Years ago, Mira Bartók‘s work as an artist and writer was threatened when a car accident and subsequent brain injury made even the most basic functions of memory a major struggle. Yet rather than shy away, Mira makes memory a central organizing idea of her memoir about life with a schizophrenic mother; the book is called, in fact, The Memory Palace.
Similarly, the accident complicated Mira’s ability to piece together a life as an artist, making it harder to seek freelance work and grants. But she responded with relentless research, making herself an expert in grants and residencies, and sharing that expertise on her blog Mira’s List.
The Memory Palace was recently released in paperback, and on the cusp of a host of events in New England, we asked Mira about her book, her art, and her life as a multi-faceted, generous, resiliently talented artist.
ArtSake: One of the things I love about your book is its dual portrayal of an artist’s unconventional life and the challenges of living in a family touched by mental illness. Is it possible the same traits that have helped you thrive despite your mother’s schizophrenia have contributed to your successes as an artist?
Mira: Maybe having a certain level of curiosity, optimism, determination, and passion helped me to survive a challenging upbringing as well as thrive as an artist. Possessing those qualities certainly doesn’t hurt these days when the future looks so bleak.
ArtSake: In your interview with Terry Gross on NPR, you mentioned that the largest impact of your traumatic brain injury (TBI) was on your own self-conception as someone with boundless endurance and energy. Did the injury change the way you viewed yourself as an artist, as well? Did it change the way you create art?
Mira: I think that the way I view myself as an artist continues to evolve, but it always did, even before my accident. I grew up thinking I was a painter but that morphed into becoming someone who serves the idea, rather than the medium. There was, however, an earlier post-TBI period when I didn’t know if I had it in me to create anything at all of substance anymore. I was very frustrated because I would immediately forget what I wrote or drew the day after I created it – if I even had the energy to make something worthwhile. I still struggle with that from time to time. But nowadays, I think the biggest change is that I am much more choosy about how I spend my time. I have much less mental endurance now, therefore, I can only take on projects that mean a lot to me. It means saying no to a lot of things. What this injury did was take away the ability to have a day job and also make art.
ArtSake: On The Memory Palace blog, you’ve mentioned your disappointment that some responses to your book have focused on the rare instances of violence in schizophrenia. Have there been other reactions to your book that have surprised you?
Mira: My biggest surprise has been how widespread an effect my book has had on people. I get letters, very positive ones, from people of all ages, genders, races and backgrounds. I have also been astonished how many teens, boys in particular, have read and liked my book.
ArtSake: I’m fascinated by the range of your creative work. You trained as a musician, are an accomplished visual artist, and have written for both adults and children. How does your work in one artistic discipline interact and inform the others?
Mira: Okay Dan, full disclosure – I am not actually trained as a musician. I’ve only taken lessons here and there. But I dare to suck (sometimes). As far as all these disciplines interacting, I feel like they all inform one another. Music informs everything – I write out loud in a voice recorder and the words have to sing or they are not worth putting down on the page. I hear music when I work on certain drawings, like ones I am working on for an upcoming (far down the road) YA novel set in the Norwegian Arctic. I heard music while I was drawing my memory palace images for my book, which is partially why I filmed the drawing of it – so it could be used in a little stop-action animation with a sound track. When I get stuck in writing, I try to draw what I am thinking and vice versa. I think it is not only the way my brain works – one way of seeing overlapping the other – but it is also my way of recycling ideas and seeing what happens to an idea when it is used in another format.
ArtSake: I was interested to note, in your acknowledgements, that you thank Jedediah Berry, who was a colleague in the UMass Amherst MFA Writing Program. Can you speak about how having a community of writers and readers during the writing process has contributed to your work?
Mira: I think having a community of writers and great readers is imperative for an author, at least that is my opinion. We can help elevate each other, champion each other and give each other honest feedback. Everyone needs a b.s. detector once in a while because we don’t always use our most authentic voice. Sometimes we become too much in love with our own language and that doesn’t always serve the project at hand. A good reader can help your best self emerge on the page. And if you are doing muscular reading of good work, it can only help you learn how to edit your own work in a more refined and brutally honest way.
I don’t meet regularly with any writers right now but I think I would like to again in the future, after my book tour is over. And yes, Jedediah was really a godsend during this crazy process of trying to write a book. There were other editing angels along the way too, especially my friend David Skillicorn, who is a documentary filmmaker. I was about to send my book out to my agent until David read it. He made some suggestions that made me rip the book apart again and turn it into the one you see today. I also gave my book to non-writers to read: farmers, teachers, musicians, and others who are not professional writers but who love books.
ArtSake: You’ve moved around a lot in your life, including to some artistically auspicious cities, like Chicago and Florence, Italy. But it seems like you’ve found a home in Western Mass. What appeals to you, as a creative person, about the place you live now?
