Kiernan has established herself as an author of compelling, sometimes brutal, dark fantasy. Her latest novel, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, about a schizophrenic young woman obsessed with a painting, is a chillingly effective mix of psychological thriller and ghost story.
What drew you to this story about generational insanity and ghosts?
This is a hard question to answer, if only because it’s so intimate. I’ve spent most of my life struggling with serious mental illness. I’ve been diagnosed as latent schizophrenic, OCD, psychogenic seizure disorder, whatever. And I’ve always been writing about it, from the very beginning of my career with Silk. When I wrote The Red Tree in 2008, I finally figured out how to write it, instead of writing about it. In fact, in many ways, The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl: A Memoir are meant to complement each other. Both truly are fictionalized autobiographies dressed up as fantasy, my own self-administered psychotherapy. So, I’m writing what I know. That old aphorism.
Why make such a point of showing that Imp is also a skilled researcher and very analytical about the details of her schizophrenia?
I think most people who’ve never had to live with serious psychological disorders have no idea how lucid someone with schizophrenia can be. Indeed, there are ways in which these illnesses can predispose some persons to research and analytical processes, to tenacity and critical thought. It may be you have to constantly examine your own life, and the nature of reality and fantasy, to simply survive, and doing this sharpens those abilities. Not always, no, but sometimes, certainly.
Did the story come together easily?
I can honestly say that no novel has ever given me this much difficulty, and they never, ever come easily. There were at least three false starts, and twice I gave up on it completely. And then I had one of those half-conscious epiphanies. Simply put, I had to stop trying to write about Imp and about schizophrenia. I had to let Imp write about schizophrenia. I had to let her speak in her voice. By doing that, I created a woman I care about more than I’ve ever cared about a character of mine. Once I understood that I had to take a backseat and allow her to speak, the book came with relative ease.
The Drowning Girl offers a very unusual theory on ghosts and hauntings.
Well, the subject of hauntings is very dear to me. Not the ghostly sort, though I do love those stories. I mean the nonsupernatural real-world sort. What hauntings truly are. As Imp says in the novel, “Hauntings are memes, especially pernicious thought contagions... transmitted in a thousand different ways.... A grandmother’s suicide, the choreography of a dance, a few frames of film, a diagnosis of schizophrenia... a faded photograph, or a story you tell your daughter.”