I first met Lisa Birman through my studies at the Jack Kerouac’s School of Disembodied Poetics summer writing program in July of 2012. At that time she was one of the directors of the workshop. The first thing I noticed about her was a beautiful smile and bubbly laugh – an honest compassionate soul. Now it’s three years later. My first impression stays with me, but now having worked with getting to know her on a professional as well as personal level I know the depth of her compassion is greater than my initial impression. I know too that she is intelligent, kind, and willing to give those around her a nice forceful push when needed. And it is these same characteristics that she brings to life in her latest novel How To Walk Away (Spuyten Duyvil, 2015). The story is about two characters who both suffer from Post Traumatic Syndrome. As the reader of the novel you will be convinced that not only are the characters real, but at some time in life, you probably had coffee with them. The story is honest. It shows compassion for people who suffer from an ailment that is common in today’s society. Lucky for me I got to catch up with her between her travels for the following interview.
Peggy Alaniz: What influenced you to write a novel about a person who suffers from PTSD?
Lisa Birman: While PTSD is one of the primary themes of How To Walk Away, a condition that the two main characters both struggle with, I didn’t initially set out to explore that theme. I started with a character, Otis, who was working with issues of Body Integrity Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I knew that he believed his left arm did not belong on his body. I knew that he walked obsessively. I knew that he would lose the arm, and that he would feel more accurate in his body without it. I kept exploring those elements, and from there I discovered that he had served in a war, now the longest war in US history. Once I had that information, everything started to come together. I have never served in a war. From my outsider perspective, post-traumatic stress seems inevitable. How can a body witness, engage in, sustain the violence of war and not suffer an aftermath? Of course, there are degrees and each individual expresses their trauma in unique ways. For Otis, the war retriggers his childhood obsession with numbers, and that obsession triggers other obsessions, particularly with names and walking. For Cat, whose trauma stems from a childhood incident, PTSD means being triggered by electrical storms.
PA: Was it your intention to bring awareness to the disorder?
LB: PTSD gets talked about when there’s a crisis. When a veteran hurts him or herself, or hurts others. I want it talked about before then. I want people to have access to help immediately and without asking. This ongoing war crisis has led to a PTSD epidemic. People need to be seen. Room needs to be made for the repercussions of war. Of course, war is not the only trauma that can lead to PTSD. But I think that’s where the urgent need is right now.
PA: How did you get into the mindset to write from the perspective of Otis?
LB: Once the character showed up, it was about making time. I could hear him pretty clearly. If I put him in a certain situation, I could almost watch and listen to his response. Most of what I figure out, I figure out in the writing. So I had to do a lot of writing. Way more than ended up in the book. I had to let him work himself out on the page, ask questions, answer them, ask them again, answer them again.
PA: What kind of research did you do for the character of Otis?
LB: I did a lot of reading about brain injury and various disorders. Dr. V.S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain was my constant companion. He has done incredible work with phantom limbs and Body Integrity Disorder. I sought out veterans and spoke to them about their experiences after serving. I looked into various services available for veterans, ways in which they might be offered assistance dealing with the psychological, physical, and social repercussions of their experiences. Wounded Warriors is a really important organization.
PA: Did you attend any meetings in order to paint such a vivid picture of a military man going through therapy?
LB: I thought about it, but it felt invasive. I didn’t want to appropriate their experience. So I sent Otis to therapy. I let him witness the other people in the imaginary room. I felt into the places he could feel, I watched where his eyes went, what he was able to say and not say.
PA: In the book Otis begins to help another character who also suffers from PTSD. In your research did you discover that this is often helpful for those who suffer from PTSD?
LB: I did. In Otis’s case, the person he’s helping is his wife. Cat has been living with PTSD for as long as Otis has known her, but they’ve never addressed it. He’s tried every now and again, but she always shuts him down. Even before they actively confront her past, he has a way of dealing with her trauma in a compassionate and non-judgmental fashion. He accepts that she knows what she needs. Having lived with her PTSD, he makes more room for his own experience. When they do finally start confronting her past, he is able to meet her, not just as her husband, but also as a survivor of trauma.
PA: With the suffering of the loss of his arm Otis becomes whole again. Do you think that people who suffer from PTSD can become whole again or normal? Or do they simply learn to function in society as best as they can?
