Candace Jane Opper is a writer, a mother, and a visual artist. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, Longreads, Narratively, Literary Hub, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Vestoj, among others. She is the author of Certain and Impossible Events, which was selected by Cheryl Strayed as the winner of a Kore Press Memoir Award and will be published in January 2021. She holds an MFA from Portland State University and lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, writer Patrick McGinty, and their son. Photo by Porter Loves Photography.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Kendall Dawson. Of the process, she said, “Candace Opper’s memoir, Certain and Impossible Events, takes a new perspective on the discussion of suicide through its effect on those considered the periphery of a victim’s life. The weaving of statistics and heartful flashbacks creates a haunting and distinctive narrative on mental health in the United States. Many thanks go out to Opper for working with me to showcase her Kore Press Memoir Prize winner for the magazine.” In this interview, Candace Opper discusses the weight of destigmatizing mental illness, methods of recounting the past, and the concept of trusting the process.
Superstition Review: This memoir does wonders weaving narrative and facts to create a cohesive story. Could you explain how you went about your research process?
Candace Opper: I began the research portion of the book as part of my graduate thesis, so I was lucky enough to have the time and space to really cast the net wide. I consumed everything about suicide I could find: psychology journals, sociological studies, philosophical texts, memoirs, after-school specials, classic literature, educational pamphlets, and any movie that included a depiction. With the exception of a few pioneering examples, the formal sociological study of suicide only dates back to about the 1940s; philosophical and literary perspectives are obviously more extensive—as are interpretations from different eras, religions, and cultures—so the research can seem bottomless.
Since my experience was rooted specifically in adolescent suicide in 1990s America, I eventually focused my research on that era and those circumstances and sort of worked my way outward from there. My goal was to retrace the narrative of suicide in American culture and pop-culture that led to that specific moment. Though every individual suicide is the result of a number of personal factors, I also believe each is connected to a larger sociological and cultural framework. That is what I was trying to construct.
SR: Narrating this memoir to the boy was an eerie and captivating choice. It plays out like a metaphor for the ripple effect of suicide and how almost everyone has seen, heard, or known about such an incident. How do you hope this text will work to destigmatize suicide in our society?
CO: Over the course of writing and researching this book, I talked to hundreds of people about suicide—sometimes as part of the process, but mostly because people would ask what I write about, or see me wearing a t-shirt with some suicide statistics on it. Everyone I talked to had some personal experience with suicide, whether that was an extended family member or a neighbor’s uncle or some kid in the next town over whose death arrived only as a series of rumors. Not everyone has a close enough experience to identify as a suicide loss survivor, but I do believe everyone has had some relationship to this phenomenon that has caused them at least to pause and think about why someone would take their own life.
I worry that many people engage with the topic through narratives put forth by the larger suicide prevention organizations; these orgs are doing hugely important work, but their messaging doesn’t necessarily speak to the person who has not experienced a close loss but is still curious about the topic or concerned about its sociological and cultural implications.
I like to think my part in destigmatizing the dialogue around suicide is acting as a spokesperson for people who have been impacted by suicide from a distance. I really tried to write this book in a way that was accessible. Sociological discourse and suicide prevention are both necessary, but so is the ordinary, open conversation around our experiences with suicide and the messy ways we grapple with them.
SR: I agree that accessibility is a key factor in creating safe and brave spaces regarding this topic. Over the years, conversations and anecdotal experiences such as yours have made a difference in our society's approach toward mental health. What projects do you have slated for the future and will they continue this discussion?
CO: I have no doubt I will continue participating in a dialogue around this experience and this book, but the projects I have planned for the immediate future are focused more on film. I grew up in a family of sort of low-brow cinephiles and went to school for film history, so I’ve been immersed in that thinking for a long time. I’m really interested in the ways cinema (and also pop culture in general) can influence our understanding of reality, and how the boundaries between movies and life can become really fluid. I anticipate that whatever comes next will orbit those ideas.
SR: How did you get into the headspace to write such a grappling recount of your history?
CO: I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been out of the headspace. I’ve been writing about this experience, in some capacity, since it happened. The process hasn’t always been central, but it’s always there. Sometimes I liken it to a TV mounted in the corner of a room that’s looping a movie over and over; you can ignore it, or forget it’s there, but it has no doubt wormed its way into your existence. Other times I feel like my ability to tap into the emotions I experienced at that time of my life is just a well-exercised muscle. I’ve had a lot of practice reaching back, so I can do it pretty easily.
When I needed an extra push, I’d re-watch television commercials that aired during that time. Of all the media I consumed as a teenager, advertising seems to be the least timeless, and consequently the most bound to a very specific era.
SR: It is interesting you mention television media being confined to its time with the juxtaposition of the transcendence of literature. Do you think about your literary work becoming an archive of the past and an object of pertinence in the future? How do you grapple with literature standing the test of time?
CO: I hope it’s both transient and timeless. There seems to be sort of an unwritten law about relying too hard on pop culture references within your work, given that they lose meaning over time. I know that’s true to an extent, but I also think that code comes from this antiquated idea that pop culture is less legitimate than literature. I think most people born after 1970 can agree that pop culture has had some influence on how they navigate life and relationships; it certainly had a huge role in my upbringing and is inextricably linked to Brett’s suicide, which immediately echoed the highly publicized death of a pop culture icon.
It would have been inauthentic for me to avoid pop culture, which I believe is as worthy a document of late-twentieth-century life as literature. I hope my book speaks to that point. As to its future timelessness, I can’t be sure, though I’d like to believe it’s just as relevant for my work to resonate with people in the present.
SR: What inspired you to become a writer? Could you share some of your proudest literary moments?
CO: My tireless drive to tell this story definitely contributed to my writerly pursuits, but I’ve always been a compulsive observer of the world around me and I eventually needed to put those observations somewhere. I have so many distinct memories of removing myself from the middle of some social experience—usually a party or a concert—because I felt an inexorable need to write down everything that was happening as it was happening. I fought it but eventually settled into the familiar dichotomy that is living versus the act of writing about living. I understand they need to exist symbiotically but I’ve always gravitated toward the latter.
That said, I was terrified of writing for a long time. I spent a lot of time writing exclusively for myself, which was actually really tender and intimate. I knew offering my writing to the world would expose it to all sorts of scrutiny, but at some point, it felt like, now or never. I applied to a single MFA program as a kind of wildcard and thought: if I get in, this is what I’ll do. And I did. I realize that makes my process sound totally random, but it’s more like my confidence is totally random. I’ve always been writing, and maybe it’s always been kind of good, but it’s the few-and-far-in-between moments of encouragement that help fuel the process—getting into an MFA, those first acceptance letters for publication, even the occasional thoughtful rejection letter boosts my tenacity.
The most gratifying literary moments, though, are when strangers reach out to me about something I’ve written. I’m still astounded when my writing moves people to reflect or pause or tell their own story.
SR: It is lovely that readers have found comfort and community in your work. Community is so important in understanding oneself and the identities they hold. Can you describe the communities which have offered you guidance in either personal or professional endeavors?
CO: I’ve been lucky to have so many mini-communities throughout my life, but one that’s been particularly resilient is my group of friends from high school, which fondly calls itself the “teenage wasteland” (a pejorative nickname we eventually owned). We’ve managed to keep in touch for the last 20+ years—mostly over a continuous email thread, occasionally in person. I could say something generic like, these are the people who will always be there for me (which is true), but more importantly these friendships have made space for us all to grow and change while also acting as a vital connection back to what we came from—that kind of unadulterated adolescent fury and idealism. Maybe that sounds saccharine, but I find it restorative.
SR: It was humbling to read about how you and your peers grappled with death. Seeing that suicide is one of the leading causes of death for those ages 10-34, it is critical to showcase these empathic experiences. Could you describe how you approached writing complicated feelings of your youth?
CO: It was important to me to honor the genuine reactions my peers and I had about Brett’s death at the time. We were so young and so epically misinformed—or, in most cases, uninformed—and I really wanted to capture that feeling of disbelief that came with not being able to put any of the pieces together. As I interviewed former classmates about their memories (most of whom I hadn’t spoken to in 15-20 years), I was shocked to find how many of us remembered the same details and rumors, as though they were collectively imprinted on us. I was also surprised to find that many of them still thought about this experience regularly and expressed a lingering sense of irresolution around his death. I went in assuming they would all think I was disturbed for dwelling on this for so many years, but they overwhelmingly seemed grateful that someone was willing to tell this story.
I think having empathy for my teenage self was one of the hardest obstacles to overcome in this process. For years I believed the purpose of this project was to achieve a sense of justice for a person whose death was largely overlooked. In the wake of his death, I remember several teachers saying, “He would have wanted us to move on,”— language I now know they were instructed to impart—but I didn’t believe that was true. I recognized that his death told a larger story—about him, about our generation. It took much longer for me to recognize that the story was also about our unheard grief and trauma.
SR: How would you identify this memoir in the realm of social justice?
CO: Suicide itself is inextricable from social justice. Because of the undeniable link between mental health challenges and suicide, it has historically been written off as the result of an individual problem, when in reality it’s far more complicated. Equal access to mental health support remains a huge issue in this country, impacted by economic struggles, availability of health insurance, and resilient stigmas tied to gender, culture, and religion. Beyond mental health, there are so many other social factors that can influence suicidal behavior: oppression, poverty, substance abuse, domestic abuse, easy access to firearms. Every suicide is tangled up with the social conditions in which it took place.
As for this memoir, I consider it a kind of unsilencing. We don’t effect change by forgetting the things that make us uncomfortable or that we don’t easily have the words to discuss. I am just one person telling one story, but I hope that act inspires other people to speak about their experiences, which will, in turn, help to normalize the conversation around suicide and translate how expansive this problem truly is. Suicide is not rare—it’s consistently the tenth leading cause of death in the US—and will not simply disappear because we collectively choose to see it as a series of isolated, unconnected incidents. The suicide rate has risen more than 30% in the last two decades. That is not because more individuals are depressed or bipolar or schizophrenic; there are much broader social issues at play.
SR: The evidence supporting the significance of intersectionality and the lack of equitable assistance for mental health concerns is staggering. The current pandemic has highlighted the severity of suicide in correlation with the issues you mention. How has it been to maneuver the release of your memoir during this challenging time?
CO: The challenges I’ve faced so far have mostly been logistical, like figuring out how to organize a virtual book tour and how to get the book into people’s hands though most are not browsing their local bookstores these days. In terms of the subject matter, I think it’s always going to be equally relevant and precarious. If more people are thinking about this topic because of what the pandemic has brought to light, then sure, they may be more likely to show interest in this book, but suicide is still a topic people might shy away from if they think the book is going to be too dark or depressing or scientific. I think part of the maneuvering is convincing people that this book is telling a different kind of suicide story, one that distills science and culture and personal experience into something that I hope reflects the current magnitude of this issue.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
CO: Oh gosh, these days (as in, COVID-era) it looks like whatever space I can find some quiet, which is difficult while mostly isolating at home with a four-year-old. Generally speaking, I’m a packrat, so my writing sort of sprawls out from my laptop into various planners and notebooks, post-its, the backs of receipts and bookmarks, all of which live inside various stacks of paper that I try to keep within arm’s reach. I think the kids are calling this “clutter core.”