Back Story: From Memoir to Magic

Anish Majumdar

I began writing what would eventually become The Isolation Door, my first novel, on a frosty January morning in 2005. While it would be tempting to say that dreams of hitting the best-seller lists fueled those first few pages, desperation is a far more accurate answer.

I was 25 years old, working as a professional actor in Montreal, and utterly cut off from friends and family. This exile was self-imposed; after a lifetime spent in the shadow of my mother’s paranoid schizophrenia, I felt like it was the only way to break loose of my dysfunctional upbringing and create a new life. Acting, at its best, is spontaneous invention, and this skill came in very handy when navigating personal relationships. Rather than talk about the darkness and insecurity that comes with seeing a loved one consumed by the voices in her head, I invented backstories about my family and fondly recalled happy memories that never occurred. I preemptively cut ties with girlfriends and close friends who cared about me, believing that it would only be a matter of time before they’d peek behind the curtain and see the emotional wreckage. The end result was an inability to hold onto anyone for very long, and during that endless winter I realized that depression had sunken its claws deeply into me. After trying so hard to be someone else, I’d ended up in a prison of the mind not unlike my mother’s.

So I decided to write out the memories which were haunting me. Mainly to relieve some of the internal pressure, but also with the idea of possibly creating a memoir. The first few memories came easily. Visiting my mother in a high-security wing of Douglas Hospital in Montreal, the smell I’ll never forget of ammonia and bodies trapped for too long in a confined space. My father and I picking up the house after she’d been forcibly taken back to the hospital to begin yet another round of treatment, her screams and pleadings still ringing in our ears. Soon, though, keeping the timeline of life events in place became extremely difficult. Sitting impotently in front of my laptop, I realized that the way my brain dealt with unpleasant situations was to fuzz them out. Only it had butchered a situation requiring a surgeon’s delicacy, axing out entire years of my life with nothing left save for vague recollections.

The story might have ended there. But during the next few days, my subconscious kicked into overdrive. I had visions of a Bengali-American family, similar to my own yet different. A father who taught at a small college town, a kind man enabling his wife’s illness out of love. A mother whose charm and vitality had grown toxic through years of schizophrenia. And, trapped in their midst, a 23-year-old named Neil Kapoor, vacillating between being there for his family and striking out on his own. It was like looking into a fractured mirror, and every break, every difference offered a place for my imagination to roam free. The words began to come, first a trickle, then a torrent.

In the fall of 2006, armed with a completed manuscript, my experiences in this parallel world gave me the courage to pull up stakes and move to New York City to begin a new life as a writer. I lived hand-to-mouth for the next few months, using to email literary agents who might be interested in reading the manuscript while working a succession of minimum wage jobs. Eventually, I landed an agent at Vigliano Associates who began shopping it around to editors at various publishing houses. Like many new authors, visions of riches within arm’s reach now that an agent had been found quickly evaporated. After nearly a year in submission with no offers, my agent (now at WME) offered notes from editors with suggested story improvements.majumdar_cover

Rewriting a book which I’d already believed to be finished was one of the most difficult endeavors of my life. For a year, I forced myself to get a certain number of pages out regardless of inspiration—the end result was a manuscript devoid of passion or insight. The breakthrough came one night in 2010 when I looked away from the computer screen at the new life that surrounded me. I was trying so hard to recapture the feelings of the initial story, but was completely ignoring the thousand changes that had taken place in my life since then. If the world of The Isolation Door was a fractured mirror image of my own, then what of the wife I now had, a genuine soulmate? What of the days spent enjoying the company of friends in upstate New York, a thousand miles removed from the self-imposed exile in Montreal? Younger me had hoped for a better life; older me knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was attainable. When I allowed the sunlight to peek through, the words began to flow again. Landing a book deal in 2012 and knowing that this story would be experienced by others was the icing on the cake. The real changes brought about by writing it surround me every day.

I’ll probably never be a memoir writer. But out of that roadblock came the company of characters whom I truly love, and license to express the core of what I experienced. Sometimes the magic that makes a book work can come from your limitations as well as your strengths.

Anish Majumdar is a journalist, speaker, and author of The Isolation Door: A Novel, which is available now. He lives with his wife, son, and a few too many pets in Rochester, NY.


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