Maximum Shelf author interview: Marja Mills

Following yesterday’s review of The Mockingbird Next Door, here’s Marja Mills: Making Acquaintances.


Marja Mills is a former reporter and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune, where she was part of the staff that won a Pulitzer Prize for a 2001 series about O’Hare airport entitled “Gateway to Gridlock.” The Mockingbird Next Door is her first book.

Mills was born and raised in Madison, Wis. She is a 1985 graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service; a lifelong interest in other cultures led to studies in Paraguay, Spain and Sweden. Mills lives in downtown Chicago and often spends time in Madison and her father’s hometown of Black River Falls, Wis. (pop. 3,500).

marja

Did you have preconceived notions of what Nelle Harper Lee would be like? In what ways did she surprise you?

I didn’t know what to expect. I thought she might be quiet and reserved. Not so. She was gregarious much of the time, and witty. She loved to laugh. When she was telling a story that especially amused her, she’d take her glasses off, tip her head back and just laugh until she could finish what she was saying.

Nelle and her sister Alice–an attorney she calls “Atticus in a Skirt”–loved to get in Nelle’s Buick and explore the back roads. I’d read that the home she shared with Alice when Nelle wasn’t in New York was more modest than one might expect for an attorney and an author of her remarkable and enduring popularity. That was true. They lived simply, didn’t care about material things and had an eclectic group of good friends, from a Methodist minister and a librarian to a hairdresser and a bank president and his wife. Most were retired but still very active.

What about the Southern culture you encountered, in general? Any surprises there?

Being from the Midwest, I was surprised how many words in common usage in Alabama were new to me. Things such as mashing buttons instead of pushing them. Or using a buggy at the Winn Dixie instead of a grocery cart. That was a source of entertainment for the Lees and their friends: watching me learn local expressions. My favorite is an old-fashioned one that Nelle taught me: “journey proud.” It’s the excitement and apprehension before a trip that makes it hard to sleep.

How would you describe Harper Lee as you later came to know her?

My first day living next door in Monroeville, she left a note inviting me to dinner. That touched me. Soon she was calling to have afternoon coffee together, often at McDonald’s.

And of course you can’t know Nelle without knowing her sister Alice. Their lives were entwined and yet quite different, as were their personalities. Miss Alice, as she is known, is 15 years older than Nelle and there was another sister and a brother between them. As I wrote in the book, “even at their ages, it was clear Alice was the steady, responsible older sister, and Nelle Harper the spirited, spontaneous younger one.”

Both gave generously to the Methodist church and various charities. Nelle had been donating large sums, quietly and behind the scenes, for many years. As their Methodist minister friend, Tom Butts, said, she educated many people who had no idea she was their benefactor.

In what ways, if any, do you identify with Harper and Alice Lee?

They got lost in books as children, pulled into another world where you’re not just reading words on the page but living in the story, walking around in it. I was that way, too. Nelle’s eyes would dance, 70 years later, when she talked about being absorbed in the adventures of the Rover Boys.

Aside from many hours spent talking with Nelle and Alice, what research was involved for this book?

Some of the most valuable and enjoyable research I did was around kitchen tables and on porches, interviewing Lee friends and family. There were people I needed to talk to “while they still had their marbles,” as Alice put it. Or “while they’re still above ground,” as Nelle said. These were leisurely interviews but overall there was a sense of urgency, too, that if their stories about the town and the Lees weren’t preserved they would go with them to the grave.

Books were part of the research, too, naturally. I have rows and rows of them at home. Many of the titles were recommended by the Lees, with Alabama history and Southern fiction being two major categories. I enjoyed memoirs by Horton Foote, the playwright who adapted To Kill a Mockingbird for the film, and Wayne Flynt, the Alabama historian.

What was different about the writing process for this book, compared to your past experience as a journalist?

I had the opportunity to really get to know the people and the place I was writing about, to let them reveal themselves over time. That’s a luxury most journalists don’t have. Nelle and Alice did things on their own terms and on their own time. The way this experience unfolded gradually was more compatible with that that. “You let the river run,” was the way Rev. Butts put it.

You allude to the Lees’ approving what went in the book and what didn’t. How much were you asked to hold back?

Not as much as I expected. Much of what they said that was off the record was to spare the feelings of a friend or relative. When I lived next door, we talked about some of the things they especially wanted in the book. They resented Truman Capote’s characterization of their mother, for example. Both sisters described her as a gentle soul. I went over with them stories I wanted to share as well. I was ready to do much more of that but their approach was “use your own judgment.”

