Writing Humor into an Illness Memoir: An Interview with Mike Scalise
Interview conducted by Clinton Crockett Peters
Mike Scalise has done the impossible: written an illness memoir, his debut, The Brand New Catastrophe (Sarabande 2017), that is somehow hysterical. When Scalise was 24, a ruptured pituitary tumor left him with the hormone disorder acromegaly. Afterwards, Scalise had to navigate an alien, hormonal world where a heated conversation was potentially lethal because of the stress-inducers his body couldn’t attack. Scalise’s mother makes a kind of comedic, co-diseased sidekick with her constant erupting heart conditions. If this were television, a mother-focused spin-off would be in order. But beyond the humor, The Brand New Catastrophe is an exceedingly well-written, taut, moving narrative-with-essaying-spice of how people define themselves by the stories they choose to tell. Scalise, from the book’s first pages, widens his lens to include story-telling. And so the book becomes the bizarre story of the storymaking of bizarre illness.
Mike Scalise’s writing has appeared in AGNI, Ninth Letter, The Paris Review, Wall Street Journal, and other places. He has received fellowships and scholarships from Bread Loaf, Yaddo, and the Ucross Foundation, and was the Philip Roth Writer in Residence at Bucknell University. The Brand New Catastrophe won the Center for Fiction’s 2014 Christopher Doheny Award, and The New York Times called the book “a winning literary debut.” Because Scalise was so adept at humor I wanted to talk with him about how he did it, and while we were at it, we discussed his book, Sarabande, and his mom. Mike was kind enough to answer some of my questions through the great digital nebula.
Clinton Crockett Peters: One of the many things I love about your book, The Brand New Catastrophe, is your acknowledgement of the many varied tropes of medical catastrophe narratives. Did you plan from the start to write not just about your medical catastrophes but writing about medical catastrophes? How did that angle evolve?
Mike Scalise: By total accident. I had written a lot of the book, but in a wholly disconnected way. It existed as a rash of stories—about being sick, about becoming an adult, about having a family—that had no binding perspective whatsoever, and I couldn’t seem to find one. I’d read all these books like Stop-Time [by Frank Conroy] and Speak, Memory [by Vladimir Nabokov] that shaped themselves so assuredly, where the act of remembering seemed to kick off a grand, thematic tumble through the author’s lives that was so satisfying and thrilling to read. I tried that, and it didn’t work. Nothing did. So at a peak point of frustration I went back to the very first thing I wrote about my illness: this kind of acerbic manual for how to exist while sick. It wasn’t good, like at all, but there was a confidence to the writing and thinking then that I didn’t have anymore. So I kept one line from it—the first line of the book—and gave myself the task of showcasing that confidence, and putting it on trial, in hopes of determining where it came from, and more importantly, why it went away. That’s where those takes on tropes came from.
CCP: If potential readers should know anything about this book that might not be obvious from the cover, I believe it’s that The Brand New Catastrophe is often hilarious. Can you talk about crafting the humor of this book?
MS: The smart-sounding answer is that I’ve always gravitated toward writing that was built with humor in its DNA. I rarely go in for funny-for-funny’s sake stuff, or jokey storytelling, but man: writers who know how to use humor as a dramatic vehicle to get characters (and a reader) to a more complex dramatic moment? Yes please. Every time I sit down to write I think about Lorrie Moore, or Matthew Klam, or Donald Antrim, or more recently, Rebecca Curtis and Alexandra Kleeman—writers who know the capabilities of humor to unlock something a little more prickly and undefinable.
The more honest answer? I joked a lot while all this was happening, so if I didn’t write about that, the memoir wouldn’t have been truthful. I think humor’s a natural place for me to run to, socially, but when it comes time to write I know I need to look past it to the more thorny and uncertain aspects of my life that manifested the humor.
CCP: How many times have you had to discuss Andre the Giant when talking about your book or your tumor? How do you navigate parts of your book that you have gotten tired of telling or maybe have just told so much it’s hard to tell again?
