This is the first installment of, yes, that’s right, another new segment: Book Of The Weeks. And yes, that ‘s’ is intentional. Book Of The Weeks is a biweekly book review by yours truly.
But but but how does this relate to Betty’s Battleground? What do books have to do with PTSD?
A lot, actually. I have always been an avid reader, but books have taken on a new importance to me in the past few years. I have written about mindfulness, and about how I do certain activities to help enter into reality. Well, reality is hard. For everyone I’m sure, but even moreso when you have PTSD. Sometimes I do things to intentionally escape reality. When I become too stressed, or too anxious, or too overwhelmed with feelings, or overburdened by memories, finding a healthy way to escape reality is really important.
Keyword: Healthy. I used to escape through copious drugs and alcohol. It worked very well! But had some nasty side effects, like ruining my life. This realization brought me to healthy escapism, and reading works of fiction is one of my favorite forms of that.
Not every “book of the weeks” will necessarily be fiction. I may include some especially excellent PTSD/addiction/parenting texts as I come across them. But fiction is really important to me and my sanity, and the first book of the weeks is an exquisite work of fiction. And it also just so happens to explore the subject of mental illness.
Look after my review for a special BONUS surprise this week!
by Sarah Schantz
By the way: This post uses affiliate links. You can read my full disclosure at the bottom of any and every page, but basically, if you buy Fig through the links on this post, you’ll not only support the author by buying her book, you’ll also support me by helping me claim a small commission, at no extra cost to you.
The above photo is my copy of “Fig,” partially unwrapped after my husband gave it to me as a surprise gift. The note he wrote says “Betty, don’t stop chasing your dreams.” We rarely buy new books; we are avid used bookstore patrons, but my husband gave this brand new copy to me with that note because he knew how much I wanted this book, and how much I admire its author.
The first time I met Sarah Schantz was at Naropa University, where we both attended grad school. I was immediately entranced by her appearance. Dark-haired, pale-skinned, and adorned with a medley of fine black-lined tattoos, she bears a rare, unique beauty which radiates from the inside outward. Then she read her writing, and the bewitching was complete. Sarah has an exquisite mastery of language. She writes prose that poets will love, but without losing track of her story. I still remember the unedited snippets she read aloud in class; writing that came out of her pen sounding already polished. When she announced the publication of her debut novel, I couldn’t wait to read it.
“Fig” did not disappoint. It tells the story of a young girl named Fig whose mother lives with schizophrenia. I loved this book for its nuanced and compassionate portrayal of mental illness. Mama is depicted neither as villain nor victim, though she is sometimes extremely cruel, and at other times extremely fragile. Sarah captures the nuanced reality of mental illness. She shows us the humanity behind the illness; the humanity which bears the illness, and which is tied irrevocably to it. It is rare to see a schizophrenic character depicted in the media as anything besides completely demented. ‘Mama’ is a fully developed character; as flawed, and frightening, and lovable as any real person.
Mama is a compelling central character, but the narrative focus of the story is her young daughter Fig. The book begins when Fig is six and follows her life until her nineteenth birthday. It is a coming-of-age story, about a young girl growing up in a family ravaged by mental illness.
Sarah is able to tell Fig’s unique story while also capturing the universal truths of growing up. She depicts the confusions of youth with compassion and grace. Her vivid descriptions and lyrical cadence are captivating; readers are truly transported to Fig’s world. We feel with Fig the love she holds for her mother; love so fierce it is often co-dependent. We navigate alongside her the anxiety of having a mother she feels she must protect, even while her mother slingshots between abusing her, neglecting her, and cherishing her. We are with Fig while she battles between pleasing her family and pleasing herself; a self she struggles to understand because her needs and desires are too often overshadowed by the urgency of her mother’s need. We feel with Fig the fear that comes with knowing her mother’s illness is inheritable.
Fig’s fear of inheriting her mother’s illness is woven expertly throughout the story. It becomes a fear shared by the reader. From a young age, Fig performs rituals in an attempt to save her Mama; rituals which are sometimes dangerous or harmful to her. Sometimes her imaginings cross the border between thought and reality. Sometimes her logic is magical. As she grows closer to the age of onset for schizophrenia, and as we simultaneously watch the devastation this illness causes, the question grows both in Fig’s mind and the readers’: is Fig also schizophrenic?
