NAW Interview with Maud Casey

Maud Casey

Maud Casey is an Associate Professor of English and teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Maryland. She has received international fellowships from the Fundacion Valparaiso and the Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers, and is the recipient of the 2008 Calvino Prize and a 2008-2009 DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities Artist Fellowship. Visit her here.

NAW- Hello Maud, how did you become a writer? And how do you find time for writing given that you have a day job?

Hi!  I was raised by wolves, otherwise known as writers, so reading and writing were a big part of my growing up.  As I like to say, I didn’t have to run away to join the circus.  I was already there.  I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer but I didn’t actually write anything until I left home, so maybe I did have to run away.  But it was always, always there, that interest in words and sentences and an enthrallment with imaginary worlds.

I am fortunate enough now to have a day job—teaching writing—that kind of matches my writing life, but there were a lot of years before I started teaching full-time when I was working on my first novel that I squeezed writing in and around day jobs that didn’t match as much.  A lot of temp jobs, working as a counselor in a domestic violence shelter, that stint at the University of California San Francisco working in the whole body donation program.  You teach yourself to make the time during the semester and then there’s the great privilege of winter break and the wide open expanse of summer.

NAW- Tell us about your book, The Man Who Walked Away. How did you get the idea for it? What is it about?

It’s inspired by a 19th century French psychiatric case study.  The patient, whose name was Albert Dadas, was the first diagnosed fugueur, which meant he wandered in a semitrance state throughout large parts of Europe, waking up sometimes countries away from home, not knowing how he got there.  He was exhausted, confused, and in a lot of psychic pain so he took himself to a Bordeaux asylum in 1886 where he met a doctor who treated him and gave him an original diagnosis.  Fugueur used to be a primary diagnosis; now it appears in the DSM as a symptom.  The novel’s about my invented version of Albert and his plight and his relationship with my invented version of his doctor.  I learned about the real Albert Dadas in Ian Hacking’s amazing book, Mad Travellers:  On Transient Mental Illness, which began as a series of lectures and, to grossly reduce it, is about the way a particular psychiatric diagnosis arises at a particular moment in history, for cultural, nationalistic, and social reasons.  It features the case of Dadas as an example of a diagnosis that appeared and then disappeared.

NAW- How long did you take to finish the book? It’s serious fiction, right? Mental disorders are not only difficult to diagnose but rarely receive as much attention as they should receive. How did you research for the book?

I’m a slow writer.  It took me seven years.  I mean, I was teaching and life was happening as it will so I wasn’t sitting at the desk for seven years writing. But, yeah, it took a while.  In part because I did do a lot of research. Hacking’s bibliography was a good place to start and in the beginning, I did a lot of reading—from Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time and Space (1880-1918) to Alan Gauld’s A History of Hypnotism to Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness to Georges Didi-Huberman’s The Invention of Hysteria to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes to Rebecca Solnit’s invaluable Wanderlust:  A History of Walking.  The reading could have gone on forever (“It’s all so fascinating!” she said, so grateful to avoid writing.)  I read until I felt I knew enough to unhitch the story from history.  As for whether it’s serious fiction or not, after all that time it felt pretty freaking serious to me.

NAW- What can a novice reader expect from The Man Who Walked Away?

That’s a great question, and a really difficult one.  Sometimes I describe the book as a clinical love story involving a doctor and a patient.  Their relationship is not romantic but it is symbiotic.  They offer each other something—maybe it’s relief—and their encounter changes them forever.  I hope, too, that the novel offers the experience—the sections in Albert’s perspective—of a mind making its through the world in a way that may seem wholly unfamiliar to the reader but is nonetheless moving and compelling.

NAW- The doctor remains unnamed in the novel even though he is such an important character. Was this deliberate to keep the focus on the protagonist? Dadas’s character is based on the real life case, right? How did you develop the Doctor’s character?

