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

‘Sister Morphine’ by Catherine Eisner

As part of Salt’s ‘Cyclone’ blog tour, I’ll be posting an interview this week with ‘Sister Morphine’ author Catherine Eisner.

Dealing with death, desertion and drugs, revenge and revelation, ‘Sister Morphine’ is a unique collection of startlingly inventive and genre-busting tales.

Presented by the author as ‘Case Notes of a Community Psychiatric Nurse’, Eisner’s gathered female patient ‘narratives’ come together to form an intriguing text, littered with mind-games.

I’m looking forward to talking to Catherine about her work . . .

Snowstorm in my Head

Like much of the UK, we’ve woken up to white skies, white rooftops, white trees, white roads. Like probably half the UK, the smallest and I are too hot, too cold, nested in among tissues and blankets, Linctus and books. Muffled inside our own heads.

Probably shouldn’t be blogging. Don’t really know why I’m blogging.


The snow is lying so thickly and falling (still falling!) so beautifully and that is such a novelty here. Heart-lifting, dizzying. We love it, we want to be out in it – but we’re sick (the cat, meanwhile watches at the window, with flattened ears and risen hackles; he’s disgusted – wants the flutter of real feathers, not this).

My mind is whirling quietly too. There is so much to think about right now.

There are the happy, interesting book things coming up – the p/b launch this week of Caroline Smailes’ fabulous ‘Black Boxes’. And at some point too, I’m interviewing Catherine Eisner about her intriguing ‘Sister Morphine’ for Salt’s Cyclone tour.

And there is my own writing – I’m in the final third of novel 3, preoccupied by ideas of motherhood and loss and gleaming water, and all the different ways there are of being haunted . . .

Then there are the big issues, the possibly life-changing ones – jobs, home, children.
Spinning thoughts like TV static. Exciting, frightening. Yet somehow so absorbing I almost feel detached, disassociated. It doesn’t quite make sense, not yet, I know.

But bugger it. Later on, I think, my smallest and I will bundle up despite our colds. We’ll go outside and play.

Merry Christmas!

Thank you everyone for your amazing support. Wishing you love and peace and a bulging stocking ( :
I’ve included a tenuously festive, but very short story below . . .

Happy Christmas!!!

At the end of the meal

“So – Tim’s decided he’s gay!” says Heather.

She’s breathless; her cheeks pink, her eyes flashing silver, but she winces when her desert spoon scrapes across the bowl.

It’s the end of the meal. We’ve dispensed with her Thai chicken and the seasonal small talk and general gossip. We’ve downed two bottles of Pinot and it’s that time of the evening, the time for flushed skin and glittering eyes. For revelations, truth and ice cream.

It’s the moment when we connect, when we reconnect, at last. It always happens and though we never say it, I think we both understand that this is why we still go on meeting the way we do, why we continue the ritual of a meal in her big, warm family kitchen when I’m back in town each Christmas. It’s why we still describe one another as best friends, though we rarely meet for the rest of the whole long year.

“Tim!” I say, though it takes me a moment to remember who he is. He’s her son of course. Her son, how could I have forgotten? It’s the wine, I think, making me drift. I’m too easily distracted by my thoughts, too busy looking at Heather’s things, at all the greetings cards and tinsel, at the new cracks spreading around her eyes and the way her lipstick has worn off . . .

And, through the window, snow is falling the way it does in films and dreams, a steady heartbreaking dance of night and light. I lift my fingers to my own lips to check that my similar rosy smile is still in place.

“How old is Tim now?” I ask.
“Sixteen!” she says and lifts her hands, her eyebrows.
“Sixteen,” I echo. “Christ.”

And I know that she thinks I’m exclaiming over the way the years have rushed by, how it only seems like yesterday that I was a bridesmaid at her wedding, that she was matron of honour at mine . . . but what I’m actually thinking is sixteen.

It’s the age we were when we went on our school skiing trip to France. When she was the pretty one, the graceful one, the girl who flew down the slopes and skated perfect figure-of-eights on the sparkling rink. While I spent much of that week flat on my back, against the ice.

More snow, I think, my eyes moving between the window and her talking, eating, lipstick-less mouth. Her teeth part, and I watch the ice-cream slipping slowly between them, but I’m the one shivers. I’m suddenly remembering how freezing it was in those chalets, so cold that even after she climbed into my bunk, we couldn’t get warm enough. We were never warm enough. Her hands on my back – I can feel them still – were as cool and smooth as metal . . .

“We thought it was just a phase,” she’s saying. “But then I caught them! Actually kissing! And under the mistletoe of all places!”

She laughs, perhaps a little too loudly, with her head thrown back, showing me the pale curve of her throat, the point of her chin. And though her hair has a lot of grey in it, even some white, I think how it still falls in exactly the same heavy way. Like cloth, I think. Like winter water.
She’s still the pretty one.

“They just looked so funny,” she says. “So strange. Two boys, holding one another like that, hardly more than children. And they looked so alike! It was as if Tim was kissing himself, his own reflection . . .”

I down my wine quickly and lean across, trying my best to keep hold of her tin-foil eyes.
“Have you ever . . .” I begin, “would you ever . . .”

