I’ve long been fascinated by the composition of our lives—how pains and traumas, tiny joys, and mundane moments collide with others’ experiences and are set against global catastrophes. I remember wishing I could find a novel that conveyed this, but I didn’t find one that quite did until Coco Picard’s debut novel, The Healing Circle.
I met Coco when we were both fellows in Stony Brook University’s BookEnds intensive, a yearlong novel revision fellowship. About three months in, Red Hen Press announced The Healing Circle (which Coco was working on in the fellowship) won the Women’s Prose Award.
The novel is about a woman who is terminally ill and flees to Germany for an experimental cure, without saying goodbye to her adult children. Bedridden in the “Wellness Center” wing of a hospital, her primary companion is an aloe plant and her days are made up with visits from nurses, calls from her children, and the memories that haunt her consciousness. The novel manages to be both bold and subtle, as well as funny and serious. It invites us to consider dying and living, pain and healing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Healing Circle is an incredibly astute meditation on life through the lens of imminent death. I’d love to hear what sparked the idea for the novel.
Sometimes I wonder if I have left pieces of myself in past architectures. Like, if ghosts exist more generally, maybe they aren’t representative of a whole person but rather a slice of a person left behind at a specifically profound moment in their life, in a specific place, glitching. I spent about six months of my twenties caring for my mother at a Wellness Center outside of Munich. From what I understood, the Wellness Center was a separate wing of a larger hospital where patients could check in for non-urgent wellness treatments like cupping or massage. My sister had just had a baby and couldn’t easily travel, so my brother and I took turns caring for our mother, renewing tourist visas by exiting and reentering the country. I remember feeling totally depleted after her death and had this strange feeling, like somehow the only way I’d been able to encourage her to let go—whatever that means—was to go almost all the way with her. Not physically, but psychologically or metaphysically. Almost like I had to walk her to the end of a pier and help her into a boat with all of the reassurances you might give a child going away to camp. It took a while for me to find my way back to material and time. It took me years to write The Healing Circle but I wanted to capture something about my feelings as a twenty-three-year-old in Munich. Even if everything else that furnishes the world of the book is fictive, what lies at the center for me, and what I believe propels the narrative, is what it means to leave everyone and everything you know at such a vulnerable time in your life, just before death. And, for instance, did my mother really believe this cure would work? Or did she have some animal impulse to run away from her community and die privately?
It’s fascinating that the inspiration came from your mother’s experience. The main character, though named, is mostly referred to as “Mother” throughout the novel. It has an almost chilling effect—the way she’s stripped down to this role, one that can be so consuming it can feel like it defines us. Can you talk about this decision?
I released the protagonist of my book from my mother’s resemblance early on. It gave me more room to move—I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I was honoring her memory, or our relationship. I became more interested in some idea of “mother-ness.” Maybe this is also because I was thinking about how much of my response to my own mother’s health filtered through my own desires and expectations as a child. I read books that centered around mothers, and how their relationships seemed inevitably entwined with social and political constraints, the exterior expectations of women, subsequent strategies for agency and love. This also felt significant for the mother in my book because all of her kids have grown up and left the house. Shouldn’t she be more than a mother at that stage? I loved reading At the Bottom of the River, for instance, by Jamaica Kinkaid—the last story in particular informed my thinking, the way the narrative flows in and out of material form, ending with the implied feeling of the narrator’s name. In The Healing Circle, I wanted Mother to be a nexus point. She is primarily her, but that personal also stems from historic, political, and environmental questions. She is driven by the specter of an individual cure. How do we evaluate her agenda based on her title? And is this mother, identified as the “Mother” of the book, somehow responsible for everything that happens within its pages? What is her responsibility? Where is her privilege? I was thinking about questions like those—also the opening of The Stranger, this idea that the mother’s death creates an absurd opening for meaninglessness and violence. Fast forward 75 years, what happens if a book begins from the maternal point of view prior to death?
The novel is nonlinear and made up of Mother’s consciousness, so we get a blend of past memories with what’s happening in the hospital: medical staff coming into her room, calls from her children, and observations about the aloe plant that’s her only steady companion. How did you settle on the order of each vignette?
Within the linear trajectory of a one-room framework—the Mother lying in her hospital bed—I imagined everything, all of the vignettes and memories and conversations, happening simultaneously, rhizomatically. As if some personal adaptation of The Divine Comedy occurs all at once in Mother’s mind and, rather than offering a linear progression toward a single, unified redemption to a Beatrice-type, the Mother is Beatrice, is Dante, is Tantalus etc. She is unstable but perfectly still. Her body—which so often defines the role of a Mother, as a channel for life—is instead tending toward death. Mother periodically wonders if she is already dead. She could be a ghost stuck in that hospital room forever. She sticks her arm over her bed to see if she has a shadow—some confirmation of the tactility of her life. Is she a shade or does she have form? As the book develops, so does an inverse relationship between how deeply she reflects on her own life and the state of her health. As though her increasing stillness makes her more present to her life overall, as well as the potted plant, and her proximity to world events. I hope the novel indicates that some inner change occurs but I sometimes think she could just close her eyes at the end, then open them and find herself at the beginning again.
