Friday, June 16, 2017

Q&A with Mark Lukach

Mark Lukach is the author of the new memoir My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward, which focuses on his wife's experience with mental illness. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Atlantic. He is the ninth-grade dean and teaches history at the Athenian School, and he lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

Q: You note that you started working on this book around the time that your wife was first hospitalized. Did you know early on that you would be writing a book about your experiences?

A: I had no idea this would be a book. I’m a history teacher. Writing was something I was doing at night when Giulia was going to sleep. In addition to running on the beach, I’d send emails to my parents and her parents. They were really long.

They were a way of making sense of what was going on. If I was trying to explain the unpredictable, irrational things to my parents and her parents, I had to sort out my thinking. It was a private email thing.

When Giulia got better, I needed her to understand my experiences. I had done a lot of research, and she was so consumed by her [experiences], she took for granted that the cheery disposition I was putting on was authentic. I was trying to hold myself together.

Post-recovery, I was feeling pretty bad. Giulia had a hard time hearing it. There was a disconnect. I started writing mostly for her. That became a much more manageable medium for her. It seemed like a launching point for discussion.

The book was so personal in the beginning. We both realized [it would be good to] make it available to the public at large. Especially from the caregiving side, it’s underdiscussed. I didn’t find narratives out there that would help me. I hope this helps people.

About a year after her first episode, I sent in an essay to Modern Love. The essay ran and got some interest around a book [but I then] realized the universe was telling me the story wasn’t ready yet. We became parents, and Giulia had relapses. We reconnected, and that was the main goal. [Later] it got a second wind, and led to the Pacific Standard article [and then] the book.

Q: In the book, you detail many extremely painful and difficult times for you and your family. What was it like to write about them and revisit them as you worked on the book?

A: My general writing process is that I worked through the school year mostly at night [in addition to] being a parent and a spouse. A lot of nights I had a hard time rallying, revisiting really difficult times with authenticity so they come across to the reader as not fake, not overdone or underdone.

That was hard, but it was essential too. It gave me control of my memories of it. It helped me reframe five years in a way that could be the optimism I wanted compared to maybe being a victim or being controlled by memories. I controlled the narrative.

People use the word therapeutic like you’re sinking into a balm, but they forget that actual therapy is hard, and [the goal is] to get to the place of soothing comfort. This was therapeutic, but in a more authentic way.

Q: How is your wife doing now, and how is your son?

A: It’s been two and a half years since she’s been hospitalized. Things seem like they’re going very well. She’s at the same job, and her work feels like a great balance.

My son just turned 5. He’s doing awesome. He’s such a cool kid. I’m so impressed and grateful that he seems to have weathered these trying times. We’re pretty honest with him. He knows Giulia can get sick. He knows there’s a book out there. We call it “the book project.”

I thought it took a lot of courage for Giulia to be willing to do this. I’m admiring of her courage, and blown away by how empowered she is by this. Now she really sees herself as, I can be someone.

Q: Your extended family also plays a big role in the book. What did they think about it?

A: They’re absolutely supportive. I put a lot of thought and effort into the tone of how I portrayed our family. It wasn’t a chance to air dirty laundry. It’s about me and my family.

I hope everyone I portrayed in the book felt I was truthful, but felt loved. Giulia’s parents—we’ve had long-overdue conversations after they read the book. My parents and I are quite open, but they are so supportive and on board.

Q: How was the book’s title selected, and what does it signify for you?

A: I can’t take credit for the title. My original idea was more abstract and enigmatic. The article in Pacific Standard magazine was called “Crazy in Love.” Then the online copywriter came up with this title, and it was hugely successful. The article went viral.

My publisher and agent said it’s a no-brainer. Giulia and I were a little wary, that it felt too direct, but we’ve both grown to see it not only from a marketing standpoint. The first part makes it clear I’m enamored of Giulia—I still have a crush on her—and then there’s such a contrast with the psych ward.

They’re inclusive. My understanding of who she is has come to include the scary things she’s been through, but that made it a deeper and richer sense of love.

The way I interpret the title is it really gets at that—it’s going to be scary, but we’ll continue our sense of love and connection.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing end-of-year comments for my students! This book—it’s not like I have an MFA or envisioned myself as an author. I’m still adapting to considering myself an author. I’m a little humbled by it. I do know I like writing, and would like to do more…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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