Monday, August 23, 2010

Kate Ledger talks about Remedies

Kate Ledger’s Remedies, now in paperback, is the kind of intelligent page-turner I absolutely love. A portrait of a marriage, a study of a doctor’s life, and a look at the kind of grief and pain that affects both the body and the soul, Remedies is a knockout. Of course, after reading it, I wanted to seek out Kate and we met through Facebook, Twitter and even e-mail. Remedies is also an Indie Next Notable Book, a Self Magazine’s Book Pick and the official “Community Read” of the 2009 twin Cities Jewish Book Fair, Remedies was also selected as an Ingram Premier Pick, a top book recommendation to libraries across the country, and it's racked up the raves. I'm thrilled to have Kate here on my blog.

What's it been like publicizing your book?

Like most writers with new books, I was doing everything I could to get the word out that my novel, Remedies, exists. I have helpful publicity support through my publisher, but I also decided to take a real grassroots approach on my own. I went to Amazon and looked at reviews of books that I thought were similar to mine, either in themes or style. I found a review you’d written (of Roxana Robinson’s Cost), and I wrote you an e-mail asking if you’d care to read Remedies. Your response to the request was so surprised and so genuine, and so supportive of the sheer effort, I was really heartened. Someone should compile a list of writers’ guerrilla tactics to get their books noticed. I’d love to know what other writers have dreamed up. Maybe that list exists—I haven’t seen it.

Have you tried other guerrilla tactics?

Nothing too crazy. A lot of earnest letter-writing. My husband went on a business trip to Denver and stopped in a bookstore to tell them about my novel. He passed a guy wearing a giant placard, pacing back and forth in front of the store. On the way out he asked the guy what he was doing. The guy said, “I’m trying to sell my novel!” I haven’t done that. It’s a hard thing, having spent years of your life creating an imaginary world, honing and crafting a book. Then someone—an agent, an editor—declares their faith in it, and all of a sudden, all that time was worth it. The sentences you were perseverating over become a beautiful entity with a cover and a spine. Your heart soars. Then reviewers say lovely things about it. The hair stands up on the back of your neck as you sit at your computer reading your name on other people’s websites. Your mother and mother-in-law buy a lot of copies. All of this is great, but getting the word out is still a challenge. You want people to know about it. You want people to read it. You want to talk about it with them.

How did you first conceive of this novel and how did it evolve?

I came to this story, first and foremost, imagining a situation. I think that’s how I always begin writing fiction: What’s a circumstance that really intrigues me? When I teach writing, I suggest to students starting from a place that has resonance for them, an event or a context they’d like to sink their teeth into. I know there are writers who can dream up a character and then let the character wander around and see what happens, but I don’t start there. I think it’s helpful to start from a place where you’re fired up by the problems or the direness of the circumstances. Imagine a life event that’s dramatic and even problematic and then figure out who the people are who get themselves into that kind of circumstance—then see how they resolve it.

My very first thought for this novel was: what about a doctor who discovers a cure for pain? The question grew out of the medical magazine writing I do for a living. I’d met many doctors and researchers who’d come up with amazing and even life-saving treatments for patients. Some of those treatments, when first introduced, were contrary to the scientific thinking at the time.

That’s astounding to me—you can hear all the tension that’s possible. On top of that, pain seemed like a fascinating and complex topic to focus on: It’s subjective. You can’t measure it. Treating it depends on the trusting relationship and the honest communication between the patient and the doctor. And a cure could really change the life of someone who’s suffering.

But the burning question was really about character, and that absolutely consumed me. What would a person be like who could introduce a new, miraculous treatment? How would he think about the world? I began to imagine the character of Simon Bear, who believes he’s discovered a miracle treatment. (To be honest, as I began to flesh him out, I first imagined he was a doctor who was bored with his career and then stumbled across something magnificent. But I discovered that it’s actually quite boring to write about someone who’s bored!) I changed courses and imagined Simon as someone teeming with ideas and confidence. He has tons of plans for things he wants to do, even if he doesn’t get to them. As I probed deeper into his character, the key became why: Why would this person do what he does? Over time, it seemed Simon’s desire to treat other people’s pain came from an inability to address his own. Then, I realized I wasn’t just writing a story about a professional circumstance. I was, instead, writing about a more intimate world, a broken marriage, and deeply emotional strife between people.

This novel took ten years to write. Did you know it would take that long?

