Writing fiction is a second career for you. What did you do before you started writing?
My previous work was in health care. I started as an abortion counselor, then became a registered nurse, and then a pediatric nurse practitioner. The work was deeply satisfying; I would still be doing it if I hadn’t become obsessed with making stories up and writing them down.
When did you decide to write your first novel, and why?
In my early fifties I did something I had never done and had wanted to do for a long time. I took a fiction writing class. I started writing stories, as most fiction writers do, but the short format didn’t offer space to do justice to the complicated stories in my head. Before long, I was expanding one of those early stories into a novel about two sisters who are political activists, from a family of progressive militants. The sisters’ paths diverge drastically and painfully, giving me an opportunity to explore the profound intersection of clashing beliefs and family loyalty. The narrative took place over several generations and had a very complicated structure, requiring far more craft and skill than I had as a new writer. So, I put it away and decided to enter an MFA program and start a second long project. That second novel was House Arrest, published this month by Red Hen Press.
What is the most challenging thing about starting a writing career later in life?
There are many challenges: It’s financially difficult. It requires reeducating brain cells and developing new habits. It means leaving a stable work life in which you know what you’re doing, and stepping off a cliff into uncertainty.
The best thing?
Change is exciting and exhilarating. Learning new skills juices up every day. I feel incredibly lucky to have found a second career that I greet with joy every morning.
In House Arrest, the protagonist, Emily Klein, is a nurse who works for a home-care agency. Was Emily’s character based on your experiences as a nurse?
Yes and no. No because I’ve never worked in home care, so I had to research the details of that setting. And yes because my nurse practitioner job was based in the outpatient department of a children’s hospital, and many of my patients had spina bifida like Emily’s cousin Zoe. Working with children with this condition was professionally and intellectually challenging and I formed deep bonds with some of my patients and their families. Developing the character of Zoe became a way to honor these children – their struggles and successes, their uniqueness and normality.
Pippa Glenning, the other main character in House Arrest, is part of a spiritual family group called the House of Isis, and is on trial for the death of her baby. How did you come up with the ideas for House of Isis and the Frozen Babies case?
About a decade ago, when I was still writing short stories, I read a very small article in the Boston Globe about a home care nurse who was assigned prenatal home visits to a pregnant cult member under house arrest. The situation fascinated me. I kept wondering what it would be like for that nurse and her patient to try to forge a relationship of trust, given their likely great differences. But at the time I was working on the manuscript about the two sisters, so I put the article away thinking I might return to it in the future. I wasn’t interested in reading anything about the “real” case, just in letting the idea marinate.
Three years later I returned to situation of the nurse and her patient under house arrest. I pictured a cult that was oddball but not evil, problematic but a refuge for its members. I researched cults, then let my imagination fly and the Family of Isis emerged. It grew into a racially mixed and unconventional group of adults and children living and practicing their religion in a particular setting – the Forest Park neighborhood in Springfield, Massachusetts. Other residents were uncomfortable with the Family of Isis and they became a metaphor for all the outsiders in our communities. It was November when I started writing about the cult, frigid and snowy. I walked around the Forest Park with a friend who knew it well, and the Frozen Babies case took form.
What was your inspiration or basis for the political act committed by Emily’s parents’ that leads to her father’s imprisonment?
When I started writing this book, I did not know who these characters Emily and Pippa were, or what history brought them to the novel’s moment in time. I had no inkling that Emily’s parents firebombed a draft board before she was born. I didn’t know that Pippa ran away from home after discovering that her father was a racist.
This is a work of fiction, not based on any particular historical event. That said, during the late sixties and early seventies, I was active in the movement to end the war in Vietnam. We argued often about the ethics of attacking government institutions that maintained the war, in order to try to end the killing. So it didn’t surprise me when these backstories emerged for my characters. I write about the things that obsess me, the things I do not fully understand and keep thinking about. So although I didn’t plan it, I was not at all surprised that Emily’s parents suffered deeply for their activism and so did their daughter. It did not surprise me that Emily would carry her complicated feelings about her parents’ actions into adulthood and they would motivate her actions in the novel. And it didn’t surprise me that Emily would be consumed by the question of how her parents could have risked her welfare for a political idea.
What’s the best way to get your work out there?
I’m not sure there’s a best way; getting work published seems difficult right now. But the first and most important thing is to make our work as strong and powerful as we can. For me that means reading voraciously, attending readings and conferences, meeting and talking with other writers, giving and receiving feedback in workshops and manuscript critique groups. In other words, contributing to the ongoing conversation about contemporary literature. Without – of course – neglecting our own regular writing practice.
Do you have any other words of inspiration for writers who start their writing career later in life, as you did?
Not really, because there’s not one path or one goal for all writers. Keep in mind that starting later in life means having a rich background of experience to write about, and hopefully a deeper knowledge about what is important, both in life and in literature, and that’s good.
Many aspiring writers wonder if getting an MFA is necessary to furthering their writing careers. What’s your take on this?
It certainly is not necessary, but for me it was fantastic. I wanted to learn as much about craft as I could, as quickly as I could, and an MFA was one route to that. But the most important thing for me was that doing a graduate program was a commitment to myself to take this work very seriously. A commitment and a gift.
What are you working on now? What can you share with us now about your current writing project?
While my agent shops the second manuscript (titled Her Sister’s Tattoo), I’m revising the third novel. This is a political thriller about a civilian detention center on an island off the coast of Maine. A totally different kind of project and very challenging to write.