Friday, May 09, 2014

Out-of-Town-Authors: Harry Karlinsky

Back in 2010, I attended the Winnipeg launch of Harry Karlinsky's The Evolution of Inanimate Objects with Harry's magnificent sister Amy. The book stayed with me, so I wrote a short-short review of it for the (now-defunct) Advent Book Blog:
"The Evolution of Inanimate Objects is a book that rattles the cutlery drawer of your that it is the story of a psychiatrist named Harry Karlinsky discovering that Charles Darwin’s youngest son Thomas was confined to a London, ON asylum in 1879 for his theory on the evolution of eating utensils. Except that Harry Karlinsky is a novelist in addition to being a (real) psychiatrist. And Thomas Darwin is a theory of Karlinsky’s, his history cobbled together from bits and pieces of his (real) siblings’ lives. Read it alongside the recent biography-in-verse by Ruth Padel (Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter) and you’ll get really confused. And amused. And maybe even a tiny bit sad for poor addled (unreal) Thomas and his fistful of forks."

The conceit behind Harry's newest book, The Stonehenge Letters, is just as elaborate and just as much fun. I tried to imagine being Alfred Nobel, given that many of his close friends/family members were literally blown up. I liked that his crush on a much younger woman resulted in the Nobel Peace Prize. And, given that I'm a poet with an dayjob that includes all kinds of careful correspondence, I empathized with Ragnar Sohlman, who was Nobel's personal assistant and became the executor of his rather elaborate will.

All of which is to say: there is a Winnipeg launch of The Stonehenge Letters on May 13 at Winnipeg's McNally Robinson Booksellers and that you should go.

Harry has asked me to introduce him, which should be great fun in and of itself but also because I'll get to sit and gossip with Amy.

Here's my interview with Harry:

What do you want people to know about The Stonehenge Letters?

The framing device is a disgruntled psychiatrist’s efforts to learn why his hero—Sigmund Freud—failed to win the Nobel Prize. He visits the Nobel Archives in Stockholm and stumbles upon a ‘Crackpot’ file—comprised of a staggering number of letters from individuals who have nominated themselves for a Nobel Prize. Strangely enough, within the Crackpot file there are also a number of submissions from Nobel Laureates – all attempting to solve the mystery of Stonehenge. The reader should also be aware that I enjoy blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. So here are some real facts that underlie the story:
  • Freud really was nominated for the Nobel Prize thirty-times between the years 1915 and 1938 and yet failed to win.
  • It really is now possible to access material which formed the basis for the decision concerning a Nobel prize—PROVIDED—at least 50 years have elapsed since the decision in question was made.
  • There really is a Nobel ‘Crackpot’ File—largely made up individuals who nominate themselves for Nobel Prizes on the basis of rather dubious achievements.
  • And finally, I really am a disgruntled psychiatrist, although that has nothing to do with The Stonehenge Letters.
As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?

For me, readings represent an opportunity to make the unconscious conscious. It amuses me how often I can be so oblivious to the true agendas and autobiographical details that colour my work. Questions and comments from readers often bring these matters to my attention—embarrassing but helpful. And of course there’s always the pleasure of meeting old friends.

You’re a psychiatrist (and a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia) in your other life. Does that work influence your writing? Or are they utterly separate for you? More importantly, how do you find the time to write?

I think it’s virtually impossible to separate who you are from what you write. So yes—my profession influences my writing. At the most obvious level, a number of themes related to psychiatry run amok throughout my writing; in particular, both of my novels play with the fine line separating genius and madness. Beyond the explicit content, however, I’ve written elsewhere that attributes we value in psychiatry (and ones that I hopefully possess)—i.e., efforts to understand individuals comprehensively from a biological, psychological and social perspective and the need to relate empathically to individuals—would seem to be equally useful qualities for a writer as he/she develops his/her fictional characters.

As for the time to write, I’m not as disciplined as I would like to be. As writing is not my day job, it tends to be an early morning and weekend activity, often in coffee shops or, better yet, in the womb-like hideaway of a library. Once a year, I try to get away for a month so that writing becomes—briefly—a singular activity.

Have you ever been to Winnipeg? What have you heard?

I feel I’ve never left Winnipeg. I was born and bred in River Heights, and only departed to Toronto at age 25 once all the obligations of youth had been fulfilled: i.e, I had consumed more than my share of Kelekis hot dogs and Oscar’s pastrami sandwiches, cheered on Bobby Hull and the Winnipeg Jets, curled in the Winnipeg Bonspiel, summered in Winnipeg beach, and somehow obtained a medical degree despite spending a great deal of time in the Maryland pub and other rather run-down drinking establishments.

I still visit frequently as my mother and two sisters are still here—all die-hard Winnipeggers who still believe, despite objective evidence to the contrary, that there’s no better place on earth to live. Sometimes I agree with them.

Your novels play with the lines between fact and fiction, between science and art. They read like satires of the history-of-science books, of the journals of 19th century naturalists. They also remind me a fair bit of Neal Stephenson’s work, though your work doesn’t sprawl quite as much. What are your goals for your writing?

To engage readers with a story that I hope will be both emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

So clearly you’re a writer, but I’m curious: how do you approach the writing life? Do you have a writing group or go to writers’ retreats? Do you regularly engage with a community of writers?

For years, I puttered with my first novel—The Evolution of Inanimate Objects. Although I had published academic articles in psychiatric journals, I eventually concluded the obvious—I really knew very little about the craft of writing. In 2009, I finally enrolled in Simon Fraser’s University The Writers’ Studio. The yearlong program was helpful in all sorts of ways, and I was particularly fortunate to be with a congenial group of like-minded students mentored by the writer Anne Stone. Six of us have continued to meet every month to workshop our material and—more than that—to provide the community, encouragement and support one needs to counter the solitude of writing.

What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?

A great deal of my recent reading was dictated by the research required to drive The Stonehenge Letters. So it’s catch up time for freewheeling reading – at the moment it’s all things David Foster Wallace. As for writing, I find I’m still grieving the completion of The Stonehenge Letters. After three years writing the novel, I feel a real absence in my life; I confess I feel a little unsettled and at loose ends. Although I have some ideas for my next writing project, I’m not quite emotionally ready for a new relationship.

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