Mike Scalise: The Brand New Catastrophe

Oxford Writers' HouseInterviews2017OctoberMike Scalise: The Brand New Catastrophe

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By Constantine Blintzios

Mike Scalise: The Brand New Catastrophe

Mike Scalise’s work has appeared in the New York TimesWall Street JournalAgniIndiewireNinth LetterParis Review Daily, and other places. He is an 826DC advisory board member, has received fellowships and scholarships from Bread Loaf, Yaddo, and the Ucross Foundation, and was the Philip Roth Writer in Residence at Bucknell University. His memoir, The Brand New Catastrophe, was the recipient of the Center for Fiction's 2014 Christopher Doheny Award.

1) First I’d like to congratulate you on the reception and success that your book has received. How does this validation feel?

Straight after the book came out I emailed one of my mentors. He told me that publishing a book is the closest you’ll ever come to not publishing a book. I’ve kind of found that to be the case. I’m really enjoying any success the book has, but at the same time, everything sort of stays as it was. There’s just this added wrinkle that I’m trying to be happy about on the side. I like that it’s out in the world and that I get to hear from some people who read it and have a conversation. It takes you back to why you did it in the first place, this note that you send out in a bottle that hopefully someone receives. So when somebody does and they respond, that’s nice!

2) When did you start writing and what was the trajectory from the idea of being a writer to the publication of your first book? What surprised you most about the journey?

I always had a vague artistic inclination growing up. When I was young I wanted to be a comedian or an actor, anything that had to do with creation. The only thing I was competent at was writing. I had a couple of teachers tell me that and so I thought "I don’t really trust in my own confidence so I’m gonna believe you and go in this direction". If you’re lucky life works out this way: you just say over and over again "I want to do this" and tell people you want to do it, after a while people will just let you do it. There was never a golden hand that touched me and made me a writer. It was one teacher saying that something I wrote was pretty good and then me overinvesting in that feedback.

I went to college with the singular focus of moving into journalism, parallel to taking creative writing classes. I wrote for weekly newspapers and regional magazines and embryonic websites as online journalism was basically the wild west in the late 90s and early 2000s. I then moved to New York thinking that surely some magazine would need someone like me and New York replied "No, we’re good." So I had to recalculate and it was during this time of recalculation that I had a brain tumor explode in my head. I had to figure out a way of having a career that allowed me to claim the health insurance I needed, while at the same time pursuing writing.

One was a battle with the other until this book, which is a melding of both.

3) Did this happen just as you moved to NY? Could you talk about your experience as a young writer first trying to get a foot in the door of publication in conjunction with having this affliction?

Yes it did! I moved there to be with my girlfriend and couldn’t get work for six months. As the script of your early twenties plays out, if you don’t have a job, you don’t really have anything to talk about. You can incrementally disappear and unemployment is a big factor. So after six months I woke up with what I thought was a migraine and an hour later in the ER after a CI scan I found out that it was in fact a ruptured tumor on my pituitary gland. This altered my body in ways I hadn’t noticed in terms of hormone levels. I went from having too many hormones and not knowing about it, to having no hormones and not knowing how to go forward. The book trapezes between these two epiphanies.

The middle is a stew of stories about learning how to be un-invisible in your early twenties through the lens of public illness. The rarity of the condition gave me the thing I wanted when I was searching for jobs which was recognition. Being told you have a rare illness draws a lot of attention especially if you don’t have a foothold elsewhere. The book examines how easily you can rely on that as your persona. So I would go out to parties and assault conversations with stories about how my brain exploded!

So I would go out to parties and assault conversations with stories about how my brain exploded!

4) The transformational process from invisibility to reshaping your identity through this medical condition is fascinating. How do you live in the aftermath of something like this? You weren’t aware of the condition beforehand?

In the book I look at the history of acromegaly. Throughout the research I begin to identify with a few public acromegalics the most notable of which is Andre the Giant, but also Rondo Hatton who was a prominent ghoul in Ed Wood's horror films in the eras before CGI. A lot of filmmakers relied on acromegalics to play monsters.

I never had gigantism and I found myself asking the question of why those guys sought the spotlight. Did they have a choice? Every one of these individuals seized an opportunity and shaped their lives.

It allowed me to start thinking about my own illness. It makes sense that the counteraction would be to try and control it externally since you can’t internally. So the book looks at acromegalics who have achieved this and weighs it against my own personal experience.

I wasn’t aware of acromegaly’s relationship to gigantism and from the moment I was diagnosed I didn’t know what waters I was wading into and I was conflicted to say the least. My books asks the question of what it means to join that lineage, what it means to inherit the problematic socio-cultural depiction and history of those illnesses as well as live with the condition in my personal life.

5) Was shedding light on this aspect of the condition a conscious goal? How much did you draw upon genres such as auto-fiction and medical memoir as examples for what you were trying to accomplish?

The more difficult aspect of the book was putting myself in the middle of it. For a number of years I relied on my own experience as a journalist as a comfort zone. So I used historical/pop-culture references to write around what I really needed to write about. For a long time the book existed not so much as a memoir but more as a personal biography of Andre the Giant. Then it was a set of essays that were loosely linked I was always at a distance from the material.

