Tuesday, October 19th, 2010
“When it was difficult, it was a sign to keep going because it was going to be helpful or better. When I feel like that or when I get that tightness in my throat, to me that’s now a sign not to back off but to keep going.”
My first thought when I got the e-mail to interview Mark Vonnegut, M.D. about his recently released memoir, Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So? that I’m not qualified to talk to him, given that I’ve never read a single work by his father. So, yes, Mark is the son of Kurt Vonnegut.
Actually, my literary misstep served me well—this time. It seems some of the critics who have read Mark’s new tome can’t help but have Kurt in the back of their minds: “Kurt’s son is no slouch himself when it comes to personal accomplishments,” Tim Gebhart, Blogcritics.org.
I, on the other hand, only had Kurt’s contemptuous quote about semicolons in the back of mine, which I try to avoid throughout this piece because for some reason, using a semicolon is much more embarrassing to me than the fact that I almost bought CliffsNotes.
Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So is Mark’s second book. The Eden Express, written over 30 years ago, was also a memoir and chronicled his experiences following three psychotic breaks. Resilient and determined to not be defined by mental illness, Mark persevered and put his demons to rest. He was accepted to Harvard Medical School and eventually went on to live a “normal” life as a pediatrician. To complete this perfectly normal picture, Mark lived in a Victorian house with his wife and two children. Of course, with any kind of mental affliction—depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, panic disorder or any disorder—you never really kill those demons. Even with best medication to keep them quiet, they merely lie dormant, lurking beneath the surface, just waiting to crash the party.
After suffering his fourth psychotic break, one in which he was strapped down to a gurney and taken to the hospital where he worked, he again came back from the darkness—unfortunately, this episode derailed his marriage and nearly derailed his career. Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So provides an honest look into the life of man whose path could have taken a sharp turn to nowhere or worse. Vonnegut carefully dissects and analyzes each moment of his life, never once blaming his “beautifully self-absorbed” parents for a single thing—perhaps forgiveness is indeed divine, or at the very least what is born out of the writing process.
SMITH talked to Mark Vonnegut about his book, his father, and the $300 his dad borrowed from him.Why did you write the book after your father passed, and do you think it would have turned out differently had he been alive?
I had been writing all along the last piece in the book about the mushrooms. He had seen that and he had loved that, so that was important. I think after any parent dies, you get a more full and firm picture and I think you don’t have any anxiety about what they’re going to do next because they’re gone.
I was certainly worried about whether or not he would like my writing. But it never stopped me from writing. And we had some competitiveness; we had a contest for a while if either of us could get a Letter to the Editor at The New York Times published and it went on for a couple of years almost. I finally got something published, commenting on some scheme to rein in Medicare costs. I thought he had given up but he was always cruising and right after that was published I got this very short note that read, “Nice letter.”
But I think with the process of being the executor of his estate and writing the introduction to a collection of his short stories Armageddon in Retrospect, I really started feeling I had a handle on it. That’s when I got serious and started to fit together a lot of stuff I had been writing for a long time.
How did you collect and organize your memories to create the memoir?
Early on I learned to pay attention to my inner monologue and honor it and try to work with it. In a way it’s something I had learned from him. There was a point in paying attention, to try to remember and try to process all the stuff that comes through all of our lives.
You had written about mental illness in The Eden Express. Why revisit? Why bring it up especially after the fourth break? Because your son saw you? It didn’t just involve you, it involved your child.
I think it was to help get over the bitterness because I was angry. I felt that I had pulled myself together, I had used my own strength, I had done all this, I had come so far and then I was in the hospital again. I was angry at life, I was angry with God, I was angry. By the process of writing and the process of trying to incorporate that, it’s to get over the bitterness so that that anger doesn’t wreck you.
I look at my father and how he wrote stuff and I think he wrote to not have PTSD or/and depression because of all that he went through in World War II and his mother’s suicide—he was able to not have that stuff poison his life. Writing is a way to fight back against the negative side of illness.
You said a few times you think that you don’t like writing. In fact, you wrote that if you loved writing, you wouldn’t have gone to medical school. But throughout the entire time, you’re writing. What’s up with that?
