The Things that Escape
A Conversation with Marya Hornbacher on Exploring Obsessions Across Genres and the Dangers of Writing a Memoir Too Young
Marya Hornbacher published her first book, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia in 1998, when she was twenty-three, and it has since been published in sixteen languages and is taught in universities all over the world. Her second book, the acclaimed novel The Center of Winter, has been called "a stunning achievement of storytelling.” Marya's second memoir, Madness: A Bipolar Life, was published to immediate and enormous praise, hitting the New York Times Bestseller List and earning the remark in that publication, “Hornbacher is a virtuoso writer.” Her fourth and fifth books, Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the Twelve Steps and Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power were both published by Hazelden Publishers. The recipient of a host of awards for her journalism and books, a Pulitzer Prize and Pushcart Prize nominee, Marya frequently lectures at universities and other institutions around the country.
On February 25, 2016, nonfiction writer and novelist Marya Hornbacher, an Interlochen Arts Academy alumna, returned to campus for a master class and reading. Interlochen Review editors Makai Andrews, Sarah Arnett and Genevieve Harding sat down with Marya to discuss the restrictions of writing nonfiction, the way that age and distance play a role in writing, and her own personal journey as an author.
Sarah Arnett: So you wrote your first memoir, Wasted, when you were just twenty-three, which is really, really young for such a massively successful book. As an Interlochen alum, do you think your study here played a role in your entering the field at such a young age?
Marya Hornbacher: Definitely. The only creative writing study I did before 2016 was here. So I did not have an extensive education beyond high school. Interlochen shaped the way I wrote. It shaped what I wrote about. The guys who—at the time they were all guys who taught here—all wore baseball caps and had beards. So, the sort of Michigan guy aesthetic definitely influenced me. I don’t think that’s like an official school, but definitely I think when I left Interlochen I was so steeped in the practice of writing that it didn’t occur to me to do anything else. It just seemed the obvious route because I’d developed such a consistent practice of doing it here. And then there was just a book.
Genevieve Harding: How did experiencing huge success as a writer at a young age shape your writing going forward?
MH: I actually took a break after Wasted. I was really surprised. It’s very disorienting to get a lot of attention, for anybody I think, but it’s also just kind of surreal when you’re young because you’re not really finished cooking as a person. So suddenly you’re on the radio, and you don’t really know your own answers. You don’t know really who you are or what you’ve come to say, so there are a lot of flaws to that book, and there’s a lot of drawbacks to publishing young. A lot. For about seven years I published in literary magazines, but didn’t write another book until I was thirty. I took a long break.
Makai Andrews: You’re incredibly honest when you’re talking about your own personal experiences, and I was wondering if there are times when you were worried about family or friends reading it, and how you deal with the conflict of what you want to keep private and what you want to put out into the world?
MH: That’s a great question. My family and friends read everything before it goes to publication. I think there’s nothing that’s come out that has surprised them in the least. All the people in both memoirs had to sign legal releases for their names to be used, for one thing. Anyone who was portrayed unflatteringly there… you know, some names were changed, but it says that up front. But my family and friends saw very early drafts for Wasted and Madness.
I interviewed my parents for like twenty-five hours a piece. Just sat in a diner and interviewed them with a tape recorder. My training’s as a journalist and so I didn’t want to go in without three sources. You know, that classic three source rule. I didn’t want to be just the only source on events that a lot of other people were present for and had perspective on. It was just going to enrich the stories if I had those other points of view. So, in answer to your question, I don’t mind my family and friends seeing it because they already saw it. My aunt, when Madness came out, emailed me and she goes, “I hate it!” And I go, “Thanks…” And she says, “It’s just such a sad story.” And I’m like, “You knew the story. Did you like the book?” I mean, that’s the most classic writer thing. It’s just this terribly dark book, and I’m like “Did you like the book?” And she’s all, “No! It was awful! Terrible story!” They’re very honest with me as well, obviously.
