Today I welcome author Kevin A. Hall to my blog. Kevin released his first book, Black Sails White Rabbits, in December 2015.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I tend to be an all-or-nothing guy, which seems to carry into my moods sometimes too. It’s a double edged sword, like so many things. It can be fantastic to be immersed and effective, and it can be crippling to feel like I’m half-assing something and would be better off never having started it. I’m trying to learn to be able to be 100% comfortable with doing some things only part way!
What or who inspired you to start writing?
My very first class in college (8 am Monday morning – OUCH!) was a creative writing class. I’ve always loved writing, but when I started living with manic episodes and depressions, it became part of my literal survival to write open, honest letters to friends, and to journal extensively. I taught myself to be honest during my early twenties, at least on paper. So maybe the answer is “I did.”
What is the best thing about being a writer? The worst?
The best thing about being a writer is the click, the engagement of whole self and the completely disorienting evaporation of time. I have looked up from a writing session and realized it was five hours later. In no other activity does that happen to me. A few other things make time stop, but they don’t last for five hours! The worst thing about being a writer is that it is lonely. No water cooler jokes, nobody to give you a funny look when you arrive to work late the second day in a row, nobody dragging you out of the office on Friday afternoon for a few beers. Just you, the page, and your hopes and fears.
How did you come up with the title?
It started as “Words, Words, Words; Accept My Life” which is a way-too-cute nod to my worship of Hamlet. I had written in the memoir about once quipping that I wanted to some day write a book called “Cancer Was the Easy Part”. That became the subtitle. The main title spent quite a bit of time as White Jackets, White Rabbits; (I’m a Herman Melville fan and White Jacket; or, The World in a Man of War is one of his other novels. Plus, there’s the double entendre with doctors in white coats. The Melville book is also how I legitimize the semicolon in my title. It’s a nod to both Melville and to Project Semicolon, a very beautiful mental health awareness initiative.) Finally I realized it really needs the “Black” to go with “White Rabbits”, and between carbon fiber sails and Tristan and Isolde, I had my title.
What was the most difficult thing/scene to write in this story?
The last chapter was incredibly difficult. I had quite a few threads open, and I desperately wanted them to come back together in a positive, but not forced way. I have four outtake final chapters, which led me to realize I couldn’t do it all in one chapter. I closed a few threads before the final chapter. Eventually, I got really lucky one morning while reading, and had some specific words from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King remind me of a Tom Waits song which has the exact same five words: “East of East Saint Louis”. That spark gave me what I needed to illustrate the delicate nature of maintaining a difference between “inside” and “outside” thoughts. I love that I hear voices, and writing the last chapter finally allowed me to express how it works a little bit, and to make peace with the challenges and blessings that my mind brings me.
What inspired you to write this book?
After toiling for a year and a half on a novel that just doesn’t work yet, my writing coach Stephanie Gisondi-Little suggested I try my hand at telling my story. I started by going back to my old journals and love letters (the love of my life at the time saved them, and we share a garage among other things now). Transcribing the journals and letters was so much more powerful than just re-reading them. The thoughts had to pass back through me and out my typing fingers, which helped me create the world in which Black Sails White Rabbits; takes place. From there I was off.
There are two ways to look at what happened to me in the fall of 1989. The safe, sanctioned explanation is to simply say my body attacked my brain, like this:
I got a fever of 104° F. My skin erupted in a violent rash all over my back, legs, and face. My brain swelled and pressed against the inside of my skull. My neurons short circuited. My brain caught fire. I went mad. It wasn’t MY fault, it was my body’s.
The damage done by those tempestuous weeks of fever and rash left my brain vulnerable. My previously dormant biological psychiatric illness never slept again. I was born manic‑depressive. It was only a matter of time. My fate was always to make a scene. The diagnosis was simply the last one on stage.
It’s a forgiving perspective, which explains everything. This is helpful.
How I am is not me. It’s my Illness. It has a name, symptoms, and cure.
The other way to look at my challenges used to be unthinkable to me. Now, I see it as part of a wider perspective on a very complicated picture.
I had two academic passions. Mathematics, and French literature. I know, a bit schizo right? Backing up, I had only applied to two colleges. Brown University, and the United States Naval Academy. Not exactly sister schools. I was accepted for admission by both. Navy was an efficient path to having the Government pay for my fuel to fly jets. The easiest way to boil down the decision is to say that I didn’t want to be told when to brush my teeth or cut my hair.
I really liked math. But I was used to being the best thinker in math class. Not anymore. Not at Brown. As the leaves turned to reds and golds the fall semester of my junior year, I enrolled in two upper‑level math classes. Differential Geometry and Topology conspired to shunt me away from my handful of exceptionally bright classmates into the dunce’s corner of Euclid fans.
