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Author profile: UI graduate uses uncle's story to discuss schizophrenia

Robert Dubbin

Sandra Allen, a graduate of the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing program, will talk about her book, “A Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story About Schizophrenia,” during a Mission Creek Festival event on Friday.
Robert Dubbin Sandra Allen, a graduate of the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing program, will talk about her book, “A Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story About Schizophrenia,” during a Mission Creek Festival event on Friday.
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While Sandra Allen was a student in the University of Iowa’s non-fiction Writing Program, her Uncle Bob sent her a manuscript.

The text was unconventional, but it was also intriguing to Allen who eventually began to engage with it. Her new book, “A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story About Schizophrenia,” is a unique and effective effort to honor her uncle’s story while placing it in a larger context.

Allen arrived in the non-fiction Writing Program without a clear direction for her work.

“I do think I was a bit of an artist in search of project — whether or not I would have admitted that to myself. I graduated from undergrad into the recession; I graduated in ’09 and I had gotten into the non-fiction program while I was still in college,” Allen said in a phone interview. “So I went right from Brown to Iowa ... I got to the non-fiction Writing Program certainly interested in non-fiction writing and learning how to write and participating in workshop. I’m a big nerd about all things literature and I love this stuff. I really was excited to be crafting, especially, the more formally innovative non-fiction that I feel has become the style of that program. So I was very excited to be in it, but I think I was also not terribly sure of who I was as a writer or what it was I was writing about. And I think back to some of the pieces I would have been doing in school before I did the book, and I think they were really kind of formally ambitious but didn’t necessarily have a lot of depth in terms of what I was talking about.”

Her decision to grapple with her uncle’s writing was a gradual one — and she didn’t start with a book in mind.

“It took me a few years, I think, to see this project about my uncle as being one that was important and something that I really wanted to be devoted to,” she said. “It was a long process — it was about eight years that I worked on the project. It wasn’t like I got these pages in the mail from my uncle and said, ‘Oh, here it is. Here’s my beat’ or ‘here’s my writing career’ or ‘here’s a book’ or anything like that.”

That said, Bob’s writings underpinned Allen’s thesis for her MFA degree.

“My thesis was this project ... It was the translation — I wouldn’t have called it that then — but it was my rendition of Bob’s story written faithfully to his account fact-wise. I submitted it and the professors who were on my committee really liked it,” she said. “But I think there was also a general consensus of ‘OK, that’s done.’ No one really saw it as having much of a life beyond that — a sort of exercise in taking something and turning it into something that was more accessible and something that was beautiful and compelling.”

After Allen graduated, she decided it wasn’t reasonable to try to make a living as a writer, so she turned her attention to editing, another passion of hers. She moved to New York City and worked as a deputy features editor for BuzzFeed for a number of years, a job she found both challenging and fulfilling.

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“I really enjoyed it because I was basically a magazine editor who happened to work at this exciting startup.”

But her Uncle Bob’s story would bubble to the surface. She’d fiddle with it, sometimes working on it in the early morning hours before leaving for work. She would talk about it with folks from the literary community, though they were seldom encouraging — one going so far as to suggest she would never sell the story unless she presented it as fiction, a suggestion that didn’t sit right with her.

“I remember feeling, ‘Well, that’s not right,’” she said. “But I didn’t necessarily have the intellectual grounding yet in the broader topic of people who’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia and the history of the diagnosis and the history of psychiatric treatments and so on. So I didn’t necessarily have a sense of why I felt he was wrong.”

Once she had a contract with Scribner — and had arrived at a plan for presenting both her Uncle Bob’s story and the context it needed — she worked with two editors for two years to craft “A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise.”

She calls her version a “cover” and presents it in a font distinct from the one she uses for her own commentary in the book. On occasion, she leaves Bob’s original phrasing — complete with idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation.

“It’s an art, not a science ... This book has aliens in it and it has science in it and history. And I noticed that readers were skeptical of my science and history because of the aliens. And I needed to figure out how to make everybody comfortable.”

Bob’s own text appears when Allen felt it simply couldn’t be replaced.

Allen asks her readers to expand their notion of what is “normal.”

Allen is careful to make a distinction between a work of advocacy and a work of art.

“I hope this book moves people in the direction of expanding their imagination around the category of those who have psychiatrically diagnosed, especially with schizophrenia. So in that sense, I’m hoping to advocate for that. But I would say the spirit of my work is not merely that. This isn’t a soapbox, it isn’t an Op-Ed, it isn’t a speech before a crowd. It’s a story. And I think all artwork, especially stories that discuss lives and points of view that are traditionally marginalized, I think aspire to raise the status of such points of view and to question the traditional hierarchy that has been in place. So I’m definitely seeking to challenge the status quo, but I was also really careful not to make this a partisan text ... I was really interested in writing something that lots of different people could hear.”

She gives credit to her uncle for the impact the book is already having.

“That’s not me. That’s Bob. I do believe that Bob started this, and we’re all in his reality now. And isn’t that cool?”

Book reading

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l What: Sandra Allen will read from her book, “A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story About Schizophrenia” as part of Mission Creek

l When: Noon Friday

l Where: 2136 Medical Education Research Facility, 375 Newton Rd., Iowa City

l Cost: Free

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