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2008 National Book Award Nonfiction Finalist Interview with Joan Wickersham

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Photo © Thomas Wickersham.
Joan Wickersham
The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order

Interview conducted by Meehan Crist.

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?

JW: 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 could not?

JW: 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 to stand.

MC: Are there any books you held in your peripheral vision as models while you worked?

JW: 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?

JW: 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?

JW: 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?

JW: The 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?

JW: 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.

Meehan 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.



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