Anish Majumdar on Writing About Mental Illness, Fiction as Truth + Giveaway of THE ISOLATION DOOR

IsolationDoorCover-300dpiPlease join us in welcoming Anish Majumdar to the Ball today! His first novel, THE ISOLATION DOOR, is the story of Neil Kapoor, 23, who is desperate to create a life beyond the shadow of his mother’s schizophrenia. Years of successive relapses and rehabilitation’s have forced his father into the role of caretaker and Neil into that of silent witness. But there is no light within this joyless ritual, and any hope for the future rests on finding an exit.

Amidst her latest breakdown, Neil attends drama school in pursuit of a role that might better express the truth of who he is. What started as a desperate gambit becomes the fragile threads of a new life. A relationship blooms with Emily, and each finds strength – and demons – in the other. New friendships with Quincy and Tim grow close and complex. But the emotional remove needed to keep these two lives separate destabilizes the family. Neil’s father, the one constant in the chaos, buckles under the pressure. Enlisting the aid of an Aunt with means and questionable motives, Neil plies ever-greater deceptions to keep the darkness at bay. But this time there will be no going back. As his mother falls to terrifying depths a decision must be made: family or freedom?

Anish has offered to send a signed copy of The Isolation Door to one lucky commenter. Details about the giveaway at the end of this post!

Thank you so much for being with us today, Anish.

With The Isolation Door being inspired by your own struggles with your mom’s mental illness growing up, what would you say were some of the challenges, and also some of the rewards, that fictionalizing this story brought?

When I first began writing what would eventually become The Isolation Door, the prospect of actually sharing my past with others seemed absurd. At the time I was twenty-five years old, and running away from my mother’s schizophrenia, as well as the havoc it had wreaked on our family emotionally, financially, and in a thousand others ways was the strongest motivator in my life. When a girlfriend asked too many questions about my past, or when a friend began to worry a little too much about my well-being, it was time to cut ties. Eventually I ended up completely alone in a loft in Montreal, with only my demons and pet cat for company.

I didn’t want to end up that way. So, if only to prove that the past didn’t own me, I began writing about it. Very quickly I realized that my mind had blacked out huge swathes of the past in a kind of protective measure. But the emotions surrounding it all remained, and by weaving this emotional truth within the narrative of a family like (but not exactly) my own, I was able to develop the world of this novel. Because of the perspective writing fiction affords, the initial anger and disappointment I felt towards my mother grew into something more. I began to feel a deep kinship with her that went beyond the disease, and slowly, through the years it took to re-write this book and get it into publishable shape, I began to empathize with her.

In describing your pre-writing life, when you were an actor, you’ve written that you eventually realized that your “entire life had been predicated on a fiction.” It seems fictions has played two roles in your life: one to hide, another to express. What brought about this drastic change?

When real life becomes a place fraught with pain and disappointment, fiction can be the truest thing in it. I was 9 when my mother first took ill and succumbed to the voices in her head, and the great comfort of being a child is that you don’t question the state of affairs. But by the time I reached my teens, the differences between my family and those of my peers had become all too obvious. Normal mothers didn’t fly into rages and attack strangers over imaginary slights. Normal mothers didn’t take on the persona of an entirely different person and look at her family like malevolent strangers.

The unspoken rule in our family was to pretend like everything was fine, so invention wasn’t a foreign skill to me. In high school I began acting in Shakespeare plays, using this skill in a different way, and it was truly transformative. Suddenly, all of the emotions I couldn’t express at home could be unleashed within the guise of a different character. Through fiction, I could express emotional truth, and not only did people not back away with horrified looks on their faces, but they actually praised me! Looking back on it now, I honestly think that discovering acting kept me sane through the worst years of my mother’s illness.

The road to publication is an unpredictable one. What were some of your twists and turns along the way?

When I finished an early draft of the book in 2006, the only thing I knew was that New York City was the heart of publishing. So, with nothing more than a duffel bag and my laptop, I moved to the city from my hometown of Montreal and worked a succession of jobs found on Craigslist while sending out query letters to literary agents. After months of this, an agent at William Morris Endeavor expressed interest, and I believed, in my total naïveté, that fame and fortune was now just a heartbeat away. Unfortunately, after a year of submitting the book to editors, my agent failed to lock down a book deal and we were back at square one. Worse, he had a list of changes to the story that I needed to make in order to try our hand again.

I spent a year trying to force out a new version of the book. With my wife sleeping next to me I plugged away on my laptop, not caring about inspiration, or confronting the fact that I believed the book to be finished and any changes to be unnecessary. The result was a Frankenstein monster of a manuscript that lacked the magic of a truly gripping story. I didn’t know what to do. Many times, I considered walking away from it all.

Almost by accident, a moment of clarity came upon me in 2010 that opened the door to getting the book published. I looked at the story in front of me, and realized that trying to recapture the feelings behind the initial draft was pointless because my life had moved on. The Anish Majumdar who wrote the first draft of the book desperately wanted to believe that a better life was possible, but didn’t really know if it could be grasped. The Anish of 2010 had found the love of his life, discovered inner reserves of strength, and wasn’t afraid to fight tooth-and-nail for what he believed in.

When I stopped looking backwards for inspiration and started drawing it from the life which surrounded me, the magic was there again. In 2011, I finished the version of the book which was published by Ravana Press in February of this year. On November 25, Lake Union Publishing, an Amazon imprint, will be releasing a second printing of the book. While the process towards publication was a painful and emotionally draining one, the finished work truly gets to the core of what I wanted to express, and really seems to be striking a chord with readers. I am grateful for it all.

