Julia Lee Barclay-Morton, PhD is an award-winning writer/director, whose writing has been produced and published internationally; her first book, a hybrid collection, THE MORTALITY SHOT is out now with Liquid Cat Books and is the reason for this blog post, for each literary piece within the collection is a meditation on grief and loss, which I found incredibly cathartic and as a result had to pin down Julia's thoughts, reflections and wisdom when it came to these themes and why she wrote about them in the way that she did. Below you will find a Q & A focused on this and I hope you find it helpful and valuable in navigating grief and loss in your own life.
Julia has also published in Prairie Schooner, [PANK], Heavy Feather Review, and, as winner of Nomadic Press Bindle Contest, chapbook of White Shoe Lady. She founded Apocryphal Theatre when in London (2003-11); all of her experimental stage texts were recently streamed in a 22-hour radio project created with Viv Corringham, commissioned by Radio Art Zone. She lives in NYC with her husband and cat, where she coaches writers, paints, makes theater, and teaches yoga, while working on a hybrid memoir about being diagnosed on the autism spectrum at 57. More at TheUnadaptedOnes.com
Her debut collection and the subject of this blog post, The Mortality Shot, is a collection of essays, memoir, and experimental stage text that meditates on mortality and grief.
Q: I found the book quite therapeutic for one - we have all faced loss in some shape or form and actually reading about it can feel quite cathartic. Was this your goal? What did you want people to take away from the book?
A: I was so happy to hear that you found THE MORTALITY SHOT cathartic. I agree that most people have faced some type of cataclysmic loss, even young adults and children can experience this. I guess I always find it difficult to say what I want others to get out of the writing, because that seems presumptuous, but I do hope that by being as honest as I can be about my own experience that it will resonate with others. I know that when I read something by another writer that articulates a deep part of my experience that I have never seen outside of my own private thoughts or feelings I feel less lonely and a little more connected to the world. As someone who has recently been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, I now know why those experiences are so precious to me, because often I feel like my experiences are not common, and there is much in literature and life with which I do not relate at all. I don’t think that experience is exclusive to being autistic, there are many reasons we can feel alone and isolated, and especially after years of COVID quarantine and such, even more so. Twinned with the level of loss and grief most everyone has experienced these past few years this sense of isolation can be a truly devastating combination. So, if this book can be a balm to anyone anywhere or a message in a bottle to let them know they are not alone, it is that hard and grief, chronic illness, and loss can tear you apart but then yes there can also be healing, then I am very glad of that. It makes the excavation and throwing of one’s guts on the floor so to speak seem worth it. I think especially these days of highly curated social media personas it can be even more confusing to someone who is struggling, because it looks like everyone else has it together and you don’t. I know in darker moments of my own life even though I am a grown ass woman and should ‘know better’ I have scrolled through FB or Insta feeds and felt myself shrinking incrementally in shame at not ‘living my best life’ or whatever. Real writing gets underneath that patina into the grit of life and lets others know what it is like to be human for real and that is a gift. I guess that is my goal, but ironically you can’t write with the goal of being discernible to others but instead have to burrow down deep without regard to whether you will appear likable or ‘relatable’ or whatever and just hope whatever you bring to the surface connects.
Q: I loved the experimental forms of literature that you used throughout the book. Why did you structure the book the way that you did employing a variety of literary constructs (i.e. essays, stage text, memoir)?
A: To be honest, I created each of the parts of what became THE MORTALITY SHOT independently. I didn’t even realize I had a book length collection of writing until I saw a call out from a publisher for a book-length hybrid collection of writing that hung together. I started looking at work that I had written, some of which had been published in journals and presses such as Prairie Schooner, [PANK], Heavy Feather Review and Nomadic Press. And I realized, oh, wow, most everything I have written since 2018 is about mortality, either directly or indirectly. And my more recent pieces, including Respairation or you have to unmute yourself, the stage text, are about my own mortality, thanks to ending up in hospital in July 2020 because of long-haul COVID complications (a TIA caused by dissection of carotid artery). That was a terrifying time. The decade before 2020 had been devasting in terms of loss, all of my fathers died (I had four!), my beloved cousin and many friends, too, alongside some personal losses of other kinds. Then in 2017, I began writing about the effect of all of this loss in various forms, including stories, essays and the stage text. I don’t pre-decide oh I will write about x in y way, the way just emerges as necessity. I know that sounds a bit woo, but it is how it happens. When I saw how the hybrid collection came together, I was excited to bring all the various voices and ways I write together. The fact this book fell into place while being diagnosed as autistic at age 57 is not coincidental. The understanding of my neurotype made me understand my experience on a whole new level and appreciate rather than fight the multiple ways in which I have expressed this self that has until recently felt quite fractured and inchoate. THE MORTALITY SHOT feels like a first step in healing, a coming together of seemingly unrelated fragments into a whole, like one of those mosaics made of pieces of things formerly discarded or set aside. What Joan Didion called “the objects for which there is no satisfactory solution” or William James refered to as “the infinite anonymous chaos of objects that no one ever thought of together, of relations that never yet attracted our attention.”
