© Thomas Wickersham.
The Suicide Index:
Putting My Father’s Death in Order
MC: What questions drove you as you worked on The
Suicide Index? In other words, what was it that
you hoped to better understand by writing it?
My father killed himself in 1991, and
when I got the news I thought, “Oh, no, that’s
impossible. He would never do that.” And at the
same moment I thought, “Of course.”
I wanted to understand that
paradox: How could both things be true?
MC: How did you decide on the index structure
for the book, and how do you feel this particular form
serves the book’s content in a way other structures
The index is something I stumbled upon, after many attempts
to structure the book in more conventional ways. For
a long time I tried to tell the story chronologically,
but that didn't work: with suicide there's no beginning,
and no clear end. I needed to find a structure that
would let me tell the story in fragments – many
different stories, told in different ways – and
yet have some kind of emotional trajectory. The index
is a formal, almost ironic way to bring order to an
experience that's inherently chaotic. And I also think
it gives the reader a little distance, a safe place
MC: Are there any books you held in your peripheral
vision as models while you worked?
Tim O’Brien’s The Things
They Carried – not so much as a model, but
as permission to let wrestling with the story be part
of the story.
MC: What is the one thing you wish people better
understood about the subject of suicide?
That one of the most devastating things about a suicide
is its impact on memory. You lose both the person and
your sense of who he was; all your memories of his life
are colored by the manner of his death. To begin to
understand suicide, I think you have to acknowledge
that truth, and disagree with it at the same time. You
can’t say, “Everything about his life was
terrific, except that he happened to commit suicide.”
But you also can’t say, “He killed himself,
therefore nothing was ever good.” Suicide is full
of paradoxes. You restore your memory of the person
when, after a lot of messy circling around, you begin
to be able to hold all the contradictory truths in your
head at once.
MC: What is one moment from the process of working
on this book that you’ll never forget?
In the fall of 2004 I was at the MacDowell Colony and
they happened to put me in a studio designed for photographers.
The first day, I looked over the manuscript I’d
brought with me – a numb, lyrical novel about
my father’s death – and threw out most of
it. Only a few pieces survived. Suddenly I saw that
one long wall of the studio was made of tackboard. I
tacked up the pieces and realized I could write the
book in fragments, big and small pieces that would be
true to the fragmentary nature of the experience. It
was electrifying: spreading it out visually, actually
seeing it on the wall, rather than having it be a neat
polite pile of paper.
MC: Are there any questions you asked while
you were working on The Suicide Index that
remain unanswered? What effect does this lingering uncertainty
have on you, or perhaps on the book?
question “Why?” – which is really
“How could you?” – never gets answered.
MC: The books nominated
for the National Book Award in nonfiction this year
all seem to investigate great tragedy. How do you see
the relationship between the act of writing nonfiction
and the reality of human suffering?
Fiction tells its own truths and can be enormously powerful,
but there’s a different kind of power –
not necessarily greater, but different – that
comes with saying, “This happened.” Nonfiction
is about bearing witness. It’s a way of preserving
or restoring memory, of trying to make sure that things
that have happened don’t get lost.
Crist is reviews editor at The Believer, and
her nonfiction book, Everything After, is forthcoming
from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She holds an MFA from
Columbia University, and is currently an Olive B. O'Connor
Fellow at Colgate University.