An Interview with Catherine Eisner

And so without further ado, here’s my interview with ‘Sister Morphine’ author, Catherine Eisner.
Could you describe at all where some of the initial ideas behind ‘Sister Morphine’ sprang from?
The narratives in ‘Sister Morphine’ have grown like accretions over the past ten years and each can stand alone as a work of fiction … except, at the back of my mind I was working on a commonality that linked them, and this I found in the ‘connective unconscious’ of a group of characters, which is discovered in the last chapter. In my own confected ‘soundbite’ for this novel I wrote: ‘Fifteen women – Felícia, Charlotte, Zoë, Elenore, Eveline, Miriam, Grete, Esther, Marianne, Irina, Mary, Elspeth, Theresa, Isolde and Roberta unveil their psychoses to you … but not until the last page do we unlock the unsuspected secret that unites their destinies.’
There were three models for this book. ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ by Sherwood Anderson, which I admire tremendously and is a series of character studies connected by a distinctive location (my opening line, ‘I am a madwoman’, recalls Anderson’s famous line, ‘I am a fool’ … this was an Anderson character played, incidentally, by James Dean in one of his earliest roles). In my ‘Sister Morphine’ novel the special locale is Stoneburgh (pronounced ‘Stoneboro’), somewhere windblown and chillily remote in South East England.
Secondly, as I wrote to my publisher (forgive me, this explanation is becoming somewhat complex), there is a definite structure to my book insofar as all 14 patient narratives were conceived as a pattern resembling a sonnet sequence, with the fifteenth section revealing the interconnecting lives of all 14 women, and their interdependence in a university city (Stoneburgh) in which their CPN (Community Psychiatric Nurse) practises. This poetic form is called a ‘Sonnet of Sonnets’ with a theme-line relayed through all 14 fourteen-line sonnets until the 15th when all the themes combine. This was the ambition, and more than a vestige of this structure remains.
The Stoneburgh Chronicles is a continuing theme in my work (see ‘The Man in the Wardrobe’ published in ‘Ambit’ Issue 191, Winter 2008).
However, in the end, I ask this. What is a novel? For instance, Italians read Lampedusa’s ‘Il Gattopardo’ (The Leopard) as a classic novel but how many know that the whole thing was stitched together from post-mortal prose fragments by devoted editors to make a coherent chronicle?
And … my third model is another classic short novel, ‘The Bridge Over San Luis Rey’, which examines the interconnectiveness of the characters’ lives from a more spirito-mystical viewpoint (a great 20th Century work, at once seen as a parable of the 9/11 catastrophe and made rapidly into a feature film to reflect that terrible event, I understand). I read this book again in New York in the same month as the attack on the twin towers; my most vivid memory is of the armed policemen, each with a carbine at the corner of each block. The acrid smoke hanging in the air from this atrocity was sickening.
How did these narratives begin?
I rely, like many writers, on found objects so in a real sense I don’t invent. An example is the tape recording in ‘You Better Go Now’; it truly exists. The sentient plant and Russian Intelligence and the Lie Detector is a true story told to me by an émigré Russian academic I was very fond of (now, alas, deceased) … ‘a tropical shrub … could be suborned by the will of the state.’ I particularly liked this mordant remark of his which I incorporated into my text.
One of the features that I most admired about ‘Sister Morphine’ was its sense of inventiveness. I was fascinated by the literary allusions and by the inclusion of various, unexpected elements, including film scripts and musical scores and mathematical diagrams – and by the framework of the novel itself. You seem to enjoy overturning readers’ expectations. Could you talk a little about that?
It’s a dangerous compulsion to aim to be a completist, and I’m conscious of my weakness. Once I was aware that Patient ID CPN0312110842, Mary H. in ‘Dispossession’ was a father-fixated pianist I was keen to hear one of her compositions, so I completed her character with her own musical score; I was then tempted to discover how the classical dancer, Patient ID CPN0319141245, Esther G. in ‘Honeymoon Without Maps’, choreographed her own traumas and you can see the result in her Benish notation. It is an unexpected pattern on the page and even if it is a variant literary form it conveys (for me, at least) the emotional history of the patient in therapy.
As the introduction to ‘Sister Morphine’ makes clear, such compositions illustrate ‘the growing popularity of self-narrative approaches towards a collaborative analysis of self-characterisation in counselling and psychotherapy. Diaries, letters, notebooks (including experiments in automatic writing), personal documents, news clippings, telephone conversations, and recordings in a variety of media are all identified as sources for experiential self-narrative assignments in psychotherapy, and this collection … explores similar sources to demonstrate how these theoretical exercises can enhance self-understanding in practice.’ Note; the exercise in ‘automatic writing’ may be found in the story-within-a-story composed by Patient ID CPN0338200976: Elspeth P. in ‘A Stranger in Blood’; an upbeat narrative of transcendence I should make clear to potential readers.
Incidentally, the narrative, ‘Dispossession’, I freely admit has parallels with my own upbringing. I’m not squeamish about touching on my own childhood and fractured family relations as clearly they figure under various guises in ‘Sister Morphine’. The experiences of an adoptee from birth are known to me at first hand (see ‘A Stranger in Blood’). The facts are these … I was brought up as the ‘twin’ of my first cousin who was adopted by my mother when her only sister died giving birth (septicemia due to absence of penicillin). We were born ten days apart. Sibling rivalry was compounded by another curious aspect of our upbringing and that was the ‘precocious puberty’ of my ‘sister’, which I now believe was due to her living in a household with the presence of an unrelated male (i.e. my father); from the earliest age she was exposed to non-familial male pheromones, an exposure which is now regarded as the trigger for premature pubertal development. At the time she was prescribed Dexedrine (her ‘black bombers’) for pubescent obesity which my young brother, aged 11, stole for his own experimentation, leading to his lifelong drug abuse. True. And true, too, that rivalrous cousinhood is another important sub-theme in my narratives.