Q: Some of the themes in the book focus on loss, abandonment, neurodivergence, and even dealing with long Covid - all struggles that you experienced yourself. Did you find writing the book quite therapeutic in this sense?
A: Each piece was in its own way, yes. Respairation especially speaks to all of this, and since I began as a theater director writing experimental stage texts, it’s not surprising that this is the form that is the most capacious. Somehow everything in me and around me comes out in these texts. I never used to even understand where they came from, because they kind of just appear, and when I sit down to write, it is as if I am taking dictation— just following the bouncing ball wherever it leads, sure this time it’s going to just go over a cliff, but somehow the text just finds its way. I now call my stage texts my most unmasked autistic texts. I had never seen a play that looked like what I was doing when I transcribed that first text, which I heard from a mysterious source I did not understand back in 1998, but I just went with it. Something wanted out. I was a director then and had not considered myself a writer, but these words just started appearing, and so I began directing them. The texts, as you can see in the book, don’t have line assignments or much staging indicated, instead they are voices, sometimes in conflict, sometimes in harmony, contemplating many parts of experience, part philosophical, part emotional, part political, part self-deprecating pratfall. The voices themselves can be seen as disparate parts of a personal or collective consciousness. As I begin to understand more about autistic rhetoric from reading brilliant books like Authoring Autism by Rea Yergeau, my stage texts are clearly a product of an autistic mind and soul, which somehow simultaneously sees clearly inside of itself while having a 360 degree view from the outside. The stories and essays, all written in various styles, are individually also very important to aspects of my experience, and in some cases writing them was therapeutic and in other cases, like the essay about sitting with my cousin while she was dying, quite painful, but overall to have them out there and affecting other people in a positive way is the most gratifying and soul-affirming experience. As someone who has felt so isolated most of my life, whenever people tell me how much my writing means to them and how it speaks to their core, I am amazed and another part of that fractured sense of self heals. So, while writing itself is a lonely thing, when the writing connects, there is nothing more soul-affirming. And, of course, in the writing itself, one connects to oneself and there is healing there, too, and when I am in the best flow, I feel part of something both larger than me that is also deep inside of me, and that is the best feeling.
Q: Where can people get your book/find out more about your work?
A: The Mortality Shot is now available at all the usual online retailers (Amazon, Bookshop.org, B&N, etc.) and at the publisher’s site: Liquid Cat Books. For more about the book and all of my work, best to check out and subscribe to my website: TheUnadaptedOnes. On November 30, I will begin hosting Virtual Coffee Chats with authors who blurbed this book, including you, Bijal! So, if folks want to register for these chats, that will have Q&As at end and be kind of like being in an actual conversation in a cafe, you can subscribe to my site or Linktree for the info!
Q: What's next for you in terms of books/projects? What are you currently working on?
A: I am working on a memoir about being diagnosed autistic at age 57, following an intensive yoga teacher training wherein I had worked through a lot of trauma, but was still left with a feeling of being adrift and apart. I had written a memoir about yoga helping me work through trauma, and was trying to somehow shoehorn the autism diagnosis into that, but it didn’t work, so I am now drafting this new memoir. I am used to writing quite quickly, but in this process I am allowing time for all the new awareness to settle and percolate, since it’s a huge reframe of my life. A welcome one, which may sound odd to those unfamiliar with what autism actually is and consider it a defect or a disability in the medical model (spoilers: it isn’t, it’s just a radical difference in neurology, one that has not been truly taken on board by the larger culture, which is why it is disabling, but not because there is anything wrong with being autistic in and of itself), but now that I am connecting with many other people on the spectrum, I feel connected in a way I never had, and grounded for the first time in close to 60 years on a firm foundation. Some of the work in THE MORTALITY SHOT touches on the diagnostic process and first glimmers of awareness, but the memoir will be the fuller picture, one I hope others who are autistic, especially the millions of women who are being late-diagnosed, will connect with. Equally, I hope those who are not autistic will want to read the memoir to understand the depth and breadth of this experience, and not be so afraid or dismissive of their autistic relatives or friends or indeed of any parts within themselves or others that are outside the narrow idea of normal we have. The irony is, similar to gay liberation, the liberation of autistic people to fully inhabit ourselves without fear of reprisal can lead to liberation for all, since any expanse into acceptance of difference makes the world a safer place to let all people to express our full selves. Not to mention, if spaces were autism friendly, that would simply mean calmer lighting, less annoying noises, more space to move and sit comfortably, rooms where you could chill out, softer textures, and clearer communication. I fail to see the downside of this. If anyone wants to know more about these ideas or my memoir-in-progress, feel free to connect with me on my website. Thanks, Bijal, for asking all these wonderful questions!
Julia, thank you for participating in the Author Q&A - it's been such a joy to read your writing and also hear your stories of mortality, all the while dealing with autism too. And on that note, I am very much looking forward to the memoir on this.
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