Interview with MARYLEE MAC DONALD
All Things That Matter Press (2014)
Reviewed by Ben Green for Reader Views (03/15)
Article first published as Interview: Marylee MacDonald, Author of ‘Montpelier Tomorrow’ on Blogcritics.
A former carpenter and mother of five, Marylee MacDonald is a writing coach, caregiver, and the prize-winning author of the novel Montpelier Tomorrow and The Rug Bazaar, a chapbook. Her short stories have won the Jeanne Leiby Award, the Barry Hannah Prize, the Ron Rash Award, the Matt Clark Prize, and the ALR Fiction Award. Her debut novel, Montpelier Tomorrow, was a Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award and the New Generation Indie Awards.
Susan: Welcome Marylee and thank you for being here. You have such an interesting background. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey to becoming a writer?
Marylee: Let’s take this by decades. In my twenties I was raising children. For two of those years, I earned an MA in Creative Writing and began a carpentry apprenticeship. In my thirties and forties I worked as a carpenter and wrote late at night or early in the morning. By the time I turned fifty, my kids had finished college. I started with Writers Digest classes and then found an excellent writing workshop that met weekly. That’s where I learned to revise. Unfortunately, my son-in-law came down with ALS, and I had to put my writing on hold. My sixties brought a decade of calm.
Susan: Your stories are fiction, sprinkled with facts and real life events. How is Montpelier Tomorrow interlaced with the life of Marylee MacDonald?
Marylee: All fiction is composed of facts and real life events, isn’t it? Write what you know. We know our candlesticks and crocheted tablecloths. We know our father’s tool bench and the baby-food jars with assorted screws. A writer takes the familiar and, through alchemy, transforms dusty relics into art. Two gold-framed oval portraits wound up in my story because those portraits hang in my hall.
I suppose what you’re asking though, is how close the narrator’s experience is to my own. Above, I should have mentioned that my first husband was killed in a car accident when I was twenty-five and pregnant with my fifth child. Like Colleen Gallagher, the narrator of Montpelier Tomorrow, I felt that fate had struck a blow at my family. I was determined not to let it strike another. My son-in-law’s illness threatened my daughter’s happiness, and I wanted to protect her.
I gave a modified version of that life history to Colleen. It’s good to plant an early wound in a character’s psyche. The events of the novel tear the scab off that wound. Though it’s not spelled out, an underlying theme in this book has to do with unresolved grief. Colleen would not call what she feels “grief” necessarily, because she is not a person who labels feelings. Through much of the book, we sense that her connection to her husband is still very alive, even though he isn’t.
Susan: Our reviewer, Ben Green, called Montpelier Tomorrow an “insightful, sometimes humorous look at the serious issue of ALS.” How did you use humor to influence and appeal to your audience?
Marylee: I don’t know that I did that consciously. My writing comes from my heart, not from a conscious decision to do X, Y, or Z. Though parts of the book are humorous, I would describe the story-voice—which is to say Colleen’s voice—as ironic and wistful.
But where did that voice come from? How does she begin telling her story? I had written the entire book and put it through thirty revisions, but honestly, the beginning sucked. A friend and fellow writer, Bhira Backhaus, made an offhand remark about the fluidity of time, about how we’re simultaneously living in the past and the present. Then I heard E.L. Doctorow talk about how the first sentence of a novel must contain the whole plot.
One afternoon I took out a yellow legal pad and began freewriting. I came up with this sentence: “Time robs us of chances for reconciliation.” Those seven words sum up the entire plot of Montpelier Tomorrow. Even after many drafts, it’s possible for a writer see into the essence of a book.
So back to your question about humor: Colleen’s humor is how she coped with the challenges in her own life, and she brings that humor to her daughter’s house. She’s wise and direct, and not afraid to make a joke, even at her own expense. Luckily, Tony, her son-in-law, has a wicked sense of humor, too. The two of them use humor to cope with the awkwardness of a mother-in-law being her son-in-law’s primary caregiver.
Susan: Awareness of ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) has skyrocketed over the last year with the Ice Bucket Challenge going viral among the social media networks. Do you feel the Ice Bucket Challenge will have an impact on treatment and lead to a cure?
Marylee: A year ago writer Suzanne McGee wrote about the Challenge in the British newspaper, The Guardian. The fad had gone viral and people wondered whether the money raised would lead to a cure or be squandered. Here’s a second article from the same paper. Turns out that not all the money went to research. Much of it went to restore specialty ALS treatment centers decimated by Congressional budget cuts. These centers are vital for families dealing with ALS, and they’re now returned to their previous levels. Prior to the Ice Bucket Challenge, one main way local ALS chapters funded the centers was through the Walk to Defeat ALS. Those who have ALS right now will continue to need support. In Arizona alone, there are over 350 families coping with ALS. The fundraising efforts provide equipment loans, home visits, support groups, transportation, multidisciplinary clinics, and respite care so that caregivers can get a break.