How important is imagery in your writing?
Well. I’m a trained artist from a family of painters and engravers over several generations … so you can imagine I am looking for the counter-image not necessarily the image itself … the shadow not the substance, the reflection not the object. There are many examples in my work. Two examples: ‘I felt neglected and vulnerable, held together weakly by will alone, like a house shored up by its own shadow.’ In a recent work I write: ‘I noticed the walls were painted imitation marbling up to the cornices. “We see least with borrowed eyes,” my art mistress once said with emphatic earnestness in my last term at school, and I’d vowed then to always question the witness of my own sight.’ This is obviously the stuff of all observational writing so I don’t claim any special powers just because I was trained as a young student in another discipline. One further point: the expression of the writer’s pen in creating an image is very much more controllable than a painter’s brush!
Could you describe your general writing background?
The scenes in the publisher’s office (‘Elegy from a Locked Drawer’) are pretty close to my own experience of academic publishing here and in New York; and the antics of performance poets from that period, many of whom I knew quite well, do influence my writing from time to time; the ‘cut-up method’, ‘concrete poetry’, ‘found poetry’, and other experimental writing. However, I hope I’ve never strayed into obfuscation in my fictions, which I like to regard as plain statements documenting unusual states of mind.
‘The Cheated Eye’ was my first literary baby, as it were, and first babies are so often the favourites (I speak as a middle child of three: the plain bread in the middle of a perverse sandwich composed outwardly of choice meats, as someone famous once said – I forget the name – who shared a similar familial position; also a sub-theme in ‘Sister Morphine’). This work was first published in 1997, so there has been a slow accretion of related fictions over the past decade. In addition, my article (‘In Character?’) published in the ‘Jewish Chronicle’ in Chekhov’s centenary year (he died in 1904) examined the Chekhov oeuvre and anti-Semitism, identifying significant mistranslations by hagiographers, uncorrected by biographers and editors of his correspondence even to this day; a product of these studies is my unpublished novel, ‘D-r Tchekhov, Detektiv’, a clinical investigation into criminal pathology.
Who are the authors who have inspired you? What are you reading at present?
The model writings of this kind are Ethelind Frances Colburn Mayne (1865–1941), a great Modernist writer of fiction and very early Freudian (she was the first translator of a number of Freud’s works). Mayne’s short fiction, ‘The Separate Room’ is a masterpiece. And Mayne’s work ranks with Charlotte Perkins Gilmore, whose classic ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is also a perceptible influence on ‘Sister Morphine’.
I will mention, also, lastly, Elizabeth von Arnim as a writer I admire (she was Katherine Mansfield’s cousin) and I cite her novel ‘Vera’ as a model for the expressionistic cinematic effects I not infrequently introduce into my own writings (her first chapter is marvelous in this respect). May I place on record here for the first time my own formula for this kind writing (I have augmented TS Eliot’s ‘Birth, and copulation, and death, that’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks…’) and I express it as the ‘ABC&D’ maxim for thematic concision, when A+B+C+D = Anxiety, Birth, Copulation, Death (designedly the principal constituents of my narrative ‘Dispossession’ in ‘Sister Morphine’). The discriminating reader will quickly spot where I have cloned themes from these writers by borrowing their literary DNA.
At present I am re-reading ‘The Arabian Nights’; the story, ‘The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through A Dream’ has a theme I stole for the final chapter of ‘Sister Morphine’, but it is unlikely I’ll ever find a better theme! Of course, Scheherazade is really the Muse of all women writers, as a Storyteller-Under-Duress. ‘MsLexia’ ( rather a needy and whiny title for the journal, in my own view) has published works of mine, but ‘Scheherazade’ would have been a more apposite and affirming title, don’t you think? There are elements of Scheherazade’s dilemma in ‘Sister Morphine’ … the narrator, a grief-counsellor, tells her stories to ward off her own grief.
Also I am re-reading ‘Madame Bovery’ in the first (and brilliant) English Edition translated by Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor ( I have an original copy; it cost me £250 even twenty-five years ago!). How’s this for an image from Flaubert: ‘The daylight that came in by the chimney made velvet of the soot at the back of the fireplace …’ However, I suspect Flaubert may have been chiding the indolent Emma for neglecting to have her chimney swept!
Also from ‘Bovary’ : ‘… everyone rested his two hands on his thighs, carefully stretching the stride of their trousers, whose unsponged glossy cloth shone more brilliantly than the leather of their heavy boots.’ Note the unusual word ‘strides’, now rarely used.
What are you working on right now? Do you have any set writing plans for the future?
I am currently preparing my sequel to ‘Sister Morphine’, provisionally entitled ‘Cousine Cocaine’. Two passages have been published recently, independent of ‘Sister Morphine’, and a third passage is nearing completion. The inconclusive episode, ‘Thought Police’, in ‘Sister Morphine’, concerning the disappearance of the novelist, Theresa Ollivante, will also be completed for this work; at least, that is my intention. A number of other episodes are also mapped out.
What question are you pleased that I haven’t asked you?
If you’re so smart why ain’t you rich?

(-: Thank you so much, Catherine.

‘Sister Morphine’ is available from the interesting and innovative people at Salt