I will admit that there are parts of “Fig” that were scary to me as a mother who also battles mental illness. It was sometimes hard to read about how heavily Mama’s needs weighed on Fig, or to see Daddy’s absent minded neglect in favor of caring for Mama and grieving the wife who is slipping away. Fig loves her Mama, but the love is painful. And codependent. And dangerous. One of my deepest fears is that having a mother with PTSD will harm my children.
Although “Fig” disturbed my private fears, and although it was often saddening, I also found it to be a beautiful and captivating story about the love a child holds for her mother, and a poignant examination of the ways in which love, even the same love for the same person, can both harm and heal.
“Fig” is one of those rare books which spans generational divides. It is a coming-of-age story, and will therefore interest young adult readers, but it is also written with such lyrical grace that it will compel mature readers as well. I recommend it to, well, anyone who likes to read.
Here it is:
Aaaand I promised you a bonus surprise didn’t I?
I am honored to have had the opportunity to ask Sarah Schantz some questions, and I am going to share her answers with you. She answered them over e-mail, so in addition to learning about her process and the writing of “Fig,” you also get an introduction to the beauty of her storytelling. If you’re not convinced to read “Fig” already, I guarantee that you will be by the end of this interview.
Author Interview: Sarah Schantz
-Tell me a little about your writing background. When did you start writing? Was anything or anyone a particular inspiration early on?
Sarah: I grew up in a bookstore surrounded by literature and lit lovers from the get go. My parents met at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop but didn’t finish because they were worried my dad would get drafted so they moved to upstate New York to be close to the border. They talk about how they later saw the way I took to writing—my discipline and drive, and how neither of them had the same sense of purpose. I guess that’s why they focused on promoting writers instead by opening The Rue Morgue.
I’ve been writing since I was quite young. I was obsessed with my Strawberry Shortcake Kids and my dad built me this dollhouse I had set up in my room and I used to “play” for hours at a time, narrating these elaborate stories. While I learned how to read when I was five, I had to go to a speech therapist. I’m not sure what my diagnosis was but essentially I’d created my own language. When I said Sarah, it came out Taz. I don’t remember all the ways my speech “glitched” but I know instead of “little girl” I’d say “ease girl” and I used to see these “monsters” at night in our yard (I could hear them too). While they were canine in nature, I didn’t think of them as dogs, and I called them seels (not to be confused with seals). My mom thinks it came from reading The Little House on the Prairie books and the one scene where the cabin is surrounded by wolves. She’s probably right, but they felt more supernatural. Anyway, my speech therapist had me narrate these picture books she had. They had no text, only illustrations, and I think that again, like the dolls (and later the elaborate make-believe games I’d play), these narrations were all my first attempts at writing. I also drew all the time, and when I drew I’d narrate what those characters were doing and saying. I’ve always struggled with insomnia and at night as a child the only way I could fall asleep was if I told myself stories in my head. Of course this often backfired and I wouldn’t sleep as I’d get so involved in the narratives I couldn’t let them go. I still do this only now with the fiction I write.
I did know from an early age that I wanted to write. I don’t think I thought about this intellectually until I was a teenager. While I was reading people like Henry Miller at fourteen, I don’t think I really understood his work at the time. I was into finding all the sex scenes. The first authors that really made me stop and think, “Wow!” were John Steinbeck and Flannery O’Connor. And then I read Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, and the list really goes on and on, but one book I’ve returned to again and again ever since I was nine is To Kill a Mockingbird, and when I think about my reading tastes it’s obvious I love a classic bildungsroman—I don’t think I will ever outgrow coming-of-age stories. Almost all of my favorite books are coming-of-age—House on Mango Street, Winter Birds, Cruddy, Bastard Out of Carolina, etc.
As for voices or styles I was trying to echo, I definitely love southern literature, especially Southern Gothics, but I think the first writer I wanted to be was Angela Carter. I remember reading her collection The Bloody Chamber when I was fourteen and literally having to stop to look up every fifth word or so, but the way she used fairytale kept me going in a way Henry Miller’s prose didn’t. That was when I started keeping a vocabulary log and then trying to use all of Carter’s fancy words in my own writing. I was really into the word “crepuscular” because of her. I was also writing a lot of stream-of-consciousness back then so my sentences were LONG (especially with all those big words). It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I realized why everyone goes on about Hemingway. I learned a lot from him about being a more economic writer and how to use subtext instead. Subtext involves the reader far more and I think that was also when I first really began to consider audience, that writing wasn’t all about me.
