Interview with Sarah Elizabeth Schantz
Accomplished short-story writer, Sarah Elizabeth Schantz from Boulder, Colorado, has published her debut novel called Fig. It is a story about the love and sacrifice of a young girl named Fig, who has to deal with a mother who has schizophrenia, as well as her own struggle with mental illness, including Compulsive Skin Picking Disorder. I had the priviledge of having an interview with the author.
Prior to Fig, your debut novel, you were already an accomplished short story writer. Many of your stories like “First Snow” and “News Item” centers around the complexities of the relationship between parent and child. What is it that draws you to these themes?
The relationship we have to our parents or our children is a universal human experience; even if a person doesn’t know his or her parents, that not knowing is still a relationship, and it still influences who that person becomes, and is. I’m interested in the human experience, as in the experiences we all know, and like the coming-of-age story (which I also write a lot), the bonds between family is a shared experience—that said, sometimes the bond is broken, and sometimes it’s super tight, and it can save us by supporting us. But no matter what, the people we come from AND the people who raise us (nature and nurture) both determine who we become and are. I’m fascinated with the new theory coming out about ancestral memories, and how these memories that aren’t exactly ours, are somehow swirling around in the spirals of our DNA. My story “First Snow” came from what I think was an ancestral memory; I was getting cranial sacral from a physical therapist when I had this weird vision/dream where I was in the woods and it was beginning to snow, only I wasn’t me. I felt male, and I felt young. There was an older male with me, and in the body I was in, I felt the strong need to impress this elder when suddenly I spotted a duck flying above the trees, and then I was lifting a rifle, and despite the mixed feelings I had about killing, I was shooting the bird dead. I’ve never been hunting; I didn’t recognize those woods; and I didn’t know who “I” was. I told my mother about this vision and she couldn’t believe it. “That sounds exactly like a story your father once told me a long time ago,” she said, “A story about the first time he made a kill while hunting.” My dad doesn’t like guns, and while he does tell stories, he doesn’t talk about this part of his past. While this was his story, I swear I never heard him tell it. My mother confirmed this, stating that he’d only told her before I was born, back when he was trying to process his emotions about his brother who I believe to have been the older male presence in my dream/memory. I also believe we get to choose what we inherit, and what we disinherit. My fiction is about this choice, this free will.
Your main character Fig and her mother are both afflicted with mental illness. What inspired you to write a novel about mental illness?
The illnesses came with the characters. I realize how hokey I might sound (or even crazy), especially now, that I’ve discussed the ancestral memory I had, but I don’t know how else to answer but than to tell the truth: For me, being a writer is like being a medium. I hear voices, and when I listen, I hear the stories the voices are trying to tell, and if I’m lucky, I can find the time to tell them in my fiction. I also think (probably because I hear voices) that I’m interested in what makes a mental illness a mental illness and not something else? What is the line between crazy and not crazy? Between crazy and creative? Ill and not ill? Obviously, the voices I hear don’t tell me to do bad things, and they don’t get in the way of my life (although sometimes I can’t just write because I have to teach or run errands). Rather, these voices work as my collective muse; I’d never consider them to be a symptom of schizophrenia, and I don’t believe they sound anything like the voices someone with that disease hears. My voices serve me well as they are the main source that helps me write.
Despite its prevalence, skin-picking disorder is a little known condition; how did you come to learn about this condition, and what motivated you to make it a huge feature in Fig’s story?
|"I was a picker as a child and adolescent. When I did pick, I often lost time, and when I came back to my body, I’d find I’d done it again."|
I never made the wounds initially, but I did pick any scabs I happened to already have. I perpetuated these wounds. I didn’t let myself heal. I don’t remember when I started picking, or how or why it turned into a disorder. I remember my dad trying to get me to stop, talking about the scars I’d get, but I didn’t care. Or maybe I did care as I did begin hiding the habit, and I often wonder now if this is when it turned into a compulsion.
My midwife gave me a book titled, Hygeia that explores the wisdom of the body to protect itself, or rather the self inside, or in some cases, react to the emotions of the self. For example, children with chronic ear infections often have parents who fight all the time. The ear infection is a way for the child to literally block the turmoil out. As a writer, I’m less interested in whether this is scientifically sound than I am in the metaphor the theory presents. For example, I’ve also seen a person lose her voice after lying as if the body was trying to get her to just stop. It dawned on me that I was picking the most at a time when I was getting picked on by my peers—bullied, and there you have it: I was literally picking on myself just as they were. I think every writer inserts bits and pieces of themselves into their characters, and Fig and I are no different. It wasn’t a deliberate choice to make her a skin-picker, but once I realized she was, it was something I had to honor.
How did you relate to people with this disorder in preparation for molding the experience into Fig’s character?