Mira: I really miss Chicago sometimes, especially being able to go to a major museum any day of the week. But my need to be in the natural world is a much stronger pull. I need to walk out my door and go right onto a forest trail and that is what I have here. I love the silence, the night-songs of coyotes, the stars that aren’t obscured by city lights, and the green, green world that is my backyard and the hills beyond. It is peace – pure and simple. It helps me to create from a quiet, timeless place without the perpetual pressure to be in the world of machines and noise and people.
ArtSake: Shelf Awareness has a cool interview with your editor Dominick Anfuso, who was drawn to the book as an uncommon mother-daughter story. Can you talk about the process of finding and working with your publisher?
Mira: Well, my agent, Jennifer Gates, sent my book out to a bunch of editors at publishing houses in NYC and created a feeding frenzy of sorts. Several editors bid on my book – one was even a pre-empted bid which I turned down because the editor called certain sections of my book ‘artsy.’ That word always makes me cringe. The editor is a fantastic literary editor with an amazing reputation and stable of brilliant authors but I knew she wasn’t right for this particular book. Plus, well, there was that artsy thing.
Anyway, I talked to the editors who interested me and in the end I chose Dominick Anfuso and Leah Miller from Free Press (Simon & Schuster). Not only was their financial offer good, these two editors felt like sensitive, warm, and funny people I’d want to not only work with but also sit down and share a meal. They asked me really smart questions about my work and didn’t try to tell me how they would change my book to fit their needs.
The funny thing is that I assumed that the more independent literary presses would be more innovative in their ideas about how my book could be developed but in this case, the opposite was true. Free Press was open to the most imaginative ideas and loved my unconventional structure, using snippets of my mother’s diary and my own art work to begin each chapter. And working with them was great. Basically, they asked me probing questions on my manuscript, questions that forced me to dig deeper emotionally, and the book you see now is the result of that more intense mining of my past. I would work with them again in a heartbeat.
ArtSake: Your blog has a treasury of superb advice for artists looking for funding (and we re-posted some of it on ArtSake). What’s the most important thing an artist needs to know, going into a funding search?
Mira: Some important things to know are: Where are you in your career? Are you emerging? Mid-career? Established? And what do you realistically need?
Also, it’s really important to know that when you are looking for funding, most larger grants and fellowships have deadlines nine months to a year before the award is actually given. So artists need to plan way, way ahead!
ArtSake: In so many ways, The Memory Palace is the book you were born to write. That’s why I am so fascinated to know what your next writing – or artistic – project will be. Any hints?
Mira: Dan, these days I am all over the map. I have been on book tour since January, except for a brief two month hiatus this summer. And my paperback tour won’t end until Thanksgiving. When I have had a minute or hour or two, I have been working on several things – some short flash fiction pieces and a radio documentary called The Sound of Memory that my husband, Doug Plavin, and I are working on for our new venture, North of Radio. But the project closest to my heart (and one that will take a lot of time which I don’t have right now) is an illustrated YA novel called Nine Valleys in One Twilight, set in the Norwegian Arctic during WW II. It’s based on two true stories but it is more speculative fiction than realism. Also, I am imagining the book as both a print book and something animated for the IPad. I have been thinking about this novel since 2008 and just haven’t had the time to dig in. Hopefully that can happen after this book tour is over! And hopefully someone out there wants to help me fund this thing because my Memory Palace book advance runs out in December.
Thanks for asking great questions Dan. Cheers!
You can experience a reading and/or discussion by Mira:
- Sunday, October 16, 3:30 PM, at the Brattleboro Literary Festival (co-event with Melissa Coleman), Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro, VT
- Wednesday, October 19, 7:30 PM, Working Writers Series at Smith College in Northampton
- Saturday, October 22, 9:45-11 AM, “Telling True Stores” panel discussion at the Writeangles Conference (registration is closed but there is a waiting list) at Mt Holyoke College in South Hadley
- Tuesday, October 25, 7 PM, reading and slideshow at Augusta Savage Gallery at UMass-Amherst
- Thursday, October 27, 4-6 PM, Writers Harvest Benefit Reading (for the GCC Food Pantry) at the Library at Greenfield Community College
New York Times bestselling author, Mira Bartók is a Chicago-born artist and writer and the author of twenty-eight books for children. Her writing has appeared in several literary journals and anthologies and has been noted in The Best American Essays series. She lives in Western Massachusetts where she runs Mira’s List, a blog that helps artists find funding and residencies all over the world. The Memory Palace is Mira’s first book for adults. She is also co-founder of North of Radio, a multi-media collaborative that she runs with her husband, drummer and music producer Doug Plavin.