Mira Bartók, the author behind The Memory Palace, recently visited the KQED studios to record an episode of The Writers' Block, which will be released next week (listen to Mira's reading here). Until then, get to know her a little better with this Q+A, in which she talks about memory recall, Hello Kitty, and what her past incarnation would have been.
Talk a little about the Renaissance system of memory recall and how it inspired the way you went about writing your memoir, The Memory Palace.
Mira Bartók: This system really goes back to the ancient Greeks, but, in 1596, a Jesuit priest named Matteo Ricci popularized it. He had extraordinary mnemonic powers and, while he was a missionary in China, he taught Chinese scholars how to build an imaginary palace in their minds in order to contain their memories. For everything they wanted to recall, he told them to affix an image and to every image, a position inside a room in their mind. I thought it was a beautiful image/structure to create for the architecture for my book. And rather than create a palace in my mind, I created a huge one on my studio wall. Images from that palace appear at the beginning of each chapter as memory prompts and lead the narrator (and reader) back through time to an event.
You've mentioned your mother's storage unit as a "cabinet of curiosities." What were some of the most interesting things you found there? Did you learn more about your mother by going through her belongings? Do you collect anything yourself?
MB: Aside from seventeen years of amazing diaries, sketchbooks and what she called her 'scribing' books that contained all these subjects she studied with savant-like fervor (physics, biology, fairy tales, neuroscience, ancient geology, alien abductions, foreign languages, etc.), the weirdest things were the 1950s geiger counters to measure radiation and these huge bizarre posters she made that she called her "posters of intent." Apparently, she placed them over windows to block out poisonous gas and radiation. There were also an exceptionally large number of scissors and tuna fish cans.
As for me, I don't collect the same thing over and over again. I have a friend who unfortunately thinks I collect Hello Kitty items because he is a compulsive collector of everything. He once he saw I had a Hello Kitty change purse someone gave me and just assumed I needed more H.K. items. So now, every time he sees something Hello Kittyish, he gives it to me. I don't have the heart to tell him to stop. It makes him so happy.
There's definitely a bit of dark humor going on in your book, specifically in your mother's letters. What is the funniest memory about your mom?
MB: The time she asked me if a decayed hot dog she found on the floor was a penis from an alien that had been placed there to transmit messages to her. I repeated back to her what she had just said and then asked her if she really believed that. She laughed and had one of her more lucid moments where she realized she had just imagined something unreal. It was pretty funny at the time for both of us, thankfully.
If your life was adapted to film, who would play you?
MB: I've been trying to figure that out. My dream would be Isabella Rossalini when she was younger.
Having called places like Israel, Italy, and even the Arctic home, it seems as though you've lived many different lives. If you had to imagine your past incarnation, where would you have been and what would you have been doing?
MB: I definitely would have been either one of two things: an illuminator/scribe in an Italian Medieval monastery (as long as there were great dinner parties, I could have sex, and I wasn't expected to perform any self-flagellation or anything too extreme). Or I would have been Darwin's assistant on the Voyage of the Beagle. He couldn't really draw specimens well, so I could have helped out a lot in that department. Especially with all those finches and marine iguanas.
You're on stage at a karaoke bar. What are you singing?
MB: I've only been to a karaoke bar once and it was a Korean one. So I can only imagine myself doing what I did that night: singing "Like a Prayer" by Madonna in a weirdly translated form.
If you had a spirit animal, what would it be?
MB: That's easy. A penguin. The kind we used to call fairy penguins but now they call them "little penguins."
What's something about you that might surprise people?
MB: Three things: 1. I absolutely love Dolly Parton (her bluegrass/traditional stuff). 2. I carry a pair of hockey skates in the back of my car, just in case I see a pond somewhere on the road or a rink. I'm a wicked skater. And 3. I'm a potty mouth. I try not to be but, well, there you go. Sometimes it's hard to control what comes out.
Look for Mira Bartók's episode of The Writers' Block next Wednesday, March 16, 2011 at kqed.org/writersblock. And be sure not to miss each episode as it becomes available by subscribing to The Writers' Block podcast!