May 2015

Katie Roiphe


An Interview with Anne Roiphe

Anne Roiphe is the author of Ballad of the Black and Blue Mind and eighteen previous works of fiction and nonfiction. She writes for Tablet Magazine and was a columnist for the New York Observer for many years.

Your new book, Ballad of the Black and Blue Mind, has an unusual structure. Why did you choose it?

I wanted to create a dance with the characters moving individually and in some repeated patterns, to form a portrait of a moment and a place and a mood. There are precedents for this form. Sherwood Anderson's Winesberg, Ohio is just such a dance. The characters are linked by the town. Their individual stories arise from the place they live and the common woes they share. It's a collection of stories, but it's also a novel, of a kind. So I wasn't working with a very original "crack the form" idea, but rather an old one. A novel is a story that reveals its characters to be swimming in a particular soup, drowning or surviving in a particular time and place, and linked to the other characters and to us by our common fates. In this kind of novel the arc of the story is formed by the questions the author is asking, intended to reveal the thing that hurts beneath our daily lives.

Do you think psychiatry can still help people? Are your characters helped or cured by their treatment?

A while ago it was hoped that pharmacology would cure the human heart and chase away all nightmares. And it has helped, enormously. It has been a good tool to use, but the mind can evade the chemical solution and many may need the human voice to accompany their travel along the treacherous routes of fear and desire, rage and helplessness that beset us from time to time. Psychiatry is not a perfect discipline but it has grown in its knowledge and its habits and can assist many people to avoid their own traps, their own worst fears. It can work along with medicines from the pharmacy -- or not -- but it offers, for those who can bear the kind of self-knowledge it brings, the possibility of a new land and a better chance of finding some happiness in this world of bad dreams.

The word "cure" is better applied to pneumonia than to psychic grief but there is no question that the struggle with what one has done and thought and the why of it all brings a kind of peace to the brain and can lead to love where love had not been and to a kind of rueful joy where there had been no joy before.

In the middle of the last century there was perhaps too much hope placed on psychiatry and psychoanalysis. It was not as easy or as scientific as was hoped. And psychiatrists and analysts were over-valued as if they were the new priests of some True Religion -- that was ridiculous. Nevertheless, as the dust now is beginning to settle we can see that much of psychiatry, in tandem with pharmacology or by itself, can actually help many people. The doctors, medical or psychological, who practice in their solitary offices are working each day to add just this much understanding, this much more freedom from the inner tangle, just this small bit of self-knowledge that will be welcomed and used by a patient in need, and so many of us are in need and will be in need until the actual Messiah arrives, at which time the psychiatrists will lie down with the chemists and the chemists will lie down with the poets and the poets will live in penthouses on Fifth Avenue and the offices of the psychiatrists will be turned into aquariums for rare fish.

Are the characters in Ballad of the Black and Blue Mind patterned after real people? Your husband was a psychoanalyst -- is he a character in this book?

There are no real people or real stories in this book. I suppose there are paste-ups, stories I have heard about people, mingled with other stories, redressed by me, made as characters are made to do whatever the will of the author demands. I have written memoir and autobiography and it's a very satisfying way to write. You can take revenge on all sorts of people who don't get a chance to tell their side of the story because it's your book. You can celebrate or carp as you wish. But this is a novel and nothing in it is real except perhaps my mood, my worry about who we are and who our children have become. But that worry is general and the specifics here are story only. When I am writing a novel my eye is focused outward and I use what I know of the world but not the exact specifics because I can invent better ones, or at least can hope to do so.

I have known many psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, and I suppose a fragment here or there, an apartment I knew, a piece of cruelty I once overheard, a dash or a splash here or there came from my real life -- but nothing complete, no entire tale.

But yes, my husband, who is not specifically in this book, is everywhere in this book. His values, his respect for his patients, what he taught me about the mind, all that is in these pages. I may have written it to keep him close a while longer. If so, it worked. He was with me.

Some of this book is very dark, in particular the tragic denouement, and the loss of memory generally. Did you find it hard to write?

Yes, there are some dark scenes in this book. What that means is that there are some dark thoughts in my head. I wish this wasn't so. But it is. I imagine most people have dark thoughts, at least in their dreams, and often in the pauses in their day when the mind drifts and who knows what escapes the inner censor and comes unwelcome to mind. It is not hard to write these thoughts down. In fact it is a kind of relief to give them shape, to control them on the page, to admit them into consciousness. Writers do that the way wrestlers wrestle and pianists move their fingers across the keys. I am more afraid of not-saying than of saying.

Which of these patients is most like you?

All of them. I know them because I know myself. But literally I am not like any of them. That is the reason this is a fiction. If I could live my life over, maybe I would be Dr. Z. I admire him enormously. In the end I suppose I believe that being a psychoanalyst is more significant a way to pass your days than being a writer. But maybe I don't really mean that at all.

Why should anyone care about these rich, cranky people?

Well, they are not the oppressed, the poverty-stricken. That would be a different book. They are not ranchers or evangelicals or Mexican immigrants. But they are human souls caught in their own emotional needs and fighting to survive the world they live in, which expects this or that and grants success or failure in its own capricious way. I do believe that any geography or social level, examined with care, will reveal common human flaws, the needless suffering of its inhabitants as well as the expected anxieties of ambition, love, and sex running riot in all our days. A good communist would dismiss my characters in a second. But I am not a communist and find all the stories of the world wondrous and all the people in the world worthy of attention. I can only walk on my own streets, which is what I did in this book. I don't think of that as a limit, but rather a portal through which my writer's eye will wander.

Katie Roiphe is the author, most recently, of In Praise of Messy Lives, and the director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University's School of Journalism.