Zibby Owens: Today I’m interviewing Brian Platzer over Skype. He is the author of The Body Politic and Bed-Stuy Is Burning. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, The New York Times, The New Republic, and Salon, among other publications. A graduate of Columbia University with an MFA from Johns Hopkins, Brian currently teaches middle school English. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two sons.

Welcome, Brian. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Brian Platzer: Thanks so much for having me. I’ve been looking forward to this.

Zibby: Me too. Can you please tell listeners what your latest book, The Body Politic, is about?

Brian: Absolutely. The Body Politic‘s about a couple things. I think the easiest way to introduce you guys to it is that it is about a group of four friends who first meet after September 11th. Then the narrative of the novel begins right after Trump’s election. One of the friends worked on Hillary’s campaign and is dealing with his disappointment. Another one of the friends has a neurological disorder similar to my own which keeps him bedridden for most of the time. Under the stress of the new political reality and his illness, secrets from their past arise to the surface. People are in positions to confront those who maybe hurt them in the past and to come to terms with their relationships in the present.

Zibby: That sounds like a great description.

Brian: Thanks. I hope so. I tried my hardest.

Zibby: The book is great. I always am so interested in how authors describe their own books. It’s like I start listening to the story just hearing you summarize it. That’s awesome.

Brian: I appreciate it. It is so funny being asked to summarize a novel. It’s not like an op-ed argument where I’m like, I think the streets should be safer and I can give you the three reasons why. Trying to get four years of psychological friendship reality into a couple sentences at the top of a podcast is always a challenge. I’m pleased that I tackled that.

Zibby: Thanks for rising to the challenge. I don’t know why I do this to people. Maybe I’m just stressing everybody out by asking. Sorry.

Brian: No, but you’re right because someone needs to know. It’s the same as the back copy of the book. You have to approximate it, but it’s never actually like reading the book itself. It’s funny.

Zibby: This book, if I were to contrast the description to the experience of reading it, I feel like the only thing I would say is that it goes very deeply in a first-person way into the experience of having a neurological disorder and the effects of that happening to a man and what the impact on his life, work, and family is. I found that aspect of it super interesting myself. While it is obviously about all the other stuff, that piece was one of the most interesting to me because I hadn’t seen it done really anywhere else before, especially in the way that you did it. I feel like that really differentiated this novel from others, especially knowing now that it was based on your own neurological disorder. I think that infused it with even more meaning.

Brian: I really appreciate you saying that. I think one of the reasons why it comes less frequently, just the discussion of chronic illness in general comes less frequently from a man, is a fascinating one to spend a minute on, if you don’t mind the digression.

Zibby: Please, it’s not a digression. This is the whole point, is to discuss the book.

Brian: Great. Perfect. I think the main reason why it’s mostly women who discuss the difficulties of chronic illness is because the medical system and our society is particularly ill-equipped to treat women in these conditions. I think women are taken less seriously when they say that they have chronic conditions. They’re told to just get more sleep or have a baby or don’t have a baby or drink a glass of water. I think that they’re blamed for the hormonal issues or however they’re more easily dismissed in a way that men are not. I think that, rightfully, so many of the stories of chronic illness and suffering come from women who are just so exasperated by going through these conditions and not being taken seriously in the way that they deserve to for these life-altering and, in many occasions, ruining situations. I’ve spoken to hundreds and hundreds of patients who are suffering with chronic illness like I am. I’d say almost all of them are women who say, “Thank you for writing the article in The New York Times about your condition. Now I can show it to my…” Then fill in the blank. That blank is always my boss, my husband, my boyfriend, or my doctor. There’s just so many people who aren’t being taken seriously when they come forward with their descriptions of constant but undiagnosable pain or dizziness or anything along those lines.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s so frustrating when easy tests can’t pinpoint what it is. You can’t even explain it when they keep ruling out things.

