Stacey D’Erasmo explores how one gay family confronts a son’s mental illness
Perhaps because of their utter ordinariness, when the curtain closes on these characters it proves difficult for them to let go, but as each comes to realize over the course of the book, letting go must happen.
This is not a moralistic story where you applaud heroes or denounce villains, and its resolution may prove unsettling, but D’Erasmo reminds us that this is the way life often works.
“I think we all like to think that in a crisis people become better than they have been and pull together and are transformed for the better… However, what more usually happens, I think, is that people become even more themselves,” the author said in a recent interview.
D’Erasmo’s treatment of the characters remains even-handed, precluding any particular attachment to any one individual. She acknowledged that this approach was at the core of her thinking about the novel, which “always arose for me as a collective scene. I was very interested in how these people move together and move apart.”
The novel opens when Christopher, a troubled 16-year-old boy, has run away for reasons unknown to Nan, his lesbian mother, or Hal, his gay father. Marina, Nan’s long-term girlfriend, struggles to be a better partner while Nan is consumed with locating her son, and then finding out what caused his flight. When Christopher is diagnosed with schizophrenia, the characters’ worlds begin to unravel, as typified by Marina’s decision to buy an absurdly expensive dress on a whim one day, in an effort to fill the slowly expanding void in her life. As Christopher’s mental illness spirals further out of control, the characters each wrestle with their own personal demons, struggling vigorously to keep their lives intact..
D’Erasmo, 42, a native New Yorker, was raised in Maryland from the age of four. She returned to New York in 1979 to attend college, and has lived here since, except for a 1995 to 1997 stint at Stanford University as a graduate writing student. Prior to writing “Tea,” her first novel, published in 2000, D’Erasmo was a journalist for The New York Times Book Review, Newsday, and Out, and also served until 1995 as senior editor at The Village Voice Literary Supplement.
Her journalistic experience influences her fiction writing, and manifests itself in the detail she accords in her prose to everyday events and people.
“[Journalism taught me] to look and to listen, to be sensitive to what is going on even in the edges of the scene,” D’Erasmo said. “I am a person who has always had a great love of the present moment, so doing journalism just helped kind of solidify that love.”
“A Seahorse Year” is set in San Francisco and the environs of northern California, a region with which D’Erasmo became familiar during her Stegner Fellowship at Stanford.
“San Francisco is a very evocative place,” said D’Erasmo. “While I was in California though, I was working on ‘Tea,’ which is set in New York City, and then when I came back to New York I began working on ‘A Seahorse Year.’ There’s something about not being in the place where you are [when you’re writing] that can be very inspiring sometimes.”
Although both her novels largely focus on gay characters, neither is preoccupied with the “problem” of being gay, something which D’Erasmo attributes to her own relatively painless coming out experience in the late 70s.
“[By 1979 in New York City], there was very much a community to come out in. There were people who were gay,” she recalled. “We are the products of our moments, and at the moment when I came out there was enough thickness there… I never got the shame memo.”
As a result, “A Seahorse Year” manages to focus on a decidedly “non-traditional” family without making that an insurmountable challenge for her characters.
What becomes clear is that Nan, Hal, Marina and Christopher are dealing with a much more ominous issue: mental illness.
“[I wanted this book to be about] something that happens in a family that pushes everyone to the brink,” commented D’Erasmo. “I think in one sense [mental illness] is a modern problem. We are much less a cataclysmic society than we are chronic…[and mental illness] is chronic, it is something that both is and is not curable. [But] it needed to be something that would really, really rock a family.”
The events of this novel rock the reader as much as they do the characters, and D’Erasmo’s commanding, heartfelt language makes the journey all the more captivating. Marina holds on to the dried up seahorses that Christopher found on the beach for her long ago, not knowing how representative they would become.
“To me,” said D’Erasmo, “those little seahorses are such an emblem of what family feels like—very precious and also fragile… very ambiguous, and highly mortal… [The book is about] love in the most complicated way.”
Stacey D’Erasmo will read from and sign copies of “A Seahorse Year” on Tuesday, July 8 at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, Chelsea, 675 Sixth Avenue at 21st Street.