Indie rocker finds comfort in science, not fiction

Kristin Hersh, who has a long history with bipolar disorder, says she tends to associate emotions and fictions with illness. Kristin Hersh, who has a long history with bipolar disorder, says she tends to associate emotions and fictions with illness. (Billy O’Connell)
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / October 24, 2010

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In 1985, Kristin Hersh’s band, Throwing Muses, was signed to a record label. That same year, she juggled college, bipolar disorder, and a pregnancy — all before the age of 20. She is now touring with her vivid new memoir of that era, “Rat Girl.”

Today, Hersh records and performs with Throwing Muses, her newer band, 50FootWave, and solo; she is also the mother of four sons. She now lives in New Orleans, but she spoke to us from Rhode Island, where she grew up.

You say that when you were 18 you only read science books. Why?

I’ve always been that way. I have a deep trust of that form of measurement, and a mistrust of anything else — which I tend to think is a brain problem. I think because I have such a long history of bipolar disorder, I associate emotions and fictions with an illness.

My favorite writer for the last decade has been Natalie Angier — which I think is bridging a gap, because she’s so emotional in her impressions of science. All her books are amazing — “The Canon,” and “Woman: An Intimate Geography.” But “The Beauty of the Beastly” is my favorite. It reminds me of a record. Each essay is like a song. She worships the natural world so, and she’s wildly poetic and intellectual at the same time. It’s almost spiritual, because it’s so worshipful of the natural world. And yet it doesn’t get too fuzzy, because it’s science.

I’ve been trying to become a better reader. All I do is publishing events now; all the people I meet are writers; and I promise them all I’m going to read their books.

Have you discovered any good books that way?

Colum McCann gave me his book “Dancer,” and I think it’s absolutely incredible. Because it’s a place to go. He creates a world that is absolutely trustworthy. I suppose it says fiction on it, but it doesn’t live like fiction to me.

If there’s a world that has been created — and the creation was done with love — then it’s a trustworthy experience. I don’t feel like I’ve been manipulated, or lied to. And that’s rare. I’ve tried to read a lot of books where I think, “But you just made this up!”

Were there any writers you found inspiring while writing your own book?

When I was on my 50th draft or something, I was on tour in England. The book Penguin signed was quite impressionistic; there were a lot of gaps. I thought those gaps were beautiful; I liked that poetic quality that happens when you don’t quite know where you are in prose. You feel your way around a dark room, and gradually the lights come on. But I could see that the editors were just confused.

Between two shows, I went to James Herriot’s house — because he was so vivid about his own life. He wrote essays that were lovely, but they were almost schoolboy essays, with introductory paragraphs, and they come to a conclusion at the end. They were so guileless and sweet, and they didn’t confuse anybody. And I thought, all right, this is a good altar to pray on.

In another genre entirely, your book’s cover is by comic book artist Gilbert Hernandez of “Love and Rockets” fame. Are you a fan?

Yeah, I just love him. I think my favorite Gilbert book is “Heartbreak Soup.” I loved that he had such deft control of light and shadow. I love the idea that the stories we live are in fact stories, and that it’s the unheard ones that are worth celebrating.

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