For me, it works as an adjunct to an otherwise busy life. If I had just been sitting around trying to be wise and comment on things from a typewriter, it wouldn’t have worked out very well for me. I love the discipline of being a pediatrician. I am somewhat of an introvert who wouldn’t normally go out into the world unless I could say, “how long have you had the rash or how high is the fever or whatever.” I truly love being in the world, but the thrill of getting something right when you write is amazing. And you can go days and days and days flogging it out wondering why you write, and then you make some progress. You’ll figure out something about your parents or whatever and you say, “yeah, that’s worth it.” And because The Eden Express worked out well for me, I also have in the back of my mind that that could be my retirement plan—I can write and maybe get published, but I don’t think the benefits of writing are contingent on getting published.
I have a confession to make: I have never read any of Kurt’s books.
[Mark bursts into laughter] That’s fine.
Well, I thought it would be interesting coming at your work without having your father in the background. Do you feel like people are looking at your book because of your last name and how do you let that go?
You get a certain amount of attention—negative and positive—from a famous last name. The Eden Express was turned down by 13 publishers. I had given up on getting it published and then a short piece I wrote for the Village Voice was noticed by a publisher. The same thing with this last book: I offered it to Putnam and they turned it down. I said, “Okay, that’s how it goes.” People say things like, “your writing is good but with your last name it would have to be better” or they have certain expectations that I’m going to either be more like Kurt, in which case they’ll say I’m too much like Kurt or too little like Kurt or whatever. I don’t think anybody is going to write a really good review of my book just because of my last name, so when all is said and done, if my writing is good it’s good and if it’s not it’s not.
On page 15, you write that Kurt borrowed $300 from your paper route money. So out of curiosity, did he pay you back?
Yes he did.
I thought it was such a funny line.
He sat down differently than when he sat down to play chess or whatever, so I was like, “what’s up dad?” He needed $300 bucks.
You seemed to insert bits and pieces of your life throughout the book that weren’t necessarily meshing up with what the overall chapter was about–-like your Mini Cooper or throwing in the “Mushroom” chapter-–it just seemed random. They were inserted and I was curious as to why and how were they relevant to you?
I didn’t want the end to say, “I’ve been through all this and I’m grateful now and da, da, da, da, da, da…” In that “Mushroom” chapter I wrote about someone who was willing to write about poisoning himself with mushrooms. I never would have hunted mushrooms as this kid in his 20s with a chip on his shoulder trying to get into medical school. So I wanted to kind of tell little stories here and there without saying, “Hey, I’ve changed.” I wanted show change rather than say it.
And at the end of the book I wanted people to be amused or just to have me tell a story about myself in the hopes that other people can loosen up and tell stories about themselves, which I think we should all be doing rather than going around posturing that we’re all fine.
Memoirs are very popular and I’ve gathered in the course of my interviewing authors that it takes years of writing random things. What is your process, what does it take to write a memoir?
To be authentic you have to write what your writing when you’re writing it and along the way, with my wonderful last name and everything—and I’ve had two novels nobody wanted to publish, a book for families dealing with mental health problems that nobody wanted to publish, and I’m not arguing with them—it’s just hard to get published. With The Eden Express, I always thought I would go back and fictionalize it and I just don’t have that voice. The only voice I have that works for me is the memoirs—trying to tell the truth about myself rather than other people.
What else did you learn from Kurt?
I think faith in the process and persistence and not giving up on stuff even when it seems like you’re turning out crap. I think a lot of people think they’ll sit down and they’ll be able to write 20 or 30 good pages a day. I had a sense of how imperfect and how often things had to be rewritten and how a whole day’s work could come out just a soggy mess.
Where there any parts that you struggled with or even wanted to omit?
There were parts of it. I have emotional parts with almost everything. But when it was difficult, it was a sign to keep going because it was going to be helpful or better. When I feel like that or when I get that tightness in my throat, to me that’s now a sign not to back off but to keep going.
Never read Kurt’s books, not sure where to start…
In terms of Kurt’s writing, the best entrance point is his short stories. He was very dismissive of his short stories, he thought that they were all terrible, but they’re wonderful. Welcome to the Monkey House or Armageddon in Retrospect or Look at the Birdie, he left hundreds of really beautiful stories and it’s a quick investment.
And your Six-Word Memoir?
Pain Redeemed. Luck, Faith, Persistence, People.
Kathy Ritchie is a Phoenix-based writer. Check out her blog My Demented Mom (mydementedmom.com) in which she chronicles her life with her mother who is living with the mixed dementia.
BUY Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So.
JOIN Mark Vonnegut’s Facebook page.
READ an excerpt from Vonnegut’s new memoir.