Doubled Perspective: An Interview with Timothy Denevi

Liz Wyckoff

BG-Interview-1Most of us can remember the exhilaration of being released onto the playground from a stuffy elementary school classroom, the awkwardness of a teenage movie theater make-out session, or the reckless thrill of getting tipsy before a high school dance. These are the transformative experiences and emotions that comprise Timothy Denevi’s captivating nonfiction debut, Hyper: A Personal History of ADHD. But Denevi examines these scenes from his childhood through the lens of ADHD. How did it feel to be a six-year-old on Ritalin, or a teenager watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on Dexedrine? Hyper chronicles Denevi’s journey from initial diagnosis through fifteen years of treatment, providing readers with a window into his unique view of the world with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Supplementing these personal memories is the scientific history of ADHD as a condition. Since the late 19th century, physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, and others—from Sigmund Freud to Alfred Strauss to Michel Foucault to L. Ron Hubbard—have disagreed over the disorder’s causes and symptoms, and the most effective methods of treatment. Denevi weaves this research into his personal narrative to create a book that is not just funny and heartwrenching, but also informative and illuminating—a rare history of ADHD from a patient’s perspective.

Reading Hyper can give you a sense of Denevi’s affable, electric personality—he was voted Biggest Talker in his middle school yearbook, after all. It’s Denevi’s thoughtful, friendly enthusiasm that makes his prose such a delight to consume, and that made this interview such a pleasure to conduct.


LIZ WYCKOFF: Hyper is such a compelling exploration of a psychological condition, including both your own personal narrative and a fascinating social history about ADHD. When did you realize this was a story you wanted to tell?

TIMOTHY DENEVI: That’s an excellent question. When I started graduate school, I had the idea to write a book about the baseball player Barry Bonds—about how the cultural discussion of him in the national media was extreme and, in my opinion, dangerously incorrect—but instead, in my writing workshops, I found myself drawn to moments that resided at the very beginning of memory: images and situations I’d always carried with me but that, when expressed through the artifice of narrative, began to feel defamiliarized and fresh; I wasn’t sure what they meant or why I’d held on to them for so long. The beginning of the project, then, was an attempt to articulate these moments, the series of which came to represent the first chapter of the book.

LW: The narrative is constantly shifting between scene and exposition, memory and scientific research. How did you braid those distinct threads of the piece into one another?

TD: I really believe that a memoir, to be effective—to be more than the sum of its parts—needs to jump beyond the concept of “pain on the page,” as in: the act of expression, while important, can’t be the only thing that matters. Memoir as a form allows you to navigate the space between the present-you and the past-you in the way few other artifices allow. After all, if everything that can happen has happened—which is as good a way as any to describe nonfiction—part of the book’s momentum needs to reside instead in the distance that separates the action and the actual telling.

That being said, part of my goal was to recreate the perspective of the child-me—to keep the camera as close to how I saw the world, then, as possible—and as a result, I found myself struggling on a structural level with the best way to achieve such closeness and also emphasize the perspective of the present-day me. I tried various avenues—playing with tenses, adding a bunch of reflection, even including a present-day thread—but it all felt false; I could feel these devices trying to do the work they were meant to accomplish, as opposed to said work naturally being done. So instead I began to include the historical thread. This way, the reader could get the perspective of the adult-me, along with context on what was going on, in a way that helped to break up the intensely emotional point-of-view that drives the child-me parts.

As for actually braiding these threads together, I tried to see each chapter’s personal narrative in terms of theme and then attach the broader essayistic parts along similar lines. The first chapter, for me, was about causality: the search for the causes of my behavior braided with the history of the search for causes of ADHD; the second, treatment; the third, education; the fourth, perception; the fifth, the disorder through the lifespan; and the sixth, where we’ve arrived at now. The transitions between each thread were often difficult to achieve, but there are so many fantastic examples out there of writers who braid essay and narrative effectively, and I found myself reading them over and over with an eye for their transitions—in this sense, the works of W.G. Sebald and Michael J. Arlen were especially helpful.

Denevi_Hyper_JacketLW: Had you studied much of the psychological and psychiatric history of ADHD before writing this book? Were you surprised by anything that you discovered?

