Interview: Mira Bartók, author of The Memory Palace

Monday, January 31st, 2011

By Vivian Chum

“I accept that this is who I am. I’m not going to be the person I was before. I’m here now and this is how I am now. What am I going to do, not make art? I’d rather jump off a bridge.”

To read Mira Bartók’s memoir, The Memory Palace, is to lose yourself in the labyrinth of her dreamlike recollections. Like Alice’s Wonderland, Bartók’s palace houses a store of fantastical creatures, surreal landscapes, and, of course, a jabberwocky. The jabberwocky lurking at the edge of Bartók’s enchanted artist’s life is her schizophrenic mother, a talented young pianist given over to madness, whom Bartók and her sister eventually elude by legally changing their names.

Bartók, a visual artist who has worked in museums and authored children’s books, handles each memory with a curator’s precision and a storyteller’s taste for the magical. The work of pairing her memories with paintings and excerpts from her mother’s journals and letters by arranging them in a metaphorical memory palace is as much a labor of necessity as it is a fascinating framework for her story.

After a car accident left Bartók with a brain injury that affects her memory as well as her ability to process the written word, the museum-like elements of her memoir became the breadcrumb trail that allowed her to navigate her tangled mind. Though Bartók’s artist’s life takes her as far as Norway, Italy, and Israel, all her breadcrumbs inevitably lead back to her mother, with whom Bartók maintains a letter correspondence through intermediaries. Even as Bartók flees an obsessed Israeli soldier or works on the presentation of a Tibetan Mandela, her mother’s creative yet disturbed letters seep into her everyday life. Bartók’s artwork and prose, alongside her mother’s writings, tell a haunting tale of love, the artist’s life, and madness.

Bartók spoke to SMITH from her home in New Salem, MA about the writing process, her mother’s letters and journal entries, and the metaphor of a memory palace.

Writing a memoir is already hard enough, but you wrote your memoir after sustaining a brain injury that affects your ability to read, write, and remember. How did you manage to write in spite of your cognitive limitations?
Everybody has some kind of obstacle. Mine just happens to be my brain! My brain injury certainly complicates having a writing life. I have to carefully plan my life. For one, I have very poor short term memory of what I wrote. Until I figured out a system, I would start whole chapters all over again because I had no memory of having already written them. So I created a box with labeled slats, and every time I wrote a chapter, I stuck it in the slat with a date on it. I also kept a log. And every single night before I went to bed, I gave myself a memory test. I went over the book in my head: What was the image associated with the chapter? How did the chapter begin?

But I’ve lived with this brain injury for so long now. At first it was horribly frustrating and very depressing. Now I look at it with fresh eyes. Every day is Groundhog Day. I accept that this is who I am. I’m not going to be the person I was before. I’m here now and this is how I am now. What am I going to do, not make art? I’d rather jump off a bridge.

How did you come to write this memoir?
It began with an essay I wrote called “The Oracle Bone,” and some elements of that essay are in the book. I wrote that essay when I was living in the arctic in Norway, before my brain injury. The essay was published in The Kenyon Review and it was noted in The Best American Essays collection. After my brain injury, I had absolutely no memory of writing this material. I didn’t know it existed until months or even a year later. It was like a stranger had written it. But I saved that material.

After the accident, I couldn’t read more than a paragraph at a time and it would take me days to write a page of something, but when I was able to write more, I started sporadically writing essays that were much like “The Oracle Bone.” I kept feeling like there was so much autobiographical material that needed to be flushed out. Then I started writing a book of essays about my mother, and I felt like this should be a book. So I took the feeling of “The Oracle Bone” and began writing about my mom. I didn’t know how to end it. But then, when I was about three-fourths of the way through the book, I found out my mom was dying.

And it was after her death that you began using pieces from your mother’s journals. Was it challenging to pick excerpts from your mother’s dairies to place in your memoir?
It was tough. I read 17 years worth of diaries. From 1996 to 1997 alone, she had four or five diaries for each year. They were in three-ring binders with marginalia and double-sided.