LB: I believe in recovery as forward motion. It’s not about getting back to who you were before something happened. It’s about moving through that experience to who you are now. That’s particularly important when dealing with PTSD. There will always be triggers. But there are possibilities in terms of where those triggers lead. A memory can bring you right back to that past trauma, causing an intense and potentially harmful emotional or physical reaction mirroring the past experience. Everything becomes unsafe again. It doesn’t matter where you are or who you’re with. The memory puts you back in that past moment or series of moments. It can be extremely debilitating, both in the moment of retriggering and in all the moments of anxiety in which you’re managing or trying to avoid the possibility of retriggering. I believe that people with PTSD can learn to work with their responses so that can experience the present rather than re-experiencing the past. It’s not about forgetting or minimizing past trauma, but rather about learning to fully live their lives and not be limited by physical or emotional returns to the past.
PA: Do you think that PSTD is hard for men because society frowns up them expressing their emotions? Or do you feel that sex of the individual and the disorder does not matter?
LB: That’s a great question. PTSD can affect anyone, regardless of gender. It’s actually more prevalent in women, and higher still for transgendered people, no doubt related to the violence and threat of violence encountered on an ongoing basis. PTSD can manifest in so many ways – depression, anger, detachment, violence, isolation, addiction. I think it’s hard for everyone. I hope talking about PTSD can make it a little easier.
PA: Do you have any loved ones or close friends that suffer from PTSD?
LB: My earliest memory of PTSD was a very close call with a car accident. Our car had broken down and my family was standing on the side of the road. I was maybe ten or younger. Another car came around the corner and smashed into our car. We weren’t injured, but it was terrifying. My sister’s teeth started chattering. Thirty years later, her teeth still chatter when she gets upset. I’m fascinated by that muscle memory.
I didn’t understand it as a child, but my grandparents all dealt with PTSD. I remember hearing them crying or screaming in their sleep. They were safe, they were living in Australia, but the trauma of the Holocaust was always present.
PA: Do you think that some people who read this book might realize something about themselves? and if so what?
LB: I hope so. I have certainly had that experience with books I’ve read, and with other art as well. I see that as one of the great gifts of art. It can open us to new realizations, it can expand our world and our understanding of ourselves in that world. I’m not looking to impart one particular realization. Each person’s experience is unique.
PA: What is your hope that the book will convey to the reader?
LB: Compassion for self and compassion for others. That we’re all working really hard.
PA: Any exciting new projects or novels in the work that readers should look forward to in the future? If so when and please give us a little tease of what it is about?
Yes! I just finished my second novel, tentatively titled The Adventures of Ruthie Gibney, Swagman. It’s the story of an eight-year-old Australian girl who, after accidentally revealing a secret about her sister, decides it would be safer if she could no longer hear or speak. Ruthie exists in a very carefully constructed set of rules; she’s still physically capable of hearing and speaking, but becomes voluntarily mute and engages techniques to block out sound. When her grandfather becomes ill, she decides she can save him by taking on the great Australian tradition of the swagman and traveling solo 1,800 kilometers up the East coast of Australia. Along the way she meets other swagmen, runaways, and plenty of obstacles that endanger her mission and her safety. But if all goes well, she’ll make it to The Majestic Theatre for an anniversary concert of her favourite composer, Ludwig van Beethoven, Popa will be saved, and she’ll be able to hear and speak again. So, that’s what’s up next. Now I just have to find the right publisher.
Thank you Lisa for taking the time to talk with Woodland Pattern Press today, we have a great appreciation of you, your work and future project to come.
Lisa Birman is a poet and novelist who has just published her first novel, How To Walk Away (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2015). She is also the author of the poetry collection For That Return Passage – a Valentine for the United States of America (Hollowdeck Press), and co-editor of the anthology Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action (Coffee House Press). Her work has appeared in a wide range of well-respected poetry journals and she has published several chapbooks, including deportation poems and a trilogy of chapbooks in collaboration with Berlin-based singer/songwriter Josepha Conrad.
Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Lisa resides in Boulder, Colorado, where she works as a freelance writer and editor. She is the editor of a forthcoming collection of letters from Frances LeFevre to poet Anne Waldman, Dearest Annie, You wanted a report on Berkson’s class (Hanging Loose Press), and is currently completing her second novel.
Peggy A. Alaniz recently received her MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. She holds a BA in History from Hillsdale College, A level I & II Attunement in the Art of Reiki, and the Rank of Sho Dan in Sanchin Ryu Karate. She has collaborated on poetry recordings with Anne Waldman, Bhanu Kapil and Melissa Buzzeo. She has published work in the online journals Bombay Gin, and Tea and Tattered Pages, and in print in Semicolon.