MS: With the book, I find I don’t talk about Andre much, which is surprising but welcome. Kind of burnt out on him, to be honest, which I think is good and healthy. Outgrowing obsessions is a good sign, I think.
As for the other stories in the book, I keep waiting for that horrible, I Heart Huckabees, “tell the Shania Twain story” meltdown to come, but it hasn’t happened quite yet. Maybe it’s because when I return to these stories now, it’s got the feeling of a commemorating a time that doesn’t seem connected to me anymore, so in that sense it mimics nostalgia, which can be fun.
CCP: What was the odyssey like selling the book to a publisher?
MS: Very long and very painful, but with a great ending I have not tired of yet.
CCP: The folks at Sarabande are pretty all right aren’t they? (Or maybe they’re not? You can tell me. I won’t let them know ;-)).
MS: Hell yes they are. It’s getting pretty boring, me praising them, and my experience with them, which was without a doubt the greatest professional experience I have taken part in. Ariel, my primary editor on BNC, has been such a necessary (and smart, and hilarious, and firm) voice in the book’s ultimate shape, and she’s been so devoted to getting it in people’s hands, that I can’t understand how there was a time where she and I weren’t working together on it. Same with Kristen, whose aptitudes for visuals and wisdom with the process were so key. Plus, she spent most of the pre-publication time with BNC finishing her own incredible book (Imagine Wanting Only This, Pantheon), so it’s been nice to have someone to compare memoir notes with. Love that whole crew.
CCP: Your mom comes off as quite the character, hard-willed, zany, sympathetic. When and how did you decide that she needed to have a strong presence in the book?
MS: I’m not sure I was the one who decided anything there. Early versions of the book were a more journalistic look at acromegaly and its history, from this limited first person — Mary Roach/Tom Bissell-ish — perspective, but my relationship with my mother had too much gravitational pull for that approach to succeed. I had to go where the life was, which meant memoir, and my strange relationship with my mother, and our illnesses, and what they meant to one another. As for her character, I don’t think it’s occurred to her to be any other way.
CCP: Thinking about narrator persona, how long before you got the right balance between sympathy and self-deprecation? One of the many compliments I would give this book is that I never felt like it was “woe-is-me.” Did that take effort or was it a natural move?
MS: It was always there in some sense, but it took some calibration. Woe-is-me was never a problem in the manuscript, but unripened anger was, especially in the early drafts. I realized there was a difference between the stories we tell ourselves to endure a difficult period, and what those stories need to become in order to exist as literature anyone wants to read. Those early, angry stories—often casting yourself at the center of the drama, often unequivocally right—are necessary, I think, even in their falseness. They’re like band-aids you need to wear until a wound heals. But once it does, it’s important to throw those stories away and start to look more honestly at the past from a healed perspective. Once I started doing that, my mistakes became clear, and themes of my own utter idiocy emerged, and I knew I had to dig in to those.
CCP: Last, I think you have several strongly written characters besides your mom, including several doctors and your partner, Loren. Which character was the hardest or strangest to draw? What obstacles did you have in crafting these nonfiction characters or what was unexpected that came up when writing them?
MS: Writing Loren was the biggest challenge, and for a number of reasons. The first is that she’s a private person, and didn’t always feel comfortable appearing in the work. The second was that she was, as I depicted in the book, a beacon of unending support, which is rarely dramatically interesting. Third was that I love her more than anything on this earth and hope desperately to preserve my marriage with her. So all of those things combined into a very long negotiation process, both on the page and off. I wanted to honor her privacy and stay sensitive to her discomfort, but also render honestly the rare, rich moments where dents in the armor appeared for both of us. That took a lot of work, and communication with Loren, and debates about her version of the events versus my own, etc. Ultimately I think it’s been quite good for us, but that does not mean I would ever want to do it again, if that makes any sense.