About The Author
Stefan Merrill Block was born in 1982 and grew up in Plano, Texas. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2004. His first novel, the internationally acclaimed The Story of Forgetting, was published in 2008.
His second novel, The Storm at the Door, is base don the life on his grandfather, Frederick Merrill. Just outside Boston, in 1963, he found himself a patient in the country's premiere mental hospital, a world of structured authority and absolute control - a forced regression to a simpler time even as the pace of the outside world accelerated into modernity. Meanwhile, in a wintry New Hampshire village hours to the north, Frederick's wife Katharine struggled to hold together her fracturing family and to heal from the wounds of her husband's affliction.
Nearly fifty years later, a writer in his twenties attempts to comprehend his grandparents' story from that turbulent time, a moment in his family's history that continues to cast a long shadow over his own young life. Spanning generations and genres, The Storm at the Door blends memory and imagination, historical fact and compulsive storytelling, to offer a meditation on how our love for one another and the stories we tell ourselves allow us to endure and how the subtlest damages can for ever alter a family's fate.
In this interview, Stefan discusses the intimacy he has with a man he never met, the loss he felt when his grandmother burned all her husband's papers anbd why he felt their story needed to be told.
Below the interview is a list of titles by Stefan Merrill Block currently in print in the UK. You may find other editions in our 'New and Used' section by typing the author's name into the Search field at the top of this page and selecting the 'Author Exact' filter to the far right of the Search field.
Questions & Answers
The Storm at the Door is based on your own grandparents; what made you want to write their story?
The short answer is that I felt like I didn't have much of a choice. This book felt like a gate that stood between my future work and me; something I had to pass through in order to write other stories.
My grandfather died, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, long before I was born, but I've always felt an extremely close identification with him. Even when I was a kid, my family would often remark upon how similar we looked, how similarly we thought and spoke. My grandfather was diagnosed with manic depression, and it seems that it was that affliction, or at least that diagnosis, that ruined him. When I was in my early twenties, I went through a very difficult time of unmanageable depressions and insomnias that lasted for days on end. When a doctor tentatively diagnosed me with his condition, my interest in my grandfather intensified, and I began to ask more questions, to find out all I could about his life.
I've tried to understand my grandfather as he actually was, but I also can't help seeing him as an alternate version of myself. Part of this identification comes from our similarities that others have noticed, but I know it is true that much of it is my own doing, an identification that the grandchildren of lost grandparents often make. My mother and I have an extremely close relationship; she home-schooled me and so she was the central figure in most of my childhood. In our relationship, I've always felt the loss of my grandfather, the sadness and the compensatory hope that loss has transmitted to me through her. I never met my grandfather, but through my mother, my grandfather and I are profoundly intimate.
My grandfather is at just the right distance from me to feel present and yet also absent enough that I can project myself into his place. His history has always seemed to me a possible future for myself, and one that is not very happy. I think that the writing of this book came out of both these urgencies: the need to give shape to what I couldn't know and the need to better understand myself by projecting myself into my grandfather' situation. This is work that began long before I started writing, and in that way the writing of this book was like cheating; all I had to do was commit to the page this story that I had imagined for so long.
The actual writing of this novel was unlike anything I have written before or since. Usually, I sit to write in the morning and work, just like everyone else returns each morning to their jobs. But I mostly wrote this book in fits that arrived at unexpected moments: in the middle of nights, on trains, sitting at dinner tables. It wasn't just daily work; it was something that needed to come out.
But I know that my primary job as a novelist is to be a good storyteller, and it's also true that I wanted to tell my grandparents' story simply because I believe it is an extraordinarily compelling one. My grandparents' lives are a great gift to me as a writer: their story holds a tremendous wartime romance, a sojourn in the nation's most remarkable mental hospital, a parable about the oppressive expectations and faltering optimism of America in the 1960s, and a unique window onto the complex relationship between madness and genius. Even if it weren't my own family's story, I believe this would still be the sort of book I would want to read.
When your grandmother burnt your grandfather's papers you were quite young, yet this event is very significant; is that where the story started for you? Did you ever find out what was in the documents that she destroyed?
My grandmother's burning of those pages is an indelible image for me. My grandfather was gone long before I was born, and my grandmother was always a bit secretive about her past. By the time she burned those papers, I had already felt the losses and absences of my family's history. So, in one way, this act was merely an expression of something I had long felt, a powerful symbol of those losses.
And yet, it was not merely symbolic; actual pages were lost that we'll never have again. I'll never know exactly what those pages contained. My family has often told me that my grandfather could have been a great writer. I've seen some evidence of that in his surviving letters, but in my imagination those burned pages are filled with his greatest poetry, what he wrote at McLean Hospital, in the company of Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. My mom thinks they were love letters, filled with the sorts of details of my grandparents' early relationship that a woman of my grandmother's generation would have been embarrassed for others to read. Either way, this act of incineration seems so drastic, such a wilful act of closure. Though I was lucky enough to know my grandmother, at least for a few years, this was the moment when I started to wonder about her own mysteries, when I started to consider the ways that even a person who is physically present can still conceal so much.