But I mean, what goes into a book is not your life. It’s a story. You know, it’s the real story, it’s the true story, but it’s past tense. And so the story of my daily life and what’s private in my life never makes it into the books. That doesn’t mean I’m disguised— it just means everyone has a whole lot of facets and me in my pajamas is not a story. You know, sitting at home and making dinner is not a story. The event is useful only insofar as the context it has for other people, or else it’s just my problem. When I mess up in my own life it’s my problem. But if I’ve done something, socially or culturally, and I think it can matter to a reader, that’s fair game. It’s comfortable for me to make public what I think might be useful. The other stuff is boring.
GH: Both of your memoirs, as well as your novel The Center of Winter, deal with mental health/illness. How do you think differences of craft between fiction and nonfiction play a role in writing about painful experience?
MH: Oh, wow. That’s a great question. Wasted was such a chronological narrative. Center of Winter came out with three points of view, and so I was able to kind of explore three takes on mental experience. So that one was an investigation. It was more of a process of covering those characters and through them uncovering the possible experience. That’s what you can do with fiction—uncover the possible experience. You can uncover meaning that you don’t know and that you kind of trick over more than you are stating directly. And so those characters allow you that side door into experience, and it’s easier as a writer to write about your own experience because you know how it felt. As a writer of fiction, you’re trying to respect these characters and represent them accurately in the same way you’re trying to represent people in nonfiction accurately, but in fiction, you’re guessing. You’re hoping that, for example, Esau felt the way you say he felt. You hope his language is the way you think his language is. And so those characters become very real to you.
Writing about your own painful experience isn’t terribly painful, but it’s not cathartic either. You know everybody’s like, “Is it therapeutic for you to write those?” Oh no… those are awful experiences that I hate writing. Writing those two memoirs was really uncomfortable, but again it comes back to that I felt it was a utilitarian process. I felt it had merit as a cultural comment. So when you do it for a reason, it feels a little less oh my god I’m pulling my guts out for the hell of it, which I think would be hard. I think it would be harder to be like, I have to “cathart.” You know, that’s what therapy is for, for me. Not everybody feels that way, but therapy is where I get my stuff on the table and it’s messy. Memoir is where you shape it into a narrative which, of course, life does not have. It’s always going to be that false structure.
MA: Can I ask a question going off of that? Do you ever think that writing memoirs or personal nonfiction pieces could be dangerous for an author?
MH: Yeah. Too young. I think writing nonfiction about one’s own experience too young is dangerous. I think you lack, I certainly lacked, the insight that came later about the experience. It’s like, what’s your point of view? How close are you to the material? And that doesn’t mean that it’s happening right this minute, it means intellectually, creatively… can you step back far enough to have the insight that you need? The inexperience is one kind of insight, but it’s experiential insight, whereas you get a little distance (and that doesn’t mean you get older), and you have the ability to make the story a thing in itself and not your story anymore. And so I think when writing about personal experience too young it’s very difficult to differentiate between what’s story and what’s you.
SA: In addition to your published works, you’re also a very accomplished lecturer on a wide variety of topics, including mental illness, addiction, and previously eating disorders. These are all topics that you’ve also written about in memoirs and books. So I wanted to know how you feel lecturing about these subjects is similar to and different from the process of writing about them?
MH: I write my lectures, so I technically am writing. But writing for public speaking is really different. You’re writing also for fluidity of point. You have only have, say fifty to twenty pages, not three hundred to four hundred. So when you’re writing, even an article, you have more words to shape your argument, to shape your ideas. And it depends on the topic. You know, writing about mental illness experientially and reflectively is different than going up in front of a group of people who have mental illness or have experience with mental illness and trying to give them hope. As a speaker, you’re more of an advocate. You’re making an argument. You’re stating a position, whereas in a book—especially a memoir—you’re reflecting on an experience. You’re trying to give insight into life as life happens.
MA: I read your interview with Think Piece Publishing and in that you talk a lot about David Foster Wallace and how you could feel his pain while you read his fiction. And I’ve found too that a lot of the time when I’m reading your books I can physically feel the mindset you’ve been in, even from experiences as early as four years old. I was wondering if you could speak a bit on the craft decisions you make when you’re trying to convey emotions that happened so long ago?