Brian: Exactly. Doctors are so good at dealing with their own siloed, specific areas. If they take an X-ray of the bone and the bone’s broken, they know how to fix it. They’re so good at the plumbing of the body. But when it gets into these systems, whether it’s irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease which is the connection between the stomach and the brain but it doesn’t exist in either one of those areas, or a neurological disorder, an imbalance disorder like the one I had which is a combination of eyes and ears and muscles and brain, those are the systems where things fall apart. I think that on the male side, before I experienced this, I didn’t realize the extent to which my performative masculinity, if that’s a way to describe it, existed until it was taken away from me. I think women have a vocabulary to discuss chronic illness. It’s just immoral and crappy. Words like hysteria and all these terms that blame the woman for their condition exist, but they’re useless. Whereas for men, I think a lot of that vocabulary doesn’t even exist which is why being a man who suffers from these issues, I think, is full of shame and silence and loneliness, which is maybe not as severe as the woman’s experience going through it, but definitely different and worthy of its own depiction. I think that that leads to a lot of the opioid addiction that we see, a lot of the suicides that are coming up because of just a lack of vocabulary to talk about male illness and loneliness and fear.

Zibby: That’s so interesting. It’s tragic, really. You’d think that, not to discount the medical profession who, particularly at this time, is falling over themselves to save the world and everything, but that there is not a better way — they don’t have the tools, necessarily, that they would need to figure these things out even no matter how advanced all the technology is for diagnosing.

Brian: Exactly. It’s the tools. It’s the training. It’s the time. It’s the financial incentives. Doctors are so good. They work so hard. They’re trained so rigorously to deal with issues that they know how to confront. A brain surgeon is a miracle worker. It’s a magician. It’s unbelievable what he or she can accomplish. Where it comes to these amorphous, ambiguous conditions that aren’t fixable but need to be treated and managed and discussed, the financial incentives aren’t there to spend the time, necessarily, with the patient. Insurance companies don’t pay for just chatting for two hours in the way that they do for running these medical MRIs and CT scans and X-rays. There are millions of us left where we just have things that are not functioning correctly and doctors who are, I don’t think unwilling, but I think for the most part in a system that is not as good at handling the constant than it is at handling the acute.

Zibby: So interesting. To hear it in the general is one thing, but to hear how it affects an individual is quite another. We can sit here and talk about the system itself, but you are going through this. You are having to deal with this in your personal life in every way, shape, and form. Then of course, you turned it into fiction so other people can insert themselves into that too. The frustration that comes with that is probably — I could sense, at least in this novel, and maybe it wasn’t coming from you, maybe it was character development, but there was a lot of anger in the book about the condition itself.

Brian: Absolutely. That’s exactly right. It’s an anger that’s almost an irrational anger that I felt that I put into the character. I feel like people who are chronically ill — I wanted to depict it in the book in a way that I’d never seen it depicted before, where there’s just a fury about everything. The character expresses anger about the friends who do reach out all the time, who say, “How are you feeling today? How are you doing today?” The answer is, I’m always feeling terribly. Stop asking me. He’s as angry with the people who don’t reach out because, don’t they realize that I’m always feeling terrible? The combination of experiencing symptoms, in my case of dizziness where I couldn’t be alone with my kids — I couldn’t work. I couldn’t teach. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t talk on the phone. My vision was distorted. I couldn’t get out of bed for months at a time. The combination of going through the suffering of the daily symptoms and the fear of not knowing whether those symptoms were going to last for a week or for a month or a year, the rest of my life, it just leads to so much, in retrospect, what was depression. In the time, it was just frustration and anger.

In the book, I did want to compare the feeling of the individual who’s suffering from these things, that frustration and impotence and anger, with what I think a lot of people, at least in New York where we live, after Trump’s election felt a version of that, a version of, I can’t believe our country chose its worst citizen to become its president, the fact that this guy admits that he sexually assaults women and then we choose to make him our leader. It was not identical, but a similar kind of fury and discombobulation and uncertainty about the world we’re living in. I had never felt that, either personally to that extreme before my illness or societally. At least, 9/11 was an external event that happened to us. The election of 2016 I felt was something that we did to ourselves. Of course, I didn’t it feel it as acutely as I did the years and years of total incapacitation, but I feel that there was a similar enough emotion there to allow the novel to open up a little bit and to allow some of the stronger female characters to confront people who have assaulted them in the past as a reaction to the political moment, etc., where everybody is feeling this need to act. They act in very different ways. Some of them are successful. Some of them are less so.

