April 26, 2016

An interview with Frank Bures, author of The Geography of Madness


Photo by Dawn Peterson.

The Geography of Madness is the story of a quest. That quest, Frank Bures explains in his introduction, took him from Lagos to Hong Kong to Borneo, in an effort to understand the strange things that all of us believe. “In those places I discovered fox ghosts and lizards that crawl under your skin, poison pork, and poisoned minds,” he writes. “I also came to see how these things unknowingly determine the course of our lives.”

Below, in an interview with Melville House, Frank discusses the unexpected turns and places his quest to write The Geography of Madness took him. 

This is, among other things, a wonderfully surprising book. No reader will know exactly where you’re headed, yet they’ll all enjoy the ride. How did such an unexpected book take shape? Where did you start?

I’ve always loved writing about cultures and subcultures, and am always fascinated with how people create these worlds which appear so baffling from the outside but make perfect sense from within. I started with that interest, from which the question emerged: How does that work? What is culture really, at a granular level? How does it shape our lives and our thoughts?  Everything followed from trying to answer those questions in a meaningful way.

The Geography of Madness begins with something that seems utterly exotic—penis thieves!—but by the end, you’ve convinced us that we are all prisoners (citizens?) of culture. Did you have this reversal in mind all along, or did you uncover it as the book came together?

I wouldn’t say prisoners, because these are fluid things we’re talking about. But one of the first questions people always ask about magical penis theft is, “Can’t they just check?” It’s an obvious question. Seems simple enough. But we would never say, “Can’t that anorexic person just get on a scale?” Or “Can’t the depressed person just see things aren’t so bad?” Other people’s distortions are always stranger than our own because they come from a set of assumptions about how the world works that we don’t share. I wanted to take readers from that point of bafflement to a place where they could see how this is not something unique to other people, but part of the human condition. We run scenarios forward and backward and sometimes they take us where we don’t want to go.  One of my favorite quotes in the book is from Ted Kaptchuk, who studied acupuncture in Macau and who is now one of the world’s leading experts on the placebo effect. He wrote that, “Medicine is the application of what people think is true about the cosmos to what is experienced in everyday life.” In the book I tried to show how that works.

You travel all over the world in this book. Which place surprised you the most? Don’t say Minnesota.

Wisconsin. After that, Hainan Island in far southern China. I was blown away by how different it’s cultural landscape is across very short distances. You have languages spoken by a million people that are unintelligible to people in the next town down the road. I’ve always been skeptical of the “World is Flat” school of thought. I suspect it’s more our imaginations that have flattened as we retreat into our digital silos. The world out there still has an incredibly complex, rugged terrain. 

The Geography of Madness is, in addition to everything else, a poignant account of how writing takes shape, and how aspiring writers become real writers. Do you have any advice for someone hoping to become the next Frank Bures?

Whenever I try to give advice, I get punished by the universe. But let me tempt fate. First, I should note that every writer’s path is different, and you’ll probably have cut your own as you move forward. But as you do, always try to do the best work you can do, and to make every story as good as it can be. Good writing—real, hard, honest, full, rich, distilled writing—is all that will matter in long, long run. Don’t worry about getting likes. Worry about writing something you love.

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The Geography of Madness is on sale now. You can buy a copy here or at your local independent bookstore