Tell us a little about your book.
A Life in Men centers on a woman traveler, Mary, with cystic fibrosis, who is trying to live as large and full a life as possible in a limited time. The novel takes place in 10 different countries over 13 years, and focuses primarily on the relationships Mary forms with various men (lovers, father, brother, husband)—as well as the haunting, absent presence of her best childhood girlfriend, Nix, who once made a serious sacrifice in order to protect Mary—which, along with geography, shape Mary’s emerging adult identity. The storyline is framed between the Lockerbie Disaster of 1988 and September 11, 2001, and although it’s not an overtly political novel it very much concerns how global events impact the lives of individuals as deeply as more daily concerns like health and sexuality and intimacy.
Your novel was inspired in part by a woman you knew in college who had a terminal illness. What was one of the main challenges of writing fiction about a real person?
The novel isn’t “fiction about a real person.” It’s fiction about someone who has the same chronic disease as a woman I once knew, who is also, like that woman, an avid traveler. I have written fiction about real people in the past (I do this a lot in my short fiction, actually, to the chagrin of many of my close friends who found aspects of their lives stolen and morphed in my short story collection, Slut Lullabies), but that isn’t the case inA Life in Men. It’s a conceptual homage—there was no effort to make the actual character of Mary, or the events of her life, similar to my friend Sarah’s, and in fact they are radically different—for example, Mary is married, where Sarah never married, and the countries Mary visits are those I spent time in myself, and not a single one of the larger cast has any basis on anyone Sarah ever knew. It was strictly an issue of having been creatively inspired by a very brave person, but the resulting novel is no more really “tied” to Sarah than it would be to anyone else with CF, or anyone else who is trying to live on a large canvas with a life shortening illness and deep physical demands and limitations.
Your settings are exotic and far-flung and beautifully realized. Did you begin this novel with the intention to take your characters (and readers) to so many distant places?
Yes, in this case A Life in Men was always something I envisioned as a kind of…movable feast in that way. Some of the countries did change, however. There was originally a long section set in Bogota, where now Mary never actually lives, and the first draft of the novel didn’t include Kenya, which is now one of the most pivotal chapters. Everywhere in the novel is a place—often right down to the actual house Mary sleeps in—that has been formative in my own life. The only exception to this is Gander, Newfoundland, the setting of the final chapter, and a place I have never actually been. Gander was the town where all the flights on 9/11 were grounded when they were unable to re-enter U.S. airspace, and the population of the town exploded for about a week with the “plane people” who were stranded there. Because it was such a distinct cultural phenomenon that was in some ways not tied to what Gander would seem like now, in a visit, it was the one place in the novel I chose to write about based strictly on research of that finite period of time.
What was one of the hardest scenes in the book to write?
No doubt the hardest scene in the novel to write was one near the end when Mary, her friend Sandor and her lover Kenneth are doing a hike in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco, on what Sandor believes to be a suicide mission on Mary’s part, and Mary begins to cough up blood while at the mountain pass. The scene alternates points of view between Mary, Sandor, Kenneth (and originally even their guide, I believe) and it was a physically demanding scene in that there are a great deal of scenic and geographical details juxtaposed with somewhat gory and terrifying physical details, and all the characters are in very heightened states of emotion. It was a challenge to differentiate perspectives, not lose the reader, hit the emotional peaks without becoming histrionic or grotesque, pace things to show seriousness but not overkill…I did quite a few drafts of that scene, and it’s one of few in the novel in which I actually still wish I could go back and work on it a bit more.
What are you working on now?
My new novel is called Every Kind of Wanting, and basically it explores the dynamics, relationships and unexpected dramas surrounding longtime couple, Chad and Miguel’s, efforts to have a baby through a gestational surrogacy. Like A Life in Men, it’s told from multiple points of view including Miguel’s, the egg donor’s, the surrogate’s husband, and Miguel’s infertile younger sister. Though framed by the nine months of the pregnancy, the novel also reaches back 30 years, to Miguel’s childhood in Venezuela and the unsolved murder of his father and mysteries surrounding the birth of his younger sister. I guess I’d say it explores such concepts as familial bonds, reinvention and assimilation, how past demons come to bear on the present, whether romance is by nature a transient thing, exclusivity vs. community, and who “owns” love.