What a joy it is to share with you, our readers, this N10 interview with poet and novelist Jill Bialosky as we mark the publication of her newest book, Asylum.
1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?
Isabel Archer in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. I’ve read this novel at various stages of my life and I feel as if I know Isabel. She’s so human. I love her complexity, her pathos, her inner life and moral conscious, her love of art and literature, her kindness, seeking to do the right thing, even as it jeopardizes her own chances for happiness.
My mother died recently, and more and more I feel her courage, her beauty, her misfortunes, her losses, her selfishness and selflessness, which weigh on me. She’s informed so much of my being, for better or worse. It’s strange to think of one’s mother as a character in life. But I choose you, Mom!
2. A line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?
“Humankind can’t bear very much reality” is a favorite of mine from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
3. The story, book, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time? What did it teach you?
Oh, wow. This is a tough one. I hated reading Moby-Dick when it was assigned in an American Lit class I took in college. I was bored by the details of whaling, and the characters (not one main female character) refused to capture my imagination. Later, I read parts of it again when I was working on my memoir History of a Suicide, after Edwin Shneidman, a renowned clinical psychologist, suicidologist, and thanatologist, recommended it to me—he saw the novel as a discourse on suicide and survival. Now I want to read it again full-on, and I plan to, through that lens.
4. Best part of the day?
Morning coffee at my desk.
5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?
Yoga, gardening, reading, knitting, not necessarily in that order.
6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?
Well, now with Covid and the state of the world, I find myself addressing every email with “I hope you are well during these uncertain (unsettling) days.” Or some variation. I saw on Twitter that poet Jana Prikryl offered this substitution from Emily Dickinson, which I may cut and paste into my emails: “I hope that you have Power and as much of Peace as in our deep existence may be possible. To multiply the Harbors does not reduce the Sea.”
7. What’s your current obsession?
Listening to classic works on audio. Covid has forced us all to readjust our lives in seclusion. In late March, especially, listening to classic novels on audio when taking my daily walk provided welcome release from my own mental space. I listened to three of E. M. Forster’s great novels, Howards End, Room with a View, and Passage to India, and was completely transported. What brilliance. Having those novels to return to daily saved my spirit in those difficult days. I also listened to Nicole Kidman reading To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. Sublime. Now I’m listening to The Golden Bowl by Henry James and seeing things in it I hadn’t before. Listening, as a writer, is so interesting. The sentences stand out, almost more than they do when reading. Perhaps it’s because I’ve become something of a speed-reader to survive as an editor, too fast, whereas listening allows me to pay attention to each word. Next up is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. I heard the audio is great, and I can’t wait!
8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?
Early in my career, I must confess that a former superior colleague gave me a copy of The Elements of Style. A lifesaver.
9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
The importance of kindness. Of course, it was something that all young girls were raised to employ, and though at times, under pressure, angry, I may have lapsed, it continues to be a guiding principle I aspire toward in all my interactions.
10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.
I wish I knew! Embarrassingly, I listened to a podcast by Esther Perel during one of my walks on lockdown, and she said to one of the couples she was helping, “Love is a verb.” Meaning it is an action, ongoing, even when we think it may have vanished, or at least that’s how I took it to mean. I like that.
Finally, is there a short poem or passage from Asylum that you’d like to share with our readers?
Sure! Here I offer the prelude:
It was like the music of an afflicted bird,
a screech owl from the underworld, querulous,
seductive, a fugue of death. Or so you thought—
taunting its refrain, one sound imitating the other,
as if it had entered your spirit & was your own voice.
It took years, maybe decades, before you realized
you had gotten it wrong: it was the fugue of life.
Read on . . .