In addition to writing, you also speak regularly to high school and college students about “the importance of owning your own story and spreading awareness” about the millions of families dealing with mental illness. How do you define owning your own story to those struggling with doing so?

We’re taught from a very young age to project an image of success. Everything’s great, everything’s going well, and if it’s not, keep it to yourself because showing weakness will only make things worse. By the time I reached high school my home life was a mess, but I didn’t have the confidence to visit the guidance counselor and seek out help. I didn’t have the courage to tell a friend about what I was going through. By internalizing all of these things, I shifted the blame onto myself. The end result was a level of self-destruction that frightens me to this day. I showed up at school dances high on acid and reeking of booze. I got suspended for smoking cigarettes and joints in the bathroom. I shoplifted, skipped school 3 out of 5 days by my senior year, and rebuffed any attempts by loved ones to help me.

There was so much pain and confusion in those years, and I think the heart of the problem comes from judging those feelings instead of finding a way to deal with it in a positive way. My work with students is all about showing them that real strength lies with the one who is honest about himself, the one who casts off society’s mask and shows his or her true face. Maybe they won’t get there today or tomorrow. But my hope is that by sharing my story, those in similar circumstances will be inspired to seek out a new way to deal with life’s hardships without resorting to self-harm.

And finally, what is your advice for aspiring writers?

It will take longer than you think. There will be times when you will want to give up. But ultimately, it’s about listening to the true voice within, and strengthening it in the face of a society that will do everything in its power to stop you. Fight on, learn something new every day, and enjoy yourself. What a wonderful thing to be able to do!

GIVEAWAY! Comment on this post by noon EST on Friday, August 15th, to enter to win a signed copy of The Isolation Door (U.S. only, please). Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter for extra entries—just mention that you did so in your comments. We’ll choose and contact the winner on Friday. Good luck!

AnishShot-DBAbout Anish:

As a child growing up in Montreal, Canada, Anish Majumdar’s first creative writing lessons came courtesy of his mother, a former English teacher. Witnessing her struggle with schizophrenia had a profound impact and inspired The Isolation Door, his first novel. His non-fiction work, appearing in many publications, has garnered Independent Press Association Awards for Feature Writing and Investigative Journalism. His short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He lives with his wife, son, and a growing menagerie of pets in Rochester, NY. To learn more about his work, visit his website or find him on Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus.

 

The following two tabs change content below.

Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novel CHASING THE SUN (Lake Union/New Harvest, June 2014), about a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife's kidnapping in Lima, Peru. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Visit her online at nataliasylvester.com

This article has 14 Comments

  1. Thank you for joining us, Anish. What a powerful story — both yours and your novel’s. I just learned that a high school classmate had a mother who was a raging, unpredictable alcoholic — her life was about coping with that but you’d never have known it. Our public facades hide so much truth.

    1. Thanks Lisa! In many ways, I’ve found that my life has been a slow process of shedding the public facade and finding a way to live truthfully. Definitely had some huge stumbles along the way, but I do relish every half-step forward. Thanks for reading!

  2. Anish, thank you for joining us here at The Ball. I’m fascinated by your novel and MUST READ! I have book releasing in January 2015 about an artist whose schizophrenia ultimately destroys her dreams of becoming renown (though she really does anyway), called Rodin’s Lover. I don’t have personal experience with it, but I spent quite some time interviewing health care professionals and the a friend whose father was schizophrenic as well.

    1. Heather, thanks for writing, and congratulations on your book! I’ve added it to my “to-read” list for 1/15. It’s really nice to see the steadily growing level of interest about mental illness and those affected.

  3. I was fascinated by your interview. Mental illness is woefully underestimated as to the pain and devastating effect it has on the sufferers and those close to them. Having suffered from agoraphobia for 35 years, dealing with the stress of the condition and pretending to be normal, going to work every day, thinking they would lock me up if I was found out, took a tremendous toll. Only years later did I find out that I wasn’t alone, found a support group, a therapist and medication to allow me to live an almost normal life. The more mental illness is discussed, written about and brought out into the light, the less frightening it becomes, the less ashamed we have to feel and hopefully, the more help will be available. Unfortunately, more and more mental health facilities are being closed down in our area, which I find impossible to understand. Thank you for putting your book out there – it’s.been added to my TBR list!

    1. Hannelore, thanks so much for sharing your experience. You know, during the worst years of my Mom’s illness it was impossible to believe that she’d ever get to a better place. And yet, about 8 years ago, she did find a doctor who put her on a combination of medication and therapy that seems to have stabilized the worst of her symptoms. While her schizophrenia will always be something that needs to be watched, I am so happy to see that my parents are at a place where they can enjoy life again, instead of living in constant fear of the next relapse. Congratulations on taking such courageous steps in order to find a happier life. It’s wonderful to hear these types of success stories, and I do think that each one helps to change the perception of mental illness in our culture, as well as those who struggle with it.

  4. Congratulations and best wishes on your release of this compelling story. Writing this must have been painful but necessary and your courage is to be admired as well as your talent and perseverance.

  5. The Isolation Door sounds heartwrenching and unforgettable. Real life is hard to depict and write about but your book would be memorable and important. I was born in Montreal and spent many years living there. Wishing you much happiness, contined success and a life of enjoyment and adventures.

Comments are closed.