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Adam Hasslet: “I think of all writing as musical”

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Adam Hasslet’s “Imagine Me Gone”, published in Greece by Metaixmio Publishing House, was voted by Time Magazine as one of the best novels of 2016. It is about the chronicle of a family which is stigmatized by the scourge of mental illness. A touching narrative of the life of three children, the three siblings who narrate one by one their story, with central figure the oldest brother, Michael, who suffers from some form of anxiety disorder. We had the honour to talk with the American writer, so we presented him with our queries and asked questions on his book.

Mental illness plays a central role in your novel, in the form of an anxiety disorder. Why have you chosen such a sensitive subject? Did you do some research in order to bring clarity to this subject?
This was the book I needed to write, for several reasons. I have had a good deal of mental suffering in my own family, including a brother with a severe anxiety disorder, and it was a subject I felt compelled to tackle. Thus, there wasn’t “research” in the traditional sense, but rather the transfiguration of experience into narrative. I had to first give myself permission to use autobiographical material, but then also give myself permission to depart from the literal facts in order to shape them into a story.

Michael seems to suffer from something more intensive and catastrophic than a simple anxiety disorder, in my opinion… While the disorder of his father, which is not named, emerges after 15 years of “absence”. Do you think there might be a reader suffering from something similar who could feel there are gaps in the narrative?
The phrase “mental illness” doesn’t appear in the book, and that’s purposeful. I think the role of fiction is to complicate and bring nuance to these categories that are set up by psychiatry. That said, John, the father in the book most clearly fits a bi-polar model, which means he might be without symptoms for many years between episodes; and Michael’s condition is, as I mentioned about my own brother, a severe anxiety disorder. 

Michael’s far from sensible use of medication leads eventually to his destruction. Are you for or against medication?
Again, I think literature’s job is not to editorialize for or against anything. What I’ve tried to do in this novel is to place the reader inside these dilemmas as thoroughly as possible so he or she can experience the tension that exists for people who suffer in this way between wanting a cure through a pill, and feeling restricted by both their side effects and even sometimes their intended effects. Hopefully the book acknowledges both sides of this dilemma. 

From other novels dealing with the subject of mental illness you happen to know, would you be kind enough to suggest the ones you think most highly of?
“Low Boy” by John Wray treats the life of a schizophrenic boy very well; and as for depression, so much of great literature touches on this darker side of mental life that I wouldn’t really know where to begin. It’s just that in earlier eras such conditions were considered characterological rather than medical. 

There is a clear differentiation between the British and the American ways of life. Which are these basic differences in your opinion?
The differences are fewer and fewer I think. Britain used to have a softer form of finance capitalism but it has, in the last thirty years, adopted the American free-market fundamentalism. They are both countries whose leading cities are magnets for global capital and this has driven both greater inequality and a cultural divide between rural and urban citizens. London and New York have more in common in many ways, than London and the English countryside, or New York and Kansas.

The genius of Michael is obvious: At twelve he is able to read (with great pleasure, at that) Thomas Mann. It seems as though this special characteristic is not recognized as much as one would expect. Is there a particular reason behind this?
He’s a precocious boy, but then within families this sort of thing becomes normalized and isn’t as notable as it would be from the outside. 

Michael is also a lover of music. What’s the role of music in your life? What is the relation between Music and Literature in your opinion?
I often listen to music before writing, though not while writing itself. My own taste ranges from classical to the kinds of the things that appear in the book: British New Wave and dance music. I think of all writing as musical in the sense that one can only craft decent sentences if you can hear the words as they strike the ear, so in this sense I think the two forms are deeply linked. I live with a composer and we often compare notes on this score. 

“You cannot kill the beast”: Are people who suffer from mental illness condemned?
No. As I said above, this book is about particular characters and isn’t intended to be a representational portrait of mental illness, per se. Michael, as it turns out, is doomed. But that is one man, in one book. Many make the choices he made, many suffer as badly or worse; many survive. I write about individuals not classes of individuals. 

There is significant gravitas in the way in which you approach the trauma of slavery: “The agony of slavery” haunts the music of Black African-Americans, and the lyrics of their songs are subconsciously imprinted on the minds of audiences who, although have never experienced anything similar to slavery, they suffer from depression and nightmares inundated by images of black slavery. This subconscious transplanting of narratives and feelings is particularly impressive. Do you happen to know people whose mental suffering is expressed in such ways?
The transgenerational haunting of trauma is by now a fairly well developed field of study, grounded mostly in work on the holocaust in Europe during WWII. Great grandchildren of survivors who had no experience of the camps are nonetheless found to suffer from trauma that is similar to that of their great-grandparents, if not in literal memories than in patterns of relationships. More and more attention is now focused on how this has happened with slavery in the U.S. I can’t say I personally know people who have this experience, but it’s not an invention on my part. It’s all too real. 

What are the feelings of your readers? What reactions do you think your book generates in them?
I’ve been gratified to hear from many readers who have found solace in the portrait of this family which has had to contend with the complex of guilt, anger, frustration, and hope that comes along with trying to care for a loved one suffering from such severe inner turmoil. As we say in America, lots of people “related” to it. This is a happy outcome, though not my chief goal. I had a story I needed to tell, a very particular one. The lesson for me has been that the more particular I am in my focus, the more people seem able to find aspects of their own experience within it. Which is encouraging for a writer. 

Interview: Eleni Mark

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