We’re All Mad Here: Laurie Sheck Discusses Her New Book

Courtesy of Laurie Sheck


On Thursday Oct. 26, Laurie Sheck, an author and creative writing professor at the New School in New York City, visited Middlebury to give a multimedia presentation on her newest book, “Island of the Mad”. Sheck presented on the ways she is toying with traditional and, perhaps, sometimes stagnant written forms.  When asked how she would describe the style of her latest book, Sheck replied, “we don’t think it’s such a good thing to categorize people, but when it comes to literature, it’s like you have to have a label — your fiction, your poetry.” Sheck’s book merges poetry, prose, and nonfiction, with white space left on the page as a narrative tool. Her relative term for her work, though she feels it cannot be accurately labelled, is “documentary fiction” or “collage fiction.”

Sheck screened a thirty-five minute video she created to encapsulate the story told in the book. Paralleling the structure of her written work, the video was anything but stagnant or straightforward; her voice read excerpts from the book while the screen flipped through photographs of Venice (the book’s setting), pictures of letters, and text from the book that matched her narration. The video ended with images and her voice reading a letter written by Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist Sheck writes about in “Island of the Mad”.

She explained what drove her to lift her ideas of the page and into a multimedia form, despite her lack of experience with video technology.

“I love writing, and I love the page. But what are the ways writing isn’t going to just stay on the page?” she said. Sheck added that the internet provides us with tools for artistic expression and communication and has completely opened up the writing world. The way we skip from one website to another, one screen to another, parallels the way Sheck’s novels switch narrators, settings, form, and space.

Sheck’s 2009 book “A Monster’s Notes,” written with a similar hybrid, documentary-style narrative, was a way to explore what she left out of her previous five books of poetry. She wanted to incorporate her love of research and investigation into her writing and make it accessible. Borrowing the monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and placing him in New York City in the 21st century, Sheck’s book was born out of years of investigations at the MIT artificial intelligence lab, studies on genetic engineering, and archival research on the Shelley papers.

“I think after my years of practice as a poet, I had a very strong sense of structure,” Sheck said “The book came together; I got immense pleasure out of it. I don’t fit anywhere, but so what?”

“Island of the Mad” utilizes the same literary strategy of weaving primary source documents and investigative research into a certain written “documentary.” Sheck uses this genre of writing as a tool to share with her readers the discoveries she makes within her research, and to interact physically with the information.

“I think we have this Western idea of talent, or genius. You sit at a desk, by yourself, and put pressure on your brain, and something is supposed to pop out,” Sheck said. “I don’t think that’s how it works. I think writing is a conversation with the writing that’s come before it, with the writing that’s happening now, and even the writing that hasn’t happened yet. Literature is extremely generous; it is an area of sharing, not of competition.” As a professor, Sheck says she tries to inspire her young writer students. “Writers are outlaws. You have to serve the work. I think writing really stands against perceived structures of power, and if you’re going to censor your own mind and impulses before you even start, you’re then signaling to your reader a kind of enslavement. Writing is really about freeing your mind.”

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We’re All Mad Here: Laurie Sheck Discusses Her New Book