I spent a really intense period reading her diary entries, though I wouldn’t read them after five because I thought I might get nightmares. I took a lot of notes and made an initial edit. I used excerpts from her journal almost like writing prompts. I would pick a little piece and see what kind of writing would come.

Even though your mother was homeless and mentally ill when she wrote those diary entries, the excerpts you pick really emphasize the similarities between you and your mother. Have you always felt those similarities were there, or did you discover them only after her death?
I always felt our brains were very similar, though hers edged into insanity. But I had no idea she kept these diaries. My mother was mentally ill and her thoughts were random at times, but there’s this beauty about her diary entries. Her writing could come straight out of surrealist poetry or Grimm’s fairy tales. And her sense of music is in there.

She was a savant. She would draw a map of the world and try to remember all the capital cities and write them in four or five languages. She could have done so much artistically if she didn’t have this horrible, debilitating disease. Not only were we connected in many ways artistically, but what a writer she could have been.

With my brain injury, and also digging into her life more after this material, I gained a greater appreciation of her internal struggle. I imagine many people, on her good days, would see this benign, stunningly beautiful woman on a park bench smoking, but inside her head, she was hearing voices from the trees.

Can you tell me a bit about what you and your sister went through preceding the decision to change your names in order to hide from your mother?
My sister and I have gone over a million times what could we have done differently. All we wanted was a halfway house and someone to manage her, but the probate court failed us and the social system failed us. Because she could buy her own cigarettes and balance her checkbook, the court system said she was fine.

Even as you hid from your mother, you felt guilt for abandoning her. How have people responded to your decision not to care for your mentally ill mother?
People have said I would have left much earlier. But a few people have also said negative things. One person even told me, “My mother was mentally ill too and became homeless, and I chose to be destitute and homeless with her, because she’s my mother.” Of all the people who have written comments like that, not one of them has read the book. I feel like most people have gotten it. I am getting literally a hundred positive e-mails and Facebook messages a day. I am getting such a profound, overwhelming response.

Ultimately, it wasn’t just that I needed to be an artist, have a professional life, support myself, and have relationships, but it began to be dangerous to be around my mother. Some people are calling my mother a violent or cruel mother. But she wasn’t. I felt very loved, but at times, because of her illness, she would act out violently. She believed that if I stepped outside a Nazi would kill me, and she had to physically stop me.

You combine your prose with artwork, excerpts from your mother’s letters and journals, quotes, and poetry. Could you speak to the collage-like quality of your writing?
I like that you used the word collage. I’ve always seen myself as a collage artist. I like taking sound, text, and images and altering them in some way, and I’ve always done this with my artwork. When I was working on this book, it seemed like such a daunting task. And a memoir is not always that fun to write! I thought, how can I use what is already in me, from my whole long life as a visual artist, to make this book more original and really true to the way my brain works? And what could I use from the years I spent in museums working to classify and catalogue collections?

I felt I needed something big, some kind of architecture for the book that could contain all that stuff. That’s when I got the idea of a memory palace, creating an imaginary building. I wanted this book to be as if you’re walking through a building in your mind, a museum, because museums have always been sanctuaries for me.

Like your transient mother, you were struck by wanderlust. Is there a place that you feel most at home?
In all the reviews, everyone keeps saying that I traveled all over. But truth be told, most of my life, I was in Chicago.

The place I always return to, sometimes in my mind, is Italy. It feels like home, I speak the language, and when I visit, I don’t stay in hotels, I stay with friends. While I lived there, I wasn’t having an Under the Tuscan Sun experience by any means. My experience was really sink or swim.

But also, I feel at home in my own backyard. I live in this area now that is very close to the Quabbin, which is comprised of four towns that were submerged when a river was diverted to bring more drinking water to Boston. I walk out my back door right into the woods. I barely go anywhere now because it’s hard to travel with my brain.

