WeekEND Reading: Mira T. Lee talks about her luminous family saga, EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL, touching on sisters, mental illness, immigration, and so much more. Plus, her inspiring TBR, and how fiction is a great place to develop empathy and reconcile nuances

By Leslie Lindsay 

A brave, unflinching debut about the tenuous bonds of mental illness, how we define ‘family,’ immigration, and so much more. 

Everything Here Is Beautiful
EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL is one of those literary masterpieces that will captivate and enthrall readers everywhere, perhaps for very different reasons. There’s so much about this book I love–the razor-sharp writing, the way I was transported to another world (South America/Ecuador, Switzerland), and back again (NYC, Minnesota), and then there’s the breadth of scope: mental illness, sisters, love, who we call ‘family,’ life and death, as well as loss and rejuvenation.

Told in alternating, highly distinct POVs from several main characters: Miranda: the older sister who has always been the “responsible one”; Lucia: whose free-spirited nature is dampened by her mental illness; Yonah: the Israeli shopkeeper and first husband of Lucia; Manuel: Lucia’s boyfriend, and father of her child.

EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL may be best described as a literary family drama (spanning years and continents) with a mental illness theme (and its butterfly93.jpgtreatment) as well as an immigration (and cultural displacement) undercurrent. 

I’m in awe with Mira T. Lee’s ambitious novel. I found it emotional and touching, raw and brave, and skillfully drawn. EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL is about trying to do our best without fully losing ourselves. 

I am thrilled and honored to welcome Mira to the blog.

Leslie Lindsay: I just finished reading EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL and I have so many thoughts rumbling around. This is a very multilayered, complex novel, but it’s so well done. I have to ask: what sparked this particular tale, why now?

Mira T. Lee: Hi Leslie, thank you so much for your kind words! So I started off writing short stories, and found that many of them dealt with the same recurring themes – family dynamics, illness, the interplay of different cultures. One story in particular, How I Came to Love You Like A Brother (published by The Missouri Review) contained characters I loved, who I knew I could develop further. Then when my kids were very young, I went through a fallow period where I didn’t write for almost two years, but I had a series of predicaments brewing in my head. I’ve always been drawn to “gray areas,” those murky kinds of situations where good people are in conflict with each other even though no one’s at fault, and I’m forced to see things from more than one person’s perspective. By the time my younger son turned one, I was ready to write, and what emerged was this big, messy, cross-cultural family drama that explored several different relationships, and how the ripple effects of mental illness test family bonds.

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L.L.: Much of the book deals with what it’s like to have a mental illness—and what it’s like to love someone with a mental illness—I so appreciate both of those perspectives because they are often not explored in literature (though we often see the manifestations of ‘crazy behavior’). You take a slightly different angle, that of a more interior experience of mental illness. Can you expand on that, please?

Mira T. Lee: I’ve seen mental illness up close through the struggles of my own loved ones, and I’ve also heard countless stories of mental illness in family support groups I’ve attended. From these experiences I can say that psychotic illnesses (like schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder differ from most physical illnesses in one very significant way: the patient, loved ones, and medical professional(s) often disagree on what should be done. Sometimes this is because the patient doesn’t believe they have an illness at all, other times it may be because they disagree with the recommended treatments.  This makes for a tremendous amount of conflict, and creates situations that are fraught and intractable, with no clear right or wrong answers. I wanted to explore multiple sides of multiple conflicts, so this involved delving into the interiors of my main characters and understanding their frustrations, as well as embedding Lucia’s illness within broader storylines. You’re right, the issues involved with psychotic illnesses (e.g. medications, “lack of insight”) are rarely explored in literature – it’s not that surprising, because they’re tough concepts to understand, but that’s part of the reason I felt compelled to tell this story.

L.L.: Along those lines, I really like how you’ve taken the experience of mental illness and shifted it culturally from a white, middle-class incident to that of someone who is Chinese-American. Sadly, mental illness does not discriminate, yet it’s often not represented in other demographics. How did that come about in EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL?

Mira T. Lee: Narratives of mental illness (both memoir and fiction) have been getting a lot more attention in general, which is fantastic, but most do still center around white, middle-class families. I think partly this is because stigma can be especially strong in non-white communities. I didn’t set out to explore mental illness in communities of color, but I’m Chinese-American myself, and multicultural worlds like the ones in the book are what’s most familiar to me. I do hope conversations around the topic become less taboo.

