The Enumerations: an interview with Máire Fisher

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Book title: The Enumerations
Author: Máire Fisher
Publisher: Umuzi
ISBN: 9781415209646

Máire Fisher tells Naomi Meyer about her book, The Enumerations.

Hi Máire! Congratulations on the publication of your book, The Enumerations. Please can you elaborate on all the meanings of the book’s title?

Hello, and thank you for taking the time to ask me such interesting questions about The Enumerations!

The title was an absolute gift from my editor, Frances Marks. I’d been toying with all sorts – The power of five, Saving Noah Groome, Noah and the dark – and one I really liked: Side effects. I really wanted the title to show that a condition like OCD doesn’t affect only the person who is battling against the condition – it has a knock-on effect on the people around him. But, if you google “Side Effects” (I’ve just done so again now), you get 180 million hits if you put it into inverted commas, 834 million if you don’t. So, a novel like mine would have sunk without a trace. That left me pretty stuck. When Frances suggested The Enumerations, the title clicked – like something that had been waiting to find a home. Using the plural made it feel like a family surname. So, that covered the side effects aspect of it. And then, there’s the word itself. Noah is a counter, a balancer, a checker, a follower of self-imposed rules, a list-maker. He draws strength from the number 5. His life is all about (and I mean all about) keeping everything in order, aligned, numbered and listed. So, from the word go, the title helps to show what sort of OCD he battles with.

Sometimes, it feels as if society is obsessed with counting, anyway. Keeping score. Counting how many people like a post on Facebook. Counting the days till the next holiday. Maths! How important it is to obtain good marks. When have you, while writing this book, discovered enumerating to be a problem/compulsion?

For Noah, as I mentioned above, it’s a constant and ongoing problem. And it’s exacerbated by the fact that the rules he creates, the ones that make him a prisoner in his mind, are constantly evolving. So, while chanting words connected to 5 (pentagon, pentathlete, pentasyllabic) might once have worked for him, that soon doesn’t feel effective, and so he has to build on that rule and create others. Using numbers (in sets of 5 as often as possible), counting every step, breathing in and out in sets of 5, timing every little thing he does – the more he meets his need for order, the more the need grows, and with it his anxiety.

In the course of writing this book, when I mentioned to people that I was writing about a boy with OCD who was a counter and a checker and a balancer, many people said to me that they, too, had traits that they felt were strongly OCD. Not just ones like Noah exhibits, but others, similar to those Noah’s father, Dominic, lists in the book. The big difference, though, is that not all of us are beset by the crushing anxiety that accompanies the fear of not getting it right, and what will happen to us or our loved ones if we don’t follow our self-imposed dictates to the letter (or, indeed, the number).

What inspired you to write this story? The original one, and then the new one, which you finished in the end and had published! (In an interview, you mentioned that you discovered an older, half-written novel in your drawer. And that was the beginning of The Enumerations?)

You’re right! After I finished Birdseye, I decided to revisit a previous, half-finished novel in which there was a young woman called Maddie. She worked in a bookshop and had a brother who was in some sort of care facility, but I wasn’t sure why. So, I decided to explore his backstory. Instead of fitting into that novel, Noah decided he’d like his own story. And he also showed that he was battling with OCD. Once that became apparent, it became my job to research the condition as thoroughly as I could and try to understand who Noah was and how his condition impacted on him and his family. So, yes, that was the beginning of The Enumerations.

Staying with the discovery of older manuscripts and the issue of bringing them to life once again, or changing them, did you find this easy? Or which parts of the process did you find difficult? (Because, when you originally wrote the unfinished manuscript, you were somebody else, and when you rewrote this, you had to go back to another self, in a way. Or do you not agree?)

Well, because this became Noah’s story, most (if not all) of the novel that I went back to is still sitting unfinished. There’s still a young woman sitting in a bookshop, and I think I will go back to her and finish her story. It feels cruel not to! In the meantime, though, she has lost her name and her brother. I’ll have to find some way of making that up to her.