TD: Ha! Goodness no. It wasn’t until I had hundreds of pages of narrative and still felt as if the book wasn’t working correctly that I finally planted myself in the University of Maryland library and spent more than a year reading everything I could about the disorder. I’m not sure I would’ve done it if the project itself, in its structure, hadn’t called out for it, so to speak. So in this sense, everything I came across felt surprising, but what really struck me were the perspectives of the doctors I read—how their negative and positive traits seemed at times to shine through the dense academic tones of their articles. One of the things that also surprised me, however, was the fact that it never really seemed to occur to these medical professionals that the work they were doing on ADHD would be judged not just by their colleagues but by the subjects of their actual studies. And in this sense, the act of retelling the history of the disorder from my point of view is part of the argument the book is trying to make—its broader theme.

LW: What books and/or writers served as models for you, in structure or content or even genre, during the writing process?

TD: I tell my students that you should always try and imagine five of your favorite writers in the room with you while you write a scene; how would they express in a completely different manner the very subject you’re trying to address? For this book, I re-read the nonfiction of Tobias Wolff; I was so struck by the fact that, even when he’s replicating a child’s point of view, the reader has such a clear sense of his authorial intelligence. Michael J. Arlen and W.G. Sebald provided excellent examples of transitions. The short stories of Stephanie Vaughn, especially “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog,” and “Dog Heaven,” were great templates for how to employ effective imagery within first-person narratives. Syntactically, more than a few of my sentences draw on Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics and the works of Denis Johnson. Each morning, before I start writing, I try and copy out a page or two from what I’m currently reading, and looking back at my notes, it seems that while finishing the book I was reading (and writing out) a good amount of these writers, along with Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro, Julian Barnes, and James Salter.

As I look back on the process, a passage that really stuck with me during the book’s composition comes from the ending to Calvino’s “Aquatic Uncle”: in this narrative, the main character Qfwfq, who’s been alive since the beginning of the universe and is now telling the story of his life to an audience that, naturally, is much younger than him (Italian fabulism!), recounts the moment in evolution when life transitioned from the ocean to the land, which also happens to be the first time he fell in love—and was subsequently dumped for not being savvy enough:

 “It was a hard blow for me. But, after all, what could I do about it? I went on my way, in the midst of the world’s transformations, being transformed myself. Every now and then, among the many forms of living beings, I encountered one who ‘was somebody’ more than I was: one who announced the future, the duckbilled platypus who nurses its young, just hatched from the egg; or I might encounter another who bore witness to a past beyond all return, a dinosaur who had survived to the Cenozoic, or else—a crocodile—part of the past that had discovered a way to remain immobile through the centuries. They all had something, I know, that made them superior to me, sublime, something that made me, compared to them, mediocre. And yet I wouldn’t have traded places with any of them.”

LW: Some of the book’s most poignant moments focus on your inability to perceive your behavior the way onlookers do. As you describe it, “the other students and the teacher were far away until suddenly their world surged across mine.” Could you talk a little bit more about the process of writing from the perspective of your younger self? What were some of the challenges of attempting to describe events the way you experienced them decades ago?

TD: It made for awkward transitions back into the real world, that’s for sure; I remember, while working on the section about middle school, looking up from the coffee shop in which I was writing and seeing everyone there in the way I once had, as a pre-teen: out of all these people, who would be plotting against me and who would be on my side—who made up the in crowd here? I shook it off in a few seconds and returned to my present perspective—I didn’t know anyone in the café to begin with, of course—but the sense of entering so deeply into the craziness of the past was at times haunting. Which is part of the goal of the book, of course.

I remember a story the writer Jo Ann Beard once told, in a workshop, about trying to re-create the teenage perspective for the book she was working on; she went to see one of the Twilight movies at a local theater and found herself wanting to yell at Kristen Stewart’s character “You stupid girl—he’s gonna leave you the first chance he gets!” But that’s the adult perspective; as a writer, she had to shrug that off and see the sexy boy-vampire in the way the other teenagers in the theater did—in the way she herself once would have. It’s a more difficult move than you’d think, one that can at times feel like writing fiction: you’re re-creating a point-of-view that no longer exists, despite the fact that you once lived it.

LW: I love imagining you in middle school, ruining a whole pack of plain white t-shirts by writing your last name on them in permanent marker—your signature imitation of an expensive brand name. I laughed aloud when I read that scene and, for the record, I’d buy a Denevi Gear tee if I could. Which one or two memories were particularly fun for you to put down in writing?