MH: I think a lot of the decisions I make about craft have to do with language, especially when I’m trying to evoke a mood, an age or a mentality. Language, I think, is the most effective route to experience because that’s how I experience the world. I’m not a visual person, and I’m not a tactile person. I basically live in the front half of my forehead. So language is the way I can get into thought, and thought is the way I get to emotion. In those four-year-old passages, for example, I’m remembering how I thought more than how I felt. I remember feeling, as well all do, fear as a four year old. We remember four year old fear. But when I go back and try and speak the way I spoke, and think the way I thought, that’s more accessible to a reader than just saying “I felt fear.” It gives the reader a language to understand in a way that just stating emotion doesn’t.
That linguistic process of translating thought is super important. When you look in Madness, the periods of mania—oh my god, this always cracks me up. People are like “She was obviously manic when she wrote it!” I was manic the last time in like 2005. And so it was not a recent event, and it was not while I was writing Madness. I’m like, “You know, what’s funny about writers is they can write moods and not just be in them and translate experience.” One of the misperceptions of memoir is that you’re just regurgitating experience on the page without craft. Those mania passages have almost no punctuation, they’re very staccato. I read my work out loud when I’m writing it to make sure that it works out loud as well so that the reader can follow the rhythms and not just the words on the page. So those are the craft decisions I make… literally things to do with the length of the words I’m using. It’s all about the language there.
SA: In your work you often use irony, sarcasm, and dark humor while discussing your past experiences. How do you think the role of humor comes into play in your writing and how do you balance these aspects of the tone of your writing with the more serious subject matter?
MH: I think without humor to some of this, it would be terribly grim. The unique voice of any writer has to do with their view of how the world works. And I think the world is really grim and funny. I think experience is absurd. I love the absurdist playwrights because they crack me up. People will be like, “Why are you laughing at this grim, grim thing?” And I think it’s hilarious because it’s so true. Absurd humor isn’t something I think about coming in; it is really very much how I see the world. I see these experiences, the memoir experiences, as if they aren’t funny you die of it. I mean, really dark stuff is really dark stuff in your life, and if you can conquer it or if you can get help through it and make your way past it, you can look back and see the levity and also that humor of relief. Like oh shit, I fell off a building and I’m okay. There are a lot of elements to humor that come into my writing because the situations are so extreme that the humor has to balance it out.
GH: In an interview with New York Magazine you described writing Wasted as painful. Did you have a similar experience when writing Madness, and more specifically how did the writing experience differ between those two works?
MH: I’d never written a book when I wrote Wasted. So you’re learning to write a book by the seam of your pants. By the time I wrote Madness it was my third book and I’d been publishing in journalism and lit mags for years and years and years… I had a great time writing Madness because it’s funny. I laughed the whole way through. I mean that beginning scene… I had no idea that it was really grim. I’m, like, rolling when I’m writing it.
What I had when I wrote Madness was more craft control, so I wasn’t constantly struggling to articulate. I wasn’t constantly struggling with structure. With Wasted, not only was it an emotionally difficult experience, it was creatively difficult. There was so much anxiety in writing Wasted, not because it’s a tough topic but because I didn’t know how to write a book. So by the time I got to Madness, it was like I got to have a party writing it. I got to mess with structure, and I got to mess with time, and I was just in much better control of my writing and my writing process. And I think it’s a fairly well-known fact that I don’t like Wasted. I think it has it’s value I think it has it’s place, but as a book Madness is better.
MA: Going off of what you were saying about Wasted in 2014 you released a new afterword to go with the book and I was wondering if you could speak a bit about your decision to do that and what compelled you to do so?
MH: That was so funny. I’m aware that there was fuss and bother about Wasted. I don’t read it because I don’t need to read about myself all that much. I mean, we’re all self-obsessed to some degree anyway and I don’t need to have that reiterated for me by reading online crap. Wasted lacked insight, as I’ve said, and I wanted to go back and give it not just the insight of time and distance, but the insight of cultural change. Because when Wasted was written we didn’t have the word “triggering,” we didn’t have an internet, we didn’t have any of that and so we didn’t really know how they’d be read. There weren’t any books on eating disorders. There were no communities of eating disordered people feeding off of each other. There were little ones, but nobody knew about them because there was no internet. So there were little pockets of disorder here and there but they were very silent. So Wasted helped in that it got the conversation out there, but of course, it causes an enormous amount of pain for some people, and that’s a horrible regret. There was no way of knowing in 1996 when I wrote it that there was going to be an internet and that there was going to be social media. People who are very sick will seek out ways to be sicker… that was distressing to me to learn.
