Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Harry Karlinsky

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Harry Karlinsky

What if there was a secret prize for the figuring out one of the most puzzling mysteries in human history? Harry Karlinsky's newest novel, The Stonehenge Letters (Coach House Books), offers an irresistible story asking just that question.

When a psychiatrist discovers letters written to Alfred Nobel (founder of the prize) from the likes of Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud and Rudyard Kipling, he's driven to investigate further. He soon discovers a secret addition to Nobel's will that stipulates a fabulous reward for the Nobel Laureate who is able to solve the secret of Stonehenge and its origins.

The Stonehenge Letters has been called "a delight from its first word to its last... by turns thoughtful, whimsical, haunting and laugh-out-loud funny."

Today Harry joins us to discuss his new book, the surprising facts he discovered while researching Alfred Nobel and what it's like to balance work as a practicing psychiatrist and a writer.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Stonehenge Letters.

Harry Karlinsky:

The Stonehenge Letters revolves around a disgruntled psychiatrist’s efforts to learn why his hero — Sigmund Freud — failed to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Aware that Freud had been nominated unsuccessfully thirty-three times, the psychiatrist visits the Nobel Archives in Stockholm to discover the real reason behind Freud’s lengthy and inexplicable series of disappointments. There he stumbles upon the ‘Crackpot’ file, a collection of letters largely from individuals who have nominated themselves for a Nobel Prize on the basis of dubious achievements: think perpetual motion machines, cures for cancer, incoherent memoirs. But within the Crackpot file, there are also a number of submissions from early Nobel Laureates — all attempting to solve the mystery of Stonehenge. Marie Curie, Theodore Roosevelt, Ivan Pavlov, Rudyard Kipling and even Albert Einstein each offer what appear to be serious solutions. Has the mystery of Stonehenge been solved? And does the disgruntled psychiatrist finally discover why Sigmund Freud failed to win a Nobel Prize? Only the intrepid reader will know.

OB:

Have you always been attracted to Stonehenge and its mysteries? What is your own history with the site and what drove you to include it in the book?

HK:

I first saw Stonehenge during a sabbatical year in England almost 30 years ago. I only have a vague recollection — it was an obligatory day-trip for tourists and I certainly wasn’t ruminating about Stonehenge over the years. However, as I was writing what became The Stonehenge Letters, it emerged that I needed a mystery for early Nobel Laureates to solve. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure why I settled upon the mystery of Stonehenge. The impetus was likely Charles Darwin, someone I most certainly have been ruminating about over the last thirty years. I worship Darwin. In fact, it was an imagined son of Charles Darwin who was the protagonist of my first novel, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects. Darwin was curious about everything and his last manuscript was the wonderfully named The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits. Darwin had been fascinated with earthworms for over forty years, but in true Darwinian-fashion, had patiently and meticulously accumulated data and conducted his own experiments before he finally concluded that the lowly earthworm was a major geological force, its ‘habits’ of digestion and defecation responsible for, among other things, why objects on the earth’s surface were slowly buried over time. One of Darwin’s field trips was to Stonehenge to see how earthworm fecal deposits had buried its fallen stones and I think Darwin’s visit/interest must have stayed with me. Incidentally, it was only recently that I visited Stonehenge a second time. On this occasion I was deeply moved — unexpectedly, if I’m being honest. Why? I think because Stonehenge struck me as a unique blend of ‘science’ and ‘art’ — a remarkable early technical accomplishment but also an equally remarkable work of landscape art. And, of course, the mystery of its quiet and lonely presence endures.

OB:

It's become fashionable to dismiss Freud's teaching in many ways, yet readers are still fascinated with him. What are your own feelings about Freud, both as a fiction writer and a psychiatric professional?

HK:

As a fiction writer, I’m envious of Freud’s ability to tell a story. He was a wonderful writer, and was once nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature. Ironically, the fact that his written case reports leant themselves so well to the conventions of fiction may have undermined his chances of winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine: the Nobel Prize he truly deserved but one that seems to have been reserved — then at least — for scientists who presented their findings in more prosaic fashion. I’m not a Freudian but I do view Freud’s contributions as seminal to the discipline of psychiatry, particularly the premise that unconscious mental forces pervasively influence our thoughts, behaviours and emotions. My only personal reservation revolving around Freud’s legacy is that many of his pronouncements should be viewed as hypotheses, not dogma, and that these still require scientific evaluation, increasingly possible today with modern neurobiological methodologies.

OB:

Nobel himself was an interesting character. Where you surprised by anything in your research regarding Nobel?

HK:

Lots of things. Despite the high profile of the Nobel Prizes, I had previously been only vaguely aware that Alfred Nobel was Swedish, had invented dynamite, and had been very rich. I would have been hard-pressed — like most individuals I think — to go beyond those three basic facts. After researching his life, however, I was struck by the complexity — and sadness — of Nobel’s personality and life. Despite all his worldly wealth, he was plagued by guilt, loneliness, depression and — interestingly — an intense and lifelong fear of being buried alive. Incidentally, it was Nobel’s intense devotion to his mother that likely precluded marriage and children: now there’s a lesson for all of us!

OB:

What was your writing process like during this project? Did you have a set writing schedule or particular writing habits or talismans?

HK:

The Stonehenge Letters took three years to finish and was largely written in the early morning hours and on weekends; by way of brief explanation, the practice of psychiatry remains my day job. However, I was able to make two wonderful and essential month-long research trips to Sweden during this time period, once accompanied by my daughter April. These were opportunities to work in the research library of Stockholm’s Nobel Museum, housed — as archives should be — in the vaulted basement of a century-old building. One morning, James Watson, Nobel Laureate and co-discoverer of DNA, happened to visit the library while April and I were working. Being Canadian, we of course didn’t approach him but, for some reason, I took his presence as an inspiring and encouraging talisman-like sign.

OB:

What are some of your favourite recent reads? And what is on your nightstand to read next?

HK:

Just finished Timothy Taylor’s The Blue Light Project — a magnificent book and, for me, an introduction to the world of street art, mob dynamics, and ‘gang stalking’. The latter refers to individuals who are convinced, rightly or wrongly, that they are being stalked and harassed by other individuals acting in a coordinated, collective fashion. After reading Taylor’s imaginative integration of the phenomenon, you’re left wondering whether gang stalking is ‘9 parts psychiatric, 1 part reality’ or whether the percentages are really the other way around. As for next reads on my nightstand, right beside my Southern Comfort sits a stack of essay collections by the late David Foster Wallace — master of the footnote and whose death by suicide saddened me greatly.

OB:

What are you working on now?

HK:

I’ve previously written that completing a novel leaves a gaping absence and for me, at least, a disturbing period of unsettled angst. Although I’m still too grief-stricken to take on a next writing project, I am reading about a number of unusual psychiatric disorders. Hopefully, inspiration will strike shortly.


Harry Karlinsky is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. His first novel, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects (HarperCollins UK), was longlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize.

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