purchase propecia ambienbuy.net buysoma

Stations of the Crisis: An Interview with Anne Gisleson

Anne Gisleson’s debut memoir, The Futilitarians (Little, Brown and Company, 2017), chronicles her year hosting an Existential Crisis Reading Group (ECRG). She and her friends meet monthly for smart conversation and camaraderie. But Gisleson’s book isn’t just about reading and interpretation. Set seven years after Hurricane Katrina in her hometown of New Orleans, Gisleson uses each month’s reading—selections from James Joyce, Clarice Lispector, Franz Kafka, and Josiah Royce, among others—as a launchpad to meditate on the losses in her own life. In January, the first month the ECRG meets, her beloved father—a lawyer who volunteers on death row—succumbs to leukemia. Grieving, Gisleson realizes she’s freed from his mandate that she never write about her youngest sisters, twins who died of suicide eighteen months apart. Using literature as a light shed upon the unthinkable, Gisleson reflects on their circumstances of their deaths and the wake of grief that followed.

INTERVIEWER

I read The Futilitarians this past summer when I was at an existential crossroads of my own. Pregnant with my first child, I lived in deep anticipation of her arrival and my own new role as a mother, but my summer was also marked by death. A week after my dear friend Megan lost her mother, a woman I’d known and loved, to pancreatic cancer, our childhood best friend threw herself in front of a train, ending her life. All summer, I found grief and joy strangely intertwined—meditations on suicide punctuated by fetal hiccups.  I was acutely attuned to the fragility of life, struggling to process the most basic, indisputable facts of life: birth and death. Friends, I noticed, were nervous to talk to me about loss, as though acknowledging my grief could somehow damage my developing child. On the other hand, when I did talk about death, I grew quickly frustrated. Conversation did little to illuminate, much less alleviate, grief. Reading your book was such a relief. I was so appreciative of the honesty and rawness of your writing.  You didn’t seek closure for the losses in your life, your sisters, your father, pre-Katrina New Orleans—I imagine that task would’ve felt false—but instead acknowledged them through the perspective that time, friendships, and literature provided. How did it feel for you to write so frankly about your life and your feelings? How did you find your way into such difficult material?

 ANNE GISLESON

I’m so glad you found the book a relief during that difficult and complicated time. I know any kind of reprieve can be hard to come by. It was a kind of relief to write the book, as well. I never ever wanted to write memoir. I think it was my middle-child discomfort with sustained attention, preferring to be part of the crowd. Which is a totally disingenuous thing for a writer to say. But my nonfiction and essays had become increasing personal, like the only honest way for me to write about anything, whether it was about a local bar, or the city’s frustrating educational landscape, was to situate myself squarely inside of it, not as merely observer or chronicler but as thinking, feeling participant. When I started writing The Futilitarians, I was pretty cagily focused on the group’s monthly readings, the literature, and making topical connections between it and my life. A colleague who read some of it early on kept telling me the book wanted to be a memoir and I kept resisting. The first draft of the book was pretty unsatisfying. There seemed to be these big red arrows throughout pointing to ragged holes. When I realized I was still in the grip of my father’s mandate to never write about my sisters’ suicides, it was really a fuck it moment. Once I decided to open up and go for it, it felt pretty right. Not good, just necessary.

INTERVIEWER

One of my favorite aspects of your book is how you use literature as a lens to examine your life and lives of those around you. In contrast to traditional academic writing, which tends to be methodical and impersonal, the selections of stories and philosophy you consider have a wonderfully serendipitous quality. Many of them you, or another member of the ECRG, discover almost by accident. A Concise Dictionary of Existentialism, which you quote throughout The Futilitarians, came into your possession when you helped run an estate sale during graduate school. Towards the end of the book, you stumble across Fugitive Essays, a collection written by the American philosopher Josiah Royce, at a used-book store after escaping a holiday meal with your siblings. And yet, despite, or perhaps because of, the somewhat randomness of the books you encounter and quote, the poems, essays, and stories are in deep, meaningful conversation with one another. What role does chance play in meaning making? And what can your book teach readers about the role literature can play in one’s life?

GISLESON

Writing about the commonality of the random images and ephemera that kept coming her way while writing The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner described people as something like, “imperfect magnets.” When you’re working on any intense creative project I think you become especially magnetized. It’s less chance and more what you’re attuned to in the world when writing. You’re drawn to what you need, even if you didn’t know you needed it.  Sure, there was a shelf-full of Josiah Royce books in the store that day, but the title Fugitive Essays connected with my mindset, and the essay “Doubting and Working” drove a bolt through it. When you’re on a search you’re especially attentive to clues and to what will aid you in the search, no matter how random. The unifying factor for everything was the search.

With The Futilitarians I wanted to illustrate how literature can have unexpected reach, can permeate our lives in a vital way. It’s not silo-ed in a separate imaginary realm, or corralled in discussion or critique. It can shape our thinking as we move through the day, illuminate it, derail it. Definitely deepen it.

INTERVIEWER

Many of the questions you ask in your book are, by their nature, unanswerable. In fact, when it comes to other people’s lives, you frequently push against easy explanations. “The twins’ suicides were not elegant philosophical statements,” you observe. “I doubt many are.” At the same time, one of the prime activities of the ECRG is interpretation. There’s a beautiful tension in the book between knowing and not knowing, and you hover right there, at the limit of comprehension. Exploring contradictions is evident even in the title of the book, a portmanteau of futile and utilitarian. What was your writing process like? Did you write the book chronologically or did you find yourself skipping around? Were you discovering your own feelings as you wrote?

