A Conversation with Maribeth Fischer
Interview ~ Alyssa Coltrain
I sat down with Maribeth Fischer, author of The Life You Longed For, to discuss her newest novel.
the square: Tell me about your latest book, The Life You Longed For .
Maribeth Fischer: It's about a mother who has a terminally ill child, and she does everything to advocate for that child. She has a medical background; she looks into absolutely everything she can do to keep this child alive. In the midst of this, she's accused of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.
square: What inspired you to write about such a controversial topic as Munchausen Syndrome?
MF: It started with the Salem Witch Trials. I have actually wanted to write a story dealing with all the accusations and the burning. I started seeing parallels between the Salem Witch Trials and Munchausen, in that the Salem Witch Trials began with unexplained illness of children— same with Munchausen. A lot of the accusations were made in the trials against nurses and midwives, and, with Munchausen, accusations are often against women with medical backgrounds. In the witch trials, the accused were often outspoken women, who maybe had a little bit of power, education, same with Munchausen. So all these parallels started to interest me.
square: However, you chose a contemporary setting. Why?
MF: Cause I'm not talented enough to do it. (she laughs) I love research but I couldn't get my character out the door in Salem in 1697, which was when I was going to set it— 5 years after the trials. I mean— they didn't have matches, so how do you light a fire? Do they have glass in the windows; what kind of glass was it? What's the vegetation? What utensils do they have? What are they drinking. The basics. I couldn't move a character through a day.
I love research, but not that much. People who write historical novels, I'm in awe of. You can't write a sentence without knowing some fact.
square: In Life You Longed For, the main character's child suffers from mitochondrial disease. Why this disease in particular?
MF: One, because a lot of the times that the moms who are accused of Munchausen Syndrome by Prosy, a lot of people think women are faking illness in their kids, and sometimes that's true, but often they're exasperating an illness that's already present and somewhat mysterious. Mitochondrial disease is not well known and manifests itself in really different ways. So it's perfect for Munchausen, but also because I have a sister who has four kids, two of which have died of mitochondrial disease and I want to bring attention to that.
square: You also do a writer's conference in Rehoboth Beach that raises money for mitochondrial disease. Can you tell us about it?
MF: It's this amazing event. Right when I was finishing The Life You Longed For , I had been promising myself for awhile that I was going to do something for mitochondrial disease. My nephews were alive at this time though. I took a year—what I thought was going to be one year— off to finish Life You Longed For and work on a charity.
I came up with the writer's conference and wrote to writers—some I knew, some I didn't— and said: “You know, can you come here for free and give workshops and readings and that way all the money from registration can go towards charity.”
The writers came and it was this amazing event. I found out I liked running a conference. It was so much fun and people had such a good time. The writers spread word of mouth and more writers came. It evolved into this huge thing with forty writers in four years instead of twelve, which is what we had the first year.
square: What first drew you to writing?
MF: It's interesting, because I was one of those kids who wrote a novel in fourth grade, which I wish I still had. It was about two girls who run away from home and then things happened, but I never once thought I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.
I went into art, went to art school and failed utterly miserably at that. While I was in art school, I started spending all my time working on my English papers, because, I was in an art school, and when you're in an art school and an English teacher puts a big red line across your first freshman composition and says you can't write, that's really bad. It pissed me off. I was shocked that someone told me I didn't know how to write, so I started spending all my time writing and not all my time on art. I still didn't think I wanted to be a writer. I just thought I wanted to be an English teacher.
Then, I took my first creative writing class in college, and said “I'm going to be a writer. I'm not going to do anything else.” It's a decision I've loved because it's made life really simple. I'm not pulled in a lot of directions. There are also times where I've been cursing “I wish there was some other skill I had,” because writing isn't always so easy or fun.
square: Do you have any specific process when you write?
MF: I do tons and tons and tons of research, which is almost like a security blanket, I sometimes think. I find interesting facts and then the story starts building around that. For example, the novel I'm working on now: I went to this house of this famous acting couple out in Wisconsin. The entire house is a stage set. I mean, it's fake, but it looks real. They have a room called the flirtation room. It's the type of thing you'd see in a bedroom comedy. There are six entrances and exits into the room—or maybe it's eight.
Just facts about the house made me start wondering about the fake life and what it means to live a life on stage, and that started spawning idea. It's like hopscotching through facts that lead me to interesting things and I sort of pull characters around the facts.
I also learned a long time ago that I have to treat my writing like a job where there's a paycheck. I get dressed and I go out to a coffee shop. Right now, my place is actually a restaurant that's closed during the day—the Cultured Pearl. I sit there and write. I have to put on my clothes and leave the house and show up every day. I also write by hand. I'm a big believer in writing by hand.
square: Can you tell us about what you're currently working on now?
MF: Yeah. My books get more and more depressing. (she laughs.) the third one right now is called The Year of Perfect Happiness. I don't know if that title will change.
Every single one of my books deals in some way with child loss, so in this one, I'm dealing with an Andrea Yates type of character— a woman who suffered from postpartum psychosis. The novel takes place fifteen years after she tried to drown her daughter.
square: What advice do you have for college-age writers?
MF: Read, read, read. Read everything and mark up your books. If you find a paragraph you love, dog-ear the page, make copies of it, underline it. Then look at what it is, and don't just say “I love this writing,” but say “what is it, what's going on here? Is it the sentences; is it the use of adjectives?” That to me, is just the best way to learn writing: to read, but not just to read. I can page through books and not take anything in writing-wise. What's important is to read as writer, they say. If I find a sentence where I love what a writer's doing, I will make a note of it and then I paste all these things into notebooks and try to use those different styles of sentences in my writing. It's like the artists—you go, you see these people in the art museums and they're copying the masters. I don't know why writers don't do that. I mean, it's there, it's free.
square: Probably the issue of intellectual property.
MF: Yeah, but you can't plagiarize a style. Like Hemingway writes these short terse sentences and it's a great exercise to do that. You plug in your own words; you plug in your own characters, but you say I'm going to write in sentences no more than 15 words each. I think people confuse imitation and learning through imitation. You learn to play piano by playing the great composers, and you're not plagiarizing. It's to help you learn and for some reason, people seem to think that when it comes to writing, you shouldn't imitate the masters. I struggle with that idea.
Not even just the masters. Any contemporary author. They say write the book you'd love to read.