What inspired you to write a novel about mental illness?

When I first heard that depression and other mental illnesses were symptomatic of a chemical imbalance in the brain and could be “fixed” with drugs, I was both skeptical and fascinated.  My interest in the subject grew over time, as I heard stories about people whose lives were transformed by psychotropic medications.  Because these are behavioral conditions, the “cure” is much more dramatic.  They’re not just changing the course of an illness—the flu, a broken leg, even cancer—they’re changing a tendency that a person has lived with, sometimes for all of his life. 

The issue raised all sorts of questions for me that I wanted to explore in fiction.  For example, some people are prone to depression virtually from the beginning—so when you give them a pill and the depression is suddenly gone, where does that leave them?  Is the non-depressed person the real personality, finally uncovered?  Or is it a new personality, and therefore somewhat false?  Where would the history of modern art be if van Gogh had had access to Zoloft?

The question of identity comes up throughout the book:  what particularly interests you about that?

When I look back at all of my work, I find that self-actualization is usually the primary theme.  I think it’s actually the great objective of life:  for each of us to understand who we are, who we were meant to be. 

Ultimately, Chemistry is a story about uncovering the authentic self.  Just as Zach is trying to figure out which part of him is real—the depressed part or the so-called normal part—his lover, Neal, is trying to figure out who he is.  For his entire life, Neal has seen himself primarily through other people’s eyes; he’s never really gotten in touch with his own, organic truth.  The book charts the most extreme example of this trait, as his life becomes consumed by Zach’s:  it takes something that severe to coax him toward an understanding of himself.  It takes confronting his own mortality for him to realize that he’s been throwing his life away all along.  And only by recognizing that does he finally get a glimmer of who he is as an individual.

The lesson Neal finally learns is self-acceptance:  accepting both his fundamental nature and his power to control his own destiny.  While emphasizing that relationships are one of the primary vehicles for personal growth, the novel elucidates the difference between love and codependence, exploring the limits of love’s power to transform.

How did you go about researching and writing Chemistry?

I did a lot of reading, including such books as Listening to Prozac, by a psychiatrist named Peter Kramer.  Not to say that the book is all about Prozac—but at the time, that was the hot drug, and it became a kind of shorthand for the whole concept of psychotropic medication.  I also knew some people who were taking similar medications, and one in particular who went through a lot of things similar to what Zach goes through.  So I had my personal observation as well as these technical texts to work from.  I also spoke to friends who happened to be psychologists and had interesting perspectives of their own.

Working all of this information into the book was very tricky, actually, because the story is told from Neal’s perspective.  Since he has no access to Zach’s doctors, I couldn’t be clear on the diagnosis or all aspects of the treatment—and I didn’t really want to be.  The book is primarily about Neal’s perception of what’s wrong with Zach—and ultimately, it’s more about Neal, anyway.  I liked the mystery.   

What is the significance of the title?

I chose this title to suggest a number of things.  On the simplest level, it suggests romantic chemistry—that ineffable quality that brings two people together, even if they may appear to have nothing in common.  On a literal level, the novel explores brain chemistry (the ostensible cause of Zach’s depression) and the drugs (more chemicals) used to treat it.  And finally, throughout the book I use chemistry as a metaphor for the interactions between people, the ways in which relationships change each individual and reveal new truths.

What’s your perspective on antidepressants, and what did you base it on?

I don’t pretend to be an expert on either mental illness or psychiatry.  In researching the book, however, I did consult with experts—including psychologists and a psychopharmacologist—and I did a lot of reading.  A few points quickly became evident.  First, antidepressants basically treat the symptoms of depression—they realign brain chemistry.  They don’t necessarily address what caused the chemical change in the first place, which very well could be psychic trauma.  So medication alone is less effective than medication prescribed in conjunction with counseling.  Second, there’s a lot of debate in the literature about the connection between antidepressants and suicide risk; many studies, in fact, have found no correlation at all.  Antidepressants may make you feel better on the whole—whatever that means—but the rates of suicidal ideation do not necessarily decrease.

One study I read said that the use of antidepressants increased 50% in the 1990s—and now they’re being used for a whole variety of issues.  Their success is akin to Viagra’s:  as soon as a symptom arises, people want a quick fix.  They go to the doctor and ask for a pill.  A responsible doctor, of course, will look at the whole picture to see if counseling is needed, if there’s an underlying emotional cause that can be dealt with through talk therapy.  But an awful lot of people get antidepressants from their primary care doctors—not from psychiatrists.  And psychiatrists often simply write prescriptions rather than directly counsel patients.  So there are a whole bunch of people out there whose only support for their problem is a little pill. 

