[Kate Ledger, in her debut novel Remedies, tells a brilliantly complex story of physical and emotional pain. In today’s guest post, she explains how an initial fascination with medical knowledge led her on a ten year writing journey to an even richer, deeper, more painful subject requiring a remedy. ]
I’d always wanted to be a fiction writer, even as far back as my childhood. But in my mid-20s, after a graduate program in creative writing, and with no livelihood in sight, I did a little freelance magazine writing and then began a fulltime job at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, writing for publications about medicine and research. It was a fascinating job. I sat in on all kinds of surgeries, visited the labs of world famous scientists, and had the chance to talk with people who were making great advances and new discoveries.
The truth was, I enjoyed the job, but I missed writing fiction. After a few years, I left to become a fulltime freelance writer, which I imagined would make time for the novel I’d always wanted to write. I had new and very rich material to draw on from my experiences writing about the medical world. Over the years, I’d met many doctors and researchers who’d developed astounding and helpful treatments for patients. Some of those treatments even defied the scientific thinking of the time. As I pondered the core of a novel, I wondered: what about a doctor who believes he’s discovered a cure for pain?
That was the launching point. I began to read about pain. I interviewed several people who suffered daily from chronic pain, whose lives had been completely undermined by mysterious ailments. I interviewed pain specialists about the treatments that exist. But the burning question, and what really intrigued me, was about character. What kind of person would believe he’d discovered a cure. even if he had no proof, beyond what his patients told him, that it was helping them? What would that person be like? I began writing about a doctor, Simon Bear—a passionate man full of ideas and ambitious plans—who believes he’s stumbled across a cure for pain. I imagined he would be confident, even to the point of being overbearing, but that he would be devoted to healing his patients. But as Simon’s character began to evolve, I wondered why he was so committed to his patients’ pain. I realized he was focused on curing others because he wasn’t able to address his own pain. At that moment, I realized that, in fact, I was writing about a marriage. The miraculous cure for pain wasn’t a thing in and of itself, but an onerous stumbling block to Simon’s most intimate relationship.
Choosing to write from the point of view of a forty-seven year old man was incredibly liberating to me as a writer. It meant imagining a world wrenched from my own anxieties and concerns—and I was free to make Simon both overbearing and insecure, wistfully in love and incapable of making the right decisions without feeling inhibited. I wasn’t sure about some things—for instance, I didn’t know: Are forty-seven-year-old men with established careers still concerned what their parents think of them? (I began reading books with middle-aged male protagonists, and also asking around, and it turns out, yes, they are.) But I also made the decision to tell the story of this painful marriage simultaneously from Emily’s point of view. I felt the two perspectives would give real insight about what’s going on in this house. And I have to admit, as different as I am personally from Emily—she’s proper, super-confident and very defended—telling a woman’s point of view created a familiar zone for me within the book.
But the most profound leap for me came the day I realized the source of their terrible pain. In this sense, the book evolved from a cerebral place—thinking about characters and their circumstances—to a place of deep emotion. The process surprised me, but I think this is typical in writing a novel. You have a story, and you write and you write, until you realize what, exactly, you’re writing about. At this point, I’d written about Simon and Emily for several years; he was finding the miracle treatment, defending his decision to give it to his patients, and in each iteration, his character and Emily’s were growing more and more layered. When I’d begun writing the novel, I was still dating the man who would become my husband. A few years later, we’d married and had children. As I pondered Simon and Emily’s pain, I asked myself a question that felt daring: what was I most afraid to put on the page? What words was I most afraid to see? The answer came to me immediately. As a new mom, I was most afraid of losing a child. Once I’d thought the words, the feeling they evoked was so overpowering, I felt I had no choice but to write about it.
I teach novel-writing these days. I tell my students that a good place to begin is with something that absolutely fascinates them, something that’s always gripped them, or that they keep wondering about. That’s your toehold on the mountain. But you’re on a journey as you write, and you keep asking questions, and keep feeling your way forward. You try to be ready for what you encounter.
Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away two copies of Kristina Riggle’s The Life You’ve Imagined in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post, Kristina Riggle and The Life You’ve Imagined. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the winners to be announced here in Thursday’s post. If you enter, please return Thursday to possibly claim your book.