By Leslie Lindsay
A timely and topical call to action, a plea, about the changing nature of suicide, told from someone who has been ‘on the brink’ and back, ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL is a tender, emotional, raw, exploration of what the author posits a ‘social problem.’
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS~
ALWAYS WITH A BOOK|MEMOIR MONDAY
Leslie Lindsay & Donald Antrim in conversation
Donald Antrim is an American novelist. His first novel, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, was published in 1993. In 1999, The New Yorker named him as among the 20 best writers under the age of 40. In 2013, he was named a MacArthur Fellow.
ABOUT ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL:
I cannot love this book any more. ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL (October 12, 2021, from W.W. Norton & Co.) isprofound, thought-provoking, and infused with clear-eyed examination of one’s life, but the bigger issue at hand: the human condition, sigma.
Through a raw and harrowing–yet beautiful–account of the author’s suicide attempt, we are led right onto the fire escape where he vacillated on the decision to end his life. For a brief, but complex time, we’re co-pilots with Antrim as he allows us into his suicidal state of mind, the downward spiral, thedark thoughts, his psychiatric hospitalization and recovery, the gorgeous reinvention of suicide.
I was struck and in awe with the way Donald Antrim reframes the stigma of suicide, how it’s not merely the result of a ‘depression,’ which he posits is not ‘near enough’ but that suicide, the act of even thinking about suicide is even bigger still and stems from trauma. This section, early in the book, resonated:
“I see it [suicide] as a long illness, an illness with origins in trauma and isolation, in deprivation of touch, in violence and neglect, in the loss of home and belonging […] it’s etiology, it’s beginning, whether early in life, or later in life, in the family or beyond, is social in nature. I see suicide as a social disease. I will refer to suicide, not depression.”
This floored me. It made sense. My maternal family is rife with mental illness, this speaks to many of origins presented, at least in my family.
ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL is unsentimental but gorgeously rendered. I found it inspiring and jarring, honest and authentic. It’s about being misunderstood, but it’s alsolife-affirming and speaks to the human condition in a way I’ve yet to see.This book is not long, but it’s complex and multilayered, delving into Antrim’s past, his writing life, along with touches of his future. I felt emotionally wrung-out as a I read, but the book ends on a hopeful note.
Please join me in welcoming the talented and generous Donald Antrim to the author interview series:
Donald, welcome. I am in awe with this work. ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL gutted me, and I mean that in the best possible way. Here, you take a very personal and intimate experience to reframe suicide—calling it a unique consequence of trauma and personal isolation, but with origins in the brain and mind. We’ll get into that, but first, can you explain your motivation for writing ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL?
I wrote out of obligation. I am a writer and a patient both, and I have and have had help with both. I have strong support in my professional life, and I had written and survived memoir before, and it seemed to me that it would be a privilege to offer something to the suffering, and to those who care for us.
Your explanation about suicide being a bigger issue than ‘just depression,’ really rang true. This whole idea of trauma and violence being at the origin, the loss of home and touch, but also about it being a disease of the mind and the brain, I get that. I saw that with my mother. She died by suicide over six years ago. I know that much of ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL covers all of this, but can you tell us more, please?
One thing that I didn’t write much about was suicidal “social contagion”—the effective passing about of suicide among people in a shared environment or region. I believe that this contagion exists, and that its victims are made up of people already vulnerable to suicide–even people at a distance. Suicide over time and space. It needn’t be seen as a mystery, but as a sharing. And a recognition of similar or idealized others succumbing to suicide can be very persuasive and affecting to people already in some stage of suicidal illness. These are just my thoughts. I believe it is important to demystify suicide in every way we can. Let me say right now that I am sorry to hear about your mother. I almost lost my life to suicide, but I have never lost another person, and I can’t imagine how difficult that must be.
Thank you for that. It really is complex and certainly difficult; no one expects to lose another person in this way. Another piece that really struck me in the book was this idea that suicide is ‘death in place,’ which yes—that resonates. Can you expand on that a bit?
I mean to say that, for the suicide, the whole environment is implicated, as it were. Our surroundings do not save us, and may become part of our trial. Home, work, the street, the natural world—all become literally uninhabitable. The term death in place is meant to speak of a world in which suicide is, or seems, materially active and present, all around us, in every scene and gesture, just as it is present, we feel, in every part of our bodies.
My mother was an artist, seamstress, interior decorator. We talk about the torment of the creative type, the so-called pain of invention, the blank page, whatever…and though these are ‘old questions,’ what might be the answer?
