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How Far Will You Go to Save the People You Love the Most?

ImagineOne of my very favorite novels of the month is Adam Haslett's Imagine Me Gone, a sad but honest tale of a family ravaged by mental illness but still, miraculously, a family. I've been a Haslett fan since his debut collection of stories – You Are Not a Stranger Here – was published in 2002. There are few writers – or people – who have his depth, his ear and his compassion. He talked to me about first new novel since 2010's Union Atlantic; Imagine Me Gone is one of our Best of May in Literature and Fiction.

Amazon Book Review: This book is so deeply felt, and so beautifully rendered. I know you are a wonderful writer, but you can't make some things up You have mentioned that there is an autobiographical element - can you tell us what the personal connections are?

Adam Haslett: Since I finished the book I've been thinking a lot about this question about the distinction between a fictional and non-fictional treatment of experience. There is indeed an autobiographical story behind this book. My father suffered from bi-polar disorder and committed suicide when I was fourteen. My brother suffered from severe anxiety. I've been no stranger to these states myself, though for whatever unknown reason I've been less severely affected than either of them. So the slow moving storm of mental illness—both its pain and its sometimes absurdist comedy—is something I know up close. And yet as a writer I found that what I needed to get on the page wasn't so much the history of my family as a kind of counterfactual story, the imagined possibilities of what might have been, and so while I've borrowed more from my own experience in this book than in anything I've written before, what I've made of it is still very much a fiction, full of things that didn't actually occur, but which my imagination needed to make sense of nonetheless. In the end, I think this is what fiction does. It takes experience and shapes into a purposefully meaningful narrative that everyday life doesn't have. That's the thing that can be shared, that people who know nothing about me can pick up and hopefully find themselves in.

ABR: One of my favorite sections of the novel is toward the beginning when the young boy Michael is writing letters home to his aunt from the ship. They start off as believable, if a little weird, tales about what's going on with the other kids - and then slowly, it becomes clear that Michael is going off the rails. Was that an important section for you?

AH: The letters from the ship with Donna Summer as the main stage entertainment were definitely some of the most fun sections to write. I struggled for a while trying to figure out how to get the Michael character on the page and then I came up with the idea of his parodying various forms and genres, taking familiar, everyday kinds of writing and jacking them up with his particular, frenetic voice. So there's a section where he "fills out" a psych-intake form in a less than conventional manner, and a family therapy session narrated as a military after-action report. The letters are a send-up of a kid's account of a family trip to one of his relatives. I just kept telling myself not to hold back, to literally let my imagination run wild.

ABR: This is a story of mental illness and questionable medical behavior around it and its drugs. Did you want/mean it to make a statement about same?

AH: Not really. Not in the sense of arguing for what people should or shouldn't do in relation to their feelings and the possibility of medication. I speak from where I stand, which is having seen the sometimes remarkable benefit and the sometimes awful price of modern psychiatry. In that psych-intake form I mentioned, Michael says, "There is so much drivel about psychoactive meds, so much corruption, bad faith, over- and underprescription, vagueness, profiteering, ignorance, and hope, that it's easy to forget they sometimes work, alleviating real suffering, at least for a time." But he's only one of five characters and others take different views, which I suppose is part of the point: that illness is almost always experienced in relation to other people, mental illness in particular, and everyone has an opinion, a sense of what's best, and that becomes part of the family's life. More than anything, I wanted to portray this struggle, how people's views get tied up with their love and care for the people closest to them. There's no right answer, but I think there are a lot of people who go through and feel pretty invisible doing it.

ABR: Despite it all, there are some laughs in the book - ok, not belly laughs, but some observant chuckles. If you had to write a two sentence summary of what the book is about and what it's like, what would you say?

AH: I'll hold out for the belly laughs! I couldn't have got through it without some myself. And the longer I wrote the more I realized that was because, when you think about it, the people you laugh hardest with are the people who know the best, and often in the most desperate circumstances. That was part of the joy of writing this book, a joy that punctuated the dives into the harder stuff. As for a two sentence summary, can I go a little longer, say 356 pages? Summarizing is so hard. But I guess I'd go with this. It's a book about a family forced to confront one of the ultimate questions, how far will you go to save the people you love the most?

ABR: Should we say something about the fact that you went to law school and became a writer anyway? Are the two disciplines connected in any way?

AH: I sometimes get asked if going to law school affected my writing at all, and I used to think it hadn't, that it was like learning another language or voice, but as time has gone on I've noticed that there is something about legal writing that impressed itself on me. It's the demand that you write what I'd call impregnable sentences, sentences that can withstand two opposing parties each trying to make a phrase mean something different. On the positive side this breeds a kind of hyper-clarity, or at least aims for it. But for that very reason, it's inherently conservative and restrictive, which is a big problem if you're writing works of imagination. Now that I'm further away from that experience I can see this more clearly.

ABR: How does it feel to have this very personal book out there in the world?

AH: I gave this book everything I had. In a sense I feel it was the book I was meant to write. For better or for worse. A subject I couldn't avoid, and which I needed to move through. Having it out in the world is both exhilarating and exposing. To return to your first question, it's not so much the literal exposure of personal material, but the exposure of something I've cared for and about deeply and for a long time. Strange to say but it seems as if we're often ashamed of the things we care most about. And I don't even think it's the content of those things, though that's part of it. It's the fact of caring in the first place. It's easier, in the short term, and certainly cooler, to be detached. But I think in the long run, that's a poor bargain.


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