Has Nelle or Alice read this book? Any comment from them?

Because of their age and health–neither is able to live at home anymore–I don’t know that they’ll be able to read it but I think they’d enjoy reliving some of the adventures we had together. Age and diminished vision do take their toll. I’ve wondered sometimes how many books each has read in her lifetime. A staggering number; both were avid readers since childhood. Even in her 90s, Alice often had four books going at once. She told me about the time she and Nelle decided they would donate some of their books to the Methodist church.

Nelle set her jaw and tried to keep up her determination to part with some of the books. But then she would have second thoughts and retrieve them from the boxes they were trying to fill. Alice was no better. For all their generosity over the decades, books were hard to give away, even for their church. The evidence of that was the rising tide of books in their house. They had all shapes and sizes of bookcases, crammed where they could find space, and it still wasn’t enough.

In your book you make it clear that the Lees supported this project, but there was some press in 2011 regarding a statement from them indicating the opposite. Can you help us understand these conflicting reports?

I asked Alice Lee about it. Nelle was not living at home; she had a serious stroke in 2007. Alice issued a statement. She said that the first statement had gone out without her knowledge and did not represent her feelings or those of her sister. As far as I know, that put the matter to rest.


This interview originally ran on June 25, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 25, 2014.


mockingbird

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird spent nearly two years on bestseller lists and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Since then, its impact has been lasting and widespread: Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem and Dill, and Boo Radley are well-known names today, and the novel is still taught (and targeted for removal) in many high schools nationwide. With its themes of racial injustice, gender roles, mental illness, addiction, and class differences–and its remarkable ability to bring humor and compassion to such somber subjects–To Kill a Mockingbird has become an American classic. Its equally famously author, Harper Lee (full name Nelle Harper Lee, Nelle to her friends), is notoriously private. She stopped giving interviews just a few years after the publication of her only novel. Lee’s relationship with Truman Capote has also attracted longstanding interest. The two grew up next-door neighbors, exercising their imaginations and storytelling talents on one another. Lee assisted Capote’s Kansas research project that became In Cold Blood; Capote is rumored to have contributed to Lee’s Mockingbird, but this rumor has always been hotly denied by Lee (and Capote himself never made such a claim).

Over 40 years after the publication of her masterpiece, Nelle Harper Lee continued to quietly reside in the small Alabama town that inspired it, splitting her time between Monroeville, where her elder sister, Alice, still practices law, and New York City. In 2001, a Chicago Tribune reporter named Marja Mills was assigned to seek out an interview. Knowing Lee’s standing policy, Mills nevertheless traveled to Alabama, filed her request and toured the town for a day or two. She dutifully knocked on the door of Alice and Nelle Harper Lee’s home–and was floored when the elder sister opened the door and invited her in.

The development of trust and friendship between Mills and the Lee sisters took time, but even in those first minutes, the relationship was nearly unprecedented. Alice, the more methodical and steady sister, was first to open up. She set up interviews for Mills with the Lees’ friends and acquaintances, calling ahead to let them know it was okay to talk to the journalist, and what was acceptable to share. Nelle was known to those friends as being more mercurial; but eventually she, too, came around to the younger woman, who was cautious and respectful in approaching the famously cagey writer. Remarkably, Mills does not seem to have begun with any special interest in To Kill a Mockingbird or its author; but as a journalist, she was naturally attracted by the story. In the spirit of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Mills then immersed herself in a community that was only just willing to allow her access, and built trust haltingly, but eventually with great success.

Alice was in her 90s, Nelle in her 70s, when the three women become friends. But what could have been a problematic age gap was minimized by Mills’s own chronic health condition, which both helps her identify with the older women, and gives her the dubious gift of leave from full-time work. Eventually, she expressed a tentative interest in moving to Monroeville; the Lees encouraged the idea, and she moved in next door to them. What was by then a close, rich friendship continued to develop: on a daily basis, Mills shared morning coffee with Nelle, drove the countryside, fed the local geese and ducks with the sisters (who kept close tabs on their numbers, and worried over missing goslings), and socialized with the Lees’ close-knit and protective group of friends. This included accompanying Nelle to the Southern society events that made the reticent author nervous.