Then I realized that in order to construct a book around a rare illness I had to be willing to step into the spotlight and put myself in the center to hopefully start a conversation, or at least point to a place where the conversation might begin. So in that sense I started to look at the book as a personal dispatch - halfway between memoir and journalism.

Once I figured this out stylistically I went to work! I picked up all the classics and found myself gravitating towards certain types of memoirs but not necessarily illness memoirs. I was in my early thirties when I started writing about a time in my early twenties so I focused on memoirs that revolved around a very finite timeline, rather than tell a whole swath of experience or get perspective on an entire life’s focus. I’d rather get to the heart of what happened during those five years. One of the books that helped me was Elizabeth McCracken’s book about miscarriage An exact replica of a fragment of my imagination. It is a short book with a tight scope that branches out to include personal and social experience. I struggled structurally for a time and took a lot of inspiration from Julia Ward’s graphic memoirs in terms of how to structure an episodic narrative. Phillip Roth’s Patrimony and Donald Andrew’s The Afterlife were also crucial influences.

This is the general playlist I seemed to return to during that period. They were instructional in my definition of what I wanted to achieve, both in taking from their method as well as working in opposition to what they did. In this way I was able to productively disagree.

6) Was pigeonholing ever an issue for you? Fitting into the medical-memoir label for instance?

In the years after my diagnosis I found myself unable to write about anything else despite wanting to. Every time I tried to venture into other topics my illness would step in front of the camera. I was reluctant to come to the memoir but when I did I was determined to extinguish the story. I’ve gotten to have fantastic conversations with members of the rare illness community through the experience of writing this book. To my mind pigeonholing is like trouble in paradise.

7) You mention tension and a competitive relationship for 'best sick person' with your mother throughout the book. How close do you think humor is to calamity in writing and in life?

There are two answers for this: the smart one and the real one.

The smart one and the real one. The smart one is that I have always gravitated towards writers who use humor in the same way that other writers might use deep emotional vulnerability. Humor is a vehicle towards a more complex moment. Writers who deploy humor to get the reader to destabilize a familiar script achieve something riskier. When I started writing the book I looked for those moments throughout my own life and explored them.

The medical illness script is very prevalent in our lives and it exists for a reason. One of the reasons is so that people don’t have to think about it, they are like scripted interactions. I focused on moments where there is an impulse to break the script.

Throughout the book there are a lot of jokes, some land some don’t. What was more interesting to me were the jokes that didn’t work. Digging into that, I've found that something happens between people when a joke doesn’t work. The whole room comes alive when a joke is failing in a way that it doesn’t when a joke works. It is an opportunity to examine how a script becomes destabilized, the tension and release of it. The real answer is that I responded to being diagnosed by joking about it. If I didn’t write about that the book wouldn’t have been true.

My mother was sick at the same time that I was and I was reluctant to pull her into the book. She considers those years the worst of her life and I didn’t know if it was fair to write about that, yet at the same time I knew that that’s where the heart of the story was. Eventually it became apparent that I was airing dirty laundry but showing two approaches to the same problem. I learnt the most by writing those scenes with my mother and we are in a better place as a result. The exchange made me step out of my hormonal illness over a bridge to common illness and presented me with perspective. My mother communicates expectation through competition and for the first time I just leant into it so that it became a productive disagreement. The template was competition with pure-hearted intentions.

8) Can you talk a bit about the process of finding an agent/publisher as a young writer? Especially with work that is so close to you.

As much as I’ve always felt that I’m a writer, I’ve never felt that I belong to writing communities.Throughout graduate school, it was important to seek out a cohort with the same sorts of concerns.I was constantly looking for people with the same set of issues.I attended writing conferences and residencies that helped me find my cohort. My agent found me through one of these conferences so the whole thing was a byproduct that familiarizes the conversation before it actually takes place. I was approached after a reading I did at one of these events and so essentially a professional link was made through looking for a community. What I would say to young writers is: find your people and devote yourself to their success, bind your miseries to theirs!

What I would say to young writers is: find your people and devote yourself to their success, bind your miseries to theirs!

9) How do you feel about the state of healthcare in the US at present?

Thank you for asking about this. I want to say off the top that I was able to get coverage because a) I was very lucky and b) I am privileged in ways that other aren’t. I don’t want to offer my experience as one that’s a sample for everyone. That being said the fact that I had to wait for thirteen hours to go to the emergency room, as I had no insurance, in order to get a bleeding tumor removed from my head shouldn’t exist as an eventuality.

Whilst finishing the book, the affordable care act became law. I thought it would be a throwback, I never anticipated that we’d be in this discussion of whether sick people deserve treatment. What’s happening is heartbreaking and designed to give wealthy people a tax cut. There are many megaphones now and I would encourage everyone to use those megaphones: online, social media, crowdfunding operations. Writers are in a really unique position and every successful book is a result of a well thought-out perspective, feeding a need.

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