GISLESON

The chronological framework of the year, of each month being a chapter was a reassuring way to proceed through difficult territory. I wrote it chronologically January to December, then revised it start to finish a few times, strengthening the layers and connections with each version.  Of course, that required some skipping around as well, augmenting some things and playing down others. The process was definitely an exploration. Life can be cluttered and chaotic, especially with family, jobs, dysfunctional city, etc. Crises crowding out other crises with no breathing room to fully understand what you’re feeling. I was shocked at how unselfaware I’d been over the years, all the things I’d missed. Writing this book gave me the opportunity to just sit with it all. Kind of a torturous blessing. I generally don’t fully know what I think about things until I write about them.

INTERVIEWER

Your father forbid you from writing about your sisters’ suicides. Only with his passing did you finally find the freedom to write this book. Your family, particularly your mother and your sister Susan, play prominent roles in book. How did other family members respond to your book?

GISLESON

It depends on the sibling and the moment in time. Everyone was supportive at one time or another. Sometimes someone would feel vulnerable and withdraw the support, and then later give it back. I think they’d become used to growing up with a writer among them. Still, it was a weird and invasive thing that I did to them. Maybe they should’ve been more wary, but it was very generous of them to keep talking to me. Ultimately, the person whose support mattered the most to me was my mother. Hers was steadfast and I couldn’t have written the book without her.

INTERVIEWER

In April, the ECRG’s regular meeting fell during the Christian Holy Week. Instead of choosing a reading, the group decided to reinterpret the Stations of the Cross, which follow Jesus’s path from condemnation to crucifixion, as the “Stations of the Crisis.” Each group member came up with a location corresponding to the station they’d been assigned, a reading or performance, and then led a discussion about how it related to “the Crisis.” Catholicism and ritual play prominent roles throughout your book. Why was ritual so important as you grieved? Why does think Catholicism lends itself so easily to questions of existentialism?

GISLESON

You’ve recently experienced some intense grief yourself—it can be so total and so scary. You had your baby to mitigate it somewhat, to give it this very concrete perspective. Literally internal. I’d read that the Stations of the Cross was possibly a physical enacting of Mary’s grief at losing her son, a mother retracing her son’s last moments. I imagine that with that kind of repetition you could either get lost in the grief or fully connect to it. After my sisters’ died, we siblings took care of everything that needed to be done, all of the death chores. We thought we were helping my parents, but years later, my mom and said she wished she’d been more like Mary, participated in those rituals, would’ve helped her come terms with the reality of the twins’ deaths in a concrete way. Though we do visit the family tomb several times a year, on birthdays, death anniversaries, All Saints Day. Light votive candles and pray and remember, cry. I think ritual helps you feel grounded when confronting the vastness of death, the vastness of your loss. A sense of being part of a continuum makes it a little less isolating. Regarding Catholicism, it embraces ritual pretty intensely, but also doubt and inquiry as being essential components of true faith. I think that’s where it could intersect with existentialism.

INTERVIEWER

When you started the ECRG, did you imagine that you would write a book about it? At what point during the group’s existence did you figure that out? Did that change the way you participated in the group, adding, for instance, another level of awareness?

GISLESON

The first month of the ECRG, January of 2012 was so fraught and loaded that it almost begged to have an essay written about it. At our first meeting, we’d read Ecclesiastes and Epicurus, often focusing on the proper relationship to death, then the next day, on the Feast of the Epiphany, my father, with zero immunity from chemotherapy, goes to visit his pro bono client on death row and dies a few days later. So I wrote about all that dramatic convergence, but then things kept aligning, probably because I grieving and raw and charged, and after about six months I realized that I wanted to write a book about the experience. I asked everyone in the ECRG and they were fine with it. Though I didn’t have any control over the readings that were chosen or the discussion, I’m sure my hyper-awareness influenced things in some way. But the first year of any significant endeavor has its own special intensity and cohesion and momentum.

INTERVIEWER

The Existential Crisis Reading Group continued beyond the year that you write about in The Futilitarians. How has the group evolved? Can you share some of the more memorable readings that you’ve done since the book’s end?

GISLESON

Yes, it’s evolved, but we still have most of the core, initial members. Some have moved away and we’ve brought in a couple new ones. After five years it’s become fully integrated into our lives. Last year, one of us suffered a deeply tragic loss, so we put together an existential care package and everyone helped with the service and arrangements however we could. This year, one of us is having a baby, so we’re holding an existential baby shower. We don’t meet strictly monthly anymore, but more on an “as needed” basis throughout the year.

Our most recent reading was an essay by Aleister Crowley from 1918 about drinking absinthe on Bourbon street, which kind of blew my mind. Some other favorites were “The Collector of Cracks,” written in 1927 by the Ukrainian-born writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, a dark, mystical fable, blurring of physics and metaphysics and a slide show projected on the living room wall of some existential comics and graphic novels including excerpts from the sublime and intimate “The Principles of Uncertainty” by Maira Kalman. Some recent readings have taken on more urgency, responding to our world in a rather direct way, like Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, and after last year’s election, Camus’ Resistance, Rebellion and Death, both works reinforcing the necessity of both vigilance and hope.

 
Anya Groner’s essays, stories, and poems can be read in journals including Guernica, The New York Times, Ecotone, The Oxford American, and The Atlantic. A resident of New Orleans, Groner teaches creative writing at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and the New Orleans Writers Workshop.  

3