Conversations Between Friends: Coco Picard and Sue Mell
Consider the personal effects one leaves behind, the way those objects, once laid out, recall the idiosyncratic logic of a life—is there more compelling inspiration for a novel? Authors Coco Picard and Sue Mell met through the BookEnds SUNY alumni group months before their debut novels came out. They couldn’t stop talking about books and art—and the scarcity of time to create either one. While their novels differ in structure—The Healing Circle’s experimental versus Provenance’s traditional form—these newfound friends soon discovered that their books align at a juncture of loss and the resonance of inanimate things.
Coco Picard: I was in a class with Jesse Ball who once said you could tell a lot about a novel based on how it handles death—something like a Roadrunner cartoon versus Helen Oyeyemi’s ghost story White Is for Witching versus Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary versus a crime novel like Malindo Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club. Is death final? Is it humorous? The novel’s treatment of death defines its stakes. Yet mortality in both of our books is a constant atmospheric condition. I end up focusing on how objects populate Provenance or The Healing Circle instead. Especially with Provenance, which revolves around a record collection, antique shop, and the arduous storage of possessions.
Sue Mell: Reading The Healing Circle, I was immediately entranced by Ursula, your protagonist. I so admire your hilarious descriptions of the many new-age healers she consults, and was deeply moved by her circling passage through past sexual trauma—and wild hope of survival—to acceptance of her inevitable death. Along with the memories other people hold of us, our belongings—and the things we’ve created—are what we leave behind.
CP: Probably Ursula has a whole crystal collection and a library of well-worn self-help books, maybe with passages underlined. Her kids would have to deal with that, even while Ursula was in Germany, not yet dead. I feel like DJ, the protagonist in Provenance, is negotiating that as well.
SM: DJ’s definitely a hoarder, and the novel is glutted with his stuff, which ultimately reflects a shift in his emotional attachment, from the collections and keepsakes that mire him in the past, to the people in his present—primarily his sister, Connie, and her eleven-year-old daughter, Elise. I often turned to his possessions for characterization, verisimilitude, and mood. They also provided a way for me to free associate, sparking my imagination and leading to unexpected scenes. Some objects, like a marbled glass egg and a celadon teapot, are ones that I own: the egg something I picked out, as a young kid, from an antiques store on the Upper East Side in New York; the teapot something I bought from a Brooklyn antiques store I once visited with the man who was the inspiration for DJ.
CP: It makes so much sense that DJ and an antique store are originally enmeshed—he’s so often giving gifts, negotiating objects and the sentiments they carry. It’s like the objects he relates to convey his inner emotional state more aptly than what he says or otherwise relays. The book starts just after a landlord’s sale of his Brooklyn building forces him to find new accommodations. Friends pack his clothes and possessions, many of which are charged with the memory of his deceased spouse. DJ seems depressed, unable to manage practicalities, in the throes of quiet disappointment about love opportunities missed, professional paths curtailed by his own health issues and subsequent obligations caring for his spouse—I feel like he’s distracted by imagining how life could have gone differently. That’s where his story starts. And it takes his extended family, and their needs, for him to consider stepping outside of himself, a task that promises new meaning. His situation feels so real to me.
SM: New meaning—yes. That’s exactly what I was after. The seed for Provenance was a short story by Robert Boswell called “No River Wide” from his collection The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards. That story doesn’t have a happy ending, but there’s a kind of lift, a hint of promise made through a transiting of generations. That’s what I was always aiming for with DJ and Elise—to whom he gives that glass egg. He might not be able to make much of his own life and squandered promise, but he could still prove to be a significant figure in hers. I also wanted it to be a bit of an open question. Amy Hempel was a mentor during the final stages of revision, and I was drawn to leaving the reader with the feeling of what she described as “hope in ruin.” What were the things that set The Healing Circle in motion for you? Who or what was your inspiration for Ursula?
CP: My mom was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when I was a kid and was in and out of remissions for about fourteen years. She and Ursula aren’t alike at all, except I’d say they both sought/seek the relationship between physical, psychological, and spiritual suffering. Ultimately, their dissimilarity made it possible for me to write the book. In prior drafts and failed attempts, I tried to write something “true.” I wanted to capture some authentic complexity of emotion, heartbreak, joy, distress as witness/child/caregiver. But writing about grief—or maybe better to say, writing through grief—proved impossible for me. I just couldn’t write The Real. Like, I can’t even write “she cried,” or “she wept,” or “she sobbed,” let alone “she sobbed and fell apart and couldn’t pick herself up; her whole world was ending.” Anytime I’ve tried to write something like that, it inevitably falls flat, reduced, but in a bad way. I’d kind of rather write a sex scene.
