Stefan Merrill Block on The Storm at the Door

Article published on August 8, 2011.

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Just outside Boston, in 1963, Frederick Merrill found himself a patient in the country’s premiere mental hospital, a world of structured authority and absolute control – a forced regression to a simpler time even as the pace of the outside world accelerated into modernity. Meanwhile, in a wintry New Hampshire village hours to the north, Frederick’s wife Katharine struggled to hold together her fracturing family and to heal from the wounds of her husband’s affliction. Nearly fifty years later, a writer in his twenties attempts to comprehend his grandparents’ story from that turbulent time, a moment in his family’s history that continues to cast a long shadow over his own young life. Spanning generations and genres, The Storm at the Door blends memory and imagination, historical fact and compulsive storytelling, to offer a meditation on how our love for one another and the stories we tell ourselves allow us to endure. Quietly incisive and unflinchingly honest, The Storm at the Door juxtaposes the visceral physical world of Frederick’s asylum with an exploration of how the subtlest damages can for ever alter a family’s fate.

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The Storm at the Door is based on your own grandparents – what made you want to write their story?

The short answer is that I felt like I didn’t have much of a choice. This book felt like a gate that stood between my future work and me; something I had to pass through in order to write other stories.

My grandfather died, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, long before I was born, but I’ve always felt an extremely close identification with him. Even when I was a kid, my family would often remark upon how similar we looked, how similarly we thought and spoke. My grandfather was diagnosed with Manic Depression, and it seems that it was that affliction, or at least that diagnosis, that ruined him.  When I was in my early twenties, I went through a very difficult time of unmanageable depressions and insomnias that lasted for days on end.  When a doctor tentatively diagnosed me with his condition, my interest in my grandfather intensified, and I began to ask more questions, to find out all I could about his life.

I’ve tried to understand my grandfather as he actually was, but I also can’t help seeing him as an alternate version of myself.  Part of this identification comes from our similarities that others have noticed, but I know it is true that much of it is my own doing, an identification that the grandchildren of lost grandparents often make.  My mother and I have an extremely close relationship; she home-schooled me and so she was the central figure in most of my childhood.  In our relationship, I’ve always felt the loss of my grandfather, the sadness and the compensatory hope that loss has transmitted to me through her. I never met my grandfather, but through my mother, my grandfather and I are profoundly intimate.

My grandfather is at just the right distance from me to feel present and yet also absent enough that I can project myself into his place.  His history has always seemed to me a possible future for myself, and one that is not very happy. I think that the writing of this book came out of both these urgencies: the need to give shape to what I couldn’t know and the need to better understand myself by projecting myself into my grandfather’ situation.  This is work that began long before I started writing, and in that way the writing of this book was like cheating; all I had to do was commit to the page this story that I had imagined for so long.

The actual writing of this novel was unlike anything I have written before or since.  Usually, I sit to write in the morning and work, just like everyone else returns each morning to their jobs.  But I mostly wrote this book in fits that arrived at unexpected moments: in the middle of nights, on trains, sitting at dinner tables.  It wasn’t just daily work; it was something that needed to come out.

But I know that my primary job as a novelist is to be a good storyteller, and it’s also true that I wanted to tell my grandparent’s story simply because I believe it is an extraordinarily compelling one.   My grandparents’ lives are a great gift to me as a writer:  their story holds a tremendous wartime romance, a sojourn in the nation’s most remarkable mental hospital, a parable about the oppressive expectations and faltering optimism of America in the 1960s, and a unique window onto the complex relationship between madness and genius.  Even if it weren’t my own family’s story, I believe this would still be the sort of book I would want to read.

When your grandmother burnt your grandfather’s papers you were quite young, yet this event is very significant – is that where the story started for you?  Did you ever find out what was in the documents that she destroyed?

My grandmother’s burning of those pages is an indelible image for me.  My grandfather was gone long before I was born, and my grandmother was always a bit secretive about her past.  By the time she burned those papers, I had already felt the losses and absences of my family’s history.  So, in one way, this act was merely an expression of something I had long felt, a powerful symbol of those losses.  And yet, it was not merely symbolic; actual pages were lost that we’ll never have again. I’ll never know exactly what those pages contained. My family has often told me that my grandfather could have been a great writer. I’ve seen some evidence of that in his surviving letters, but in my imagination those burned pages are filled with his greatest poetry, what he wrote at McLean Hospital, in the company of Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. My mom thinks they were love letters, filled with the sorts of details of my grandparents’ early relationship that a woman of my grandmother’s generation would have been embarrassed for others to read. Either way, this act of incineration seems so drastic, such a willful act of closure. Though I was lucky enough to know my grandmother, at least for a few years, this was the moment when I started to wonder about her own mysteries, when I started to consider the ways that even a person who is physically present can still conceal so much.