How did the paintings that precede each chapter inform your writing?
The pictures always came first. Then I would search for a poem. These little things became writing prompts. A picture anchored me in the room in the palace. Searching for the right snippet of a poem helped underline each chapter as a scene. Those things, the little poem in the beginning, the piece by my mother before each chapter, helped me create underlying themes.

As a visual thinker, I remember with images, so the structure of a memory palace made perfect sense. I knew that I couldn’t remember anything from my past without putting it on my studio wall. I had to paint it. I’ve always loved the palace idea as a metaphor for memory—the idea that for everything you want to remember you create an image of, build a room around it, and eventually you’ll have a palace in your mind that you can return to again and again. But in truth, we cannot really build a palace. Memory is not fixed. It’s constantly changing.

Can you tell me about the folktale elements of your writing?
I really love fairy tales and folktales, and I’ve read a lot of graphic novels. Also, I think about animals so much, and I spend a lot of time with animals. In my memoir, animals are always transforming into different things. There are many permutations of horses and bears and rabbits.

Were there fairy tales or graphic novels that particularly influenced your writing?
While I was writing the memoir, I read a lot of poetry and graphic novels. One book that just had a huge effect on me is Chris Ware’s graphic novel Jimmy Corgan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. Oh my god, it’s a heartbreaker. I can’t even explain it. It just takes us through how we repeat generational trauma and pain, and it’s so heartbreaking and beautiful and poignant. The other book that I just spent so much time with has absolutely no words at all. Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It’s a wordless graphic novel. I also looked at a lot of archival material and I read up on a lot of neuroscience. I read a lot of weird stuff. And much of the artwork was done while I was replaying all the Harry Potter movies in my den.

As for your sister, how has she responded to the book?
She loved the book. After reading the book, she cried for a week. She said that she felt really understood and that it helped lift some of the guilt she felt. It’s been really great for our relationship. We previously didn’t talk about the past too much because it was just too painful.

What advice would you give an aspiring memoirist?
When people tell me they want to write a memoir I say, yeah, good luck with that, it’s no picnic. It’s really, really hard. Sometimes when I wake up and go to my desk, I say to myself: You are a pain in the ass.

As for advice: It’s easier to write one when everyone in your family is dead. And write and rewrite your memoir a whole bunch of times, because it’s in the last rewriting that you really begin to understand the people in your book. Also, write yourself into a place of compassion.

What can we expect from you next?
When I have tiny moments of time, I am working on a pretty large project: an illustrated young adult novel based on two intertwined stories with fantasy elements, time travel, and strange beasts.

Finally, Mira Bartók, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
This memoir is about my next story project:
Girl carries gift across the tundra.


BUY The Memory Palace.

READ an excerpt from The Memory Palace.

LISTEN to an interview with Mira Bartók on NPR.

WATCH the book trailer for The Memory Palace.

FOLLOW Mira Bartók on Twitter.

VIEW artwork from The Memory Palace.

LIKE The Memory Palace on Facebook.

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8 responses

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  2. Liliana Rank says:

    Enjoyed every bit of your blog post.Really thank you! Cool.

  3. Veronica Clarke says:

    I listened to your book on cd and was fascinated. Thank you for telling your story. I will always look at homeless people in a different and more respectful way, considering that many don’t want the life they are leading for one reason or another. As a mother I am proud of your accomplishments and think your mother was too in her own way. You have had to endure so many punishing blows. I’m glad to see you could finish and publish this book. I also think you and your sister did what you had to do to live a somewhat normal life. Kudos for going to your mom at the end.

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  7. bachsal says:

    You have been forced to put up with a great deal of brutal punches. I’m happy to see that you were able to complete and then publish this book. I also believe that you and your sister did what you needed to do in order to live a life that was at least partly normal. Congratulations on seeing your mother at the very end. (geometry dash subzero)

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