The answer to those old questions might be “misunderstandings.” When we think of creative types being more vulnerable to suicide, we mystify creativity and suicide both. People who have been traumatized might seek, in creative work, understanding of their own lives, or consolation. But we need to look to the trauma, to the beginnings of the problem, or we won’t find answers. By the way, my mother was also a seamstress and tailor. She was also a terrible alcoholic. I attribute many of my problems in living to my life with her, both before and after she died.
“A profound, courageous, compassionate masterpiece that will, I think and I hope, change the way we think about suicide forever. What Antrim brings powerfully to bear in this inspiring and essential book is the great writer’s habits of precision and unwavering honesty. This book is an act of generosity; Antrim is trying to tell us something deeply true not just about the suicidal, but about all of us—about our culture, about the way we live, about how we might lead better, more authentic, more connected lives.”
—George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo
Can you let us into your writing process a bit? For example, did you keep journals? Did you cull through medical notes? Something else? Did you ever think about jettisoning the project?
I did not keep journals—it was too painful to do—and I only took up medical reading after a good amount of time had passed since the hospitalizations. I never thought of abandoning the project. It seemed important to me to push through, for the reason that I could, and that the book might matter to people who are suffering. It took a long time to come to the writing—it seemed dangerous—but once I did it turned out to be interesting and meaningful work. It gave me a sense of purpose, of mission.
Since October is Mental Health and Depression Month and also the observance of National Depression Screening Day, what suggestions or outlets for assistance can someone access if they are feeling suicidal?
There are a number of good hotline numbers to call. Staying close to other people may not be saving, but it will help. I’m an advocate of medical intervention and the hospital, a place that scares everyone, but that keeps suicide—the action—at bay. If the problem is severe, then treatment is necessary, and adequate treatment may likely be found in the hospital.
Donald, this has been so, so wonderful and I appreciate you so much. Thank you for taking the time. What should I have asked, but may have forgotten? It doesn’t have to be literary or about the book.
One might ask whether this book will actually do much to help others, or to help us understand this ancient disease. I hope that it will, but I am also aware that it will not solve trauma and isolation, features of the human condition that have been with us throughout history. The long-term solution to suicide might be a cultural commitment to kindness, but I don’t see that happening any time soon, unfortunately.
For more information, to connect with Donald Antrim, or to purchase a copy of ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL, please visit:
- Publisher’s Website
- The New Yorker FINDING A WAY BACK FROM SUICIDE
- L.A. Times Book Review
- PEOPLE Magazine’s Review
If you are in crisis and need mental health assistance, seek the nearest emergency room. You don’t have to fight alone. Additionally, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number, 1-800-273-TALK(8255), will connect you with a certified crisis center near where you live.
- Support your local in-person bookstore or order through Bookshop.org
- This title may also be available through other online sellers.
You might also like:
I was reminded, in part, of the work of Catherine Cho (INFERNO) meets Jill Bialosky’s ASYLUM with a touch of THE NINTH HOUR (Alice McDermott), Leesa Cross-Smith’s THIS CLOSE TO OKAY, Kathryn Craft’s THE FAR END OF HAPPY and Elizabeth Brundage’s THE VANISHING POINT. In terms of nonfiction, NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE (Ron Powers) and HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD (Bob Kolker), but also ….EVERYTHING HERE IS FINE (Vince Granta) and in terms of more fiction, Matt Haig’s THE MIDNIGH T LIBRARY hits on so many fabulous themes related to choices we make in life, anxiety, suicide, more.
Consider a look at Donald Antrim’s 2006 memoir, THE AFTERLIFE, which was released during his initial stay at the psychiatric hospital following his suicide attempt.
Browse all books featured on Always with a Book since 2018 on Bookshop.org
Further Reading/Additional Resources related to Mental Health can be found HERE.
November kicks off titles about home and mothers with featured #MemoirMonday titles from Donald Antrim THE AFTERLIFE, Michelle Orange (PURE FLAME), Violaine Husimann’s THE BOOK OF MOTHER (fiction), but also GENTRIFIER (Anne Elizabeth Moore), Deborah Levy’s REAL ESTATE and Naomi Kupitsky’s highly anticipated novel, THE FAMILY.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Donald Antrim is the author of three novels, including Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, and a memoir, The Afterlife. He has received awards from the MacArthur Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Shari Lapena to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, an audiobook narrated by Leslie from Penguin Random House. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.
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Cover and author image courtesy of Norton and used with permission. Author photo credit: