Carla Hartenberger

"Autobiography" Carla Hartenberger
Winner of the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, 2015
Selected by Chang-rae Lee

What inspired you to write about conjoined twins? What was the research process like?

This story came to me randomly about a year ago. I thought of the scene of the brothers cutting themselves apart in the barn. It was very vivid and I kept coming back to it, although I didn’t think to write it down for a couple months. When I decided to commit to writing the rest of it, I read a lot of medical books about conjoined twins because I wanted to keep the elements of the brothers’ lives within the realm of possibility (although there hasn’t ever been a successful separation of Thoracopagus twins as old as my protagonists are when they finally have their surgery). That’s about it. I wrote Jen’s character thinking about a friend of mine who passed away in 2011, who suffered a lot and never once felt sorry for herself.

Writing from the point of view of only one twin helps develop the themes of the story, as well as the voice and motives of the main character. Why did you decide to write from only one of the twin’s perspectives? What helped you to develop the character’s voice and viewpoints?

When I was researching I started taking notes like a diary in first person plural. For a while I thought about keeping the narrative voice that way, but it didn’t feel right. It felt like I was implying that conjoined twins have one identity, and from what I’ve read this is not the case, although I think it’s interesting to consider the extent to which the body might influence or determine personality, and what that means when you’re sharing parts of your body.

The narrator’s voice came partly from having all these weird twin facts from the books I was reading, and wanting to play around with them in the story, so the narrator had to be interested in learning about his body and about the history of conjoined twins. This element worked well with the title because—as opposed to memoirs— autobiographies are more outward looking, and try to connect personal events to a broader social context.

Did you think about the thoughts and point of view of the other brother? If so, did it affect how you wrote the story?

One of the themes I wanted to explore in the story was the tension between obligation and autonomy. If the narrator represents a desire for full autonomy, the brother had to be dependent on him to represent obligation. I think of the brother as someone who seeks comfort while the narrator seeks experience. That’s why I wanted him to feel more at home in the water than the narrator, to show an abstract or symbolic desire to return to places where life began, the womb or the ocean.

Jen and Dr. Ramirez are the only two characters whose names are mentioned in the story. What was your intent in leaving the brothers and the other characters unnamed?

A lot of allegories leave out the names of main characters, so maybe for me that impulse came from wanting to give the story an allegorical feel. I think keeping the brothers nameless lets the story exist more in a metaphorical space. I just read an article in the New Yorker a few weeks ago called ‘The Rise of the Nameless Narrator’ by Sam Sacks which talks about this.

What was your biggest challenge in writing this piece and in writing overall?

My biggest challenge with fiction in general is justifying why I’m writing. Why should people care about some random fantasy I have? I think you have to do a ton of work to escape the arrogance of thinking that your story is worth the reader’s time. It’s hard to set that pressure aside and let yourself go off on whims while you’re writing. With this story in particular, the biggest challenge was getting the ending to resonate meaningfully.

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading a lot about the history of healthcare policy in Canada. Right now I’m in the middle of a biography of Tommy Douglas, who founded the Canadian Medicare system. It’s written by Vincent Lam, who is a doctor and a great fiction writer. I’m also re-reading one of my favorite books, Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen, about a psychiatrist with Capgras syndrome. She’s from Toronto. For developing craft, there are two books that I re-read a lot: Emotion, Tension & Conflict by Cheryl St. John, and Showing and Telling by Laurie Alberts. Also, my sister Laura Hartenberger is a great writer. We have similar tastes. And I read Danielle Ofri’s wellblog. She wrote an interesting piece about vaccines a few weeks ago.