About four years ago, just before he began work on his beautifully written second novel, The Storm at the Door, Stefan Merrill Block installed a new black-and-white checkered floor in the apartment kitchen where he writes. The floor is now seriously chipped around his writing desk and darkly stained near the coffee pot.
“If you were to take an aerial shot of the floor, it would be like a map of my anxiety,” the 29-year-old Block says, laughing. “But I’ve come to understand that it is anxiety that writes the books.” Anxiety, Block adds during the call to his apartment in Brooklyn, pushes him “to go through draft after draft after draft and focus on every sentence and every word until the point where there’s no further you can take it.”
“There’s something spooky about [writing]. It’s strange how these observations that you didn’t know you thought about people or the world come out of you.”
Fortunately that anxiety is invisible to readers. As the many fans of Block’s first novel, The Story of Forgetting, know, he has an uncanny ability for someone his age to inhabit the deepest parts of his characters’ psyches and to find language that precisely evokes those states of being.
“There’s something spooky about it, as Norman Mailer said—he called fiction ‘the spooky art.’ Because it’s strange how these observations that you didn’t know you thought about people or about the world come out of you.”
Block’s first novel was a sometimes fanciful, often moving story of a family with inherited, early-onset Alzheimer’s. The Storm at the Door, an even better novel, is a sort of mythic re-imagining of a period in the 1960s when his grandmother put his grandfather in a mental hospital. Block thinks the two books share a lot thematically, but that the new book “addresses those complications in what feels like a much truer way. It feels like the first novel was like a rough draft of this book. But I’ve only written a few novels. Maybe that’s the way a career feels. Maybe you always feel that the previous book is a rough draft of the new one.”
The Storm at the Door arose out of “a deep personal urgency,” Block says. “I had been haunted by this absence my whole life. I was homeschooled by my mom. My relationship with my mother has been my central relationship from my childhood, and we are still very close. She is my first reader even now. On the opposite side of her is this absence [her father died some years after his institutionalization when she was in college] and this sadness that has been transmitted through her. In some ways it feels like I have been the correction to that. So I think my relationship with my mother first compelled my curiosity about my grandfather. The other fact that I know is that we look quite similar [for example, Block’s grandfather was 6’6” and he is 6’3”]. Since I was a kid, my relatives have been very moved by our obvious physical similarities. And everyone said he was the writer in the family. So I’ve always had this extremely close sense of identification with him, as if he is an alternative version of myself. . . . There has always been this terrible urgency to understand who he was and what happened to him.”
Then why didn’t Block simply write a memoir? “My grandfather was absent for so much of my mom’s childhood and he died so young that there’s little that factually remains. Basic things that are so telling of a person’s character—the way he held his body, the kinds of conversations that he had, the women he loved—all these things that are so important to understanding a person are gone, so I felt that the only way I could explore this urgent need was through fiction.”
Of course Block’s novel is much more than historical fiction about his grandparents. Block’s grandfather was institutionalized at McLean Hospital, a place with an “inverted sort of glamour” outside of Boston that was undergoing immense change at the time, with decidedly mixed results. The great poet Robert Lowell was there then and wrote of his experiences with mental illness in Life Studies. Block heightens and transforms McLean into a more mythic place called The Mayflower Home for the Mentally Ill. Lowell appears in the novel, but for the most part Block peoples the institution with a set of invented characters who blaze with the strange and discomfiting beauty of madness.
“I’m very interested in the way that societies consider madness,” Block says. “It has a long and complicated history. In biblical times it seems that schizophrenics were considered prophets. Then there’s this long romantic history of the link between madness and genius, particularly poetic genius. I was interested in assessing the truth of that, whether there is a link or if madness is what keeps poets from being even greater poets. In general, I don’t write with any sort of political objective but I was also interested in exploring what now seems like the obvious mishandling of mental illness as a way of understanding how little we understand it and probably still mistreat it.”
Block says his writing begins every day with “a reading of a novel that I’ve carefully selected to restore me to a literary voice.” For this novel, he read Nabokov’s Speak Memory, Chabon’s Wonder Boys and Yates’ Revolutionary Road, whose voice he deliberately echoed.
He also had before him a photograph of his grandmother and one of his grandfather, which are reproduced in the novel. “I know there’s this tricky interplay between fact and fiction and between memoir and imagination in the novel. And the photographs were a really important part of the writing process. I wanted to present my story as earnestly as I could—that this is how I think of my family’s history, that there are things that are true and that I know and that there is all this space that I have to imagine. I feel it’s a type of story I don’t see depicted often, probably because it straddles such an awkward line between nonfiction and fiction.”
Which returns Block to a discussion of his writer’s anxiety. “Most of my anxiety is that I have not yet written the book that I feel I can write,” he says. “That anxiety is something I hope I never lose. I hope I never feel satisfied with anything I produce, that I always have the worry that the book on the page will never equal the book I have in my mind, because that is what really powers me forward.”