That being said, this novel went through many changes. I started off putting everything into the present tense and using the first person for Noah and the third person for everyone else. Sometimes, I think I should have called it The Incarnations, because Noah went through so many of them. But none of that writing and rewriting was wasted. I needed to find ways of getting inside Noah’s head, because so much of the story happens there, and so writing him in the first person was exceptionally helpful, as was dealing with every event as it happened in the present tense. Making the changes from first to third person, from present to past, was time-consuming, but I was happy that I had initially worked through the novel in that way. I eventually went for a very close third-person telling for all the characters – so close that, at times, I felt as if I were living inside several heads at once.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy wrote. Can the effects of mental conditions on a family be counted? All families have their own issues, but one in which a member of the family is struggling with OCD must have even more burdens. Do you want to elaborate?

I don’t know that they can be counted. Each family is different, each family member is different, and so the way in which they deal with the effects of a mental condition will, of course, be different. The conditions themselves are different, each arriving with its own set of symptoms.

I’m not an expert; I didn’t even do psych when I was a student, many years ago! All I can say is that I researched Noah and OCD as deeply as I could, and the one thing I felt sure of was that his situation would have an effect on his parents and his sibling. So, looking at this particular family, we have Maddie, a little sister who is fiercely protective of her older brother. On top of that, she understands that her role in the family is to be the good child, the one who gives her parents no problems, because they have enough to cope with. Kate, Noah’s mother, is pretty well stuck in the middle. She has a husband who is reluctant to acknowledge what is going on, a daughter she worries about neglecting and, of course, a son whose condition leaves her feeling helpless. (One might almost say hopeless.) And then, there is Noah, who is fully aware that the dark voice inside his head is not rational, that he cannot control the world and keep it safe for his family, but he is compelled to do so, knowing all the while that his condition is debilitating for both him and his family.

Noah’s story takes place in his seventeenth year, and explores his life and that of his family in the time before that. I can’t say what happens to him in the future, or to his family. I can only wish them well.

The incident at the beginning of the book – is this book a whydunnit, in a way? One understands something about Noah, right from the start, all the many 13s (symbolic, too!). But one still has to figure out whether you are going to like him or not, what is going on with him. Maybe it is not about liking him or not. It is about caring about his circumstances. What do you think? 

I like the idea of it being a whydunnit, but I really do hope that readers will land up liking Noah and understanding more about him. I think it’s really important that we see people as people, not as being defined by their conditions. I hope that The Enumerations goes some way towards destigmatising OCD and, by extension, hopefully other conditions as well. That’s part of the reason why I originally wrote Noah in the first person. So much happens inside his head, he is so reluctant to use his words, and so to understand him I needed to be as close to his thoughts as possible. My ideal reader would be someone who learns to like Noah, to care about him deeply and to care about his circumstances.

Did characters from Birdseye, your first book, inspire you to be reborn again in The Enumerations?

The characters in this story were, as I said, people who arrived in a book I had started writing before the idea for Birdseye came to me, so there’s no rebirth happening there.

What I can say, though, is that Bird herself is in the process of being reincarnated in my third novel (very much a work in progress). Quite a few people said to me that they wanted to see more of her, and so the seed was planted. Bird seems happy to be brought back in a new novel, and she’s off on a pretty hair-raising adventure.

Did you visit psychiatric clinic for research when you wrote The Enumerations? (Maybe this sounds terrible, but then again: writers eavesdrop every day, and spy on friends and relatives. Nothing is sacred. Or is it?)

I didn’t visit psychiatric clinics, but, as I mention in the acknowledgements, I was very fortunate in having as a friend a woman whose daughter was in a facility for young people with OCD in Germany. This young woman gave me such insight into what life there was like, and her mother shared details of what it felt like to be the parent of a young person with OCD. I dedicated the novel to them, because I was profoundly grateful to them for sharing their experiences so willingly.

