Interview: June 24, 2004
June 24, 2004
Bookreporter.com Co-Founder Carol Fitzgerald recently interviewed Elizabeth Brundage about her debut novel, THE DOCTOR'S WIFE. Brundage explains how her real life experience as a doctor's wife influenced the characters and themes of the book. She also describes her love of painting and other forms of art, and shares how her past employment as a teacher has helped her give back to the community and ultimately become a better writer.
BRC: The obvious first question is this: Knowing that you are a doctor's wife, how much of Annie is based on your own life?
EB: Everybody always wants to know if the book is autobiographical, because there are similarities between Annie and me. And I think most writers do write about aspects of their lives. Your own life experience is the clay so to speak, which gets molded in the writer's hands within the context of the story. But Annie is her own character. She happens to be married to a doctor, like I am, and we both share the difficulties of being married to men in medicine, which is a profession unlike any other, but she is a completely fictional character.
BRC: As a doctor, Michael is always taking care of problems, helping others to heal. Is there any point when he realizes that there are situations and people that can't be saved or fixed?
EB: I don't think Michael comes to this realization until he's down in Lydia's father's cellar and he realizes that he's at the mercy of a completely insane woman. Feeling as though there is no way out, he reckons with his life and the decisions he made that led him to this point. I think he comes to terms with the mistakes he has made, always putting other people --- strangers --- first, because that's a requirement of the profession, and the fact that, almost out of necessity, he took Annie for granted.
BRC: Annie is a teacher of writing. Have you ever taught? Did the experience of teaching help you in writing this book?
EB: Yes, I have taught on the college level for over ten years, at various colleges and universities as an adjunct or visiting writer. I think teaching is an amazing experience for a writer. It brings you out of your own work, into the hearts and minds of other writers. You actually learn a lot about the way people see the world. I like teaching because I feel like I'm giving back what so many other wonderful teachers gave to me. Also, when you teach, it's not just about the writing. It's about breaking down a life --- examining the various complex elements that make a person who he is. Looking at what motivates people, what motivates certain behavior. You become an intimate observer of life.
BRC: Simon Haas is a painter. You seem to know a lot about art. Do you paint?
EB: I have always loved to make art and look at art. When I was a little girl, my mother used to take me on her art tours in New York, with all of her women friends. It was always an adventure. Her friends were terribly sophisticated, always dressed impeccably and smelling of mystery with their leather bags and Hermes scarves and perfumes. We'd wander through the museums and my mother would teach me about the painters. Seurat paints in dots I remember her saying. I have painted over the years, but I'm not very good at it. In my next life I'd like to be a painter.
BRC: Who are your favorite painters?
EB: I absolutely love Lucien Freud and I imagine that Simon Haas paints like him. I love so many painters. I love Alice Neel. I love Pearlstein and Fischl and I love Julian Schnabel and I think he's a good film director, too. There are so many incredibly gifted painters out there. Van Gogh is my favorite. And I love Mary Cassat, how she captured the beauty of mothering in her paintings.
BRC: In the book, Michael begins working at an abortion clinic. Was this a conscious decision on your part, to write about this political issue?
EB: No, not really. I wanted to write about a doctor, and I began this book after the birth of my second daughter. My husband was a resident at the time, and I was incredibly frustrated with my life. I had two small children and a husband who was never ever home and when he WAS home he was absolutely useless. We were living in Rochester, New York, where he was training, and there was a very strong group of anti-abortion protestors up there and it made an impression on me. The story just kind of evolved from there. It took a long time for me to figure out what I was writing about.
BRC: How do you think people will react to the subject when they read this book?
EB: Basically, I want people to understand that this is the story of a doctor who gets involved, for a variety of personal reasons, in working at an abortion clinic. This is a book about four separate characters who come together in a dangerous way. It's a character-driven novel where the reader gets to witness the outcomes of the decisions the characters make. Michael gets caught up in something he believes in and everything in his life changes because of it. People make decisions that open doors to experiences they never anticipated. This happens to every character in this book. It happens to Annie, when she gets involved with Simon Haas. It happens with Lydia, when she gets swept up in the right-to-life rhetoric of Reverend Tim. And it happened to Simon Haas on the day when he saw his wife for the very first time, and then again, when he falls in love with Annie. We make our own decisions. The decisions we make change in our lives, for better or worse.
BRC: Why doesn't Simon turn Lydia into the police earlier?
EB: Two reasons. Simon's guilt prevents him from turning Lydia in. Guilt is the prison we create for ourselves that keeps us from moving forward in life. He feels as though he "created" her, that she is the embodiment of his own madness, in a sense, and he takes the blame for what's happened to her. Also, I believe that he still loves her on some very deep pathological level.
BRC: Lydia seems to be the ultimate victim. Was this a conscious choice on your part?
EB: For me, I don't really know why I'm writing the characters one way or another. They speak to me in a sense, and I write the stories they tell. It's kind of like living with a multiple personality disorder. But I do see Lydia as a victim. On the one hand, she's allowed herself to be controlled by others, first her father, then Simon Haas. This is her weakness and it comes from several things in her past. Her mother's death, for example, I don't think she ever got over it. Lydia sort of represents to me how women have been repressed throughout the centuries --- and they're still repressed, although more subtly these days. So subtle in fact that it is often misinterpreted as something else. As fashion, for instance. The contradictory ways in which society promotes and sells our role as women. But this is a huge subject.
BRC: Do you see this book as a feminist novel?
EB: I see it as a book that considers feminist ideas. In Annie's case, it's a story about a woman who is trying to relearn her own language. To get back to the essential meaning of life. When Annie married Michael, she let go of certain aspects of herself that at one time were important to her. I think people do this when they get into a serious relationship. You have to acquiesce in a sense to the other person, and they to you, and in doing that you have to let go of little pieces of yourself. The characters are each struggling to feel in control of their lives. Annie is unhappy in her marriage and goes outside of it not out of malice or anger, specifically, but because she's trying to find herself again --- she feels lost. Simon Haas helps her to do that. I remember talking with my editor about the paradigm that we live by in our society --- the notion of the nuclear family living a civilized, symmetrical existence, abiding to religious and moral covenants that were established zillions of years ago --- and I wanted to show how this paradigm has become a precarious model to which few of us can actually adhere. I think it's impossible for one person to fulfill all of your needs and desires --- and that imagery has been stuffed down our throats forever. It gets complicated when you have kids. The truth is that out of fear, people close themselves off to new opportunities, to new growth.