36 Books Blog: Jeffrey Zuckerman

Jeffrey Zuckerman, author of Unglued: A Bipolar Love Story

Memoir & Creative Nonfiction category, sponsored by Bradshaw Celebration of Life Centers

Each week leading up to the 33rd annual Minnesota Book Awards announcement, we are featuring exclusive interviews with our 36 finalists. You can also watch the authors in conversation with their fellow category finalists here.

Would you tell us one or two things about your finalist book that you are particularly proud of, and why? (Sure, it may feel a bit un-Minnesotan to say so, but it’s not boasting if we ask!) 

My primary goals were to chronicle and affirm the mind-boggling challenges that family members and friends of those with a mental illness go through. I wanted the memoir to be candid, loving, funny, and hopeful—while not further stigmatizing mental illness. That was a delicate dance to create, and, with my wife’s blessing, I pulled it off. So many readers have told me how Unglued resonated for them unlike any other book for caregivers. I recently received a couple of nice fan emails from Europe, which was very cool. 

What do you hope that your audience learns or takes away from your book?  

My memoir assures family members they’re not alone as they and their loved ones struggle with the effects of a mood or personality disorder. During the pandemic 40% of American adults have experienced some adverse mental or behavioral health problem—and 100% of their friends and family members have been affected as well. To this day, the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness prevent far too many people from seeking and obtaining help, including those who care about someone with a mental health problem. I managed to find the support I needed to overcome my guilt and ambiguous loss, build my resilience and faith, and keep my sense of humor. Ultimately, I crafted a story that shows that even an imperfect person can find hope and purpose and come out the other side as a wiser and more compassionate and loving human being.  

Minnesota enjoys a reputation as a place that values literature and reading. If this sentiment rings true for you, what about our home state makes it such a welcoming and conductive place for writers? 

Minnesota also enjoys a reputation as a place that values writing and reading about mental health. Maybe that’s because so many top-notch writers about mental illness have Minnesota roots, and we have so many mental health professionals and resources for so many people who need help. 

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer with an interest in your category? 

I’ll speak about memoir rather than creative nonfiction more generally. When I lived in Duluth I loved watching those iron ore ships pass through the shipping canal. For Unglued I had enough material to fill one of those boats. Although that’s better than having too little to work with, it can be immobilizing when you’re trying to get started. Someone I trusted told me said, “Just get it all down, Jeff, and deal with cutting it later.”  

So that’s my advice, because it helped me. With the help of excellent readers and my willingness to be open-minded, I cut about 40,000 words during the drafting process. Luckily, I had experience as a newspaper reporter and columnist, where I had only a specific number of column inches to fill. I understood I needed to deposit dozens of scenes in the virtual trash bin, along with my ego. But I’ve been an editor for 30 years, and I still love the craft of revising. 

Tell us something about yourself that is not widely known! (It doesn’t have to be about your writing.) 

When I hitchhiked from Zurich to Madrid in the mid-1970s, I spilled a liter of milk all over the front seat of some guy’s sports car outside of Nice. I felt terrible, but I didn’t know any French, and so I said, “Entschuldigen Sie, bitte,” which isn’t the right way to apologize in German, and he didn’t understand my Spanish, Hebrew, or English. The guy dumped me off on the side of the road, and I had no idea where I was. It’s unlikely he’s reading this, but if you are, I’m still really sorry. Je suis navré.   

Jeffrey Zuckerman is a freelance editor and writer who taught for years at the University of Minnesota. He co-facilitates a support group for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.