Alice is the keeper of Lee family lore, with a famously accurate memory. Mills’s research is equally concerned with each of the two sisters, and involves their friends as well. The project that became The Mockingbird Next Door was conceived fairly early in the relationship, and in Mills’s telling, Alice and Nelle are willing supporters; they went over her notes together, marking what was to be included and what was to be redacted. (Readers are left wondering how much fell into the latter category.)

The Mockingbird Next Door offers no big reveals, no shocking secrets about the life of Nelle Harper Lee, except perhaps that she is not a hermit or an incorrigible curmudgeon. Rather, she is a kind, down-to-earth woman, a voracious reader, loyal to her sister and friends–who simply prefers that her life not be such a public performance as was that of her famous former next-door neighbor. Told charmingly in the Lees’ southern drawl and with the affection and closeness that the story reveals, The Mockingbird Next Door is quietly admiring and satisfyingly intimate, and will captivate not only fans of Lee’s great American novel, but fans of real people living modest lives in small-town Alabama, or anywhere.


Rating: 7 cups of coffee.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Mills!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Terry Hayes

Following Wednesday’s review of I Am Pilgrim, here’s Terry Hayes: On Breadth of Scope.


Terry Hayes was born in Brighton, England, migrated to Australia as a child, was based in New York as foreign correspondent at 21, and produced a current affairs radio program before moving to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter. He has written numerous screenplays and mini-series, and has received two international Emmy nominations. His credits have included Payback with Mel Gibson, From Hell with Johnny Depp and Vertical Limit with Chris O’Donnell. I Am Pilgrim is his first novel. He lives in Switzerland with his wife, Kristen, and their four children.

photo: Kristen Hayes

photo: Kristen Hayes

I Am Pilgrim travels through many complex spheres in numerous countries. How much research was required for this book? How did you go about it, and did you enjoy that part of the creative process?

The short answer is: an enormous amount of research. When I started I had no idea just how challenging it would be–which was probably just as well, otherwise I might not have even started. I did have a couple of advantages. With the exception of Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, I had either lived in, or visited for extended periods, all of the countries where the plot takes place. The race against time criss-crosses continents, and ranges from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Damascus in Syria, from Santorini in the Greek islands to a Bulgarian border post. My own wanderings lessened the research load and, I hope, allowed me to bring the novelist’s eye for detail to those locales. The second advantage I had was that I had once been a journalist and foreign correspondent, so I am accustomed to efficient and focused research and interviews. I approached the material as if I was a journalist on assignment–I admitted to myself I had a lot to learn. The one thing that I found the most difficult was the science. The plot involves a lot of biological detail, and I wanted that to be as accurate as possible. When I was at high school, several of my science teachers told me that I was very lucky I was good at English and history! Still, I have an enormous curiosity and am happy to read and interview widely, so I eventually managed to wrestle that part of the subject to the ground.

In a practical sense, it would not have been possible without the Internet. Such a vast array of information, so readily accessible, I believe is changing the nature of writing, especially of something like an international spy thriller. You can find out exactly how public beheadings are conducted in Saudi Arabia, how much a gene sequencing machine costs on eBay, or many of the latest tradecraft habits of covert intelligence agents operating in hostile territory. It gives an enormous grounding to the rest of the research. I did enjoy it, most of the time. I am lucky to have an overwhelming curiosity and a pretty good memory, so the research, whether it was about the Islamic faith or the design of a Roman coliseum called the “Theatre of Death,” was really a great experience. Of course, I worried that I had made a mistake–which I am sure I probably have–but I reminded myself that the book was not a documentary. It was, beyond everything else, a work of fiction.

You have created an extraordinarily intricate plot, with lots of characters and lots of detail. Can you tell us a little about the note-taking, outlining or whatever method you used to keep everything straight?

This is the type of book I have always loved–big, epic stories that you can really lose yourself in. The ones that affect you in a very emotional way and also, hopefully, teach you something on the journey. That was the sort of novel I tried to write. Part of that ambition was to interweave a major plot with a number of subplots and somehow try to make it all “of one piece.” Basically, how I did it was to keep telling myself the story. Or, better still, telling it to my wife on long car rides! I think, by the end, she was glad to hear the last of Pilgrim. Of course, you have to have some major stepping stones, or turning points, along the way. The biggest of these was the ending. Whether it is a screenplay, a piece of journalism, or the novel–I have always had to know how it was going to finish. So, once I had an idea of the character and an ending, I could start to embellish it. “Okay,” I would ask myself. “Where do we meet him?” “Why is he there?” “What does he want, what is his objective?” On and on and on. Slowly, the blanks would start to get filled in, and in order to do that, you have to have Pilgrim–or whatever his real name is–interact with other people. It’s funny, but you don’t forget a good run of events in the story, or ideas of how to do it. Bad ideas don’t last a single sleep. Time after time, I would start at the beginning again and tell myself (or my long-suffering wife) the story. When the detail became too much, I started to make notes and, naturally, I had to do that while I was researching the more difficult sections of the story–the things like the biology of viruses or the exact methods used in waterboarding. As the story grew, I started to use what people in movies call “beat-sheets”–one-line notes detailing each “beat” of the story, each significant development of the plot or important moment for a character. Toward the end, the problem became finding the exact research note I knew I had made months earlier. “I know I wrote that down somewhere….”