I participated in some of the online forums hosted by your website (mostly I just “listened”), and I read all the case studies I could find. I used Angela Hartlin’s memoir, Forever Marked: A Dermatillomania Diary as a resource too. I also reopened the wounds of my past and free wrote what I could remember about picking.
There are some key differences between excoriation (skin picking) disorder and self-harm, although the two conditions can occur co-morbidly. Are the differences between excoriation disorder and the self-harm the character eventually engages in explored?
I never had an agenda to write a book about schizophrenia, OCD, skin picking, or self-harm, but these factors surfaced as components of the story just as the secret language of flowers did, or the fact the book is set on a farm. Thus, I didn’t explore these differences but I did explore what triggered Fig, and the escalation of her disorder. OCD rituals are most performed around a place of threshold—whether that threshold is a door a person must sanitize before passing through, or simply the gate from adolescence into adulthood, the threshold, like any transition, is a place where a person is most likely to lose control. Because I can’t remember the first time I picked, I got to write Fig’s first time. In this case, she picks to get her mother’s attention, but when it doesn’t work, it leads to the next time when picking becomes something else. Eventually, she is chasing after the warmth of the blood, the disassociation, the endorphins, and that rush is why it’s so hard to actually call it self-harm, and why the disorder is more akin to substance abuse than anything else.
|"I tried to show how a harmless habit becomes a bad habit and how a bad habit can morph into a debilitating disorder."|
Schizophrenia, OCD, skin picking disorder and self-harm . . . these are all really intense mental illnesses. What was your experience of immersing yourself in your character’s world while writing the novel?
While it was often painful and embarrassing to reach back into my past, and specifically into the memory pockets of picking, I believe the process was more cathartic than damaging. I might not remember the first time I picked, or how I lost control, but through Fig’s experience, I got to experience these steps, or rather falls, and then I got to pick myself up as she does. In that way, the book was incredibly therapeutic. I still struggle with OCD, but for the most part I’ve learned how to use it to help me rather than to harm myself. While I sometimes spend too much time making a paragraph look like the perfect paragraph, the other attention I pay to detail is how I not only came to write this book, but touch my reader’s hearts. Honestly, no matter what fictional world I am writing at the time, I’m going to be fully immersed in it, and that immersion is both good and bad just as is any “life.”
photo credit: Georgia Van Gunten
When you researched skin picking disorder, what was the most surprising thing you learned about the disorder and the people who have this condition?
I was surprised that I couldn’t find anyone who picked the way I did, or Fig does. It seems that most people not only pick to make the wounds, they keep several (if not hundreds) going at a time, and they use tools. Like Fig, I only picked scabs I’d gotten from skinning my knee or something, and I only used my fingernails. While I’d keep a wound open for years at a time (the longest was four years), I only tended to that one. I decided to write what I knew.
I also want to say this: while I understand that cutting is a major problem, I often feel like it gets glamourized. It’s just neat and tidy enough to almost be “attractive” whereas picking is not. The way people react to picking is the way people should react to cutting, and yet, the general reactions are different. I think people are far more grossed out by picking, and while I don’t want to glamourize the condition, I do want to humanize the experience and the people who are afflicted by it.
What were the best sources of information for you when researching skin picking disorder and schizophrenia for the novel?
I’ve already answered this question in regard to picking, but here is the research I did for schizophrenia. I read memoirs like The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok; The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls; and My Mother’s Keeper by Tara Elgin Holley with Joe Holley. I also read a few editions of the DSM, Schizophrenia for Dummies (I’m not joking), and the phenomenal text, Surviving Schizophrenia: A Manual for Families, Patients and Providers by E. Fuller Torrey, M.D. I also conducted personal interviews with people who’d grown up with schizophrenic parents.
If you could bring Fig out of the pages of your novel, what would you say to her?
I’d say, “Yes!”
Fig’s story spans her life from age 6 to 19—if there was one key message you would like to get across to young woman of that age through this book, what would it be?
I’ve read several books that deal with self-harm or mental illness, and especially in the YA world where Fig ended up, I see the plots culminate in answers or cures that seem too easy. While I understand the message is hope, I am a realist. It’s not easy. That said, I do know what saved me: my writing became a venue in which to pour myself, and to heal myself. Writing was my ultimate savior, which means I saved myself (no one else will or can). When Fig starts picking wildflowers and making flower arrangements, she shifts her focus. Just as she switches the letters around in the word “sore” to spell the word “rose,” she turns pain into beauty, or rather, she stops hurting herself because she has something else to do, something more productive and important. A friend of mine used hypnosis to quit smoking. She was told to drink water every time she craved a cigarette, and while I’ve seen her pound a lot of water at her son’s birthday parties or other stressful events, it worked—instead of smoking, she hydrates now.
"Habits are about filling time and space, about having control, and because they are, you can’t just quit. Rather, you need to substitute the unhealthy act with one that serves you in a more constructive way."