I adored French literature. When I opened a French book, I fell ass over teakettle into imaginary worlds two steps removed from waking, Anglophone life. Seventeenth century, nineteenth, twentieth…didn’t matter. A dreamer is freer in a second language. (Samuel Beckett, though Irish, wrote much of his best stuff in French.)
A description of my two majors as “bipolar” isn’t silly. Math: practical, precise, proven to be helpful in a world of men and money. French Lit: navel‑gazing, or escapist. Or else super‑serious Absurdism.
Not long before I was to graduate from Brown, I got ambushed picking up a girlfriend in New York City for one of our early dates. The whole clan was there in her parents’ Upper East‑Side apartment to size up the new tribeless boyfriend. Some had driven in from halfway out on Long Island. As I stepped through the front door, my date’s aunt fired point‑blank: “What are you gonna do with a degree in math and French literatchuh?”
So here’s the second, more complicated way to look at my meltdown: I was disintegrating, right down to my core. I wanted to continue to pursue math, I loved it. But it was becoming clear that I sucked. I also wanted to pursue French Lit, I loved it, but Aunt Mary‑Bette was right to ask. What, exactly, would I do with a degree in French literature?
I used to cling to the absolution that came with putting all my struggles down to bad luck, to a body playing mean tricks on me, and to a trendy diagnosis. However, I now believe that my mind—or perhaps my Soul—made sure I didn’t miss the invitation to see that I might be barking in the middle of a forest of hollow trees.
Joseph Campbell talks about the seat of the soul being that place where the outer world and one’s inner world meet. My outer and inner worlds were colliding head‑on when I dragged myself to the infirmary with a violent rash. I had midterms the following week, and I was going to fail.
Instead of stepping down, resting, and reflecting, I did the opposite. The second I got off the IV drip, I doubled down on the stress, tripled up on the caffeine, and went for broke on the determination. Then, I cracked.
Did my stress divert all remaining powers from my sanity force field? Did madness pass into me from a fraternity party sneeze, or maybe the morning dew? Once inside my body, did the insurgents give me a fever, swell my brain, and cause me to lose track of what was real and what wasn’t? Maybe. That’s the chicken theory.
The egg theory is messy. It’s jagged. It has taken me twenty five years to swallow: the arrow points the other direction.
I was in trouble. I was smacked from peacock to feather‑duster when I realized that in the world of math I was barely a guppy in an ocean of white whales. There was no map for passing through magic French doors which led to a roof over my head and food on the table. At least, not a table set with the silver and privilege to which I had become accustomed.
In a world where “what do you do?” and “who are you?” seem to be interchangeable to potential future in‑laws, I couldn’t answer either question. I went insane fighting to keep the ideas of who I was and what I did separate. My mind was well on its way to splitting—which would have shown up soon enough—when my body flinched first with a fever and a rash. A few short weeks later, I played the madman and the fool, got arrested, then locked up to sit still and drool.
The Western, medical model had the cause outside the patient. So, give him pills, restore the neuro‑electrico‑biochemical balance, and get him back in the game. Job done. Case closed.
As soon as I stopped drooling, moved out of the locked ward, and caught my breath, I ran right back out on the field. Like nothing with spiritual or self‑identity implications had happened. I didn’t slow down. Not in class, not in training, not on the racecourse.
Well, my body tried its hand again at getting my Soul’s attention. This time, instead of crazy, it was cancer.
Young sailor and aspiring Olympic competitor Kevin A. Hall’s biggest dream was to raise a family. But within the space of three years, he was diagnosed with both testicular cancer and bipolar disorder, putting his family and Olympic dreams on hold. He soon found that surviving cancer was the easy part. Now a renowned Olympic and America’s Cup sailor with a wonderful wife and family, Hall shares a behind-the-scenes look at his struggles with mental illness in his riveting memoir.
About the Author
Kevin A. Hall is an Ivy League graduate of Brown University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and French literature. Despite being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1989, he went on to become a world-champion Olympic sailor, as well as racing navigator for Emirates Team New Zealand in the 2007 America’s Cup match. A two-time testicular cancer survivor, Hall has spent a successful 25 years as a racing navigator, speed testing manager, and sailing performance and racing instruments expert .A brief version of his story was featured in Joel and Ian Gold’s book Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness, as the only non-anonymous case study of a patient with Truman Show delusion. Hall currently lives in Auckland, New Zealand with his wife and their three children. Black Sails White Rabbits is his first book.
You can purchase Black Sails White Rabbits on Amazon.