How did you come up with the idea for this book?
The story of how I came to write the book can be found here.
Is the story intended to be a realistic portrayal of multiple personality disorder?
It’s intended to be a believable and internally consistent portrayal of multiple personality disorder. The question of realism is trickier, because MPD is still a very controversial subject: though it’s listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (as “Dissociative Identity Disorder”), a lot of psychiatrists still don’t believe that it’s a real condition, and those who do believe in it don’t agree about its nature.
Since I knew I wasn’t qualified to settle the debate, I decided not to worry about it too much. I wrote Set This House in Order as a “what if” novel: if we assume that MPD works in such-and-such a way, what would the experience of it be like? How would it feel to always be part of a crowd? What would the implications be for things like personal responsibility? My hope is that the resulting story is rich enough that, even if you think the premise is pure fantasy, you’ll still be able to get something out of it.
If the official psychiatric term for MPD is “Dissociative Identity Disorder,” how come you don’t use that phrase?
Mainly for clarity’s sake. I’m addressing a general audience, and to most non-psychiatrists, “Dissociative Identity Disorder” doesn’t mean anything. Say “multiple personality,” though, and folks know what you’re talking about.
Within the context of the novel, there’s also the issue of verisimilitude: I want my characters to talk the way they really would talk. While some real-world multiples do use the DID label, my sense is that it’s much more common for them to refer to themselves as “multiple” than as “dissociative.”
In the novel, you use the word “souls” to refer to your protagonists’ various personalities. Is this a term you came up with yourself?
Yes. Standard psychiatric labels like “personality” and “fragment” reflect a belief that the different characters in a multiple system aren’t true individuals, but pieces or facets of a single self. It seemed intuitively obvious to me that multiples who rejected this way of looking at themselves (or their selves) would also reject the language. So I needed to come up with another word, and “souls” seemed right.
If it’s possible to live a stable, “normal” life as a multiple, is it really fair to refer to multiple personality as a disorder?
This is another area of controversy. Those multiples who do manage to live stable, successful lives naturally object to being stigmatized as abnormal or mentally ill, and they aren’t just being politically correct: there are serious practical consequences to being regarded as crazy. In writing the book, I tried to be sensitive to this without making a big deal out of it. Andrew only uses the phrase “multiple personality disorder” once—when he’s talking about therapy—and he never refers to himself as suffering from MPD, since, to him, it’s not an affliction.
However, not all multiples are like Andrew. Even Andrew wasn’t always like Andrew. If uncontrolled switching is disrupting someone’s life to the point where they aren’t even sure what time zone they’re in, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to use the D-word—although there’s still room to argue whether the true disorder is multiplicity itself or the failure to manage it properly.
I’m interested in this book, but I’m concerned that it may upset me. Are there descriptions of child abuse in the novel, and if so, how graphic are they? I don’t want to read about little kids getting tortured.
I didn’t want to write about little kids getting tortured. But I did want to demonstrate how such abuse might lead to the splitting of personalities. Fortunately, the nature of MPD allowed me to imply a lot more violence than I actually show. Basically, the viewpoint souls—the personalities who tell the story—aren’t the ones who suffered the worst abuse. They have a pretty good idea what happened, but it didn’t happen to them.
That said, there are still some pretty disturbing scenes in the novel, most notably the flashback sequences involving the character of Penny Driver and her mother. Even here, most of the physical violence takes place “off stage,” but the fact that your imagination is left to fill in the blanks actually makes the scenes more harrowing, in some ways, than a blow-by-blow description would be.
Bottom line, if you’re extremely sensitive, this may not be the right novel for you. But if you’re primarily concerned about gratuitous or tasteless depictions of violence, you’ll probably be OK.
Were you ever abused as a child?
No more than any other smart kid who didn’t play sports.
What are “natural multiples,” and what do you think of them?
Natural multiples are people who claim to have been born multiple, or to have become multiple spontaneously, rather than as a response to some sort of trauma.