-What inspired you to write Fig?
Sarah: After I sold Fig and it’d come out I was pretty deep into the incredible struggle my second novel has proven to be. I was talking to my agent about how difficult Roadside Altars is compared to writing Fig and she said this is common. She also offered her theory as to why writers suffer from the sophomore slump. She said writers put their whole lives into their first books, even when writing fiction. I realized how right she was. There are moments in Fig I have been writing and re-writing since I was fourteen. The story I told earlier about the “seels” surrounding the house is really the opening scene of the book (only different) and it’s a scene that also manifests in an earlier work of mine titled, “Detours” that was published in an anthology of modern fairytales and fables. There are lots of scenes or ideas in Fig like this.
So that’s the answer I haven’t given before when interviewed but there is also the other answer which is equally true. Fig came from a line that popped into my head once; and it came from the house where I live; and it came from watching two of my best friends have emergency C-sections when they’d both been planning on homebirths with midwives.
I’ve long suffered from anxiety and driving was something I avoided for a long time. While I can drive now, I still avoid driving in cities and on most interstates. Anyway, I was riding with my husband one day and our daughters. We must have been on an interstate because I was anxious—grabbing the Jesus handle and continuously slamming on my imaginary brakes when I said, “Every day is a near death experience.” The line stuck in my head because it felt so true that I ended up writing it as the first line of the short story, “The Sound of Crying Sheep” that eventually evolved into Fig. We’d recently moved into the house where we live now. It’s an old farmhouse on the outskirts of Boulder, and if you don’t look west where the mountains are it might as well be Kansas. It was in this house that I first started to hear Fig telling me her story so I listened and I started writing it down.
I was fortunate to have that ecstatic homebirth experience. For me it was this incredibly empowering moment that really changed me. I’ve had body issues of one kind or another for a long time and PTSD from both a rape when I was younger and then domestic violence (previous relationship) so when I was able to give birth in a tiny shotgun shack without running water in the middle of the winter two hours away from the nearest hospital, my body was no longer my enemy. I felt like a superhero—like I could do anything. The two friends who had the emergency C-sections had gotten pregnant after me and they’d come to me a lot for advice. One was in Tennessee where I was (but had a different midwife) and the other in New York. They were both planning homebirths but they both ended up being transported for different reasons.
I did my best to be there for them as they grieved the loss of their dream births but I know I was also probably this huge reminder they didn’t get what they had wanted and hoped for.
I think writing Fig eventually was my way to cope with my own survivor’s guilt but also to try to give voice to the complex trauma women experience when they don’t get to give birth the way they want to. I saw how they struggled with people not understanding why they were in mourning. “But you have a healthy baby,” everyone kept reminding them (as if they didn’t know that). Obviously they were both grateful for their sons and in love with their children, but what people forget is how we live in this culture where violence against women is the norm. Our society punishes the victims of sexual assault and domestic violence again and again when the Brock Turners of the world continue to get a slap on the wrist instead of real prison time (if they even get the slap on the wrist at all). Mostly they get a pat on the back and the whole bullshit line, “Boys will be boys.” Birth is natural and it is also sexual to some extent and the way a woman is treated in a hospital—objectified, belittled, and turned into a piece of meat is really just another manifestation of misogyny and sexual violence. Later when I was in training to be a doula, I learned that women who have been sexually abused tend to have more trouble in labor than those who don’t. In the births I’ve seen, I’ve found this to be true. For a long time I wanted to be a doula who specialized in assisting single mamas and women who’d been abused so I could help them have the experience I was blessed to have. But I have a lot of chronic pain issues from a car accident and the hours a doula works were just too hard on me. Instead, I try to do the work through my writing.
-I know that you have a unique process when it comes to writing novels. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and about what you did to create the world of Fig?
