McGregor’s harrowing Lean Fall Stand (Catapult, Sept.) tells a story of survival and recovery in which research technician Robert Wright suffers a stroke in Antarctica and loses his ability to speak.
How did you approach writing about Antarctica?
I felt obliged to write this book after receiving a residency there in 2004. The original plan was to go on a ship to a station, but the ship couldn’t make it because of the ice and had to return to the Falklands. But I definitely had a sense of the landscape and the immensity of it, and became aware of how difficult it is to communicate in that environment. In a way, that’s what pushed me into exploring the inadequacy of language.
You ended up with a man-against-nature survival narrative in which Robert’s recovery from trauma is more challenging than his survival of the event itself.
For a long time this was going to be an action-oriented tale of survival in the Antarctic, but I kept struggling with the language. The closest I could come to articulating a sense of that landscape was to think in terms of silence, in terms of space, in terms of human senses being overwhelmed. I found myself exploring aphasia [the loss of ability to understand or express speech] as a consequence of Robert’s stroke. It made sense to take the character into this whole other dangerous situation. Once I decided I was going to write about the aftermath of his stroke, it made sense to turn the entire adventure story on its head. Robert’s wife becomes the protagonist, dealing with her husband’s injury.
What sort of research did you do on language therapy for the book?
I spoke to several speech therapists. I read accounts of people living with aphasia, just to get a sense of the range of that experience. I spent some time with a self-help group of people with aphasia, went to the group about once a month for a year. That was very helpful, seeing how language difficulties manifest.
What strikes you about the threat of losing language and becoming a stranger to it?
The more research I did, the more frightened I became. When you read about people with aphasia, you sometimes come across these moments of accidental poetry. I had to try and make sure I didn’t fall into the trap of romanticizing it because these moments of accidental poetry were just that: accidental. One of the most moving moments in a group therapy session I attended was to hear the members talking about books; they were all holding up copies of books they’d enjoyed, but could no longer read. And they were all so supportive of my being there and learning all I could, and yet, I know, none of them are going to be able to read the book that I’ve written.