In the past, you have written in a number of formats, including screenplays, television and journalism. How was writing this novel familiar, and in what ways was it new and challenging?

Well, it is all story-telling. Whether it is a feature article for a newspaper or a screenplay for an action movie, you are always trying to take the reader–or viewer–through a sequence of steps, or events, which are believable and arresting. There is always that struggle to find the right word, the memorable phrase, the clearest way of expressing something. So those things were extremely familiar. The major difference is that in writing movies or long-form TV, the script is part of a manufacturing process–it is a step along the way to creating the finished episode or movie. In a novel, it is the finished article. So the pressure on crafting the words and paragraphs is that much greater. Sometimes a little paralysing! The other major difference is that in movies or TV you can’t tell the audience what a character is thinking–you have to rely on the actor to try and convey that. Of course, in a novel those internal thought processes are easily conveyed, so it is much easier to explain why a character follows a certain course of action. After years of writing for the screen, I found that completely liberating. I loved having the ability to say in the novel “He thought such and such… so he did this and this.” Because you can’t do those internal thoughts in a screenplay, I always think writing a movie is like fighting with one hand tied behind your back: it’s a real skill, but it sure makes things hard.

Pilgrim, like many of fiction’s most compelling heroes, struggles with his own past and demons. If anything he becomes more human, and less perfect, as the novel develops. Did he develop this way for you, too?

Yes, he sure did. I think it’s a little like life itself–the more you get to know somebody, the more you learn about their flaws and the wounds they carry. It doesn’t mean you like them any less; to the contrary, you often end up admiring them even more. So it was with Pilgrim. Most of us, I think, are damaged in some way, but Pilgrim–as you point out, like so many heroes in fiction–is more damaged than most. On one level, the novel is about him confronting and dealing with those issues and demons from his past–a different sort of pilgrimage, I guess. Despite his failings, despite his flaws, he never gives in. He knows that he has to endure an enormous amount of anguish and pain, but he finds the courage and resolve to see his mission through to the end. The fact that he is prepared, if necessary, to sacrifice himself in the pursuit of something far more important than himself makes him a true hero, in my mind. There seems to be a prevalent view, especially in movies, that heroes should have some sort of super-powers. I don’t agree. I think it is the very human things, faults and failings included, that make a true hero. Especially if he or she can overcome them and show us what great courage and commitment really mean.

And then there’s your antihero, the Saracen, who is Pilgrim’s genius-counterpart but approaching total evil. Do you think of them as two sides of the same coin?

They have so many things in common–especially an anguished childhood–that I certainly see them like that. If this were Star Wars, I would say one turned to the dark side, the other to the light. Although born on completely opposite sides of the earth, they both experienced the death of a parent in horrific circumstances, they are both extremely intelligent, have undertaken medical degrees, and are loners, complete outsiders in the world. They both go on a great journey, a pilgrimage, where the fate of people and nations hangs in the balance. At one stage Pilgrim describes his adversary as a “ghost”–spectral, hidden and barely glimpsed–but Pilgrim could just as easily be describing himself. These two men, who have spent all their lives living in the shadows–one hell-bent on cataclysmic revenge, the other a covert intelligence agent–move ever closer to each other. When they finally step out of the shadows and meet in a place called the Theatre of Death, their battle relies more on intelligence than it does on weapons. It is an epic struggle between two men trying to outsmart each other. In order to do that, they have to know an enormous amount about each other. I have always thought that, because of his own background and experiences, Pilgrim understands his adversary better than any man on earth.

What do you have in mind next? Avoiding spoilers, of course: is there room for a sequel here?