Sarah: I’m not sure I have a unique process other than I went into writing a novel with absolutely no idea how to do so (other than having read hundreds of novels); now that I’ve written one and published it, I’m working on another novel, and I realize I still have no idea how to do it. Every book is a different beast—a whole different puzzle that needs to be figured out—different characters, different plots, different forms, etc. all equate to a different approach. The only real difference between before and after Fig is at least I know I’ve written one book and published it—that said I wish that gave me more confidence that I can do it again, but it doesn’t. In some ways it’s even harder because I remember how much work went into Fig.
As far as the writing process goes I’m probably no more unique in that everyone who writes has a unique process. I also probably do the exact same things a lot of writers do (I’m constantly learning from other writers what works for them and trying it out to see if it works for me). I don’t outline or use Scribner, and really, even with my short fiction, I usually have no idea where a story is going when I start it. I’m a character-driven writer so I summon them (or really they visit me) and then I listen and they show me where to go. I often write particular vignettes over and over and over and over again before I move on. It’s a miracle I get the word counts that I do.
I wrote Fig all over the place. One section at a time, but not in chronological order. I accidentally wrote the very end thinking I was writing a scene that would be somewhere in the middle. As soon as I finished that scene I realized it was the last few pages of the book so I changed her age and some other details to make that fit and kept going. I’d probably written half the book by then and it helped to finally have some idea of where I was headed.
Because Roadside Altars, the book I’m working on now, follows the “Fool” through the major arcana cards of the Tarot I do know the basic plot more than I ever did with Fig, and while I did actually write the first draft of that novel super fast, I never connected to the characters or the writing the way I did with Fig. I’m on the sixth or seventh revision/version of the book and I am only now starting to fall in love with the story and the people populating this new world, and I think that’s because I’m not writing it chapter-by-chapter. I’m doing my best to write it more like I did with Fig. I use a lot of divinatory techniques to trick myself into going different directions—while I did use the Tarot and bibliomancy to some extent while writing Fig, such techniques feel even more relevant to the work I’m doing now since it’s a book about fortunetelling, divination, and ultimately the cycle of time.
I am big believer in daydreams and in the writing that happens when you’re not actually writing—for me this writing happens a lot in the bathtub or while I’m walking and when I’m asleep. I get a lot of my ideas from dreams. But again I know a lot of writers who do too. My friend and colleague, the poet Kika Dorsey, writes primarily from dreams, and like me she too writes first thing in the morning upon waking (only she wakes up a lot earlier than I do).
-The mother and her illness are so central to this story. You say in your acknowledgments section that your own mother did not have schizophrenia, but you were able to write this character so vividly and with such compassion; was there someone in your life who inspired her?
Sarah: In many ways I think of Mama—of Annie—as a manifestation of me, my best and worst traits, only magnified and exaggerated tenfold (sometimes more and sometimes less). I also think of her sometimes as the real protagonist of the book. Fig is just the perspective from which to tell her story because Annie is mentally ill, thus too unreliable whereas Fig’s child-like unreliability works. I’ve always been interested in the (sometimes) fine line between reality and fantasy, sanity and insanity, and that is also something I am addressing in Fig. As a feminist I know I can sometimes overwhelm my daughters with my beliefs. I’ve had very similar conversations with both my girls about Chinese footbinding and I didn’t allow Barbies in the house (they could play with them elsewhere). I don’t think I was quite as intense as Annie is in that scene, but I know I’ve taken it too far at times, but then I wonder am I the one taking it too far or is it the greater patriarchal mainstream society that is too extreme?
I’ve had some terrible panic attacks in front of both my daughters I wish they hadn’t seen. While I’ve gotten the anxiety and the OCD (mostly) under control I think the damage to them has already been done because of how old they both were at the time(s). My mother also suffered from anxiety, especially when she was younger, and she had bouts of depression all her life (the latter is something I’ve been fortunate not to struggle with much). I wonder how much of it is nurture and how much is nature. Because Kaya isn’t mine in the same way as Story is (Kaya’s my stepdaughter [and Story is my biological daughter]), I often felt like everyone was watching me in a different way than they watch my mothering of Story—like they were all waiting for me to fuck up. So the hyper-vigilance someone like Mama must feel, especially as a parent with a mental illness, was something I think I can relate to—but again, magnified.