Zibby: I also found it really interesting in terms of where you placed all of the feelings of the characters and everything, how it impacted Tess, the wife. Of course, while you’re having these things — not of course. If you were married or in a relationship, your partner also has to absorb a lot of the impact of when somebody feels bad. Even when my husband is — he has a lot of chronic pain from his years of playing professional and coaching tennis and everything. When you deal with that — and he doesn’t even really talk about it that much, but even knowing that somebody you love is in pain and there’s really not much you can do about it, it still affects your life. I don’t mean to compare him to you. Obviously, yours was completely incapacitating, and I’m so sorry.

Brian: I appreciate you comparing him to me because so many of us have some version of this, some part of our bodies that don’t work or our life that feels unfair, whether it’s a death of somebody who matters a lot to you or a part of your body that doesn’t work, a relationship falls apart, a divorce. So many of us are walking around with this type of latent frustration and pain we can’t control that I wanted to animate in this book. The character of Tess is the wife of the guy who is suffering from this chronic pain. She has had her whole life dealing with her own childhood trauma. Now she just can’t get over the fact that she has to do it again. Not only did she get over a horrible incident in her childhood, but now her husband is being affected by this thing that is affecting her life. She was about to star on Broadway for the first time. She couldn’t take the job because she has to take care of him. The way that she tries to take power back in her life and feel in control is at the same time very understandable but has elements of selfishness and cruelty to it. We’re all human beings trying to catch moments of pleasure and joy and respite within a life that can be painful.

Zibby: Wow. Having been through all this, what is the saving grace? What helped you the most? I know this isn’t only about you, this is the book. For somebody who does know somebody who’s going through chronic pain or the friends that you said you wanted them to call but you also didn’t want them to call, for the people who are suffering from this, what’s the message? What can help?

Brian: It’s a great question. It’s one I’ve thought a lot about because I was so bad at articulating it when I myself was going through it. I think that the book became something of an exercise in empathy when I was forced to think through what it was like to be the wife or the best friend or the mother or the business partner of somebody who was suffering in this way. I’ve come up with two not fully satisfying answers, but that got me close. I think that there is a way to be logistically helpful from people who aren’t necessarily in your immediate family or live in the house with you. Saying, “How you doing?” the answer’s going to be, I’m angry and I’m sad. If the question instead is, “Can I pick you up dinner so you don’t need to worry about feeding your kids?” or “Is there an errand specifically today that I can do for you?” the more specific you can help out with, whether it’s the person has trouble doing the laundry or is dreading going to a doctor by himself or is scared of her kids being alone or anxious, everybody has logistical ways that somebody can offer concrete, easy help. It’s those people who are cooking dinner for my family because my wife had to work and I was incapacitated, those are the people I feel most grateful for outside my core family. For the people inside my core family, I think just empathy. I think that where my wife finally ended up in realizing she could provide me the best support is just saying, “I know you’re suffering. I love you. I’m here. We’ll deal with this together day by day.” That, to me, are the two things that loved ones and friends can do, provide concrete, tangible ways to make life easier and then to express empathy and steadfastness.

Zibby: It’s funny. As you were talking, this strikes me as so similar to grief. It’s exactly the types of things you need when you’re grieving someone, is the people to bring you food and the people to not be annoying about it but just to know they’re there and to empathize. It’s all the rest because in a way it is a type of grief. You’re grieving the life you thought you were going to live.

