Writing A Novel in Linked Short Stories: Interview with author Kathryn Trueblood

When I received a review copy of Take Daily As Needed, Kathryn Trueblood’s “novel in stories” from University of New Mexico press, I dove right into reading it. A novel in stories sounded a lot like how I often advocate memoirists I work with approach their work—discrete personal essays that when collected move toward an examination of a life question and arrive, if not at an answer, a kind of self-acceptance as well as acceptance of the human condition. And here I was opening a book with this structure, but in fiction. And I loved the book from the very opening to the ending.

The book opens with these two sentences:

“The first time our daughter, Noelle, was whisked off in an ambulance, she was fourteen months old. It was because I fed her pesto.” How could I leave the story alone after reading these sentences?

Almost at the very end when Mauve Beaufort, the protagonist, is in the hospital herself with a Crohn’s disease flare-up, she calls her two children, now older by years than at the opening. Her son, a difficult teen with ADD says: “I love you, Mom.”

She answers, “Even my black and bubbly underside?”

And he replies, “Even your black and bubbly underside.”

We all live life with its hardships and family tensions, its health issues and strivings, all the while craving acceptance, which feels better when it comes our way than almost anything.

It wasn’t long before I emailed Kathryn, who is a professor at Western Washington University and a writer I have interviewed about other books she’s written. (Listen here.)

Here are questions I sent her and the answers she emailed back to me about writing Take Daily As Needed.

Sheila
I am enamored with the novel in stories approach you took to writing this story.

How did you conceive the structure?

Kathryn
I’ve admired linked collections for a long time. I read Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine and Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women when they first came out. I think that the form is natural for writing about the experience of women who so often anchor their families and around whom other lives turn. Love Medicine is organized around kinship ties, and Erdrich presents a kaleidoscope of characters that turn around one event. At some point, I realized I wasn’t going to write in multiple points of view, but Maeve’s stories turn around her children, her friends, her ex-husband, her lover, and her parents. I had to throw out some stories I wrote from the perspective of the children when I realized that I needed to stick with the book’s central question: how much caregiving can any one woman do before she breaks down herself? That question became the center of my kaleidoscope.

In a sense, I grew up inside a novel-in-stories. My mother and her sister married my father and his brother; both couples divorced after having children. This made my childhood unique and forged me as a writer; so many voices and versions surrounding a common event. Perhaps this experience instigated the linked collection as a form in me—because my relatives all had their own versions of family history.

Sheila
What were the challenges for you in writing this way?

Kathryn
Initially, I write very intuitively. For me, structure comes later. The voice of the mother definitely came first. Once I hear a character, I work on a story until I have the whole of it. Maeve had a lot to say, so her stories kept on coming. I didn’t worry about chapter order or sequence as I was writing. My method is to outline after I have written, and then reorder and write the missing pieces. I have to be very stringent with myself about finding the structure and articulating it when I am writing the last few drafts.

In terms of process, the challenge is always about finding time alone. My writing always comes from spending time alone.  If I spend enough time alone, the inner voices stir in me. So, writing starts as a state of being rather than as an act. In order to get Take Daily As Needed written, I would tell people was going on a writing retreat, which wasn’t technically a lie, but I stayed home and just allowed myself to disconnect from daily obligations as though I were far away.

Sheila
What pleased you the most about writing in this form?

Kathryn
I think you nailed it on the head in your article, “Writing the Emotionally Important Scenes.” The novel-in-stories gave me the latitude to focus on milestones and turning points, to move from one center of gravity to another. I think when you’re writing a novel, the progression has to be more tightly constructed. With this form, I felt I could spring forward along each character’s arc when it served the emotional focus of the book. I will say that I felt tremendous satisfaction in the last two years of writing when the storylines began interlocking, when the sequence seemed inevitable.

Sheila
You’ve written to me that this book is the most personal of all your books. Others of your books have had the personal element, too. Can you describe those and how this time the book was the most personal writing of all?

Kathryn
There is always an element of emotional autobiography in my work. My first book, The Sperm Donor’s Daughter, looks at assisted reproduction and was based on my own feelings of displacement as a child. I moved through multiple families because my parents remarried four times. In the writing of that book, I also learned that my father had been a sperm donor while in medical school in the 1960s. Intuition is a powerful divining rod. In The Sperm Donor’s Daughter, I was trying to reconcile with my past.

My second book, The Baby Lottery, deals with the repercussions of infertility in a female friend group, and I wrote it while trying to get pregnant with my second child. I found that during the reproductive years, women’s lives can contrast quite painfully. The concerns that surfaced in The Baby Lottery evolved in Take Daily As Needed. When parents are working full-time and raising children, I think the concept of “work/life balance” is a deception, one designed to keep us focused on tinkering with our personal lives in impossible ways rather than on noticing the lack of support for parents and children on a systemic level.