I did read a lot of memoirs about schizophrenia but also other dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships and I did a lot of research about the disease. At the same time I wanted Mama to seem real so I knew I had to tap into her unique qualities as a person so there were times when I didn’t make her symptoms or behavior “textbook.” I did the same with Fig when it comes to her picking. The way she tends to her wounds is not at all classic textbook Dermatillomania but it fits her particulars as a person even if she is fictitious.
-Since the first time I heard you read at Naropa I have been impressed with the subtle lyricism and poetic beauty of your prose. Who were your biggest influences when you were mastering your voice? Were there any particular prompts or exercises that you found especially helpful when you were discovering and developing your voice?
Sarah: Thank you! That’s an interesting question. The first thing that comes to mind is how I love reading out loud (probably because my parents read aloud to me a lot as a child and then because I read aloud to my own daughters). Bobbie Louise Hawkins is a mentor of mine and I think I learned a lot from her via the monologues she performs. Maybe it came from being mostly surrounded by poets at Naropa, that poetry? Maybe the lyricism snuck into my writing or else I wove it into my readings/texts so I could stand a chance on stage next to all those poetic souls? I’m not sure. I have some background in theater, but not a lot, and I’ve seen more readings and book signings growing up than most people (which means I’ve sat through a lot of really dull ones) so I also never wanted to be boring if I was in the hot seat.
That said I’ve read reviews of my work by people who have never seen me read and they too describe my writing as lyrical. The funny thing is I’m totally tone deaf—as in the worst singer ever—but I do read all my work out loud as a primary editing technique so maybe that’s where it comes from. I’ve always done that (going back to those speech therapy days and dolls and drawing). I am very interested in both fairytales and storytelling so there’s that too—the performance of a story. Naropa really does foster performance in their program. Otherwise all I can say is to list a few writers I love to see read who I’m sure influenced me: Selah Saterstrom (all that southern charm); HR Hegnauer (the memorization and theatrics); and Lidia Yuknavitch (the theatrics and exquisitely mesmerizing idiosyncrasies).
-The ending of Fig is so intense and powerful. Without giving anything away to those who haven’t read it yet, can you say a little bit about how you came to this ending, and about how it affected you while you were writing it?
Sarah: Well, I spoke a little already about the last few pages of the book and how I wrote that scene originally thinking it was somewhere in the middle instead. As far as where Mama ends up, and without giving anything away, all I can say is this: I think her choices have to do with giving Fig the best possible future considering the circumstances. What she does is a gift.
Again, without giving too much away (although I don’t think it’s a spoiler to talk about it in the same way some plot twists are), I will say this: I learned a lot about human flaws, specifically flawed mothers, from Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, and the brutally painful choice Bone’s mother makes at the end of that book; I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and the particular subject of infanticide and slavery in US history just as I’ve done quite a bit of research into the practice of Chinese footbinding and the complexity of how it was mothers who were the ones (primarily) binding their toddler daughter’s feet. As Mama points out in the book, the term “binding” is misleading as it’s far more disfiguring and permanent than “binding” simply implies. People always ask: “How could these women do this to their children? Especially when they too had their feet bound as three-year-olds and experienced the excruciating pain involved firsthand?” And the answer is they did it out of love for their daughters. If they didn’t bind their daughter’s feet, their daughters would be denied any kind of future—without the bound feet, they wouldn’t get a good husband to take care of them and they’d be ostracized from society. I could talk about Jon Benet Ramsey and her mother dressing her up as a doll of an adult woman, but I won’t. Not today.
I wrote several different versions of what happens with Mama (not those last few pages but the climax of the book) before I got it right. I did get a lot of help from my agent and her assistant when it came to this. I ended up writing the scene I believe you’re referring to during my very last MFA Summer Writing Program workshop with Laird Hunt. It had nothing at all to do with the theme of his class—Histories—but Laird knew my agent wanted to get the book to market so he let me break the rules. It was the last scene I wrote even though it’s not the actual ending.