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L.L.: My own mother (white, middle-class), had schizoaffective/bipolar with psychotic features/narcissist personality disorder…I saw many of her symptoms overlap with Lucia’s. Yet in the narrative, the diagnosis is a bit abstract. Was this intentional on your part?

Mira T. Lee: Yes, the vagueness was intentional for a couple of reasons. First, diagnoses often fluctuate from one doctor to the next and change over time, and nowadays schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar with psychotic features are often thought of as being on one continuous spectrum (rather than discrete illnesses). Second, I didn’t want this novel to be pigeonholed as a “mental illness book” or Lucia to be thought of only as “that schizophrenic woman.” There is so much stigma attached to those labels, and so many preconceived notions about what they mean. So by foregoing clear labels, I hope readers will be more open to seeing Lucia as an individual, and will come to understand the illness in the context of her entire life, as well as the lives of the people who love her most. I do hope this book will reach readers who might not typically pick up a “mental illness book.”

“A tender but unflinching portrayal of the bond between two sisters—one that’s frayed by mental illness and stretched across continents, yet still endures. With ventriloquistic skill, Mira T. Lee explores the heartache of loving someone deeply troubled and the unbearable tightrope-walk between holding on and letting go.”

–Celeste Ng, New York Times bestselling author of Little Fires Everywhere and
Everything I Never Told You

L.L.: I know you’ve said you don’t want this book to be ‘about’ mental illness and here, I’ve asked all kinds of questions about that very theme! There’s also immigration, cultural differences and displacement. Those are some big issues and yet they’re handled so well. How did you structure this novel? Did you know ahead that this was the direction you were headed, or did it sort of evolve?

Mira T. Lee: Oh, that’s okay! I think you’re right in saying that this book appeals to different readers for different reasons. Some people gravitate toward the bond between the sisters, others to Lucia’s struggle to balance family and career, still others to the sisters’ relationships with the men in their lives. One interesting thing I’ve found is that I can almost always tell whether a reader has had personal experience with mental illness by the way they comment on the book. It just hits differently, and I’m glad for that. I hope the book finds its way to many more readers like you!

But back to your question: the novel evolved pretty organically. I rarely sat around making conscious decisions about who my characters were or what the plot would be. I also never consciously thought about “big issues” like immigration or cultural displacement, or wrote with any kind of agenda, for example, around mental illness. People from all different backgrounds have always been a staple of my adulthood, so to me, my characters are very much a reflection of America. My focus was purely on exploring how my characters would cope with the dilemmas they faced, and how their decisions would affect their relationships with the people they loved. I always thought of this as an intimate family story – albeit a messy one!

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L.L.: I could probably ask questions all day, but I won’t. Is there anything else you’d like to add? Something you hope others take away from reading EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL?

Mira T. Lee: I do hope readers will gain a sense of the issues surrounding schizophrenia, which is perhaps still the most severe and stigmatized of all the mental illnesses, but one deserving of just as much compassion. And I hope people see that these illnesses are only one component of a person’s life, and can relate to the humanity at the core of each of these characters – as sisters, mothers, husbands, lovers, as modern women, as deeply flawed human beings who yearn for love and belonging. But most of all, I hope readers will disagree over what these characters should or shouldn’t have done. The world is gray, full of ambiguity. Where is the line between adventure and recklessness? Compromise and resignation? Selfishness and self-preservation? Fiction is a great place to examine nuances, and to challenge ourselves to exercise our powers of empathy.

L.L.: What’s on your TBR list for 2018?

Mira T. Lee: My TBR list is ridiculously long. Anne Raeff’s Winter Kept Us Warm, Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible, Jillian Medoff’s This Could Hurt, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, Claire Goenawan’s Rainbirds, Shanthi Sekaran’s Lucky Boy, for starters. I wish I could spend an entire year just reading!

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L.L.: Oh, and one last question: are you working on anything new?

