J. Herman Kleiger on The 11th Inkblot

Tell us the story behind the story. How did THE 11th INKBLOT come to be?

I love inkblots and mysteries!  I love being moved and surprised. Hermann Rorschach’s creation of his eponymous test has fascinated me for 40 years.  As a psychologist and psychoanalyst, I’ve immersed myself in the science and art of using the Rorschach Test as a diagnostic instrument.  As a writer, I’m drawn to the layered meaning of the inkblot – the appeal of complexity, ambiguity, and navigating the unknown reaches of our personal experience.  

When I completed my first book, Disordered Thinking and The Rorschachtwenty years ago, I was struck by the idea of an “11th inkblot.”  Rorschach’s test has 10 blots, administered according to standardized instructions for the last 100 years.  I thought that someday I would imagine a story about “the 11th inkblot.”  So the concept percolated for decades but came to fruition a couple of years ago.  Much of my professional life has involved in writing clinical reports, which, in some ways, tell stories about an individual’s inner life.  I’d authored three books about the Rorschach and wanted to create a story about the origin of the test.  

A confluence of events in my personal life gave birth to the story.  Long fascinated by my ancestry in Ukraine and the number of watch makers in my family, Eastern Europe and the centrality of timepieces became an important theme in my story.  While writing The 11th InkblotI lost my father, a WW II combat veteran. Although I dismissed decades of his war stories, they snuck into in my book as I was preparing for his death.  In some ways, The 11th Inkblot is an homage to my fathers – Pvt. Ralph Kleiger, my dad, and Hermann Rorschach, my professional father.  I don’t think the story would have ever found life without a third father-presence, that of my analyst, Irwin Rosen. 

What was the most challenging aspect of writing THE 11th INKBLOT?

“Killing the darlings.”  The often used phrase for writers helped me prune the manuscript and cut characters or storylines that got in the way.  Working with my editor, my wife, was challenging as her reasoned, objective perspective pushed me to see what I could not see on my own about my writing.  

Researching many content domains was both work and fun.  Learning elementary details about the history and mechanics of horology, studying maps of battles in the Easter Front of WWI, and learning about the Romani culture were challenges that I embraced.  

What is the message you hope readers take away from your book?

More of an experience than a message.  Beyond anything else, I want readers to enjoy this story, which is a journey in a man’s life, across time, and space.  Moreover, I hope to touch the reader – move them to laughter and, in some places, tears.  In the end, I hope to leave the passengers on the reading journey with a warm feeling, but also, with a sense of mystery, with questions that remain unanswered.

Describe your background. Did your background play a part in your book?

Clearly, my 40+ years as a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst provided a personal and professional canvas for my story.  My work as a therapist and psychodiagnostician paved the way for writing a book that took fact and history as a basis for imagining people and events. Having written over 30 professional papers and book chapters and 3 nonfiction books, I learned that writing provided a creative space for describing concepts and telling stories about people’s inner lives and experiences. 

Describe your writing schedule. Do you outline? Any habits? 

My friend and mentor told me, “research cold and write hot.”  I think that meant spend lots of time reading about the background topics and content that will inform the story and then, write!  I wish I wrote on schedule.  That is hard because I am still working and writing professional reports and papers.  When I’m writing fiction, I usually begin with an idea or premise that draws me in.  The scary, yet exciting, part of the writing process is discovering where the story is going as I’m writing it.  I usually have a broad-brush sense of where I want to end but the pathway leading there evolves as I write.

What books are on your nightstand? What are you currently reading?

I’m finishing Topeka School by Ben Lerner.  My roots at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, KS make this an especially appealing read.  Plus, Ben Lerner is a poet, turned writer of fiction, who writes prose like poetry.  Cutting for Stoneby Abraham Verghese is another book I want to finish.

Which authors do you admire? 

Anthony Doerr and Richard Powers.  Wish I could write like them.  

What have you learned from this experience?

Writing fiction is hard work but brings me ultimate joy.  Writing will be my 4th quarter passion.  I love writing about odd and interesting people, inventing characters and their back stories, tinkering with the details of their behavior and inner lives.  

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received? What is one piece of advice you would give your younger self? 

Some of it crept into the novel in the voice of several wise characters – the power of memory and holding onto the most important people in your life during hard and sad times.  My wife, my children, sister, family, and friends.  

What are you working on now?

I’ve begun a story about another psychologically damaged character, who becomes caught up in a mystery, wrapped in the genome, but neither he nor the readers know how much of this is a product of actual events or the mutterings of his own confused mind.  

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