Some twenty years ago while I was in college, a disheveled, confused man with wild hair and a grimace like a silent scream, approached me on the street. "Approached" is the wrong word, a euphemism. He lurched into my face and whispered, "Can you see me?" I was terrified, then ashamed. Ashamed because I knew the man had schizophrenia and that he was seeking my reassurance that he was, in fact, there. That I could see him: he existed. I knew all of this because a beloved member of my own family has schizophrenia. I have, in effect, grown up with this devastating illness, lurching from crisis to crisis, from emergency to emergency, struggling to care for my beloved older brother while at the same time carving out a life of my own. Often, my brother's madness was like a vortex that threatened to suck our whole family in, his schizophrenic break threatened to pull us all under. The seeds of my first novel, Can You See Me? were sown.
The book began as a short story, a flawed one. I just couldn't get it right, though the editor of the leading literary journal, TriQuarterly asked to see a revision. He got one--many years later--which was published as the lead story in TriQuarterly and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. That story later grew into my novel.
Some years back before beginning the novel, I also wrote a short memoir, Schizophrenia Through A Sister's Eyes, which appeared in Schizophrenia Bulletin, a publication of the National Institute of Mental Health. This too, was perhaps a preparation for the more challenging task of writing my novel. As I said in that essay, that day, many days before it, and many days since, I've missed my older brother with the persistent ache and longing usually reserved for a loved one lost through death. Although grieving for someone who has died is painful, some sense of peace and acceptance is ultimately possible. However, mourning for a loved one who is alive--in your very presence and yet in vital ways inaccessible to you--has a lonely and unreal quality that is extraordinarily painful.
Yet my novel Can You See Me? is not a memoir and is more than an act of mourning and grieving for my own lost brother. Much of the novel is imaginary, that is to say, invented from scratch or transformed by imagination and reinvented: Doren's secret world of Xehr, the voice inside his head of the Ivory Queen, the characters of Angel and Dom, Dr. Seaglove and Una, the landscape of the secret place and of Dr. Florence Solomon's jungle house. For me, to write a memoir of my own experience would be limited, even claustrophobic. The novel form, on the other hand, offers room to breathe, space to imagine into reality and transform it. What results, I hope, is a tapestry in which it is impossible and pointless to separate what stems from life and what springs from imagination.
Despite the recent memoir craze in the publishing industry, I'm drawn to fiction, both in my own reading and writing. For me, fiction is richer than memoir and provides deeper truths, more layers: the masterpieces of the form gather in one's mind and burrow in, they are bottomless.
In some cases, fiction is memory transformed and then lived again by writer and reader. In others, a writer who knows nothing of a world from his own life experience, imagines into that world, inhabits it, and makes it his or her own. (What would fiction be if writers could only write about what they "know?") Often, a novel demands more of the reader than a "true story" but offers more in return.
In Can You See Me? the rich imaginary world of Sarah and Doren's childhood later becomes the landscape of Doren's madness. While Sarah relinquishes their secret place, imaginary world and its language and people when she grows up, for Doren, this private haven becomes a way of life he