I’m closer to Maeve than any other protagonist I’ve written. Like her, I have Crohn’s disease, which goes in and out of remission. I wrote this novel after I got sick. Like Maeve, I was living the meltdown years, trying to care for both my children and my aging parents.

When my health broke down, I could no longer override my body’s messages with my willpower. I began to evaluate the values of the American workplace, which seems to regard exhaustion as a badge of honor. Like a lot of people who have experienced illness or trauma, I had to find a whole new set of instructions for living.

I began looking for fiction that featured sick mothers trying to raise kids, and I couldn’t find much, and I wondered who would want to read it besides me, but decided I didn’t care and wrote a story that was eventually selected by Jane Smiley for the Goldenberg Prize. “The No-Tell Hotel” stayed with me not only because it was a tribute to a friend who died of MS, but also because its reception showed me that there was a place for this subject in the world. Later, I began to question my own attitudes, because really, there is no one who is untouched by illness, mental or physical.

When I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s, I ran my house like a wayward home for teenagers, who helped out and also brought a lot of humor into my life. My role as a parent and as a teacher caused me to reflect on the large number of children and teenagers out there who live with ill or disabled parents and have little to no support. Like the main character, Maeve, I have taken in kids who were kicked out, who ran away, or who were suicidal, and I have tried to get social services for them. I quickly learned we don’t really have a social safety net in this country. We don’t have a sustainable model for living. All of those were hard-won truths for me.

Sheila
Thank you for sharing the personal side of the story and how using it helped you create a compelling protagonist. Are there ways in which she is different than you or someone you’d like to be? How does that work in fictionalized autobiographical work?

Kathryn
Maeve is more self-aware than I was. That was one of the pleasures of writing the book. My character is caught up in this fast-moving river, but I could pull myself up on the bank every now and then and have a look. At one point Maeve declares, “You have to love a monster to love an ambitious woman, a woman who wants to have some effect upon the world, a woman who feels some days like she has eight arms, eight legs, and snakes growing out of the top of her head.” I once bought into the myth that women could “do it all” without cost to themselves or their families. I didn’t see women’s exhaustion as an aspect of the larger society that doesn’t care about the caregivers. I also let Maeve admit to really dark feelings as she is looking after her parents, both of whom were pretty thorny people. I hope I have her humor and resilience.

Sheila
I’d like to find out where we can read more of your thoughts on writing Take Daily As Needed. Have you done interviews about this book that Writing It Real readers can find online?

“The Write Question” on Montana Public Radio:

https://www.mtpr.org/post/take-daily-needed-kathryn-trueblood

Invisible Not Broken Podcast Interview:

https://invisiblenotbroken.com/home-chronic-illness-podcast/2019/8/5/interview-with-author-kathryn-trueblood-about-her-book-take-daily-as-needed-crohns-amp-graves-disease-amp-parenting-with-a-chronic-illness-and

“Writing from a Pile of Shoes: Chronic Illness, Kids, and Creation,” an essay about writing Take Daily as Needed published by Literary Mama:

http://www.literarymama.com/litreflections/archives/2019/11/writing-from-a-pile-of-shoes.html

Sheila
Thank you for that great list. We’ll learn a lot listening to you talk about the book and reading more of what you have told readers about the endeavor.

If another writer would want to create a novel in short stories, how would you suggest they approach the project?

Kathryn
I am usually driven to writing by a persistent question in my life. A friend’s death from multiple sclerosis compelled me to begin “Take Daily As Needed” as did my own fear of illness. Whatever that question is, it can’t be distant or abstract; it has to be something that genuinely bothers you. That question will drive the actions of your characters, will form their responses to life’s travails. I encourage my students to allow themselves to write scenes and chapters out of order. Make a list of scenes as they come to you, or a list of stories. When you reach a point where you feel too lost to continue (for me this comes at about 100-125 pages), go back and outline what you have written until you can see the arc of the main character or an arc for each character. Then you will be ready to track the linking aspects and write a list of stories that are missing. Eventually, you shift from the substantive work to the continuity edit. I had to track each character’s arc in time because I don’t pay much attention to those details when I am involved with the emotional content. I actually print out the entire manuscript several times and lay the chapters out on the dining room table, because I need the experience of ordering the book to be physical.

Sheila
With your permission, I’d love to end our interview with an excerpt from the book.

Is there one you can share with us?

Kathryn
Here is a scene where Maeve sits down to answer questions on a psychiatrist’s intake form about her son Norman, who will be diagnosed with ADD.

On Fridays I’m not due at the domestic law office of Slater, Steiny & Alesandro until noon. So I am alone at the kitchen table with a form from the psychiatrist in front of me—the NICHQ Vanderbilt Assessment Scale: PARENT Informant. I’ve already looked up NICHQ—the National Initiative for Children’s Healthcare Quality, which hasn’t alleviated the guilt I feel over the word Informant.