It might seem strange, but the truth is that I’m not upset that she destroyed those pages. If those papers still existed, I would know my grandfather better, but then I would probably identify with him less.  It’s not as if I would have wanted her to burn them; I hold on to his surviving papers like museum documents. But I know she must have had her reasons. And with those pages missing, I can make them, and him, into what I want them to be.  It’s a paradox I often find in my thinking, similar to the one that obsessed me as I wrote The Story of Forgetting: the terrible sadness of the loss of history, but also the potential for something blissful in the unburdening of oblivion.  Or, described from another perspective: the simultaneous needs to commemorate the past and to remake it.  It’s a paradox that my writing has not resolved, but it also feels like the central conflict that generates my stories.

How much of the story is real and how much fiction?  Did your family talk about what had happened or was it difficult to find out what the real events were?

This book is a novel.  While it incorporates many actual events and real people, much of it – out of necessity but also out of the imperatives of a good story – comes from my imagination.  I have spun out this project into a novel-length story and published it as a book, but I think that most people engage in similar projects with their own families, assembling a private mythology out of a few facts and a lot of guesses.

When I began to write this book, I interviewed everyone I could find who had known my grandfather.  Mostly these were relatives and family friends, and they were consistently generous and forthcoming.  Occasionally, they would surprise me with some fact I hadn’t known about him.  The way he carried his daughters on his shoulders, the kind of bourbon he drank, how he snored when he slept, the hours he kept:  the little details that animate a character.  But he had died forty years before I began to write, and the facts were dishearteningly sparse.

For many years, I have been fascinated by McLean Hospital, where my grandfather spent much of my mom’s childhood. I’m fortunate that McLean happens to be a place of great history, and there are several excellent books written about it.  Sometimes I feel like I know more about that hospital than I do about my grandfather.  I tried to place many of the details of the actual McLean into my novel, but I also let myself freely built fictions around those facts.

Some early readers of this book have described it as “experimental.”  I know what they mean – the book’s hybrid form, alternating between fiction and memory, is unusual – but I’ve never thought of it that way.  I wanted only to tell my story as fully as I experience it, and to do that I needed to tell more than just the story I’ve imagined; I also had to tell the true story of why I imagined it.

In the end, I feel like this novel is similar in spirit to many of the well-touristed sites of ancient history – Masada, Pompeii, or Babylon – something reassembled on top of the ruins that remained.  Some of it is the original material, some of it is modeled closely after surviving records, and much of it is speculation.

Robert Lowell was in the same hospital as your grandfather, did you find out much about their relationship?

For many years, I’ve imagined Lowell and my grandfather as good friends, but all I really know is that they were there at the same time on the same ward, and so they must have known one another.  Like the rest of my grandfather’s experience at the hospital, my description of his relationship with Lowell is an amalgam of secondary sources, my best guesses and my imagination.

I have long been a fan of Robert Lowell’s poetry, but when I knew I was writing about the hospital he shared with my grandfather, I began to look at his work and his life much more closely.  This immersion in Lowell’s poems and life became one of the most wonderful aspects of writing this book.  The difficulties Lowell had with others and with himself seem so similar to my grandfather, and they shared the same diagnosis.  Maybe it shouldn’t have been a great surprise, but as I wrote, I was constantly astonished by how applicable Lowell’s poetry was to my project; often, it seemed Lowell’s poems describe my grandfather as perfectly as they describe Lowell himself.  As I was writing, Lowell’s poems began to feel like a Greek chorus, commenting on my story, and that is how I try to use them in the novel.

Close readers of Lowell’s poems will see how much of the world I describe in The Storm at the Door I built from Lowell’s language and imagery.  Throughout my book, I sprinkle references to his poems, particularly “Waking in the Blue,” “To Speak of the Woe that is in Marriage,” “Dolphin,” “Epilogue,” “Skunk Hour,” “Home after Three Months Away,” “Homecoming,” and “Man and Wife.”

And yet, more than any particular poem or biographical detail, it was the spirit of Lowell’s “confessional” poetry that most inspired this writing.  Lowell’s discovery of great art in the experience of his daily suffering was revolutionary, permanently altering how we think of poetry’s purpose.  I’m no Lowell, but his poetry gave me the courage to know there could be an extraordinary story to distill from my own family’s real history.

What are you working on now?

I feel like everything I write is a reaction against what I’ve written last.  After years of writing The Storm at the Door, a project that demanded I commit my imagination to locked mental wards and musty living rooms, I’ve felt very pressingly the need to write something much more external and adventurous. I began to work on my third book about a year ago, and after three months or so, a narrator emerged:  a venturesome, romantic and Victorian voice, telling a story of survival set in Reconstruction-era Texas.  Of course it could change, but for now it’s a novel about a young writer, afflicted with strange visions and notions, on a quest to find his father through the borderless West of the 19th century.  On the surface, this project seems so different from the last, and I know that difference was a great part of the appeal.  And yet, at a deeper level, I find that I’m writing about the same things as always: impossible love, the search for lost family, the limits of language and reason, the terror and also the appeal of mental illness, the irrepressible and impossible dream of utopia, the fictions we invent to make the truth bearable, the ways that our histories become our destinies.

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