But I can’t do it. Whatever I was going to say, I can’t say it. It’s too hot in here suddenly; it’s suffocating. I glance down at my bowl instead, at the peaks and spreading pools of untouched vanilla, and at my own spoon, turning over in my hand. The silver jumps as it catches the light. For a second it’s blinding, and in that second, she reaches over and takes it from me.

And I feel the creak, and then the avalanche, as she lifts it to her mouth.

m xx

Exclusively Independent

Judges have chosen ‘How We Were Lost’ as one of the first titles to be featured in the new ‘Exclusively Independent ‘ scheme.

‘Exclusively Independent’ is an Arts Council funded initiative aiming to bring independent publishers and bookshops together.

Congratulations to the six other selected writers (including the fabulous Shanta Everington). Each of our novels will be freshly promoted across a range of independent bookshops, beginning initially in London.

And just in time for Christmas too.
: )

Learning How To Read

So I did it!

Amidst the snowy-white dazzle of stage lights and the surprise of a microphone that I had to stand so close to that it was almost inside my mouth – I did it! And I wasn’t (quite) as frightened as I thought I would be. In fact, I left Nottingham’s Royal Centre feeling happy and relieved and very grateful.

In addition to the support of those close to me (thank you), and some excellent, practical and generous advice from the very talented Annie Clarkson on her Myspace blog, I was fortunately able to participate in a small reading workshop beforehand with director, Daniel Buckroyd. His enthusiasm and insights were helpful and inspiring and, aside from encouraging me to embody the personality of my narrator with more confidence, he asked the pertinent questions (far more eloquently and concisely than I am asking them here) –

Why is your character compelled to tell this story?

What is it about this story that your audience will connect with?

Simple but essential questions to ponder while writing, I think, as much as reading.

‘Word of Mouth’

My (previously blogged about) short story ‘The Insect Room’ is to be included in Nottingham Writers Studio’s ‘Word of Mouth’ reading event, to take place at the Len Maynard Suite at Nottingham’s Royal Centre, at 7.15pm on the 3rd December.

The other writers participating are Matt Hurst, Ian Charles Douglas, Roberta Dewa, Nigel Smith and David Sandhu.

If anybody’s interested in attending, tickets are priced at £4.00 (which includes a complimentary glass of wine or juice – what a bargain!) and are on sale now from the Royal Centre Box Office (telephone: 0115 989 5555).

I’ve been lucky to have had my work brought to life by actresses before at ‘Word of Mouth’ events, but this is the first time I’ll be reading there myself.
I’m very excited (and quite a big bit scared)

‘The Insect Room’

. . . Prompted by the ‘Bugs’ theme in the current issue of ‘Mslexia’, I’ve posted my own recent bug short story on to my website –

Here’s how it begins:

The Insect Room

I still dream of ‘The Insect Room’, of visiting the museum, with my father. It isn’t far away, despite the years. Sometimes it’s right there, waiting, when I close my eyes. A secret place, inside me.

Outside, it was always raining – at least, that’s how it seems when I look back. I remember a pewter rain-light at the window and a constant, muffled tapping. Wet footsteps squeaking on the parquet floor, and a damp smell drifting from the walls . . . Knowing that it was time, I’d slip my hand out of my father’s coat pocket. I would go wandering through ‘The Insect Room’ alone.

Please click here if you’d like to read on . . .

Mslexia Mention . . .

Hurray to writing magazine Mslexia for celebrating Flame Books in the ‘Independent Press’ feature of their current issue. Aside from releasing How We Were Lost, Flame also publish the very talented Shanta Everington and Anne Brooke, along with many other fabulous writers.

Here’s how Crista Ermiya from Mslexia described my debut novel:

How We Were Lost by Megan Taylor is written from the point of view of a teenage girl, 14-year-old Janie. This is a dark, compelling novel, with some superficial similarities to Jill Dawson’s Watch Me Disappear . . . The language is seductive and draws the reader into Janie’s complicated world, which features a pregnant older teenage sister, an absent mother and a neurotic aunt. As Janie’s life collides with the public drama being played out over the hunt for two missing girls, the reader is forced to reconsider the line between childhood and adulthood.’

I’m rather chuffed ( :

Ghost Stories

While my latest novel, ‘Before the Light’ sits to one side simmering, before I decide what still needs tightening or rewriting (yet again), or whether it might finally be done (if a book can ever really finally be done) I seem to have started something new.

This very newest novel will be a ghost story (the clue was in the title), or at least, a kind of ghost story. And I am loving it, especially since it has given me a wonderful excuse to revisit some favourites this summer – The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House, Rebecca, The Woman in Black, Beloved . . .

Ever since I was a child, I’ve had a thing for spooky stories, but not for just those in books. I loved all those fireside/sleepover tales too, the ones about hitchikers who vanish and people missing heads. One of my fondest kid-memories is of holing up in an airing cupboard with my sister and some friends and sharing stories. And how we all jumped out together screaming when the gory ending was revealed. Once more, I realise that I’m refusing to grow up, but if you have any recommendations or favourite tales I’d really like to hear them . . .

In other things, after receiving a few enquiries, I’ve been thinking about beginning another interactive blog story. Please let me know if you’d like to get involved ( :

And, finally! Huge congratulations to fabulous Caroline Smailes whose incredible new novel Black Boxes is about to take the world by storm!