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: wr