It seems to me that many people have come to depend upon psychotropic drugs as a panacea and an easy way out—a way of treating the symptoms and thus avoiding the real problem.  Unhappiness and disappointment are part of the human condition; they are, in fact, very often our greatest teachers and the impetus for personal development.  In today’s society, it seems that few people want to embrace this notion.  While Zach, the mentally ill character in the book, is a rather extreme case, for whom medication is clearly necessary, the question remains.  As he says at one point, when he’s sick of taking the pills, “Some people have natural highs, I have natural lows.  Big deal.”

How did you choose the structure for Chemistry?

For the most part, I can’t say that I choose what I’m writing or how I write it.  In graduate school, I studied with the wonderful Elizabeth Tallent.  And she never asked, “What do you want to do with this story?”  She would ask instead, “Where does the story want to go?”  She encouraged us to look for the place where the story was most alive, and work out from there—let the story tell you what to do.

Chemistry started as a short story, with virtually the entire plot condensed into about 30 pages.  And it came to me in this hodgepodge—scenes jumping back and forth in time, very impressionistic.  I knew that when I stretched it out to 300 pages, that would probably get unwieldy—as much for me as for the reader—so I made it chronological.  But I kept the impressionistic sense because I wanted the story to reflect Neal’s confusion, his desperate desire to make sense of something that on the surface was completely incomprehensible.  So rather than explaining things at length, I decided on fairly briefly vignettes—kind of a kaleidoscope that gradually comes into focus.  Formal chapters would have been too restrictive somehow. 

Did your research suggest that mental illness, or the use of antidepressants, is more common in the gay community?

I never got any hard evidence on that, but studies and anecdotes do indicate that depression rates are somewhat higher among gays and lesbians.  It’s hardly surprising, considering the stresses in our lives—growing up in the closet, where we have to hide our very identities from the world; being tortured on the playground as kids; coming out of the closet and being rejected by parents, discriminated against by the world at large; having the president of the United States say that discrimination against you should be written into the Constitution.  There’s a lot to be depressed about.

On the flip side, a psychologist friend of mine who treats a lot of gay patients points out that the coming-out process itself is one that forces you to look deeply inside yourself—in a way that an awful lot of people never bother to do.  So you could argue that gay people are at an advantage, because they’re more self-aware from the beginning.  Therefore, they’re more likely to notice when things aren’t quite right, and they seek help accordingly.  So we may not be more predisposed to depression; it may simply be that we’re more likely to report it.

How important is your sexual orientation to your work?

The cliché is:  write what you know.  And I think that’s very true.  Even if I’m writing about straight characters, their emotions have to be something I can relate to, or the story falls flat.  But I’m not going to write about straight people just because it’s more marketable:  whatever I write has to come organically through me, it has to be naturally inspired.  So most of my characters are gay—this is the world I know best, the world I relate to most fully, so it’s where my voice comes out most naturally.

I started writing semi-seriously while I was in college, before I was out even to myself.  And I wrote heterosexual love stories—none of which made any sense, because they weren’t grounded in reality.  As a result, most of my stuff from those days fell flat.  Then, in my late twenties, once I was comfortably out of the closet, I started writing about things I really knew and really cared about.  I remember one particular story where my authentic voice suddenly appeared.  It was a story about a group of gay friends—and it’s the one that got me admitted to the creative writing program at the University of California, Davis.  It actually became a chapter in the novel I wrote there as my thesis. 

What do you hope people will take away from Chemistry?

I once heard Toni Morrison, one of my favorite writers, speaking about her process.  She said that her novels always begin with a question, not an answer.  And that was the approach I took with Chemistry:  I don’t want to tell people what to think, I just want them to ask the right questions in their own lives.  This novel is about self-discovery.  It’s about learning to look at yourself honestly—without social expectations.  I think that, at one time or another, we all find ourselves playing a role:  we behave as we think we’re supposed to behave.  And like a lot of actors, we forget to stop playing the role when we leave the stage.  We’re encouraged to go about our lives in a mechanical way—mindlessly, without looking into our hearts.  I hope that Chemistry shows people the consequences of that kind of behavior and encourages them to be more willing to look inward and find their authentic selves.  You’re not going to find that self in my book or in any book, but hopefully I can inspire you to start looking.

What’s your next book about?

I’m working on a couple of things at the moment.  I’m revising an earlier novel, which focuses on a circle of friends in Boston.  In addition, I’m working on a very different kind of book—the story of a family.  It takes place primarily in the seventies and tells the story through the perspective of both parents as well as the teenage son.  So it’s not entirely a gay story, but hopefully some of that sensibility will come through, anyway.