I love the juxtaposition—or rather, intrusion—of the television with news broadcasts on catastrophes around the world, including the climate crisis. The news broadcasts do several things at once—with the entire novel taking place inside a single room, they’re a reminder of the vastness of the world, and serve as a contrast to Mother’s suffering. There’s suffering everywhere, and not only in regards to humans, but the planet. Was it difficult to choose what (and how much) to include?
I wanted to find a balance that mirrors how I try to manage my own life within our current news cycle, to carry over this sense of multiple and simultaneous systemic pressures outside of Mother’s life, and a general sense of uselessness-in-crisis. As the book continues, pressures increases. Hopefully, their associated breakdowns feel integrated within the narrative while maintaining the priority of Mother’s perspective. Not because it’s intrinsically more important—on the contrary. But she can’t see beyond herself. It’s as if all of the larger world events—earthquakes and wildfires for instance—are happening elsewhere. She doesn’t feel implicated in the “elsewhere.” I’ve been reading about this general critique of human imagination, that our species is incapable of holding something as massive as climate change in the same frame as the individual. There have been a number of really interesting responses to Amitav Ghosh’s book, The Great Derangement, for instance since it came out but he suggests that the form of the novel, the way it privileges a single, heroic, human protagonist, intrinsically excludes massive weather events or, say, Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects. I admit I wanted The Healing Circle to be humble in its scale and proportion while nevertheless creating a world defined by absurdist feats of strength and power—the car being sent to the moon—rising fascistic tendencies, refugee crises, social riots, and environmental distress. It seems important that Mother doesn’t see their connection overtly. Even the relationship between the plastic furniture in her hospital room and the abundance of plastic pollution or IKEA assembly lines exist in her background. She doesn’t see her experience as contingent on those outside events, but for a reader I hope that all of the details, because they are collected and indexed within the book, feel contingent, and relevant to her own drive for personal health in the face of a terminal disease.
The broadcasts also highlight the violence in the world. Mother is a victim of sexual violence, and to a lesser degree, violence from the medical and alternative healing communities (the extraction of blood, bogus cures, etc.). I’d love to talk about the way you explore these other forms of violence, namely, manipulation and exploitation of people in vulnerable and desperate situations.
I am especially interested in how trauma transmits beyond a single event or life. I wanted this book to capture an intergenerational transmission of trauma in a way that felt deliberate, cataclysmic to those involved but also contained within their lives. Mother’s assault is personal and devastating. It creates a barely undiscussed rupture in her whole family. But it’s also related to her parent’s history, also undiscussed. It’s the first time that she overtly recognizes the violence in her father as something learned, presumably when he clerked in the Nazi party. The idea of immigrating is important—characters consistently try to move to a new country in order to become a new self but the trauma persists, grows increasingly contorted through other propositions. I was inspired by Roberto Bolaño also, 2666 or The Third Reich, this idea of former members of the Nazi party, hiding in South America. Where do their descendants go and how do they matriculate? Even as a victim of that violence, Mother chooses a spouse who manipulates others because she thinks she is, and enjoys being, the exception—repeating the mistake of her own mother. I believe the cure Mother wants goes beyond her disease. She wants to find a correlation between mind and body, maybe also a desire to resolve the not-entirely conscious historic conflicts and violences that she embodies.
Throughout the novel, we see all these things that need healing (such as Mother’s cancer and her trauma, the American political system, and the entire Earth). Sometimes healing feels futile. At one point Mother questions how anyone heals anything. I thought we could wrap up by discussing despondency in regards to healing.
I want a good answer for this. I want to know what the right, best answer is but I don’t have it. Maybe there isn’t one. I want to say this is a question people have been wrestling with since we had language but more likely it’s a question that all beings wrestle with: what is suffering? What is it for? What is the point of life if it contains so much suffering? Personally, I have yet to feel existentially satisfied by a particular approach to making meaning. Maybe this is because I am not a religious person, so I am automatically peripheral to any cohesive framework. I love philosophy but I am suspicious of its attempt to make a pervasive rational coherence. There is something oppressive to me about any overarching attempt at unification. I love being a part of a community but never feel entirely at home. I am most grateful for communities that allow for an at-odds feeling, places and groups that don’t expect conformity. A few years ago, I listened (and relistened) to this amazing lecture series about the Great American Novel since 1945 by Amy Hungerford. If I remember correctly—and I’m sorry that I’m probably glossing over the finer points of her argument—she suggests that the form of the American novel is, in some sense, inherently cohesive and unified. Everything, all of the details in a novel have their place within one unified system—the single, largely male, linear narrative—that, she suggests, echoes a monotheistic sensibility. This goes back to the idea that you can’t introduce a knife into the first act without using it later. In the conclusion of a novel, Hungerford suggests that we find redemption, all of those small acts add up to something meaningful and satisfying, restoring a sense of justice that retroactively accounts for everything prior. Matthew Salesses also touches on this in his book, Craft in the Real World, pointing out ways that writing is often taught to adhere to a White Eurocentric sensibility. I want to work out ways to undermine that sensibility and formal disruptions feel like one way to do so.
I have this sense that the world we are stepping towards holds radical change. The modern institutions we have in place, whether nation-states, museums, health care systems, education systems, or even insurance companies—all of those things are about to feel tremendous pressure precisely because they are not built to change and our physical environment is transforming rapidly. If all of that shifts, won’t our art forms shift as well?
The Healing Circle
By Coco Picard
Red Hen Press
Published August 16, 2022
Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Fiction Writers Review, The Rupture, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.