Honestly there were other scenes in the book that were more difficult to write. The hardest scene was probably what Mama does with Fig’s flour sack baby. I know a lot of readers tell me that’s the scene that most breaks them to read. Gran’s character could also be hard, but in the end she’s probably my favorite character after Fig. Like Fig, Gran grows the most. I was stuck for a long time because I kept making Gran only mean and cruel. It was not only boring it wasn’t moving the plot along. Fig was suffering enough and she didn’t need a further antagonist. So I dared myself to write the exact opposite of what I had Gran doing after Fig gets kicked out of charm school and it ended up being so much truer, so much more interesting that I kept it. It’s now an exercise I make my students do. They have to write the exact opposite scene or behavior, and 90% of the time it ends up being the way to go instead. I think this reflects real life. I only grow as a person when I step outside my comfort zone (or get pushed out of it). That’s what the literary term catalyst is all about.
-Your first novel has received a lot of (well deserved) critical acclaim and market success; do you have any advice to aspiring novelists who hope for similar outcomes?
Sarah: My only advice is not to do it for the critical acclaim or whatever. I have plenty of days where I make the mistake of comparing my work to others who seem more “successful” and doing so gets me absolutely nowhere. I write because I literally don’t know what else I would do. Right now I’m trying to read as many first books as I can just to see how certain authors either automatically exploded (talent-wise) or grew or did both. Debut novels have a certain raw energy that often gets lost as writers mature. It reminds me of how often the focused free-writes my beginner students produce in class blow me away with how alive the writing is. But I’m straying.
My advice for aspiring novelists is to keep writing. You do have to develop a thick skin because the reviews can hurt. I know a lot of writers who say they don’t ever read their reviews but I don’t believe them. Maybe they don’t read all of them, but I know they read some of them. Even the starred reviews often miss certain points. What I’m trying to say is to celebrate the rejections that come as you are working on a novel, working on making a name for yourself as a writer, because it’s a part of the process. I’m attempting to celebrate all the successes (no matter how small) when they happen. I have a chronic pain condition and my occupational therapist and I work on focusing on the parts of my body that don’t hurt when I’m on her table. This has been absolutely radical for me because I naturally just focus on the pain. That’s what I mean about the small successes. Even if it’s yet another shitty review where someone gives Fig 1, 2, or 3 stars and writes: I would have given the book more stars but it was just so depressing, I still have to remember I actually published a book that can get a goddamn shitty review where the person obviously doesn’t understand there isn’t really another way to write a book about mental illness and these particular people in this particular place. And then I celebrate that with a piece of chocolate or whatever. But mostly it’s all about remembering your job is to write. So that’s what you do when you’re not reading and having to do all the other bullshit stuff like work to pay the bills. I also think it’s incredibly important to support all the writers you know—the ones with the big names and the small names. Buy their books; attend their readings; write reviews; blog about them; interview them; host a salon; invite them to your class.
-If you’d like, talk a little bit about your next project.
Sarah: Roadside Altars follows the “Fool’s” journey through the major arcana cards of the Tarot. Each chapter is a new Tarot card and follows the same numbered system the major arcana do—Fool is Zero, The Magician is One, etc. Originally I thought it was focused on Krystal Rassat—a metal-head teenage girl growing up in rural Minnesota. She has a lump on her left shoulder that is the remains of a twin sister she mostly absorbed in utero but her mother and grandmother insist it’s not this, but rather her mark meaning she is gifted with second sight. Her matriarchs are also marked and gifted (the mother has a purple birthmark on her thigh shaped like a human eye and the grandmother was born with a big black mole on her chin that has always sprouted one long white hair). I’ve learned it’s not just about Krystal (and her ghost of a twin sister) but also about her mother, Dahlia Divinity Rassat, and her grandmother, Esther Violet Rassat too. So now each card unfolds to tell the stories of these three women, and the hope is these fragmented narratives will all come together to tell the whole story. On top of that, each woman’s story unfolds for each card in three forms: present (which is 1987), past, and future. It’s limited third-person that favors each Rassat accordingly but there is also a “we” narrative witness that comes from the P.O.V. of the space of transition (personified). Sound complicated enough, because it is! Thanks for asking such intriguing questions. It’s been a real pleasure to be interviewed by you!
And thank you Sarah for taking the time away from writing Roadside Altars, and everything else you do, to answer these questions with such depth.
Learn more about Sarah Schantz by visiting her website www.sarahelizabethschantz.org
And don’t forget to pick up your copy of “Fig” right here:
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