The Isabella Mori Interview

I’ve done a lot of interviews about the how and why of writing my bipolar memoir but the one with Isabella Mori really stands out – she’s smart, appreciates literature, and is an excellent writer herself. Isabella is based in Vancouver and blogs regularly about mental health and recovery.

Invisible Driving Cover

Alistair McHarg: Thank you for your interest in INVISIBLE DRIVING. One thing that stands out about you is that you really care about literature. A lot of people I speak with only come to Invisible Driving from the bipolar standpoint, which is fine, as far as it goes.

Isabella Mori: There is a rhythm to your book that is clearly there but hard to pin down. In the beginning you seem to have a “crazy” chapter taking turns with a “normal”; then the manic and the normal (if I may use that word) start to take turns within the chapters, then whole chapters are wild and woolly, etc. etc. Can you say something about that? To what degree is that a stylistic device, and to what degree does it echo your experience? Can the two be separated at all?

Alistair McHarg: The manic chapters came first. Then a literary agent said that there needed to be “depth” – a second voice that was sane, reliable, and recovered. I rewrote the entire book several times. I now see she was so right, the chapters in the recovered voice provide the background – the psychological architecture. The reader finds out why I was vulnerable, what the triggers were, and what was significant about how I acted out. Yes, the point/counterpoint is very deliberate. (You would think that the wild, manic chapters would have been hardest to write, but the sane ones were much harder, more soul-searching of real things.)

Isabella Mori: Actually, to me, imagining writing the book, it felt that the manic ones were the ones that were written with more ease. Perhaps that is because I was frankly flabbergasted how much I could relate to a lot of what you wrote. I think that’s what first drew me in. I knew exactly what you were talking about, even though my bipolar experiences are extremely mild. I’m still astonished at that.

Alistair McHarg: Interesting. Maybe the bipolar experience is essentially the same, and what varies is the degree. It is a very nice compliment that the writing registered with you. (When I gave the ms. to my psychiatrist he said he had to put it down now and then because it was making him manic!) I can’t say that they were written in ease. Recreating the pitch of mania, the quicksilver logic twisting and slipping, the bobbing and weaving, energy, raw creative force – when I was squarely back on earth, slightly depressed – took a tremendous amount of labor and craft, craft I didn’t know I had until I attempted it.

Isabella Mori: I was wondering about the mood you were in when you wrote those passages! The fact that it was indeed a recreation speaks to your fantastic writing skills. Were there moments when you wondered whether recreating this would take you into the mania?

Alistair McHarg: Thank you. It was writing this book (my first) that turned me into a real writer; it was transformational. Your question is pivotal. I began writing immediately after the episode described had ended. I was terrified, really shaken. I had suffered with the illness long enough to know that a trigger could send me off again, and I was pretty sure another episode would kill me. But I knew I couldn’t write the book unless mentally I went back in. I was between a rock and a hard place. So I went deeply back into the middle of it. That decision is what made the experience transformational. I knew it might set me off on another high, I knew that it might kill me; I did it anyway. I knew that I had to face this damn illness or be destroyed by it.

Isabella Mori: Fascinating! I am really touched by what you say, can feel it in my gut. And what hits me is, again, this commingling; meeting of art, this thing called mental illness, and the healing of/from/with it. It reminds me of a poem I wrote many years ago when I was close to dying of typhoid fever. I wrote it in Spanish so it’s a bit hazy but something about the need to climb the mountain of art, alone, naked, because there is no other choice. Does that resonate?

Alistair McHarg: Resonate indeed. That was my challenge exactly, and it was probably the single bravest thing I’ve ever done. As you point out, I had to do it alone. I had been fed so many lies and was very fear-based. I had to strip absolutely everything away until there was nothing left that wasn’t true. And then I rebuilt; I reinvented myself. What you say about commingling is deep, and many people do not understand. I say often that Manic Depression and Alcoholism have given me more than they have taken. In Manic Depression I saw rare things, and was forced to evolve. Alcoholism ultimately took me to a better way of life and a higher power. It has all been a spiritual journey and while mental “illness” has caused earthquakes in my life it has also produced angels. I was shy, I hid, I felt “less than” – but manic depression made it impossible for me to hide, and also, it forced me to admit my power.

Isabella Mori: There is so much we could talk about here; I hope we stay in touch, but more on the commingling. So there is the art, there is the “mental illness” (funny how I often feel I have to put it in quotation marks), there is the healing, there is the acknowledgment of power, and then there is humor. There’s a lot of humor in your book. Page 218, “and how do these aristocrats of oddness settle down after a busy day of counting their fingers and slashing their wrists with plastics forks?” Humor in these circumstances can be taken as disrespect sometimes. Do you hear that sometimes? How do you react? By commingling I mean that the humor seems to be part of it all.

Alistair McHarg: Humor and music are in the very center of me. To me the best humor is never nasty, it doesn’t single out anybody and it is never there to make me feel better than you. Real humor celebrates the absurdity of all life, human vanity, fatuous selfishness. You will notice that most of the humor in the book comes at my own expense. That said, when I was manic every mean quality came out, the anger, the hurt, the fear, and, combined with an intellect that had caught fire, all this hurt often found expression in really cruel humor. Other times it was quite surrealistic and charming. In my other books – both are satiric novels, and my cartoons, even my poetry – you will find that I include myself, all of us, when aiming barbs. I disrespect elements of people; racism, jealousy, entitlement, xenophobia, but it is never about disrespecting people, it is about loving truth and loving what people could be but are afraid to be.

Isabella Mori: One last question for now. Towards the beginning of the book you say, “The love of my daughter is my favorite thing about myself.” In therapy, there is often a dictum that people should change for themselves, not for others. As a father, would you agree with that?

Alistair McHarg: This is a great question. The easy answer is yes! In AA we tell the uncertain ones; fake it ‘til you make it! At first it doesn’t matter if you are in therapy, or recovery, for the wrong reasons, so long as you are there. (Bring the body and the mind will follow.) But absolutely, there must come a time when you are doing it for yourself, otherwise you will never commit fully and you will never get the full benefit. If you asked me that question today I would answer: My favorite thing about me is that I know what I have to offer and I am doing my best to put it to the service of others.

Published by

Alistair McHarg

Alistair McHarg was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, moved immediately to Edinburgh, and three years later moved to Amsterdam. At 6 he settled in Philadelphia and for 16 years was confused by Quaker education; Germanton Friends School and Haverford College. A Master of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Louisville nudged him even closer to unemployability. Convinced at an early age that fate had chosen writing as his calling, Alistair followed a characteristically slow and circuitous path. He has found work as deck hand on a Norwegian tramp freighter touring South America, Bureau of Land Management Emergency Fire Fighter in Alaska, guide at a Canadian wilderness survival camp, truck driver crisscrossing Colorado's continental divide, and inner city cabbie. Alistair has been arranging words on paper for a living since 1983.