What a time it’s been. Between the lockdowns, illness and isolation, life has been a struggle. A new novel, blue: season by Chris Lombardi is a literary mystery that couldn’t have come out at a better time. It’s not about the pandemic per se, but it does show how trauma can take us into dark places.
It’s the story of a woman who is similar to a real person, author James Joyce’s daughter Lucia, a talented dancer who was in mental institutions for much of her life. “Lucy,” as she’s called at the outset, speaks in a strange mashup of literary lines, like a poet. She doesn’t make sense, and is disconnected from reality. We’re drawn into the questions surrounding this schizophrenic woman from page one.
I found myself absorbed not just for the plot twists that kept me guessing, but also because so many scenes reminded me of life with chronic illness—and how the pandemic made it all harder to cope with it. I also resonated with its depictions of the mental hospital, because it wasn’t so different from my experiences with the medical world. How it can put us into boxes and dehumanize us, but also help us.
I got in touch with Lombardi to find out more about the book and what went into it.
Sunshine Mugrabi: What made you decide to write about this topic of Lucia Joyce, schizophrenia, and literature?
Chris Lombardi: I got hooked on reading James Joyce when I was in high school; he’s one of those puzzle-writers, many of whom just annoy me, but in Joyce’s case the payoff felt worth it. So I was reading Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce, and one of the first things you learn from it was how central his family was.
I didn’t know much about Lucia, certainly didn’t know that she’d been in mental hospitals most of her life. The bio was the first time I saw that famous quote from Carl Jung, who told Joyce that he and Lucia were in the same river, but Lucia was in danger of drowning.
SM: What a quote. The book shows how thin that line can be.
CL: So I get to thinking, here’s a smart girl – daughter of a GENIUS! who’s born in Trieste, moves to Switzerland and then to Paris while she’s learning her first languages. And here her father is this giant whose writing is kind of fragmentary, if in all the good ways. I was intrigued by all of that. I decided to write a novel about her.
I wasn’t that interested in a fictional biography. I’d write the story of someone for whom Lucia’s story tugged at long-suppressed memories until she herself ended up institutionalized.
SM: Mental illness has been in the news a lot lately so your book is timely. What do you make of the recent crisis of mental health for young people (and others)? Is it just pandemic related or is something deeper and/or longer lasting going on? If so, what do you think is going on?
CL: COVID certainly doesn’t help: I think that people are more aware of their own mental health partly because of the pandemic and the issues around it– who gets it, who gets treated for it.
When I was writing blue, I was under the influence of people like Thomas Ssaz and Kate Millett, who were very anti-psychiatry.
Millett’s The Loony Bin Trip chronicled what happened when she decided to stop taking lithium for her bipolar disorder; Ssasz book is called The Myth of Mental Illness.
While I now have somewhat different feelings about the medical approach to mental health, the intervening years have illustrated how “mental health” can be wielded as a weapon by the powerful. I was honored to have the novel endorsed by Will Hall, a psychiatry survivor and author of Outside Mental Health: “This fascinating, thriller-paced novel avoids both the casual pathologization of madness or its equally misleading romanticization, and reveals the common bond between artistic genius and suffering patient.”
SM: I found myself thinking about disability and mental illness while reading it. The links and overlapping issues. Were these things on your mind too? How do you see it?
CL: Again it’s about power. When you asked about “mental health crisis,” I thought about policing, and how nearly half of the black men killed by police in 2020 had an observable mental-health issue. And we recently had the mayor of New York announcing his cops would be empowered to take people off the street and put them in institutions without their consent.
And certainly voices that speak in ways that make the mainstream uncomfortable are more liable to be treated as a problem. If you use the social model of disability (which I do), you see these disabilities come from our society’s refusal to address the needs of those who function differently.
SM: I found the characters unforgettable. How did you get your ideas for them, other than the historical figures that inspired them?
CL: First, thank you. It’s funny because when you’re writing fiction you’re running a little movie in your head and just writing down what happened. They’re people in the story that’s going on for you.
I set it in Baltimore because I’d lived there when my first marriage fell apart, and a few are based on people I knew there. The hospital scenes were based on the time I spent as a volunteer at Jacob Pearlstein Psychiatric Institute in San Francisco. I didn’t think oh I need a social worker, but I knew one in Baltimore who I now realize inspired Anne-Marie [one of the main characters].
SM: What kind of research did this book require? There are so many things you needed to get right—mental illness, Joyce, other literature, academia, and perhaps trickiest of all, the mental health system and how it works.
CL: I already mentioned JPPI, which was where I got the medical-only approach and how the therapy groups worked. I didn’t last that long as a volunteer, because I had “poor boundaries,” which is what happens to my social work character.
I was encouraged to have stronger boundaries between myself and the patients, but I could see myself having possibly been a patient. Still I learned a lot there. I also drowned in psychiatry books, especially the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual [used by mental health professionals for diagnosis].
SM: What about the research into James Joyce and his daughter Lucia?
CL: For the Joyce research, I started with the professor with whom I’d studied Joyce in college, Suzette Henke. I learned early that Lucia’s story was controversial, that her nephew Stephen James Joyce had burned her letters and threatened to sue anyone who wrote about her.
I went to the University of Texas to read Lucia’s journals, and secured essential help from Joyce scholars, haunting Joyce conferences for years.
I was mentored by a Stanford University professor who told me about a collection of notebooks Joyce kept for Finnegans Wake. I sat down with copies of them at Stanford and that’s where I got the title “blue: season,”—from one of the entries in those journals. I also met Lucia’s eventual biographer, Carol Shloss, when she was just getting started on what became the 2003 book To Dance in the Wake. Her thesis is that Lucia’s dance career was most important to understanding how she made art.
Both types of research led me to look more deeply into trauma. Molly’s theory that child sexual abuse was part of Lucia Joyce’s story, a concept that one Joyce scholar told me “could deconstruct [her] profession,” likely started for me with Janet Malcolm’s 1983 “In the Freud Archives,” where she quotes Freud talking about how numerous patients reported having been “seduced” by their fathers, which he was glad to realize later was only the result of their Oedipal desires (!). When I was constructing Molly’s story I read numerous studies about the psychological sequelae of incest. That’s one of the reasons both trauma and survivor are among the book’s Amazon keywords.
SM: Anything else you’d like people to know about the book?
CL: Most important: you DON’T need to know any Joyce at all to understand my book. It was sparked by Lucia Joyce’s story, but the book I ended up writing is a contemporary narrative about memory, and families, and what we create from both.
Oh, and that they can learn more about the book from my Mumblers Press page. Thank you so much for these smart questions, and for the opportunity to share Molly’s story with the world.
SM: You’re welcome! It’s a wonderful book, and I know lots of folks will both enjoy it and relate to the characters and story.
The book is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Bookshop.