Mira T. Lee: I have bits and pieces of a few different projects, including some childrens’ picture books. We’ll see what happens…

For more information about the book, to connect with the author, or to purchase a copy of EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL, please see:

Mira T. Lee - © Liz Linder PhotographyABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mira T. Lee’s work has been published in numerous quarterlies and reviews, including The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Harvard Review, and Triquarterly. She was awarded an Artist’s Fellowship by the Massachusetts Cultural Council in 2012, and has twice received special
mention for the Pushcart Prize. She is a graduate of Stanford University, and
currently lives with her husband and two children in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is her debut novel.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

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[Author and cover image courtesy of Viking/Penguin/Random House and used with permission. ‘Stop the Stigma’ from, ‘Family Drama’  from ‘Empathy and compassion’ image from, winter reading  from  , butterful image from, all retrieved on 1.08.18]

Write On, Wednesday: The Fabulous Erika Swyler of the Amazing BOOK OF SPECULATION

By Leslie Lindsay 

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I did. And I’m in love. With both. THE BOOK OF SPECULATION is gorgeous, inside and out. A woman clad in a deep teal dress clutches a stack of antique books at her hips. The pages are yellowed and ragged, and indented with finger grooves reminiscent of old-fashioned dictionaries. Seriously, the cover art is so spectacularly striking; I just may leave it on my coffee table as a work of art. Today, I’m honored to have debut novelist Erika Swyler with us. Pull up a chair, grab a cup of coffee and come along for the journey.

L.L.: Erika, thanks so much for joining us today! I’m always so intrigued by what sparks a story for a writer. What three elements would you say collided in your writing world that propelled you to write THE BOOK OF SPECULATION?

Erika Swyler: Thanks very much for inviting me! It’s hard to put a finger on the exact moment that birthed this particular book, but as with most things, I think it was brought about by sudden change. Shortly after graduating college, I lived at home for six months. It was a weird time. I was facing the fact that I wasn’t good enough to pursue a career as an actor, grieving my father who had passed away the prior year, and once again living in my childhood home. I was home, but I was also displaced. The town where I grew up is also right on the Long Island Sound where there’s a constant struggle against land erosion. It’s beautiful and vulnerable. That’s book fodder, right there. It just took a long time to figure it out.

L.L.: So the book is really a complex family saga with a lot of folklore, mysticism, and ultimately erosion—of water, of family, of homes, and land. Can you talk a bit about that? What do you hope readers take away from those themes?

Erika Swyler: It’s an odd writer who uses erosion as plotline, right? But what I’m asking people to do is think about themselves, their lives and their families, in a larger sense of time and history. Years ago I read Graham Swift’s Waterland, and the way he entwined his characters with the land resonated with me. It posited that personal history is as essential as world history, and all of it is tied to land. This got me thinking about how we tell these personal stories—through oral histories, folklore—and what that looks like. The most painful parts of personal histories often get mythologized, and through that storytelling people find healing, or even a sense of wonder. I’m hoping readers are able look at themselves and with an eye towards time and history, and to think about the ordinary with that same sense of wonder. It would brilliant if people left the book thinking about their concept of family and what it means to them. But, I’m delighted if they simply enjoy the story.

L.L.: I am so very amazed at your knowledge of the Tarot. I know virtually nothing. Well, I’ve had my palm read once at a Renaissance Fair…does that count? Are you blessed with psychic abilities yourself? How did you learn so much about fortune tellers?

Erika Swyler: Getting your palm read absolutely counts. I’ve had mine read. A very nice man told me that water rules my life and that all my creativity comes from it. I wonder if he Googled me. When I was in school I was fascinated by Tarot (like so many college girls). When we’re feeling the most insecure we grasp at things give direction, especially if it’s direction from “the universe.” Tarot was great fun and I fell in love with the art. When it came time to find a way for my mute character to speak, Tarot was a natural fit because at heart, it’s a symbolic language. I dove
into all my old books on it, found new ones, and got my hands on whatever decks I could. I may have had to make a trip or two to witchcraft shops, but I’m no psychic. I’ve written some things that have come true—my life has come to mirror Simon’s in a ways that would have shocked me when I started writing The Book of Speculation. Mostly I think that’s because people write about life, and life has certain common story threads.