Well, in my fevered mind, Pilgrim was always the first part of a trilogy. On the last page of the last novel we discover what his real name is, and I don’t think it is giving away too much to say that he walks up the front steps of a house and we know that he has found safe harbor at last. As you can probably tell, I have the next two books outlined–which I had to do in order to set up a lot of things in the first novel that I would pay off in the later volumes. However, as I was not certain if I Am Pilgrim would meet with any success, I did not want to launch into writing the second volume if nobody had read the first! Therefore I am in the midst of writing a book tentatively called The Year of the Locust, which is another thriller, partly set in the intelligence world. It also involves “just over the horizon” science and pits a man and his wife against seemingly impossible odds. I like the story very much and, as much as is possible while wrestling with words every day, I am really enjoying it. I hope, when it is finished, other people will feel the same!


This interview originally ran on May 27, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

book beginnings on Friday: Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

shirley

This is a new novel about Shirley Jackson, styled after that author’s own creepy-crawly work. It begins:

“You have green eyes,” she said. I handed her my end of the fitted sheet and she tucked the corners deftly together, folded again to make a smooth square, her knob-knuckled fingers making quick work of a task I’d never had to do. Bed-making I knew too well, but, oh, the luxury of a second set of sheets!

“No,” I said. “My eyes are blue.”

How’s that for a spooky beginning? Coupled with that cover – good stuff!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Chevy Stevens

Following yesterday’s review of That Night, here’s Chevy Stevens: Listening to Her Own Voice.


Chevy Stevens grew up on a ranch on Canada’s Vancouver Island and still lives on the island with her husband and daughter. When she’s not working on her next book, she’s camping and canoeing with her family in the local mountains. Her debut, Still Missing, won the International Thriller Writers Award for Best First Novel. That Night is her fourth novel.

unnamedThis is your fourth novel. Is it getting easier, or harder?

I really enjoyed writing That Night, and even though it still had some challenges–as each book does–it was the fastest I’ve ever written a novel. It was a different experience for me in many ways, however, because I was pregnant when I started writing the book. I had a wonderful amount of energy and focus (love those pregnancy hormones!), and also the burning desire to get as much completed as possible before the baby arrived. I was a few days short of finishing my first draft when she decided to make her appearance. The rest was finished after she was born.

I think with each book you learn more and you grow as a writer so you learn to recognize weaknesses early, and to question things sooner. I’ve also learned how to listen to my inner voice more when I have doubts about a plotline or a character. I think with each book I’m beginning to understand my own style more, what works for me, where my voice resonates the most, and what my fans also enjoy the best about my writing. Hopefully I can keep giving them that.

You got the idea for your debut, Still Missing, in which a realtor is abducted from an open house, while working as a real estate agent yourself. Where do your subsequent creepy-terrifying plot concepts come from? Do you scare yourself with these stories?

Never Knowing was the result of a conversation I had with my editor, a “what if” premise, which grew into a story. In Always Watching, I wanted to write about Nadine, the therapist in my first two novels, and I was intrigued by the debate about repressed memories and also the subject of cults. The cult in that book is inspired by a hippie commune that lived in Shawnigan Lake in the ’70s.

That Night grew from an idea I had while watching a true story on television about a man who served years for his girlfriend’s sister’s murder. I also “saw” Toni in my mind and wanted to write about her.

Sometimes certain scenes in the books do scare me quite a bit. Essentially, I am telling myself the story first, so if I don’t feel anything, then it’s not strong enough. There are some moments in the current book I’m working on that are truly terrifying and made my own heart pound when I wrote them.

Did you have to research the prison system?

I did quite a bit of research for That Night. There seemed to be more information available about the American prison system than the Canadian, so I had to work hard to uncover some sources willing to talk to me. Because of the sensitive nature of the information they shared, they asked to remain private. I read everything I could find–online articles, books, memoirs, and watched both documentaries and numerous episodes of Lockup.

Shauna and her gang are so mean, it’s just boggling. Do they come from life–yours or anyone’s–or are they a grotesque fantasy?

I think we all remember “mean girls” in high school, but they are also a product of what I learned during my research. I read books on teen bullies and how girls can be especially vicious, often cutting another girl out of their circle, or simply deciding they don’t like someone and then making their life hell. There have been many documented real-life cases where bullying has gotten completely out of hand, with deadly consequences. Sadly, a few young girls have even taken their own lives because they can’t cope with the constant harassment. The worst part to me is that parents are often unaware of what’s happening to their children at school.

