Q: Lying Awake takes place in a Carmelite monastery and is written from the point of view of Sister John of the Cross. Where did this idea come from?
A: I first got interested in the relationship between neurologic disorder and mysticism after reading Oliver Sacks' essay, “The Visions of Hildegarde,” around ten years ago. I wanted to write a novel on the subject right away, but sensed it would take a long time to research, so I put a brief mention of St. Teresa of Avila and her epilepsy on the first page of my novel, The Soloist, as a reminder to myself to pursue it later. Then, in 1994, I read another Oliver Sacks essay, “The Landscape of His Dreams,” about a man whose psychic seizures had led to his becoming an artist with a sense of religious mission, and that pushed me to give the subject a try. I chose the Discalced Carmelite Order because of their strong mystic tradition (St. Teresa of Avila was their founder, along with St. John of the Cross.) I named Sister John after St. Teresa’s co-founder because I have long admired his poetry, and because his approach to mysticism has much in common with the Zen Buddhist approach, which I'm more familiar with.
Q: Was it difficult for you to adopt this point of view?
A: Yes. I researched the Carmelites and their approach to contemplative spirituality for about a year before starting to write. Then I spent another year writing a first draft. It was so superficial and unconvincing that I threw it all away and went back to research, this time for two years. The difference this time was that I began meeting with cloistered Carmelites, and getting to know them (as opposed to reading essays about them). Then I started writing drafts that showed some promise. Still, the responses I got when I showed these drafts around were devastating. Altogether, the book took just under six years to write, and was rewritten so many times I stopped counting. It was the most painful process I've ever been through. For one year-long stretch, I was so discouraged that I couldn't face my desk anymore; the passenger seat of my car was the only place I could find that was quiet—and uncomfortable—enough that I had no choice but to work. I drive a Honda station wagon with a moon roof, and one of our cats became fond of sitting on it, right over my head, every day while I worked. The view was a constant reminder of how I felt. The last draft was the payoff. One week after I had decided to abandon the project, I was offered a residency at the MacDowell colony. I went there intending to lick my wounds and start thinking about a new book, but instead, after a few days of deep silence, I saw what the problem with Lying Awake had been all along, and started all over again from page one, this time with a big smile on my face. It was the best experience of my writing life.
Q: Why did you choose to write about a nun, rather than a monk or priest?
A: At the heart of Sister John’s conflict is the struggle between the drive to reach upwards, toward the heights of mystical experience (which has the potential of becoming a selfish pursuit) and the call to reach outwards, toward others, and put self-interest aside. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I suspect that female religious experience this conflict more strongly than their male counterparts. If you’re a monk and you wish for more complete solitude to pursue mystical insights than even monastic life has to offer, you can become a hermit and tradition will support you—perhaps even favor you. Nuns, on the other hand (at least, in the orders I’m familiar with) are strongly Marian in tradition and feel a greater obligation to participate in community life. I felt that a nun whose experiences were creating a distance between herself and others—even if it meant growing closer to God—would struggle more than a monk in the same position.
Q: Was your family very religious? Did your upbringing at all affect the writing of Lying Awake?
A: My family was/is non-religious. Until I read the Bible on my own in my late twenties (because someone told me the stories were good) all I knew about Western religion was what I’d learned from watching Charlton Heston movies and A Charlie Brown Christmas Special. I remain an agnostic, but the journey I took with Sister John affected me profoundly. It made me realize that my secular assumptions about truth, goodness, and reality are just that—assumptions which I cling to as a matter largely of faith, not because they are objective facts. It made me feel that there is very little distance—if any—between those who believe in God and those who believe in the value of human love, mercy, and dignity. When I saw that Sister John’s struggle to maintain her faith in God was not so different than my own struggle to maintain my faith in the human spirit, then writing from her point of view became much easier.
Q: Some people have made a connection between brain tumors and visions—people in hospitals affected with brain problems have reported visions. Do you see a connection there?
A: I can’t see how anyone could fail to see the connection there—but as I hoped to illustrate in the book, a connection between the central nervous system and religious experience need not invalidate the experience. If it did, then we would have also have to invalidate vision, hearing, taste, touch, memory, and imagination! The question of whether the experiences of patients with neurologic abnormalities are “real” or not seems pointless to me; Van Gogh clearly suffered from neurologic abnormalities of some kind, but we don't declare his work invalid. The questions which interest me are: how should one respond to these experiences? How does one go about judging the difference between an experience which represents a distortion or an obscuring of perception, and one which represents a magnification or clarification of it? How are these experiences affecting the person having them, and how she relates to others? What is more important—intensity of personal experience, or the health and balance of interpersonal experience?
