Hungry Ghost Theater by Sarah Stone: Siblings Robert and Julia Zamarin want to reveal the dangers of the world with their small political theater company while their neuroscientist sister Eva attempts to find the biological roots of empathy. While contending with fraught family dynamics, the novel touches on themes like art, free will, addiction, desire, and loss. Joan Silber writes she “found this an unforgettable book, astute, vivid, and stubbornly ambitious in its scope.” (Carolyn)
Sarah Stone’s Hungry Ghost Theater is an astonishing mosaic of fiction, theater, lyrical text and performance, tracing one family through many generations and permutations. It’s a rare look at the inner workings of a theater company devoted to political material, involving siblings Robert and Julia, as well as an exploration of the roots of empathy, undertaken by their sister Eva, a neuroscientist. Reading it leaves the aftertaste of a powerful performance: “Though we’d worked all summer for one ephemeral moment, I was content.” (Jane Ciabattari, Lit Hub columnist)
On Writing Hungry Ghost Theater
Occasionally a novel will begin for a writer as a mysterious image or a line of dialogue: my first novel started with a fragment of a dream about a mother lying to her daughters. By the time I finished, it had turned into an attempt to understand the qualities in us that make genocide possible. My new novel, Hungry Ghost Theater, started as a short story about a couple who take a trip to Seoul (where I’d once lived for a year and a half) to rescue a sister having a breakdown. Over time, that sister became a daughter with a drug problem. I drew on family history, changing it substantially as I imagined these characters. The core issues, though, remain the same — denial, deception, self-deception, and self-awareness. Helping each other, hurting each other, fighting, and making up.
My new novel, Hungry Ghost Theater, began when I was avoiding a novel I kept writing and rewriting. That other novel changed dramatically — a pair of sisters turned into friends and then lovers, Quakers morphed into drag performers, and drinking problems migrated from character to character — but it didn’t really seem to get much better, though my friends and early readers tried valiantly to encourage me.
From time to time, I put it down and wrote stories and short plays about a half-Jewish family of performers, scientists, and activists, idealists who couldn’t live up to their own visions. Robert and Julia, a brother and sister who run an experimental performance company; their middle sister, Eva, an affective neuroscientist; Eva’s wild nearly grown children. And then their parents, people whose lives they touch, other performers, patients in a locked psychiatric facility. I began to feel as if these people existed somewhere: it was my job to find them and bring them over an invisible, semi-permeable barrier to introduce them to the world.
A behind-the-scenes look at Hungry Ghost Theater: a conversation about the writing process, the book’s structure and nature, mental illness, addiction, dark humor, family, and learning to deal with rejection.
Listen to the show here.
After working as an aide in a psychiatric facility, and because of my family history, I’m interested in the question of how much is biological and when and how we make certain decisions that affect who we become. The book is divided into nine pieces, like Dante’s nine circles of hell. But hell can also be our beloved families and what we put each other through.
My students and I have been talking about the secrets we keep from other people and the secrets we keep from ourselves. I sometimes think that writing fiction is part of how we both face and avoid external conflict, and even how we face and also avoid internal conflict.
Everything my mother made turned into a collage, assemblage, or installation, and I’ve inherited that sensibility from her. Hungry Ghost Theater is a mix of invented personal reality, real political context, and various mythologies, told in different voices and modes. The book does have a throughline moving underneath all the stories in the book, making an arc from beginning to end, but my experience of life is that it’s quite surreal: connected in improbable ways and disconnected in others. Some of the most fantastic moments are based at least a little on the tangible details of life. I’m very interested in the reality/fantasy border: did that really happen, or is it the character’s imagining or delusion?
For a long time, I didn’t understand that I was writing Hungry Ghost Theater, or that it was a book, and that made it possible to creep in through the back door. I was working on that other novel—I wrote something like twenty-eight drafts before I stopped counting. I gave up on it multiple times, but always with the feeling that I was letting down the characters and had to go back to it. (It’s now the third book of what’s turned into a trilogy, and I’m working on it again right now. Feeling as if it’s going better now, though that may be one of those necessary delusions that keep writers going.)
So I would sneak away from the novel I regarded as “work” to write stories or study playwriting, always with a mixture of reckless freedom and guilt. The Zamarin family took over the plays too. When I knew Hungry Ghost Theater was a book, the plays were clearly part of it. Not simply plays written by the characters but the characters’ lives seen as plays in two of the sections: their lives literally become theater.
“The theater gives us a chance to sit together in the dark, to collectively help the actors imagine a new reality. Often a totally improbable one! Some of the playwrights I love most (Mary Zimmerman, Wole Soyinka, Shakespeare), allow themselves great freedoms in time and space and in emotional logic. Hungry Ghost Theater has a couple of plays, which take place, respectively, in an assisted living community and in six different hells. The characters’ stories, at that moment, turn into dialogue, action, and stage directions: there’s a plausible deniability to material being presented as a play. So when a story gets ludicrous or fantastical, it fits into a theatrical tradition. Then, too, so many of the characters are actors. And just about all of the characters in the novel, actors or not, are constantly performing.”
"As soon as we stop trying to write a final draft and just allow ourselves to make discoveries about the characters, story, and world, writing becomes delicious. It’s fatal to try to write beautifully, but helpful to try to write what feels like the truth. And we definitely shouldn’t say ugly things to ourselves that we would never want anyone else to say to us. Writer’s block is almost always some form of self-hatred or an attempt to write something we’re not ready to write. It can help to write in a notebook about what might happen in a scene or storyline, or to try a writing exercise, to write what interests us and leave brackets for the parts that bore or puzzle us. We may not need those parts at all, or we may understand how to do them later on. And if all we do is to make some notes, edit previous pages, or write a paragraph, that’s a writing day. We can have another one tomorrow. It’s remarkable how they add up after a while.”