Vince Granata‘s memoir Everything is Fine is one of the most heartbreaking books I’ve ever read. I think that term is thrown out a lot; however, the story inside it truly made me weep. Vince’s brother, with undiagnosed schizophrenia, killed their mother. His memoir is about that event and what came after. How could he still love his brother? How would their family move on? So many questions I asked myself how I’d react in Granata’s shoes but couldn’t.
Everything is Fine is a moving mediation on pain and suffering, but also love and persistence. We corresponded via email about his background and why this memoir had to be written.
You received and MFA in creative writing. Does that mean writing was always something in your life or did you develop a passion for it later in life?
Just about always. I wrote my first “book” with my friend Sam in third grade. We were obsessed with Choose Your Own Adventure novels, those thrillers where each page had some kind death defying choice to make that would launch you to somewhere else in the book. We wrote one of our own, and our third grade teacher, Mrs. Totman, was kind enough to encourage us. So writing has been there, in some form or another, ever since I was quite young. And during that span, from third grade to college and beyond, my most consistent reader was my mother (quite often, my only reader). Before she died, I’d been considering pursuing an MFA in creative writing, something I’d put on hold for a number of years while teaching high school English. The third to last conversation I had with my mother was actually about those plans, or rather, how I’d delayed those plans, and how I’d let my writing atrophy in the previous years. She asked me why I’d stopped writing, why I’d seemingly given up. I’ve thought about that conversation so often—yes, in part because it was one of our last—but also because writing has been such a significant part of my life since she died. I know I can’t take that conversation as her dying wish, or as her trying to inspire me to return to an abandoned passion before she died, but it matters so deeply to me now that we spoke about writing. So yes, writing has, more or less always been there, and hopefully will continue to be. It’s something that I’ll always associate with my mother.
Your book covers a lot of difficult subjects from your brother’s schizophrenia to your mother’s death. When did you know you wanted or needed to write about your family?
I think “needed” is probably the right word. But it took some time, just about a year, before I felt that I really needed to try to write about what happened in my family. And my first try didn’t go very well. I tried to write a sort of extended op-ed, something that would reveal the flaws in our mental health care system that prevented my brother from getting the care he needed. To attempt that piece, I got a hold of my brother’s medical records from when he was hospitalized a few months before killing our mother. But as I tried to make sense of all those documents, I just got really angry. All I did was write rage filled notes in the margins, or underline the names of clinicians who I thought had failed my brother—though, in reality, they had been the only people aside from my parents and siblings who had tried to help him. None of the writing I did at that time was any good, and it wasn’t any good because I was still so balled up in my own anger that I couldn’t look at my family’s story with a more patient, reflective eye. And I also was just beginning to discover how much I had to learn, how little I’d known about what Tim was facing, and I needed to confront how my own ignorance meant that I was in no position to help him when he needed me most. I didn’t try writing again until several months later when I started my MFA program at American University. I’d arrived at American thinking I would study fiction, but found myself in a nonfiction workshop because a writer I deeply admired, Richard McCann, was teaching the class. Richard taught me how to approach my family’s story from a different posture, with a more reflective lens, one of grief. With his guidance, I began writing the pieces that would—over the next years—grow into this book.
I’m sure there was a wide range of emotions. What was it like revisiting such painful parts of your life?
There’s quite a lot I could say here, and I think I’m very much still sorting through how this process impacted me. There’s a comforting, affirming narrative that gets kicked around a lot about the therapeutic or cathartic properties of writing. And I’m absolutely not saying that writing or memoir writing can’t have these positive effects. I’m certain that writing this book helped me work with trauma I thought I’d never be able to understand or live with. I’m certain that writing helped me start to regain some control over a family story that had felt wildly out of control. I know these things are true. But I also know that writing this book incurred tremendous pain, made me deprioritize taking care of myself, harmed my ability to participate in relationships. I know that the years I spent writing this book were definitively not the happiest or healthiest years of my life. I’m in a much better place now, and while some of that healing was helped by writing my way through impossible knots in my family’s story, many—if not most—of the reasons I’m in this better place have nothing to do with writing and everything to do with my sustaining relationships, being lucky enough to be in consistent therapy, having found ways to allow love and joy back into my life. In some ways, I’m only now truly able to look back over the long writing process with any sort of real perspective. When I was writing this book, I was too embroiled in the intensity of the experience, in trying to live with the pain of writing and the painful process of trying to write well. I think that when I began writing, I sort of tricked myself into thinking that the process could be cathartic, but I quickly realized that for me writing memoir had the opposite effect, was much more about taking things in and holding onto them rather than therapeutically expelling them, freeing me from pain. And I can’t bring up catharsis and writing without recommending that anyone interested in this sort of thing go read T Kira Madden’s essay “Against Catharsis.” I’m quite certain that anything I have to say about this process won’t approach the brilliance of that piece.