Q: Do you believe in visions/miracles? For example, visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes or Medjugoria have haunted people for generations. What do you make of those?
A: Since I’m not religious, I do lean towards a psychological explanation rather than a supernatural one. But who am I to say? I don’t even know how e-mail works. If I was religious, though, I like to think I would be committed to finding the sacred in the ordinary rather than chasing after the extraordinary; to searching for the divine in all of us rather than a chosen few; and to cultivating a sense of mystery and wonder at all times, rather than waiting for mysterious things to happen. In other words, I hope I would be someone like Sister John.
Q: You play the cello every day. How long have you played?
A: I’ve been playing for thirty-three years, although I did take a few years off when I began writing full-time. I play every day, for at least an hour. While I do some wandering through the repertoire, my main interest is (and has always been) the six unaccompanied suites by Bach. They’re my breviary, you could say. I play through at least one of them every day, and just as the events of my life affect the way I play them, the suites have affected the way I live. In my opinion, each of these pieces represents an archetypal journey of the soul—like the psalms—but I don’t think Bach consciously intended that. I think he couldn’t help himself; nearly everything he wrote seemed to come out as a musical representation of either sacrifice,
redemption, faith, love, or aspiration. One of the most unforgettable experiences of my life was being invited to play (briefly) with YoYo Ma and Emanuel Ax at Alice Tully Hall, during one of their chamber music concerts. YoYo let me play his Stradivarius, the cello that Jacqueline Dupree owned before she succumbed to multiple sclerosis. I was so nervous the two nights before the concert that I couldn’t sleep and my back went into spasms from the tension, so I spent the whole time lying in a hotel bathtub with the cello on my stomach and the music taped to the shower curtain, practicing and trying not to have a full-blown panic attack. After those 48 hours of misery, I was so delirious that the concert was a breeze
Q: Tell us about your work in prisons with incarcerated youths.
A: Three years ago I began teaching a writing class, as a volunteer, to boys housed at Central Juvenile Hall in East Los Angeles. My students are between the ages of 15–18, and are all being tried as adults. Most of them are facing life sentences in adult prison. Virtually all of my students come from homes where they received inadequate, inappropriate, or ineffectual attention from adults. They are generally not used to expressing themselves verbally, or being treated as people with anything valuable to say. Their loneliness and confusion stays bottled up until it becomes unbearable, and then it gets expressed in ways that only make everything worse. Now that they are incarcerated, they find themselves in an environment where maintaining a “front” of emotional detachment is considered a matter of survival. They often feel that the only way they can be heard or noticed at all is through negative, destructive behavior. These young people are starved for adult reassurance and guidance, they are hungry for encouragement, and they long for a means of expressing themselves. When they get those things, they give us reason to hope. I’m going to include a student’s essay here to give you some idea of the kind of writing I get to see every week:
People only know things about me that I let them know. No doctor could
determine how I feel unless I tell him. They don’t know who I really am. They
don’t know how I really feel. Only I, and I alone really know the truth. I
feel like a child trapped in a room. Every day I stare through the little
keyhole in the door, watching everyone else enjoy life. I see them come and
go freely, I watch them grow. But still I am a child. The room darkens the
sunlight, and is able to keep me in the shadows, away from the sun’s
beautiful rays. I feel alone, no one to talk to, to share feelings with, to
let me know I’m alive. No one but me, a mere child. Everything that I ever
wanted is on the other side of that door and it's all up to me if I really
want it or not. Do I really want this or should I crawl back into the shadows
and hide, crying, hoping I’d just die? Scared to see the truth, only to be
stuck again, a mere child trapped in his room watching everyone else but me
Q: Can you talk about the gap between the real versus the ideal—that theme seems to come up again and again in your writing.
A: Anyone who has reached toward an ideal knows what it feels like to fall short of it. I’m especially drawn to stories, either true or fictional, about people who really did commit themselves to a goal, and gave it their very best effort—well beyond what most people give of themselves—and still failed. Where do they go from there? What do they tell themselves to keep moving? Do they learn anything from it? Are their spirits crushed, or do they grow in response to the challenge? One classic example of an answer to these questions would be Robert Scott’s letter from the tent in Antarctica where he and his companions died. I suppose I am drawn to these stories because I fail a lot, and get so discouraged that I sometimes feel there is no point to even trying. Gandhi, who saw many of his dreams go unfulfilled, said it best: “Everything is futile, but we must do it anyway. Full effort is full victory.” I'll probably spend the rest of my life trying to explore, through writing and everything else I do, why I believe so strongly in that idea, yet find my belief in it so inadequate sometimes.
Q: What is next on the horizon for you?
A: I never talk about my failures while they are occurring; only afterwards.
From the Trade Paperback edition.