I didn’t realize it when I began. Back when I started, I told my husband—who wanted a sense of the schedule ahead—that I thought it would take five years. It seemed like a reasonable number. Then time stretched out as I worked on it. I also freelanced for magazines, we moved five or six times, and I had three kids. Each time, I’d get interrupted and then come back to the novel. Even my procrastination was pretty productive: I also wrote some poems that were published in literary magazines and two screenplays. But the novel was my main professional goal, and even when I wasn’t working on it directly, I was thinking about the characters, adding layers to their backstories, coming up with new scenarios and encounters.

Make no mistake: there was a lot of angst involved. I believed in my heart I was capable of reaching the end, but I didn’t know what it would take to get there. But I was glad in the end that it took ten years. I think the time, and my own development as a human being, enabled it to be a richer book. Becoming a mom brought a huge change in my perspective. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that the couple in the story had lost a child until after my own had arrived. There was a day when I was thinking about the characters, trying to figure out why they were suffering so terribly, and I turned the question on myself: what was I most afraid to see on the page? What was I terrified to write about? I was terrified to write about losing a child. Once I thought it, the emotion it came with was so deep, I felt I had to write about it. It was a different book after that.

What kind of thinking went into the masturbation scene on the first two pages?

Without a doubt, there are things that will always make you nervous to write. There are things that will make you nervous to read. It’s always interesting to take stock of where your comfort zone ends. That’s the point of art, it seems to me, discovering those moments we feel at home and those moments we feel on edge. It seemed a gritty start to a book, and that seemed okay. I didn’t worry too much about offending anyone.

My deepest sense was the masturbation scene fit really beautifully with the themes of the novel, and that was what I cared about most. Simon Bear has a strained relationship with his wife Emily. They lost a child years ago and have long avoided grieving. But now that distance permeates their entire relationship. She sleeps with eyeshades on her eyes and earplugs in her ears. I imagined Simon waking and masturbating on his own. The scene underscored the loss of intimacy between them and his very basic yearning to reunite with her. But even the way he thinks about the action reveals him. Simon has created a sense of his selfhood through his identity as a doctor. He thinks of his self-pleasuring in physiological, clinical terms. My take on the world is that we all need that selfhood, but when it’s based on our professional successes, the identity has a hollowness to it. I hoped the reader would take note of that hollowness from the very first page. And then there are themes throughout the book about sexual excitement, the way it quickly fills the space of sorrow but doesn’t necessarily provide intimacy or contentment. Actually, I could write pages about the meaning of that scene. Another important aspect was this: once I had realized the metaphoric significance of masturbation, I felt it was my duty as a woman writer to be brave and put it on the page. Philip Roth wouldn’t have shirked away. Nor James Joyce.

Have you been talking about the book with readers? What has that experience been like for you?

I’ve been giving some readings at bookstores, and I’ve been visiting book groups, in person, if I can or by Skype. The book groups in particular have been a magnificent, and very moving, experience. People bring such varied experiences to reading, and as a writer—and a human being—I get to listen. People tell about their lives: at one person’s home a reader burst into tears because her husband deals daily with chronic pain, and the situation has really ripped into the family, and the book evoked first apprehension and then a sense of comfort. At another book club, a reader responded to the topic of painkiller treatment in the novel. She’s a veterinarian and she described having her practice raided by the Drug Enforcement Agency after she’d prescribed narcotics for an ailing dog. That blew me away. People have described their own experiences with grief, which sometimes mirror and sometimes contrast with the experiences of the characters in the novel. We talk about the relationships, of course, and issues that come up in marriage and in parenting. Often, I learn things about the book that I hadn’t noticed, or maybe had only been aware of on a subconscious or intuitive level. For instance, Jamie, the Bears’ troubled thirteen-year-old daughter, pierces her bellybutton in the course of the book. One reader said, “Well of course it’s her navel that she pierces! She’s damaging her connection to her mother!” I said, “Ooh. That’s good. I didn’t plan it that way, but there it is.”

What kind of advice would you give writers who are working on first novels?

Don’t give up. Keep asking yourself hard questions—and answer them. Be brave. I don’t know of a book that was ever better because of what a writer chose not to say. And on a practical level, get an office. Writing from home, with the scatter of life around you, is one of the hardest things to do.


Sustenance Scout said...

Kate, this book really sounds like a winner. Congrats and good luck! p.s. love the image of your husband chatting with the novelist outside the bookstore (I'm guessing one of the Tattered Covers) here in Denver. I doubt you'll have to go to such extremes! K.

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Gaylen said...

Such an inspiring and well thought interview. Thanks Kate and Caroline for posting this -- so much. This meant a lot to me.