Toni’s voice is convincingly teenaged in the passages set in her early life, and more grown-up in the post-prison passages. Did you make a conscious effort to vary her voice? Was it difficult to switch gears?

I don’t think it was conscious. Writing is a bit like acting sometimes, you go into the character. So when I was writing Toni’s teenage years, I felt like a teenager, with a teenager’s concerns and thoughts and hopes and dreams. Then, when Toni was older and released from prison, I wrote from a different mindset, imagining how it would feel to be in that situation, how it would shape you, harden you, how angry you would be at the system for failing you.

Are you already at work on your next book, and can you share anything about it with us? All your books so far are stand-alones; any interest in the idea of a sequel?

Yes, I am close to finishing my fifth novel. I’m not ready to share the title just yet. It’s a superstition of mine that the book has to be finished first. But I will share that it’s another standalone about three sisters who escape a terrible situation and go on the run, only to get caught in an even worse nightmare.

I haven’t wanted to write a sequel to any of my books at this point because I’ve usually put the characters through quite a bit, and it doesn’t feel fair to keep ruining their lives.


This interview originally ran on April 30, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Lily King

Following yesterday’s review of Euphoria, here’s Lily King.

Lily King grew up in Manchester, Mass. She received her B.A. in English Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her M.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. She has taught English and creative writing at several universities and high schools in the U.S. and abroad. Her three previous novels are The Pleasing Hour, The English Teacher and Father of The Rain. Her short fiction has appeared in literary magazines including Ploughshares and Glimmer Train, as well as in several anthologies. King is the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship and the Whiting and PEN/Hemingway Awards, among others. She lives with her husband and children in Maine.

photo credit: Laura Lewis

photo credit: Laura Lewis


Presumably even this “loosely based” work required research into the field of anthropology and Mead’s life. Did you have any background to begin with? Did you enjoy this research?

It required a ton of research and no, I had zero background in anthropology or ethnology, not even one anthropology course in college! Like many writers, though, I have always felt like an extremely amateur and untrained anthropologist in the world, observing the huge, crazy mysteries of human behavior and writing it all down in novels.

On the one hand, you enjoy the research because it’s not writing, which is much harder, but on the other hand you miss writing miserably and feel like a part of you is dead. I had so much to learn before I could start, but because I always knew the book would be fiction, I didn’t want to get too attached to any one detail or fact. I read a lot of books at a squint, taking notes but always letting my imagination in on it, writing more notes on what could happen than what did happen, but at the same time trying to absorb all the information in some visceral way so that it felt like personal experience I could draw from when I started writing. And it was hard to know when to start writing. There was always, always more to read, more to learn. When I finally decided it was time, the research loomed over me. But once I wrote the first scene, I felt it become my story, and all that information became useful, not threatening.

What makes Margaret Mead such a good subject for this work? And when did you know you wanted to write about her?

I stumbled into the novel by reading a biography of Margaret Mead nine years ago and coming across this one short chapter about when she was way up this river in Papua New Guinea with her second husband and she met her third. She fell in love hard and fast in this completely isolated environment. She believed in an open marriage, what she called “polygamy,” and her husband did not, but she was very honest about her feelings and the whole thing, combined with the heat and mosquitoes and malarial fevers, was just a wild mess. So of course I thought, what a fantastic novel that would make. For a long time I didn’t believe that I would actually write it. But I kept going out and getting books about them and by them and taking notes and getting ideas while at the same time thinking: I cannot write this novel. I cannot write a novel about a love triangle between anthropologists in Papua New Guinea in 1933. It was preposterous. But I couldn’t seem to stop myself, either.

How did the writing of Euphoria differ from your three previous novels?

With the first three, I was able to just start writing. Each of them required a little detour to the library for something, but usually not until I was deep in, after the first draft had been written. But for this one I didn’t even write a sentence for a year after I got the idea. I was working on my novel Father of the Rain while reading everything I could get my hands on about Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson and Reo Fortune. And when I got that first sentence–four sentences, actually–in a coffee shop, I didn’t write anything else for several more years. That little cluster of sentences, though, helped me feel I could write the rest someday. They are the words that open the book still and are not much changed from when I scribbled them down at the back of a notebook in that coffee shop. That was very different. With the other books, once I got the first sentences I kept going for fear the initial vision would cloud over and vanish.

Euphoria is told in first person by Bankson, who is the outsider in his own tale. This gives the reader a somewhat restrained perspective. How did you decide to tell it this way? Did you toy with giving Nell her own voice?