SM: I’m so sorry for the early loss of your mom. It’s difficult to approach grief directly—though I did make DJ a bit of a crier. And, for me, sex scenes are definitely harder to write! My mom has midstage dementia, and that’s a long, long tail of daily grief I’ve only managed to write about in the form of flash or micro nonfiction. For DJ, my tack was to keep bombarding him with mementos and situations that either remind him directly of his dead wife, Belinda, or underscore the ways in which he feels he failed her. I also had other characters get annoyed by his still being weepy, three years after her death, as a way of dispelling any hint of melodrama. How did you find your way through?
CP: I can’t remember who encouraged me to let go of an obligation to real events, but it was liberating. The Healing Circle is a totally scrambled, inaccurate account. None of the details line up with my own familial experience. I made up this whole other family and mother, with totally different motivations and circumstances, but who, like my mother, has a chronic disease, three kids, and dies in Germany. Somehow, I think the feeling of the book comes closer to the unconscious thresholds of my experience than any earlier detail-oriented drafts. Ironically, I think the book is more “true” in that sense.
SM: “A totally scrambled, inaccurate account”—I love that! For Provenance, it was much more removed, but I also used the death of someone I’d once been close with as a jumping-off point. And, given the scrambling of my own concerns, the book, for me, is very much about moving forward in the face of loss. My mom’s (Jewish) family fled Germany early on in World War II—something I rarely touch on—and again, only in nonfiction work. Was there a personal connection for you, in that regard?
CP: Not directly. I’m from third-generation Californians on both sides. My Swedish-American maternal grandfather fought in the Navy in the Pacific in World War II and married my Norwegian-American grandmother. My German-American paternal grandfather couldn’t enlist because he’d had polio and that grandmother came from Evanston, Illinois. But the world feels dangerous at the moment and The Healing Circle gave me a chance to explore one scenario of how fascistic tendencies can build within a family. I read about La Cumbrecita—a pocket of German transplants established in Argentina before World War II—and that catalyzed Ursula’s back story. It’s a place where her father can pretend the war never happened and it colors her son’s trajectory as a fledgling Accelerationist scholar.
Place is so important for both of us. You write the place-ness of Upstate New York so well. I feel the dampness, the slip between quaint history and depressed future, particularly as it’s juxtaposed through DJ’s resignation, his seeming desire to return to Brooklyn…can you talk about that?
SM: I went to camp in Upstate New York, but had never been to either of the towns where the novel is predominantly set. Three-quarters of the way through the initial draft, I was still living in San Francisco, but was in Manhattan for a freelance gig, preparing the showroom of a home textile manufacturer for market week, and I squeezed in a quick trip Upstate. A string of hot dog joints and methadone clinics succinctly evokes the desolation of an area whose better days have come and gone, and align with DJ’s feelings about himself, and his wish to return to Brooklyn—a place that once held his hopes and dreams. But I never would’ve arrived at that image without seeing it firsthand. On a simpler level, Connie’s house—where many scenes occur—is closely based on the home of a good friend I’ve known since childhood, down to the striped Mexican throw rug, leather couch, and the ping pong table in her basement.
CP: All of those elements feel so concrete in Provenance—on the one hand they feel grounded in some “real” material world but I also think their tangibility reflects how your characters relate to their environment—like DJ hears Connie walking in the kitchen above the basement, or she calls down the stairs to him, or he arranges boxes around the ping pong table—there is a special vitality there.
SM: Vitality’s a great word; it’s also something I was consciously striving for. Happy memories of playing ping pong with my own brother, for example, gave the ping pong table a particular resonance I could lend to DJ and Connie, as well as her somewhat shady, soon-to-be ex-husband. To mirror Belinda, I wanted DJ’s current love interest to have an artistic bent, and the idea of her making pendant bulb chandeliers came from a café in Kingston, New York, I’d seen online. (In the first draft, that café played a much bigger part, and was sadly closed on the day I stopped by.) As with the objects, I often turn to elements of place for characterization, mood and tone, or a reflection of meaning.
Both DJ and Ursula have made sudden, last-ditch changes of locale, and both have essentially spent all the money they had. But where DJ has dragged all of his belongings with him, Ursula has left everything behind, which, along with her physical limitations, lends a perfect logic to your minimal setting, along with great power and a resonating effect to things that are within her view. The broken helicopter, the ever-encroaching woods, and—of course—Madame Blavatsky, the aloe plant [pictured below]. What led to those particular choices?
CP: Madame Blavatsky! Her importance grew as I wrote—I don’t think I noticed her at first, she was just in scenes. Partly because plants are weirdo background beings, banal, appearing everywhere. We rarely “notice” them. We accept that they are alive but have a hard time categorizing that living-ness—are they conscious? Ursula is alone for the most part. Doctors come and go. Her children call on the telephone. She thinks about her friends. The aloe plant becomes her main companion. Thinking about Ursula in her hospital bed, looking out at the woods, the aloe plant steps forward from the background.