Brian: That’s exactly right. It’s the same feeling of anger and indignation and paralysis. It’s a combination of those two factors. I think that that analogy is perfect, is exactly right. When you lose somebody, there are always these sort of annoying people in your life who you feel you need to perform for, like, “Thank you so much for calling. No, I’m doing okay,” the ones where it almost takes more energy to deal with them trying to support you versus the people who say, “How are you feeling today? Is there anything specific I can do to make your life easier?” Those calls are so welcome, whether one is in grief or physically suffering.

Zibby: I don’t know about you, but I feel like people often, they don’t know what to do, and so they do nothing, like, I don’t want to get in the way, or, I don’t want to intrude. At least from a grief standpoint, I can’t speak to chronic pain, but that doesn’t help at all.

Brian: Right. I don’t judge those people. I mean, I’m a little pissed off at them, but I understand why. I understand the idea that everybody has his or her own life and jobs or families or kids or responsibilities. The idea of entering into somebody else’s dark space and trying to figure out how not to offend but delicately help, it’s exhausting. It’s scary. I totally get the idea of saying, you know what, I’m probably just an annoyance to him anyway, I’ll pick him up again when he comes out of this period of his life. That would be something that I wish I had been able to follow the advice of a little bit more when I was in it and that the characters in the book go through as well, the feeling of, I’m just going to hibernate until this is over and then I can start living my life again. That was something I personally did and the characters in my novel were doing up until the moment where they felt like they could confront the perpetrator of past crimes in their life.

I wish someone had shaken me a little bit, well, not physically shaken me, that would’ve been terrible, but somebody would’ve come to me and said, we know you’re feeling terrible. We know every day’s difficult. We know you’re scared, but try to laugh when you find things are funny. You don’t need to perform your pain. We know you’re suffering. When things are tolerable, try to enjoy that instead of resenting the fact that it’s not like that all the time. I was a bit of a baby at the worst of it. It’s reasonable. I forgive myself for it. I think for people who do suffer chronic conditions it’s important not to have a binary view of this where either I have the condition, so everything is awful and I’m going to wait until I no longer do, and then when I no longer do, I’ll rejoice and have a big donut or something, or whatever you do when you rejoice. It’s good to try to sneak in moments of pleasure or else you fall into a depression. My book is a lot about these characters seeing David suffering, seeing their inability to help David suffering, and then looking back into their own life and seeing how they could confront elements of their childhood or their failure or their frustration or their victimization in a way that David at the moment cannot.

Zibby: All these feelings are so relevant for this exact moment. This is what’s going on in such a macro level. For so many people, they are sick right now with this, why me, what’s going on? I know there’s a diagnosis for it, but the symptoms are so different for everybody. The timing is so different. There’s not a lot of clarity on any of it. What do you do?

Brian: Exactly. Everybody’s plans, whether it’s a birthday party or a wedding or a job thing or a date night or just getting through the next day with your lunatic kids who are sick of their e-learning or wherever all of our families are, there’s the combination at the moment of frustration in daily life and existential fear and horror of just seeing the number of people who are dying. That advice that I just gave is accidentally appropriate for the moment too. Instead of just closing your eyes and screaming until we get to May or June or July or whenever this ends, I think trying to find joy and pleasure even if it’s in very different ways or in smaller ways or in fewer minutes each day, but I think it’s important. Otherwise, you add an element of depression to what is externally difficult enough already. I didn’t realize I was depressed when I couldn’t hang out with people. David experiences this too in the novel. Any time any one interaction with somebody isn’t worth it — I would have a nice lunch, but then I would face the consequences and be bedridden for two days. I never went out for lunch with anybody. Then it was two years later, and I had never gone out to lunch with anybody. It’s a little bit the same now except I don’t recommend you go out to lunch with people. In its smaller way, it’s the idea of don’t just freeze your life and not give yourself anything and let your tensions dominate and your anxiety define this experience because then it makes the experience itself worse as well.

Zibby: Did you find writing helped you through this?