I also went onto many forums where parents talked about their worries for their children, and where siblings said what it was like to live in a family where someone was battling with a mental condition. I spoke to psychiatrists and psychologists who work in the field of mental illness. It does feel a little like eavesdropping on difficult situations, and that is why I was so very concerned about getting details relating to Noah’s life and those of his family correct. I felt I owed it to him and, indeed, his parents, to be as mindful and respectful and responsible as I could be.

Just this afternoon, as I was finishing your questions, I met with two women, a grandmother and mother of a young girl who struggles daily with emotional contamination, a subtype of OCD that involves fear of certain places or people, because they feel dangerous or have been contaminated in some way, and therefore have to be avoided at all costs.

Both women found The Enumerations really useful and have passed it on to family members, because they feel it will help them understand what they have found so difficult to explain about OCD. The young girl’s mother was sure I either had OCD or had a child with OCD, and so she was very surprised to hear how Noah had come to be. Incidents like this (and hearing that the young woman in Germany struggled to read The Enumerations because it cut so close to the bone) have been deeply gratifying – a real validation of the hours I spent researching Noah and his condition! (The young woman in Germany was really pleased to report that although the read was a difficult one, she was incredibly proud of herself, because she’d been able to call on all she had learned while in the clinic, and so she’d beaten her monsters back.)

I want to ask you about yourself, your Irish name. Were you born in this country? Do you want to say something about your own personal background?

I was born in Zambia and educated in Zimbabwe at the Bulawayo Dominican Convent. My parents emigrated from Ireland in the 1950s, and my mother always said that if she had a daughter, her name would be Máire, a common enough name in Ireland – not so much in Africa! I was taught by German nuns and, as you can imagine, not many of them knew that “Máire” is pronounced Moyra.

I studied at the University of Cape Town, where I met my husband, Rob. After we married, we circumnavigated for four years, and then came home and started a family. I saw a very thin strip of the coastlines of the world. We have two amazing sons, Daniel and Kieran – #bestsonsever. Our home is very quiet these days, now that both boys are out on their own, but happily Kieran is just down the road in Stellenbosch, so he comes home frequently. I think the main draw is our two rescue dogs, Robin and Fynn!

Staying with you, and your main character: please tell me 5 things about yourself.

Oh, great question, riffing off “5 things about Noah”! I’ll stick to 5 things about myself and my writing for this one, if I may.

  1. I started writing quite late in life, at the age of 40, when I joined the late Anne Schuster’s writing workshops. I had given myself the workshop as a birthday present, and once I started writing with her, I made sure that I did every course she offered. She was a gifted writing teacher, and I owe so much to her.
  2. I like to work away from home, and try to block out chunks of time to write in cafes and on weekends away and writing retreats. I’m lucky that I can write really fast, so can cover page after page, in a desperately untidy scrawl, in the space of a morning.
  3. I freewrite nearly all of my first draft writing; I’m a firm believer that my characters know their stories – all I have to do is let them tell them. “Head to heart to hand to paper” – that’s pretty much my mantra, as I’m secure in the knowledge that there’ll be plenty of time for editing later.
  4. I used to work as an editor, but stopped that a while ago. I now run writing workshops with a friend of mine, Chantal Stewart, and I love them! There’s nothing better than watching a room full of writers immersed in writing, hearing what they have written, seeing them surprised, excited and delighted by their writing. I also run writing workshops in schools and am on the programme for UCT Summer School 2019.
  5. I wish I were rich, for one reason and one reason only – much as I love my day job, I’d love to be able to write full-time. I’d hire a typist – typing up all those handwritten pages is one of my real bugbears! And, if I were really rich, I’d deposit huge amounts of money into my writing friends’ accounts so that they could also write without worrying about paying the rent. Wouldn’t that be nice!

The enumerations by Máire Fisher: a book review

The enumerations by Máire Fisher: reader impression

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