The form lists symptoms in one column along with numerical designations, starting with 0 for Never, 1 for Occasionally, 2 for Often, and 3 for Very Often. Guy and I have already turned in the family tree of mental illness—Great Uncle Maynard, who received shock treatment and lived with his mother (after he served in World War II); Great Aunt Elsa, who took her phone calls in the closet and lived out of steamer trunks (don’t the wealthy get away with whatever they want?); my sister, who spent four years in the bathroom between breakdowns, studying what she believed was the matter with her face (okay, Mazie was definitely diagnosable, but she lives independently now, and they’d never caught Norman obsessing in the mirror); Guy’s grandmother, who had taken her youngest daughter with her down to the Ohio River, then carefully folded her clothes and walked in (no question of depression there); and my mother, who had a nervous breakdown in the 1950s and was briefly institutionalized (didn’t that happen to almost every white woman back then who wasn’t doing well with Valium, cigarettes, and martinis?).

Then there was my father, a catastrophic thinker extraordinaire. He wouldn’t let any of his grown sons light the barbeque for fear it would explode, and he did have the peculiar habit of rinsing paper plates before putting them in the trash. On the other hand, who wouldn’t want an OCD surgeon? Someone who washed his hands repeatedly, checked and rechecked the sutures before closing his patients back up. My cousins, I wasn’t sure about, though Uncle Galen definitely drank and smoked himself to death, and a few of the cousins had died in high-speed car crashes that made suicide anybody’s guess.

The truth of it was we couldn’t know. In my view, childhood itself is a kind of psychosis. Hadn’t I read the same book thirteen times as a girl? And my brother had flushed M-80s down toilets and gotten kicked out of schools and punched holes in walls and driven any vehicle too fast. One morning he romped on the gas of the old Mercury station wagon while backing out of the driveway. A door flew open and tore off on a tree because he’d neglected to close it. Our mother was watching from the kitchen window. When did she have her nervous breakdown, before or after my brother was out of the house? But he’d turned out all right. He was a helicopter nurse, and you’d be lucky to meet him if that’s where you ended up. Maybe Norman was one of those men who needed a high-risk profession to keep his attention, and a little manic energy was good when you had to power through an emergency.

I frown at the form and take up my pencil. I am frightened and I know it.

Does not pay attention to details / Has difficulty keeping attention to what needs to be done.

In first grade Norman fell in love. He was paying attention very closely. Everywhere the girl put her hands, he followed after, trying to put his in just the same place.

I check “Occasionally.”

Does not follow through when given direction / Has difficulty organizing tasks and activities.

Every night Guy or I sit with him while he does his homework, otherwise he skips problems, pages, or whole chapters. He hates homework the way you hate someone who has betrayed you. From the time he was very small, insects and the beetle-covered undersides of logs captivated him; he studied the worms that came out onto the patio in the . While other children screamed at the larval world, he peered closer. His reflexes were so quick he could catch fish with his feet.

I check “Often” and glance down the page.

Loses things that are necessary for activities / Fidgets or squirms in seat.

Don’t all children fidget? It’s true that I find Norman’s homework balled up in his laundry on the floor, sometimes assignments he has done already that don’t get turned in. And when he had to learn his play lines, we came up with the novel idea of his using the elliptical trainer in the garage. He looked like a boy in a taffy pull, but he worked hard, shouting his lines as he pulled and pushed his arms and legs in opposing directions.

I check “Occasionally.” I’m not going to pathologize intensity. Some people make it through life on Bunsen burners; my son is a bonfire. I’ve told him that in middle age when other people’s energy wanes, he will have plenty. I let my eye bounce down the page.

Runs about or climbs too much when remaining in seat is expected / Talks too much.

Runs about? Talks too much? Had anyone who’d written this form read children’s literature? It could have been a character-traits list for Pippi Longstocking. I wish I too could throw adults across the room. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were doomed also, according to this list. I myself had been like Fern, who talked to spiders and pigs all day and preferred their company to other children. After one week of first grade, Norman told me, “We just sit in a circle while that lady yammers all day.” Norman is like Milo in Phantom Tollbooth, bored to tears by the adult world. When the music teacher asked Norman, “What farm animal are you?” Norman told her, “A cobra.” When I made him choose again, he said, “A dust bunny.” He doesn’t play the part of the Disneyland kid for whom a sucker or an ice cream cone makes everything all better.

Sheila
Thank you so much for your answers and for allowing us to see so deeply into why you wrote this wonderful book. I agree with the back-cover blurbs, especially Kate Gale’s words: “These stories offer a compelling look into the sadly common and unfair expectation that women who physically and mentally care for children and aging parents ought to be the ones who compromise their own intellectual and professional passions.”

As a working mom who has had her share of caregiving and paid the price in physical illness, your book is revealing but it is also funny. Each of the characters—Mauve’s daughter, son, and mother, especially, but also her brother, ex-husband and father as well make us laugh, not at them but at ourselves and our own predicaments and situations. And then at the end, there is wonderful—well, I won’t give it away! Writing It Real members will have to ride along with the strong voices of the characters to the book’s satisfying ending.

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