That’s an excellent question. The plan all along was for it to be told from Nell’s point of view. It was supposed to be her story entirely. And it did start that way. But after I wrote the first chapter, I realized I needed the reader to feel what was going on with Bankson, the man she is about to meet and fall in love with, so I wrote that next chapter from his perspective. It surprised me how much closer I was able to get to him, and so quickly, how I was able to get inside him in a way that I was not inside her. This is something that all the planning and plotting of a book can’t anticipate. I knew I was a bit in love with him even before I started writing, so I thought it would be so easy to write from Nell’s perspective about falling for him. I just never expected to identify with him so closely, sort of fuse with him. But once I did, I realized it was his story. I denied this for a while, actually, and tried to write the book from all three points of view, but apart from Nell’s journal entries, Bankson claimed the whole thing in the end.

How important is historical accuracy in fiction? How faithfully does your novel follow the historical record?

Fiction is called fiction for a reason. While I used what I read about a particular moment in the life of Margaret Mead as a springboard, I felt absolutely no allegiance to historical accuracy when it didn’t work within the story I was trying to tell. Some of Euphoria is historically accurate, but not because I forced it to be, just because those elements were useful to me. They inspired me. I love history and I love reading about history and I treasure what little I know about our past on this earth, but a novel is not where I go for facts. A novel is where I want to feel the truth. Sometimes you need facts to get at the truth; more often you need your own voice and vision.


This interview originally ran on April 23, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

May 7 & 8 in book history

This post is part of a series.

Today we are celebrating my birthday, and tomorrow, Husband’s. I thought I would turn to Tom Nissley’s A Reader’s Book of Days to see what exciting things have happened on these two auspicious dates.

reader's book of daysFor myself on May 7 I am mostly disappointed (in my ignorance, I suppose). Born on this date were Gene Wolfe (The Book of the New Sun) and Peter Carey (Oscar and Lucinda). I vaguely remember a movie adaptation of the second, I think. Died on this date were Sir James George Frazer (The Golden Bough) and Clement Greenberg (“Avant-Garde and Kitsch”). These are all mysterious to me. In events there are mentions of Camus, Faulkner (bleh), Herman Wouk, and Ginsberg.

Tomorrow, May 8, Husband’s day, does slightly better. Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow, etc.) shares his birthday, and we lost both Flaubert (the book offers Sentimental Education for him, but I would say Madame Bovary!) and just recently & sadly, Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen). There is also a Hunger Games reference & others, but most importantly – and again sadly – May 8 was the day on which Ed Ricketts was hit by a train and received injuries that would end his life. Ricketts was John Steinbeck’s co-author for Sea of Cortez, which waits on my shelf for me to find time for it; and he inspired the character of Doc in Cannery Row, a book that moved me deeply in Mrs. Smith’s high school English class.

Hm, sad things for these birthdays. Sorry about the downers, friends. Have some birthday cake!

The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz

The compelling connection between Sherlock Holmes and the search for a tuberculosis cure.

remedy

Thomas Goetz’s The Remedy achieves a rare feat: serious, accurate scientific writing that is also engaging and entertaining.

In the mid-1800s, the practice of medicine largely resembled groping in the dark. Patients came to doctors “with the hope of a cure but never the expectation of one.” The final decades of that century, however, were marked by extraordinary advances in science, technology and medicine: “germ theory” was developed, infectious diseases were better understood, and more-modern notions of hygiene and sanitation began to catch on. Robert Koch, a provincial German doctor, pioneered experiment design and research standards, and in 1882 he identified the bacterial cause of tuberculosis–the most deadly disease in human history.

Koch attempted to develop a cure for TB, which he presented in Berlin. Despite meticulous empirical methods he had established, Koch’s zeal for his remedy led to his downfall, as his treatment was unprovable. An obscure British doctor and sometime writer, also provincial, was the first to pen an appropriately skeptical response. Despite his criticism, Arthur Conan Doyle was a great admirer of Koch and appreciated his scrupulous observations; in fact, Goetz asserts that without Koch, “there may never have been a Sherlock Holmes as we know him.”

The intersection of Koch and Doyle brought the spirit of scientific discovery to crime detection, and the spirit of investigation to scientific research. Goetz’s exploration of their lives and their impact on the world as we know it is both historically significant and enthralling.


This review originally ran in the April 18, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 dead rabbits.

