stretched out on the examination table, Lilly wondered again if there were an abnormality in her sex, a cyst there, a tumor—. Maybe she was pregnant. Her boyfriend, Mitchell, was gone. Lilly read about body delusions. She learned, too, after her father had come home from the hospital three years ago from his long coma, the extent in which a mind could reinvent its former world, house a whole alternate universe of worlds. Maybe Beverly and Dr. Burkert didn’t know yet about her father’s two cerebral strokes, his coma, his altered mind.
(c) Leora Skolkin-Smith. Reprinted from Hystera, Fiction Studio
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