SM: Can you talk about how you arrived at your structure of very short chapters? They so beautifully reflect the flickering nature of memory, the emotional circling-around of trauma, and the in-and-out quality of a mind deteriorating from illness. I’m especially curious how you approached the revelation of information, and carrying the longer story arcs across those small sections.
CP: It’s funny how the form, for me, emerges from the narrative. I’ve been revising a parodic spy novel, for example, wherein contemporary art and influencer culture meet. It’s far more traditional, in a lot of ways, because it’s working within spy genre fiction. In The Healing Circle, I was trying to mimic the sensation of being in a hospital. How it’s monotonous and epic. Like if Ursula is blinking, each chapter happens when she opens her eyes, but then you don’t know how much time passes between blinks/chapters. Something about her position in the room of the book allows her to experience life simultaneously. I’d been thinking about the Cumaean Sibyl who has visions of the future, scribbles them on oak leaves, and piles them by the mouth of her cave. If no one comes to pick up the pile, the leaves scatter, prophecies are lost, or ill-sorted. I’m interested in how we live with memories, how they permeate and influence the present.
SM: Ooh—that story of the Cumaean Sibyl is so evocative and perfect for Ursula’s story. Where your “leaves” were scattered, I’d say mine were corralled. At the beginning of my BookEnds fellowship, when it was clear I would essentially be rewriting the entire book, I was at a loss for how to begin, until Meg Wolitzer gave me some inspiring direction. She suggested I start with a prologue whose first line went something like: “There was so much stuff and DJ couldn’t let any of it go,” and then include a list, a short catalog of his things that might also be used to organize the rest of the material. And that’s exactly what I did—leaned on those objects to lead, and even drive, the narrative. In the final draft, they came to shape the ten-chapter structure of the novel. The first seven chapters either contain or highlight one of the cataloged objects: the celadon teapot I mentioned earlier, a découpage cigar box, records, a wonky chifforobe, a ceramic figurine of a Thai dancer, DJ’s guitar collection (which also includes a banjo and a surf-green ukulele), and Belinda’s photographs. Then, in Chapter 8, all those objects cycle through. In Chapter 9, DJ is either keeping or dispensing with them. And in Chapter 10, each object has a kind of reprise, and a couple that were given short shrift become more detailed.
CP: So much happens “off camera” in Provenance—we meet DJ after what feels like his emotional climax. I love that. We see him begrudgingly picking up his own pieces, recognizing the needs of others. This idea actually goes back to the grief discussion for me. So often the drama around death is in the before or the immediate aftermath. I love how in Provenance you show a long-term aftermath of death. Practical circumstances force DJ to get on with his life, and that’s where your book begins. He also admits an ambivalent relationship with Belinda. I love that too—the difficulty of survival wrapped up in the complexity of intimate relationships.
SM: It’s that scrambling, really, of fiction and fact. Most, if not all, of my own romantic relationships have been plagued by ambivalence, so that’s one of my preoccupations as a writer. And I’ve always been interested in the complexity and moment-to-moment emotional dynamics of intimate relationships. Placing those major events offstage but letting them leak through in memory and long-term effects gave me room to explore both broad and more subtle reverberations.
CP: It also relates to the question of music, for me. I think there are just two songs in mine—an old Weimar song that the vet-doctor plays on a radio and at another point Madam Blavatsky enjoys an ABBA song playing at the front desk of the hospital. But Provenance has so much music. Guitars, records, songs…you provide a soundtrack for the reader. But maybe like the major events, the music leaks into your narrative, like a channel on a radio in the background. What’s your relationship to music and how did it enter your writing?
SM: Ah, music, music, music. In my next life, I’d like to be able to sing like Alicia Keys. Or maybe Tom Waits. In this one, I played cello in high school and college, but eventually abandoned the cello—and a smattering of piano and guitar—for other aspirations. People said I had talent, but I was terrible about practicing and only understood, decades later, that what mattered was not technique or even the notes per se, but your own interpretation of the music. For a while, I produced short, personal, independent pieces for radio, which led to my becoming serious about writing. At the same time, I loved creating music beds for those pieces, so the two were intertwined. But, more generally, I’ve always been a sucker for mixtapes and the effects of music of all kinds, and have a propensity for using it as a shorthand for communication.
Throughout Provenance, DJ is haunted by an unfinished melody that eventually becomes the throughline of a collage-like musical composition, which brings me back around to your novel’s unusual structure. You may not have much music per se, but the ever-changing angle of Ursula’s hospital bed, her grief over her brother’s death—and the sexual trauma she circles around—function like musical riffs, or maybe themes in a fugue. Did you write various snippets and reorder later? Write longer arcs and break them up?