In addition to my shorter review, above, I’d like to add a few more details. A big part of what I loved about this book was the breadth of scope. For example, to provide his readers with an accurate view of what Koch, Lister, Pasteur, and other scientists of the day were up against, Goetz describes at some length the state of medicine in their time. He warns us against coming too easily to the idea of germs and microbes as self-evident; and funnily enough, I was talking with a friend about this book, and she said just that: isn’t it obvious that surgeons would wash their hands beforehand?? But as Goetz so carefully points out, no, not obvious at all; when first presented as a theory, germs were as ridiculous as the idea that the earth might be round. Etc.

Along with medical background, we learn about the common practices of farming and domestic life; we learn about the lingering national hatred that would have pitted Pasteur and Koch so strongly against one another in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War; and about the social constructs that led Arthur Conan Doyle to work so hard at being a doctor when he really wanted to be a celebrated author. (I was reminded of other authors I’ve read about, like Louisa May Alcott: Doyle was always frustrated by the great success of his detective stories in the face of the failure of his more literary novels, just as Alcott was annoyed by the success of Little Women–a book she didn’t like very much. And you know, Doyle killed off Holmes, only to be pressured into his resurrection.)

I suppose I’m a sucker for breadth of scope. Nonfiction that covers history, science, social issues, and literature – and does it in fine literary style, to boot – will always win my heart. Back to the theme of synchronicity that I’m written on before: the older I get and the more of this interdisciplinary study that I encounter, the more I am convinced that this is way we should study history. How many of us found history boring in high school? I did. But once you link music, literature, fashion, politics, science, military conflicts… on and on, once you link all these threads so that the world of the past comes alive – who could not be fascinated? I think we do our kids a real disservice by not embracing this kind of study in their regular schooling.

The Remedy is both a good read, and an examination of a piece of world history whose importance really can’t be overstated.

better to burn out than fade away?

As you know, I’ve recently begun reading Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. I started with the biographical note (unattributed), and the introduction, which is by Terry Tempest Williams, a friend of Stegner’s. These prepared me well: I began with just a hint of what the story was about, and felt like I got to know the author just a little. I like Williams, so that connection felt good, too. Before beginning to read the novel itself, I was reminded of Norman Maclean. The tone of voice in Williams’s short intro, and in the biographical note, is gentle and loving and matches the tone in which people write about Maclean. And it got me thinking about a very different sort of author.

Ernest Hemingway always thought of himself as a future famous writer, beginning when he was very small; his self-image was one step ahead of his actual place in the world, but he was never mistaken. He designed & intended his identity as the larger-than-life author-man archetype, and then he lived into that legend. (He convinced us to varying degrees, of course, but I don’t think we need argue that he didn’t live the story he’d written for himself.) He then died just shy of his 62nd birthday of a self-inflicted double-barreled shotgun blast to the head while his wife slept a few rooms over. His late years were tormented by mental illness, paranoia, and an increasing and overwhelming distress that he was failing to fulfill his potential. But all his life he fought his demons, and there’s plenty of evidence that suicide was on his mind many decades before he pulled the trigger.

By contrast, Norman Maclean lived to be 87 (and published 2 very important books and a number of essays). Wallace Stegner lived to be 84 (and published 28 books). In their art they both exude a sense of calm, and in late life commanded a quiet, loving respect in their peers and, in death, in their survivors that Hemingway does not. So my question is this. Would Hemingway have chosen for himself a long life, a quiet, respected, accomplished old age, surrounded by contentment? Or would he have joined Kurt Cobain in quoting the Neil Young lyric, that it’s “better to burn out than fade away”?

book beginnings on Friday: The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

remedy

I have an awesome new book to tease you with today. I hope the title alone begins to interest; it did me. The first paragraph sets the stage:

In train after train, consumptives filled the passenger cars, their hacks and coughs competing with steam whistles and screaming brakes as the engines came to a halt in Potsdamer Platz. They came to Berlin without any sense of where to go or what to do once they arrived. And they kept coming, for days, weeks, and months. It must have struck Berliners as a sort of zombie pilgrimage: here were the walking dead of Europe, all suddenly flocking to their city in search of something – some fantastic substance that did not yet officially exist.

Not out til early April, so stay tuned for my review til then. But for now: I am quite impressed with the writing (my favorite: accessible, engaging, nonfiction science), and the fascinating story of the race towards a cure for tuberculosis, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s rather surprising role in it.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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