I wrote the afterword for two reasons. One, I wanted to speak against the fatalism of Wasted and the kind of hopelessness with which it ends. Because that’s bullshit, I just didn’t know it was bullshit. I was only three or four years into recovery when I wrote Wasted. Now I’m twenty years into recovery, and the point of view is different. And in treatment people are always like “You’ll always deal with this to some extent.” That’s their little chant. And so you go okay, I’ll always deal with this, and then you memorize it literally and neurologically and then you think you can’t get well. When you bust out of it and start getting well, it feels weird, but you also realize that you’re not the only one who could get well. When I wrote the afterward it was important to me to get the message across that you don’t need to live with this forever. Too few people, even now, are aware of that. Too few people know you can get better. The first draft of that afterward was so furious. In the draft, I said if you want to misuse the book, burn the fucking book. That’s not why I wrote it. My editor was like “This sounds really angry.” Yes… You have to simultaneously take responsibility for what you’ve written, but you can’t take responsibility for the whole cultural change. You can’t put so much weight on a book that, in the sea of books, isn’t that meaningful. And so when I wrote the afterword I was very frustrated, and it got toned down quite a bit.
GH: In your opinion as a memoir and nonfiction writer, which is more important: the factual truth or the emotional?
MH: The factual truth. The emotional truth is for fiction. It’s also important that the factual truth reflects the emotional truth in nonfiction, that it provide a portal for the emotional truth to come in. I don’t think that factual truth can be set aside when you’re writing nonfiction. It’s just not necessary. I’m thinking about John McPhee, who has the simplest quote in the world. He says, “You dig deeper, but you don’t make it up.” You don’t make it up. I have friends, writers, who are like, “Well, if the story is suited better with a purple sweater than a red sweater I’m gonna make it a purple sweater.” And I’m like, the story does not hinge on a purple fucking sweater. No matter what it is, the real has the interest and has the power of the fictive. And if you can’t find that in your first draft, find it in your fourth, because the real has innate power in the same way that the emotional truth, the fictive truth, does.
SA: I just have a follow-up question on that. In our own nonfiction workshop, we’ve talked about the differences between your own memories and those of the other people who experienced it. You touched on this a little bit earlier with your three sources…
SA: But how did you deal with that when different people’s memories conflicted?
MH: That’s super important with memoir. I think the best way to go into memoir and nonfiction is as an investigator. You’re not just telling stories; you’re interrogating stories. When I wrote Madness, in particular, I had six readers on it, all of whom had known me for over twenty years. And so one of them called me and was like, “In 2004 you didn’t have the dogs yet.” And I’m like shit, I remember the dogs. And she’s like “No dogs!” Those people can curb your memories and blanks. And going back through letters, journals, photos and whatever material you have, especially material of family members you have known since the get-go. That gives, if not corrective perception, then at least alternative perception, and that busts it up anyway. Memory’s super freaky and interesting, so you can be like, I remember it this way, but on the other hand Mom over here is like, that’s ridiculous, that’s not how it was. That in itself has an emotional truth to it about how we remember our lives. That’s an important piece that you can dig into.
SA: While reading Wasted and Madness, I was often startled by how vividly you were able to present such internal experiences and feelings on the page, especially when dealing with bipolar disorder and mania. I was wondering what aspects of craft are most helpful when you’re trying to make such emotionally complex material so accessible to a reader who hasn’t necessarily had those experiences?
MH: There’s not a lot of times I’ll recommend free association and stream of consciousness writing. Unless that’s in the first draft, it’s generally too many words, too many thoughts. It’s unedited. For example, in Madness, the states of mind that I was describing aren’t edited. They are nonstop language. They are tumultuous and flowing, and there is no pause.Writing about those emotional states it is relatively easy to just not stop writing what you’re thinking. So when I’m remembering those states of mania, I can remember bits of totally ridiculous and insane thoughts. You can tap the same state of mind without making yourself ill. It’s an important skill in writers to be able to tap states of mind that are not your own. Especially fiction writers, because you’ve got people to write about, lots of them, and none of them are you. All of them contain elements of your thought process, but none of them are you. In nonfiction, reflecting your own experience, you need to be able to tap what you remember of experience as well.