I honestly don’t know what to make of these claims. Once you grant that multiplicity is possible at all, the idea that there might be more than one form of it, or more than one way to become multiple, doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch. So I certainly don’t reject the notion out of hand, and if someone tells me they are a natural multiple, I’m not going to twirl my finger by my ear the moment their back is turned (unless, you know, they’re weird).
Still, when it comes to judging hypotheses in the real world, as opposed to exploring them in fiction, I am a big fan of scientific evidence, and so far I haven’t seen any. Pretty much the only evidence that natural multiples exist are Internet sites created by the multiples themselves, and while they offer interesting food for thought (Astraea’s Web is a good one to start with, if you’re curious), satisfying skeptics is not a major part of their agenda. So my personal jury is still out on the subject.
Are there any natural multiples in your novel?
No. Andrew and Penny are both classic “survivor” multiples, and the subject of natural multiplicity is never mentioned. I realize some natural multiples will feel slighted by the omission—those frigging incest survivors get all the press, damn it!—but my goal in Set This House in Order was not to provide a comprehensive overview of all possible forms of multiplicity, it was to tell a dramatic story about two particular multiples. Fortunately, I am not the only person who is allowed to write novels. Hint, hint.
Do you think you’ll ever write a sequel, or another, unrelated novel about multiplicity?
I definitely have no plans to write a sequel; the story is complete as it stands. And because I like each novel I write to be different from what I’ve done before, it’s unlikely I’d choose to write another naturalistic drama with a multiple protagonist. As for revisiting the topic in another context—in a science-fiction novel, say—that’s possible, but I don’t have anything in the works.
Are there any plans to make Set This House in Order into a movie?
Not yet, but I think it would be an excellent project for Peter Jackson now that he’s finished the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I think Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg should get into a bidding war for the movie rights.
Assuming that fantasy scenario doesn’t come to pass, it has occurred to me in idle moments that Set This House in Order would make an interesting basis for a weekly TV series. At first thought this might seem like a difficult idea to sustain, and if mishandled it could easily turn into the worst sort of TV farce—Aaron Spelling presents Set This House on a Course for Adventure—but someone like Joss Whedon could probably pull it off.
[Update, 2021:] Though there are still no plans to film Set This House in Order, the composer Nico Muhly and playwright Jack Thorne are adapting the story as a musical to be performed at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Dates to be announced.)
On the dust jacket of the hardcover edition of Set This House, it says that you live “in Seattle, Washington, in what is arguably the most beautiful apartment house in the city.” What apartment house is that?
1005 East Roy Street, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. It’s a big brick Tudor built in the late 1920s by Fredrick William Anhalt. My wife and I happened upon the building during a visit to Seattle in 1999, and instantly fell in love with it; when we moved to the city a year later, we decided to see if we could get an apartment there. Though none of the regular units were immediately available, the landlady Brenda Cavender took a liking to us, and let us move into Fred Anhalt’s old ground-floor studio for a few months while we waited for a two bedroom to open up.
The second-floor apartment we ultimately settled in was one of the nicest in the building. There were windows on three sides, including a long southern exposure, and the bedroom that became my office had a holly tree right outside that featured a regular parade of squirrels, possums, finches, sparrows, woodpeckers, chickadees, hummingbirds, and the occasional tree-climbing cat. It was a really wonderful place to live and work.
Early in 2003, 1005 East Roy was sold to a new owner, and the subsequent rise in rent, along with other changes to the building and the surrounding neighborhood, convinced us it was time to move on.
In the trade paperback edition of Set This House, it says that you now live “in what is arguably the most beautiful house in the city.” When did you first learn you were the bastard son of Bill Gates?
Years ago, but the son of a bitch still denies paternity, so no, I’m not rich yet. The house my wife and I moved to after leaving 1005 East Roy was also very beautiful—another brick Tudor, with a garden to call my own—but there are any number of local showpieces that would smoke it in a competition. That line in the paperback is simply an error, which my editor regrets.