One of the reasons it took me so long to write this book was I had some difficulty initially figuring out my relationship as a contemporary fiction writer to this particular historical moment.  I wanted to capture that era—the birth of psychiatry in the second half of the 19th century—but I also wanted to distance myself a little bit, to signal to the reader that the story was being told from a particular angle and a particular distance.  In part I decided to call the Doctor the Doctor to highlight his profession and the importance of his profession to his sense of self.  But it also had to do with establishing a tone that had a certain fairy tale quality, as well as respecting the real people.  This is also why I call Albert Albert.  He’s different than Albert Dadas.  He, like the Doctor, are products of my imagination.  In conversation with the real people, but not the real people.

The Doctor took a while to develop as a character.  The novel began with Albert.  In the back of Hacking’s book, there’s an appendix with translated transcripts of hypnosis sessions and case notes.  There’s a lot of Dadas telling the stories of his amazing travels and in the telling he repeats certain phrases—I woke up, I discovered myself.  There’s a lot of astonishment, bemusement, bafflement, as if he’s telling the story of someone else’s adventures.  I was so taken with his song.  The way he speaks is very musical.  I began with that voice and it took a while to wrench myself out of it in order to create the Doctor who has a much different voice.  Albert is very ethereal; the Doctor is the opposite of ethereal.  But slowly (always slowly!) the Doctor came into being.

NAW- Tell us about your other works.

My first novel, The Shape of Things to Come, is a dark comedy about the suburbs and a young(ish) woman’s attempt to reinvent herself, in some ways quite literally as a mystery shopper for a real estate company.  Mystery shopping was another one of those jobs I had in and around which I had to squeeze my writing though clearly it had a lot more to do with my writing than I thought.  My second novel, Genealogy, is a portrait of an American family falling apart in part because the daughter is mentally ill.   It was in doing research for that book that I came across the Hacking book.  That’s how it usually goes—one novel leads to the next.  Or a short story will lead to a novel—two of the stories in my story collection Drastic are the seeds of The Shape of Things to Come and Genealogy.  In a way, a bibliogrpahy is also a kind of autobiography.  I look back and I see my obsessions, my limitations, where my attention was over the years.

NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?

Teaching and writing mean there’s not much time but I’ve been determined lately to make time for—at the risk of sounding a little woowoo—wonder.  By wonder, I mean lots of things. Anything that fuels the writing.  Seeing art of all ilks, going to museums, galleries.  Taking walks.  Being in nature.  Seeing friends.  Trying to say yes more.  Lately, I’ve been trying to see more live music.  Just the other night I saw Lydia Loveless.  Afterwards, there she was on the roof of DC9, having a post-show cigarette. I went up to her to tell her how much I liked her music and we had a really interesting conversation about the importance of rest in making art.  My quest for wonder includes naps!

NAW- Please name your favourite writers. Are there any who you’d like to name as an inspiration?

The hardest question in the world but here’s what comes to mind at this very moment:  Barbara Comyns, Bruno Schulz, Max Frisch, Gina Berriault, Gogol, Isaac Babel, Deszo Kosztalanyi, James Baldwin, Jane Bowles.

NAW-What are you currently reading?

During the semester, my reading is very school-focused, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s a little more scattered than in the summer when I have long stretches of reading time.  I’m rereading Peter Orner’s wonderful Last Car Over Sagamore Bridge because Peter, who is a friend, is visiting the Univeristy of Maryland where I teach.  I’m reading Elissa Washuta’s fierce memoir, My Body is a Book of Rules.  Elissa is a former student and she’ll be visiting UMD in the spring. There’s a stack of poetry books teetering on my bedside table, including terrific work by Terrance Hayes and Peter Campion who’ll both be visiting Maryland soon too.  I’m also reading Sophie Calle’s Suite Vénitienne because I’ve started a collaboration with a photographer and we’ve made a reading list that includes books that integrate narrative and photographs.  I think there should be a national siesta created with reading in mind.  A few reading hours built into every day.

NAW- What will you be working on next?

I’ve become one of those writers who fears jinxing herself by talking too much about projects that are underway but there’s the collaboration with the photographer, which I’m super excited about, and there’s a short nonfiction book on the literary quality of mystery about which I’ll remain resolutely mysterious.

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