TD: I think this gets at a very good point: embarrassment, like bewilderment, is one of the necessary engines to memoir because, in terms of narrative, it helps establish the difference between the present and the past in a very effective manner; if the reader can join you in the present to look back on the most ridiculous or confusing aspects of your past, there’s the suggestion, however subtle, that you and your audience see things in the same way—that you’re at a point removed from what once happened and is happening again on the page. After all, the adult-you telling the story is no longer embarrassed or bewildered—or at least can find humor in how mistaken you’d once been—and it’s at these times that the reader tends to trust you the most, which brings us back to the idea of memoir’s inherently doubled perspective: you need to prove to your audience that you can see things like they were then and also as they appear from afar.

denevi_black_white-250x250LW: So much of a child’s experience at school is outside his or her parents’ control. Your teachers—particularly in elementary school—were so influential to your development, in both good and bad ways. Now, you have a son in elementary school. Do you think writing this book and reflecting on the influence of your early teachers has affected you as a parent?

TD: Yes, I do—and I also think that being a new father when I started this project was an asset. I remember a point in the book’s composition when, for the briefest instant, I found myself looking back on the children that populated the narrative—I’m thinking of the chapter about third grade, specifically—and instead of evaluating them in comparison to my younger self, I imagined them as older versions of my son and his friends, which allowed for a greater degree of compassion and insight.

LW: Speaking of parents, I think you portray your relationship to your parents so thoughtfully in this book. Moments of tension and frustration and, at times, desperation are mixed with scenes of tenderness and patience. Have your parents read the book? How do you think they’ll respond to its publication?

TD: My parents have been absurdly generous when it comes to the composition of this book. We’re a very close family, and many of the stories in Hyper have been retold at family gatherings over the years, but still, it’s a crazy thing to allow yourself to be characterized to strangers by your son, and really, my parents’ support and love throughout the book’s composition has constituted just another aspect of their incredible generosity. I gave it to them to read at various moments before publication, and they helped when it came to getting certain details right. I’m very lucky; most writers of memoir and nonfiction have a much different experience. That being said, I’m sure that both my parents would appreciate it if they appeared less often in my future works, which is something to keep in mind.

LW: Hyper recounts your feelings about living with the ADHD diagnosis and the way that label often threatened to consume your identity. Do you think your experience of living with the label will change in any way after the publication of the book?

TD: In his fantastic memoir Burning the Days, James Salter writes: “To write of someone thoroughly is to destroy them, use them up. I suppose this is true of experience as well—in describing a world you extinguish it—and in a book of recollection much is reduced to ruin. Things are captured and at the same time drained of life, never to shimmer or give back light again.” I think it’s the same when it comes to subjects; ADHD is a topic that will always be important to me, but it’s not nearly as consuming as it once was, before I addressed it so directly. Actually, I find it difficult to write about now in a way that was never a problem before I wrote Hyper; it can sometimes feel as if I’m repeating a point I’ve already made. For me, writing the book was an attempt to find out what I really felt about the subject, and now that I’ve made it through to the other side and have a clearer perspective, I’m not as compelled to continue my articulation—to keep making an argument I’ve already planted down.

LW: What’s next? Do you have another project in the works?

TD: I’m currently working on a project about twentieth-century Catholicism, my own experience with spirituality, and the academic field of the study of the historical Jesus. The current plan is to write multiple essays that intertwine these threads—on subjects like John the Baptist, the different resurrection narratives, the scene when Jesus freaks out in the Temple, Pontius Pilate, etc.—and then eventually rework them into a book-length narrative. It’s a very freeing project in terms of form, which is one of my favorite things about nonfiction: it’s a genre that allows both narrative and essayistic explorations—that offers you the chance to use scene and information as dual engines—and, as long as you’re being honest with the reader and with yourself (no small feat), the shape and breadth of expression that your writing can assume is enormous. Which is perhaps another way of saying that, for me at least, nonfiction as a genre is about possibilities, and I’m very excited to be working in it.

Timothy Denevi is the author of Hyper: A Personal History of ADHD (Simon & Schuster, 2014). He received his MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa. His work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Arts & Letters, Make, Hobart, and Hawaii Review, among others. Recently he’s been awarded fellowships by The MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He lives near Washington, DC and teaches in the MFA program at George Mason University, where he’s a visiting writer. 

Liz Wyckoff’s short fiction has been published in Quarterly West, Annalemma, and The Collagist, among other journals, and her book reviews and author interviews can be found online at The Rumpus, Electric Lit, Necessary Fiction, and Tin House. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin where she works in marketing and publicity for Barrelhouse and A Strange Object.