Brian: I found writing once I was able — I’m medicated now. People still don’t really understand what’s wrong with my brain. They don’t really understand why the medications mitigate the symptoms. I have, and am very, very grateful for, five or six hours of real clarity a day where I can do some writing or do some teaching and then spend time with my family. I’m feeling very, very lucky for it. The experience of writing felt cathartic in that it helped me remember and have power over and control some of the memories of trying to put my kids to sleep when they were crying and not understanding what was wrong with me. I was scared to think about a lot of that in retrospect. This book helped me frame it in a way that was fiction so I didn’t need to relive it, necessarily, but the emotions were so real that it helped me understand what I was going through. More than that, writing the book helped me, as I mentioned earlier, just understand what it was like for my wife. I didn’t put myself in her position to think what it’s like trying to balance a professional life and raising kids and taking care of your spouse without the partnership of your spouse. I feel like it was an incredibly important exercise to go through that’s made me feel so much more grateful on the other end for my close friends and wife and parents and sister in a way that I took for granted while I was experiencing it. In that way, I hope that the book has the correct balance of those negative emotions that we were talking about earlier, and a sense of gratitude and love and sex and joy and friendship where those elements can exist.

Zibby: That’s great. I found myself wondering why you didn’t write a memoir. I get it now. I get it.

Brian: It’s funny. People, since reading the novel and my piece for The Times, they ask me whether I would write a memoir. I’ve tried to sit down and play with the idea, but I can’t figure out how the memoir would be anything other than my complaining. It was really crappy. There’s no real logic to it. It didn’t happen for any real reason. I didn’t find the medication for any real reason. The first draft of the novel began with a lot more bitching and moaning by the character who suffers from chronic illness. I realized, enough of it. It was boring. Nothing more was coming from it. I cut that down dramatically to only the fifty-some-odd pages that exist in his journal and let the other characters live and breathe. It felt like a more useful document than a memoir in this way but also just more readable. This book, I wanted it to be thrilling. I wanted the reader to need to know how the conversation was going to end and whether she was going to be able to achieve catharsis through a confrontation or not, etc. The memoir, it was too insular. It was too close to me when I was writing it in that manner.

Zibby: Do you think you’re going to write another book? Are you working on something?

Brian: I do. In my other life, I’m an eighth grade English teacher and I run a tutoring company because being a novelist is a tough way to raise kids and have a mortgage and all that. I’m in this funny position where I just handed in a book for Penguin Random House called Taking the Stress Out of Homework. The idea of homework being the stress point in people’s lives right now seems so absurd that we’re trying to figure out how we can be most helpful to parents who are feeling stress in educating their kids at home or in their kids losing a year or so of school or with all the e-learning stuff, how I can be of service in that realm. I think it’s going to be healthy for me to escape into the nonfiction helping parents figure out how to navigate life with their kids a little bit. Then I’ll dive back into the deeper, more emotionally complex world.

Zibby: You have a lot on your plate. It’s so nice of you, first of all, to have taken the time to chat with me knowing that you only have a set amount of time when you can be coherent in a given day. Thank you for that.

Brian: If this came off as coherent, then it was a victory.

Zibby: Yes, I’ll give you points for coherence. I also think it’s really great that you took your experience — this book, I know it’s framed with a political bent, but I really do think it is super helpful as a resource for anybody who’s going through chronic pain, which is so many people, and the people who love them. It’s sort of a gift for that community. I’m glad it’s helped you as well. Thank you so much.

Brian: Thank you so much for saying that. That really means the world.

Zibby: I know you have a zillion friends and everything else, but if you ever need a meal dropped off or something like that, I am usually in the city. I can be of service if you need the help.

Brian: Wouldn’t that be funny, if this entire interview were just a passive-aggressive way for me to ask for a roast chicken from you at the end?

Zibby: Brian, I will drop off a roast chicken whenever you need it.

Brian: Thank you so much. I will ask you for a roast chicken off the air. This has been a pleasure. I really appreciate your generosity and the time you’re spending chatting about this. It really does mean a lot.

Zibby: No problem. Have a great day.

Brian: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Brian: Buh-bye.