Given the complex nature of the disease, I fear a true cure is a long way off. Researchers are nibbling away at the underlying causes, but assembling the crumbs of research into an edible cookie will take a long time. My second husband is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and he believes that we may be slightly closer to finding a cure for the roughly fifteen percent of those who have an inheritable form of ALS. As for those whose disease is called “sporadic ALS,” meaning no known genetic component, I’m afraid the hope for a cure is further off. We can’t rely on an Ice Bucket Challenge, particularly because it now seems to be waning. We need Congress to throw some big cubes of ice at the problem. The big funding source for medical research in this country is the NIH (National Institute of Health). Each disease competes against other diseases with equally horrifying outcomes. Who can say which should receive the biggest slice of the pie: Alzheimer’s, AIDS, Parkinson’s, breast cancer, prostate cancer, or heart disease? Because ALS affected such a small segment of the population and didn’t have anywhere near the lobbying power of the groups supporting those other diseases, ALS research gets only a small amount of money from the federal government.
Susan: You are a caregiver, among many other things. What value do you place, as a caregiver, on the strength and support of the family members who have loved ones affected by ALS?
Marylee: The important thing to understand is that ALS has a devastating impact on one person, but also on that person’s family. The disease lasts two to seven years, and as the person with ALS becomes more debilitated, they need help with everything—dressing, eating, and going to the bathroom. The disease affects young men and women. The youngest I know of was only seventeen. You’re not going to put the person in a nursing home. It would be totally inappropriate. So, that leaves families.
But there’s a problem with thinking that families can handle ALS. The days when three generations live within blocks of one other are long gone. People have their own lives to live, and not everyone wants to work without pay 24/7, for months or years on end. Usually, one person takes on the role of primary caregiver, with other family members stepping in to provide respite care. Families can help, but gosh, ALS strains even the resources of the strongest families, as I can attest.
And what happens if you don’t have family? If you get ALS in your fifties, your parents are not going to be able to physically care for you. They can’t do the heavy lifting. If you’re truly alone, without a partner or spouse or children, that’s very tough. My son-in-law’s hospice nurse had another patient who had been a choreographer. He had no parents or siblings or life partner. In an effort to maintain his independence, he strung ropes around his apartment. Eventually, he couldn’t walk, dress himself, feed himself, or talk, and he agreed to go into a nursing home. But nursing homes aren’t set up for ALS patients. People with ALS need a great deal of individualized care. It has to be one-on-one. Nursing homes typically have a ratio of six-to-one.
Susan: Tell us about the relationship of the family members in Montpelier Tomorrow, specifically between Colleen and her daughter. How did their relationship affect the entire family?
Marylee: Yes, that mother-daughter story is actually at the crux of the novel. ALS is what writers call the “inciting incident.” It’s the reason Colleen is forced to move to her daughter’s house, and once she’s there, she discovers her daughter has a boatload of “issues” with her mother. These boil down to style differences. Colleen is forthright. Her daughter holds everything in. Colleen is messy. Her daughter is a neat-nik. Colleen is strict with the grandchildren, and her daughter permissive. Add to that, no daughter wants her mother to move back into her life. I think that’s a pretty universal dynamic.
I could have built a plot around the mother-daughter tension, but I needed a compelling reason for Colleen to overstay her welcome. The powerful cocktail of love, duty, obligation, exhaustion, and frustration makes it impossible for Colleen to leave, and so she hangs in there, only to become the focus of her daughter’s rage.
Susan: What was your greatest challenge writing Montpelier Tomorrow?
Marylee: Finding Colleen’s voice and inventing a plausible history for the relationship between Colleen and the other characters. I had to think deeply about how Colleen would feel about her career as a kindergarten teacher, whether it was a job or a calling. When she had to take family leave, she felt torn. Luckily, my mom taught elementary school, so I could draw on that personal experience.
Susan: What do you hope your readers take away from Montpelier Tomorrow?
Marylee: If readers have cared for loved ones, I hope they will forgive themselves for feeling resentful and impatient. One reader wrote, “This book might bring some closure to anyone who has suffered a loss and watched another’s life slip away.”
Susan: Do you have any new book in the future, and if so, can you tell us about it?
Marylee: Oh, thanks for asking. Yes, I have a short story collection called Bonds of Love & Blood. It’s coming out in January, 2016 from Summertime Publications Inc. If people sign up for my mailing list, they can get the book right now. All twelve stories have won fiction prizes in literary magazines. A story in that collection, “One Friday Night In Baltimore,” is on Kindle. The story is about the wrongful arrest of a young African-American college grad, and I put it up because it seemed so timely. I am super excited about this book. I’ve written short stories for years, and I’m happy to have them in a book.
Susan: Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information can be found there about Montpelier Tomorrow?
Marylee: I have two websites. The site that’s most closely linked to the concerns in Montpelier Tomorrow is http://blog.maryleemacdonald.org. That site focuses on caregiving, neurological diseases, and ALS. It’s a forum for other caregivers to tell their stories, and I try to keep up on research on the caregiver experience. For instance, I have an upcoming article on the impact of long-term stress on telomeres. Telomeres are the tips on strands of our DNA. Picture shoelace tips, and you’ll get the idea. Stress shrinks telomeres.
My writing website is http://maryleemacdonald.org, and on that website, people can find info about the full range of my writing activities as well as some fun articles about travel, history, and “finding my bliss.” I have to say that for anyone who has been a caregiver, finding your bliss ranks high on the to-do list. I’m always on the lookout for things that surprise me and bring me joy.
Susan: Marylee it has been a pleasure chatting with you, and I look forward to more work from you. Thank you again for stopping by.
Marylee: Thank you for posing such terrific questions.