L.L.: I absolutely adore the feel of the book. The edges of the pages are ragged…there’s that stunning cover…and your very own illustrations! Wow. As I’m reading this, I’m looking back on the front matter and pleased I own first edition. How did your art work evolve and did you need to convince a publisher to include it?

Erika Swyler: Oh, I love the deckle edge on the hardback. Deckle edges ask you to take time with a book, don’t they? Oddly enough, St. Martin’s had to convince me to include the illustrations. The artwork started as a way to engage editors. I sent out a very unusual manuscript when I was searching for a publisher. Essentially, I sent an art object. I figured that if someone connected with it, they’d likely connect with the story inside. I hand bound, aged, tea stained and gilded sixteen copies of the manuscript so that it looked like the old book in that Simon, my protagonist, receives. Between the pages, I nestled tea stained illustrations mentioned in the story, and distressed tarot cards. This way anyone reading it would experience what Simon did when he receives this strange old book. I didn’t realize that I was actually illustrating a novel. St. Martin’s bought the art as well as the story, and I was floored. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d been presenting the illustrations as part of the book. Obviously, that’s exactly what I’d done, but I’m always the last to know what I’m up to. erika-swyler-2

L.L.: The book is receiving lots of praise. Lots! What can you tell us about maintaining your humility, confidence, and efforts on the next novel. Does it make you more or less nervous when you sit down at the desk?

Erika Swyler: For every one person who loves a book there are always five more lined up to tell you it’s a heap, so staying humble isn’t too difficult. I’m stunned at the reception, honestly. This book spent a long time in a desk drawer. I was certain that no one but my mother would read it. That so many people have responded so positively towards it is a gift I couldn’t have imagined. It’s difficult to finally put these characters to bed. I think it takes a long time for the voices of your last book to quiet down and let new characters announce themselves. That said, there are new characters I’m figuring out. It’s interesting in that it’s a bit like learning to write all over again. I wouldn’t say that I’m more nervous when I sit down at the desk, but I’m definitely more aware of how long I might have to live with a character. That’s a little intimidating. I have to ask myself, “Do you really want to get into all that, Swyler?” Sometimes I really don’t. Oh, and I’m more mindful of accents now. Writing characters with accents is great fun, but it eventually gives public readings an unnecessary layer of difficulty. My Russian accent is bad. Really, really bad.

L.L: Okay…maybe I should back up a bit. Can you give us a glimpse as to what you are working on next?

Erika Swyler: Sure. I’m in the very early stages of a new project. It’s set in Florida in 1986. It’s centered on the relationship between an inventor father and his science-minded daughter. I’m playing around with concepts about space and time. So, nothing major.

L.L.: I keep thinking of that first chapter of Wild Boy…as his creator, do you have any—dare I say, speculation—of what became of his parents?  Why they did what they did?

Erika Swyler: It’s so easy to hate them, isn’t it? That’s because we’re applying our modern sensibilities to a

situation that doesn’t have our contemporary options. Eunice misses her son until the day she dies. I think she’s haunted by the memory of Amos’s scent in the same way he keeps dreaming of the smell of home. I’m certain there’s a draft with that scene in it lying somewhere in my office. Being a woman in that era Eunice couldn’t have much say in her husband’s decision to abandon Amos. This is still a time of public shaming. Her husband’s decision is based on Amos looking like his biological father, the lack of speech, and being a visual reminder of his wife’s infidelity. I wish I could say he was miserable, but as a domineering white man, he likely died fat and happy. Oh, wow. That’s terrible. Forget I said that. He died of an abscessed tooth. Really awful, drawn-out, excruciating pain. There. I feel better now.

L.L.: Thanks for being here today, Erika! We so enjoyed it.

Erika Swyler: Thank you! It’s been a pleasure.

erika author photo bj enrightErika Swyler is a writer living in Long Island, NY. Her work has appeared in WomenArts Quarterly Journal, Litro, various anthologies, and most recently The New York Times. The Book of Speculation is her first novel. Find her on twitter at @ErikaSwyler, or at erikaswyler.com.

[Author image credit BJ Enright. Circus carriage retrieved from www.circushistory.org on 8.5.15. Tarot card image from Wikipedia on 8.5.15. Author at work retrieved from http://www.momadvice.com/post/sundays-with-writers-the-book-of-speculation-by-erika-swyler 8.13.15]