MA: This is closely related to what you were just talking about, but in The Center of Winter you write from three different character perspectives, and they all range a lot in age. I was wondering if you could speak a bit about that stylistic choice and maybe if one was harder to write from than the other?
MH: Claire—the mother—was hardest. I never had children, never wanted children, except for briefly when I was thirty when everyone wants to eat a baby because your hormones are so screwed up. So Claire was very hard for me, to remember what it was like for my mother. To remember personally, I couldn’t. But what she had told me about motherhood. I don’t know any mothers who have an easy time with motherhood, I mean motherhood’s really, really hard. Of course, I’ve never been a twelve-year-old boy with autism either. However, the two children were easiest for me to tap. Claire was very, very difficult because Claire was not, and is not, an accessible person. That’s the nature of Claire. That’s why her relationship with the children is so strained—because she’s not accessible, she’s not gentle. She doesn’t respond to need, essentially, and that’s very much not like me. But it was her. She was the hardest to write.
The story behind that book was that I wrote it badly like seven times, and then I threw the whole thing out—and there were literally like 3,000 pages. I had boxes and boxes and boxes of that draft, none of which had anything to do with the book that was actually written and published. None. The only thing that escaped was Kate. That was it; I knew her name. Everything else got trashed. And I started over, and once I’d written it wrong for five years I sat down and wrote the final product, almost beginning to end, in about eight months. That makes it sound like it was born in gold, but actually, it was more of having done it every wrong way I could possibly find. Ultimately, I needed to know the story from several angles. And that was the only way I could think to do it. I didn’t want to write it in third person, and I wanted to see what each of those individuals thought of it up close.
GH: Mental health and illness is a topic that isn’t really talked about in today’s society and is surrounded by connotations and stigma. How did that affect your approach to writing about your personal experiences with that topic at such a young age with Wasted, and does that still affect your writing today?
MH: The stigma and the connotations around mental health and mental illness are so complex and layered they almost aren’t worth responding to. All I can do with mental health and mental illness is state a case. My experience was like this. People I know, people I interviewed, their experience as they stated it was like this. It’s like beating your head on the wall to try and come up against stigma because it’s so deeply entrenched and it’s so pigheaded, and it’s so ill-informed that, what do you say? “You are being pigheaded and ill-informed.” And people go, “No I’m not.” And it’s a non-starting conversation. The reason I take up mental health as a topic is because the only way to do it is to erode it. And I think stories change minds. I think stories change perception. And even if I’m starting by preaching to the choir and saying mental illness is not what you think it is, I have to start with the choir. Those who will hear it. You know, books find their person. Books really find the person who needs them. The people who don’t need and don’t want those books won’t find them and won’t be changed by them. I’m working on the new book, which is again about mental illness, but it’s about health and how we recover. I’m not saying but you gotta recover, c’mon you gotta see that you’ll recover. It needs to go out to the people who go I can’t recover, and speak to them and actually go eh, you can probably make a very big change in your life.
MA: Going off of that, you were talking about your new book earlier a little bit as well… But I was wondering if you could speak on the process of writing a book that’s so extensive, having to do research with scientists and others outside of the fields you were used to talking to?
MH: Yes, writing it is fascinating and really, really fun and really intimidating. It’s intimidating because I am—maybe it’s generational—but I am still affected by gender norms. Maybe we all are to some extent. But I’m from a generation where, when I am all of a sudden a woman in an office where I have nineteen white men who know about science talking to me, I feel little. And so that’s my crap that I get to work with, because they’re not doing anything to make me feel little. They’re being respectful people. But I’ve only met two women in the field. What’s different to the book is actually my relationship to the topics—it feels big. And it is, I’m taking on a big chunk of material. And some days I think, I’m so screwed right now because I can’t handle this material, I don’t know what to do, it feels unwieldy. I have hundreds of notebooks full of notes and hundreds of hours of tape and interviews. And some days, there’s that little moment of clarity and then I can write. And I knock out five pages, or two pages, or whatever. When I’m writing, I feel comfortable. When I’m thinking about writing, I feel horrible. So I try not to think about writing too much. So it feels like a big project, but on the other hand, Everest is a big mountain and people do it all the time.