CP: I definitely got lost revising the manuscript. At first the structure was intuitive but the book was originally shorter with a lot of blind spots. Then I took the different threads apart and stacked them up sequentially, almost like different short stories. This helped me work out everyone’s backstories. I love what you point out with the thematic repetitions. That was a grounding line for me and once I saw all the threads line up, I went back to my collage format, weaving everything together again. The book was bloated at that point. Writing friends, editors, and mentors were key. Between conversations with fellow authors, Melanie Pierce and D. H. White, Meg Wolitzer of BookEnds, and Kate Gale at Red Hen Press, I managed to prune the manuscript back again. I decided to keep the fictive present linear and then address why a given nonlinear chapter or memory interrupted the fictive present when it did. Like, the why of The Healing Circle’s progression….
SM: Such an interesting process—makes me want to go back and read the book again! Can I also say how much I admire the humor—and satire, really—that’s infused throughout? All the healers and their outfits! The “doctor” whose sole confirmable credential is a veterinary license, ash from his cigarettes piling up as he gives Ursula injections of the dead chicken pox virus. Gah! I was reminded at moments of my pleasure in first reading Don DeLillo’s White Noise.
CP: One regular editorial note I get is that I can cut jokes and should do so. I don’t think I’m ever jokes-forward in real life, so the note surprised me at first. But it makes sense—how to find the right balance. Growing up like a fly-on-the-wall of bourgeois New Age culture, I must have ferreted jokes away.
SM: I can’t tell jokes of the guy-walk-into-a-bar variety, but, like DJ, I’ve always got my ear out for that opening, in any given conversation, to insert a funny or caustic remark. Situationally funny, you could say, and in my forties, I briefly aspired to be a standup comic—but that’s a whole other story. Though having to come up with new comic material on a daily basis is how I developed a consistent writing habit. In life, I love to get a laugh, and I do hope to get one from the reader. But humor’s also a coping mechanism, which makes it a great tool for depicting denial of, or a struggle with, grief, and even trauma. The most heartfelt and relieving laughs always lie in the saddest stuff. I’ve made myself cry when I’m writing, but in terms of laughter, I’m more prone to the occasional smirk.
Your last chapter—one page, consisting of a single broken-off line—closes the book with a heartbreaking em dash that’s both open-ended and final, leaving us with the image of Madame Blavatsky, the aloe plant, having reached an arm across the table to rest on Ursula’s hand. A perfect example of something both funny—whimsical, really—and incredibly sad. (And, yeah, I did cry.) At what point in your process did you come to those choices?
CP: It happened by surprise. Not like I’m channeling the book through automatic writing exercises, but for me part of writing is listening to the material. One of my favorite essays by Tim Ingold is “On Weaving a Basket” and he describes how the inherent properties of the wood used to make a basket help determine that basket’s ultimate form. So, how flexible the wood is, which way it bends, how it ages—all of those things become participating factors. The basket of my book happened to end with Ursula and Madam Blavatsky. The plant steps entirely into the foreground just as she is receding. I didn’t set out to write that, but found my way there, if that makes sense. How did you find your ending? Did you know how it would end when you began?
SM: The ending was always like something I could see on the horizon—that bit of hope and a sense of reprieve for DJ from all that had come before. The question I grappled with, throughout writing the book, was how he would get there. And the answer only came clear as I felt my way forward, scene by scene. Originally, I had DJ and Elise in the car on their way to pick up Connie from work. Elise points out that he’s missed the turn, and he tells her he’ll just loop around—that they’ve still got time. I kind of miss that ending, but, in the final version, it felt more apt for him to return to the composition he’s been struggling to resolve—to make new music out of all he’s been through. Not unlike what we, as writers, are so often trying to do.
COCO PICARD is a writer, cartoonist, and curator. She is the author of The Healing Circle, which won the Red Hen Press Women’s Prose Prize, as well as two graphic novels, Meowsers (Red Hen Press, 2022), and The Chronicles of Fortune (Holon Press, 2017), which was nominated for a DiNKy Award. Art criticism and comics have otherwise appeared under the name Caroline Picard in Artforum, Hyperallergic, The Paris Review, and Seven Stories Press, among others. She started the Green Lantern Press in 2005, earned her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in Year, and was a 2021 BookEnds Fellow at Stony Brook University 2022. Find Coco online @cocolarolo.
SUE MELL is the author of Provenance (July 2022), which won the Madville Publishing 2021 Blue Moon Novel Award. She earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College, and was a 2020 BookEnds fellow at SUNY Stony Brook. Her work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, Jellyfish Review, Cleaver Magazine, and elsewhere. Her collection of microessays, Giving Care, won the 2022 Chestnut Review Prose Chapbook Contest, and her story collection, A New Day, was a finalist for the 2021 St. Lawrence Book Award. Provenance is her debut novel. Find Sue on Twitter @suemell2017 and on Instagram @suemellwrites.