What was the reaction like from your friends and family as you worked on Everything Is Fine and once they finished it?
I had the good fortune of starting this project while in writing workshops at my MFA, and of having a cohort of fantastic writers whom I trusted immensely. So early on I had a group of terrific readers, and I don’t think there’s any substitute for having that kind of support. Later in the process, other friends and family began reading drafts, and being able to share this work with them was incredibly important to me. But I think knowing me and reading this book is a very different experience than reading this book without knowing me. I know this must sound obvious! I’d get nervous when friends close to me read the book because in writing the book I’d had to, necessarily, create myself on the page. And while I did everything I could to make that me on the page as authentically and accurately me as possible, I’d worried that the people who knew me well wouldn’t recognize me there. So it was incredibly relieving and affirming when people close to me told me that when the read they heard my voice, or saw me in those specific ways I tried to render myself in scenes, or recognized something about the patterns of my thoughts. And there’s quite a lot I could say about sharing this book with family. I’ve read so much about different memoir writers having different feelings about how to approach writing about loved ones, and I know that everyone writing about family will have their own challenges and their own rules and intentions. One unavoidable fact, memoir is, by definition, a self-centering form. To be clear, I don’t mean “self-centering” just in terms of its negative connotations. Centering the self can be liberating and empowering and one of the most resonant ways a person can amplify an urgent story that needs to be told. But planting “I” all over the page can also make one person’s account of a shared experience appear definitive. I tried as best as I could to be explicit about the stories I felt were mine to tell and those that I did not. I tried to avoid mapping thoughts or emotions onto others that weren’t explicitly communicated to me. Of course, I’m certain there are places where I’ve failed on that front. And this issue is most complex when it comes to my brother, Tim. I told Tim about my writing throughout the process but he didn’t read the book until about six months ago. After reading, and in our conversations since, he’s been incredibly supportive and very in favor of the book’s publication. I like to think that this support is because he sees the book as I see it, as a way to show a full picture of him, a way to show him as so much more than the tragic event that incites the book. But of course it’s more complicated than this. To show the reader the terror of Tim’s disease, I had to show them the horror it wrought. There’s no way that reading details of the horror of his illness isn’t tremendously painful for him. And even though I have real reason to think that there’s a greater good that can come from telling our story, that fact alone doesn’t make this process any less painful for Tim, or other members of my family.
Now that the book is published, what did you learn about yourself from the whole experience of writing such a moving memoir?
Whew, I think if you were to ask me this again in a few months I might have a different answer. As I’ve mentioned I’m very much still working out my feelings on how this process has affected me. But I’m fairly certain that in addition to altering how I live with my family’s trauma, writing this book has also altered the way I think. Writing this book meant sitting for extended periods with the most painful and troubling pieces of my life. For years—and this was very much true of the year after my mother died, before I started writing—I “coped” by avoidance, tried to shut out all the difficult stuff and carry on with my days. While some might have confused that posture for some type of “stoic strength” what it really was, was a fear driven response, something like a child pulling the covers over his eyes so he can’t see the monsters lurking around his bed. This mindset is certainly reflected in the book’s title. Writing demanded a different approach, forced me to actually face all of the terrifying pieces of my family’s story that I’d tried to avoid. Sure, I could slam the laptop shut and walk away at the most difficult moments—something I definitely, sometimes, did—but this book could only exist if I found a way to sit with all that difficult stuff, to really think about it, to try to find out how I could live with it and not simply spend my whole life craning my neck looking away. And this is not to say that writing this book has made into some kind of fearless person who unflinchingly stares at all of his difficulties and troubles…I still have a lot of work to do on that front! But I do know that writing, that this type of writing, has changed the way I can sit with my own pain, has helped me find a way to live with all these complications as opposed to avoiding them entirely.
Will you continue to write so close to home? Or what else would you like to explore with your writing?
I won’t write another book like this one. I know that I shouldn’t rule anything out, but I’m not interested in writing another memoir. Some of my writing will stay close to home. This can’t be avoided, and isn’t something I’m going to resist, but the form and scope will be quite different. I’ve been working on some essays that deal more peripherally with my family’s story, essays that look at grief from different angles, or use shorter forms to explore elements of my experience that I didn’t address in this book. I’m still very interested in writing about our mental healthcare crisis, and definitely want to keep doing work that can, hopefully, address big systemic failures that cause so much suffering. But I’ve also started writing fiction again. I’ve returned to my first love. Though I’ve got a long way to go, and much to learn, it’s been tremendously energizing to try writing short stories again. Many, many years ago—back in the third grade—I dreamed of writing a novel, something that I’m not currently equipped to tackle, but writing a novel remains a dream of mine. And who knows where any of this new writing will lead, but I feel lucky to have hope in new projects, to know that there will be more writing for me in the future.