SA: In addition to your books and essays, you also write reviews on theater productions, like those from the Minnesota Playlist on your website. Can you talk a little bit about the differences between writing in these different formats, and how your process and approach is different for writing a review vs. a piece that would be more typically classified as creative writing, such as memoir?
MH: Theater and performance of all kinds are so much about subjectivity. Writing about them is so much about subjectivity—it is about an emotional, creative, intellectual, response. One of the pieces that might be interesting to look at there is called Resurrection, in which I specifically speak to the matter of subjectivity in writing about performance. Theater is a very social event. And I don’t write typically about music or dance except in profile. But theater I’ve studied so extensively and seen so much of and read so much of that my relationship to it has to do with dramatic literature, with performance, with elements of craft… it crosses a lot of boundaries. I write about theater because it challenges me immensely. I don’t write dramatic literature. I don’t know how. That seems big; if you want big, try to write a play. I can sit on the outside and love it, and be fascinated by it. It’s magic. I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t know what makes it happen, but it’s very real to me. So writing about it is a little bit like… well in Waiting, my most recent book, I write about spirituality. It’s a little bit like writing about the ineffable.
GH: In your essay published on Essay Daily, you talk about poetry being your first love. Can you talk a little bit about what caused your departure from poetry to prose?
MH: I’m a very bad poet. So it was a very easy decision. Again, social context: in 1991 through 1995 there was a slam poetry boom. It was not the only slam poetry boom, but it was one of the first, and I was very, very active in that movement. I went all over the country doing slam poetry. I realized in about 1995 that I was writing for the ear, and not for the page. So I wanted to try it for the page, and I realized very quickly that I’m a prose writer. I can write monologue. I’ve never written a play, but I have written a number of monologues that have been performed. I write prose poems, I write tiny essays, I write lots of things. That’s what I write about in that Essay Daily piece. I actually went through twelve or fourteen poems and turned them into prose pieces just to see what would happen. They’re so much better. They’re prose. It’s that what was I doing breaking lines up randomly, just because I liked the emphasis here? Because I couldn’t think of any other way to explain why I wrote poetry except that it moves me, but it moves me to read it. When I write, I just write crappy poetry. I mean it’s a sad, sad thing. But it’s true.
MA: In recent publications you’ve been focusing more on nonfiction and more journalistic styles, The Center of Winter being your only novel. I was wondering if there was a reason behind that, or why you’ve focused more towards nonfiction?
MH: I don’t know why I’ve tended towards nonfiction. There’s been a tumult of nonfiction in my head. I’m working on a new novel, and that will come out after this book of journalism. It’s again a very psychological investigation, but it has a great deal to do with the world in a way that a character-driven novel doesn’t always. And so this has to do with politics, it has to do with social issues, it has to do with lots of stuff… but it’s told through the point of view of one person. It’s so autobiographical it’s not even funny. None of it happened in my life, but, to speak to the emotional truth, the relationships, the emotional impact of events in my own life so feed into this novel that people would say, “Did this really happen?” And I’d be like “Not exactly fact wise… no.” That’s why it’s a novel and not nonfiction. I’d love to write it as nonfiction, but it never happened. So the novel will be out eventually. I’m about three-quarters of the way through draft two. So, we’re looking at, like, seventeen more drafts to go before I let it out of my house.
MA: Going off of that too, you were talking about how you were working on that book in addition to the other more research based one. Do you usually work on a lot of projects at once, or do you tend to focus more on one?
MH: I can’t focus for shit. Day to day, I have a very hard time focusing. And I’d love to pathologize and be like I have a disorder about focusing, but I actually think I’m just skittish brained. I think people really have this idea that a writer sits at her desk and generates. That is not how I work. Some days I generate, some days I dither. I’m always at my desk, but I do a lot of nothing at my desk. I do a lot of thinking at my desk. I do a lot of planning and outlining, blah blah blah. And sometimes I write a page! And sometimes that’s my day of work. I always, after those days, feel crummy. So when I’m stuck or when I’m sick of my topic, I work on something totally different. A separate genre. I work on fiction for a bit. It’s not about inspiration, it’s about keeping the generation going. Keeping the wheels moving.