1. In your new novel, WHEN MADELINE WAS YOUNG, a tragic accident befalls newlywed Madeline Maciver in the 1940s, rendering her brain capacity to that of a seven-year-old. This accident serves as a catalyst for change that affects two generations of the Maciver clan. What served as the inspiration for your story?
In Elizabeth Spencer's novella The Light in The Piazza, a young American woman who suffered a brain injury when she was 12 marries an Italian in Florence. Because of the language barrier and the way the woman's mother manipulates the situation, the Italian family does not realize that the bride is impaired. After seeing Adam Guettel's haunting musical, (You've got to love a musical that ends with a song that has the words, "Love's a fake, love's a fraud"!) and reading Spencer's gorgeous novella I couldn't stop thinking about the aftermath: what happens in the years following the wedding? I first saw the Chicago production and as I remember it, the Italian man nearly bumps into Clara in the piazza on his bike. When I went to New York to see it a year later their meeting was different. Had I imagined Fabrizio on the bike? I'm not sure, but the bicycle seemed an important part of my image of both of them and a logical instrument for her tragedy.
2. After the accident, Madeline's husband Aaron divorces her and later marries Julia, the nurse who cared for Madeline during her recovery. Aaron and Julia decide to raise Madeline as their own child (after her own parents basically abandon her), and later have a son and daughter of their own. Why do Aaron and Julia bear familial responsibility for Madeline? How does this decision later affect their relationships with their own children?
That's the big question in the book: Why do the Macivers take care of Madeline? Is it because they are good people through and through, the kind of people who naturally are self-sacrificing, generous, dutiful, kind, loving towards all? Or, do they care for Madeline out of a sense of guilt, as a kind of payback? Mac, the son, and his Aunt Figgy have very different opinions on the matter. Figgy doubts that anyone can be inherently good, that Julia has unflattering reasons for taking care of Madeline — a martyr complex, for one. Mac would say his parents were devoted, dutiful, loving.
3. Mac — Aaron and Julia's son — serves as narrator. After using a male narrative voice in your previous novel, Disobedience, why did you choose to do so again? Did you feel that Mac's perspective affords a more objective, bird's-eye view of the family as a whole?
It's fair to say that this book is a continuation of Disobedience. Although Mac is not Henry Shaw, WHEN MADELINE WAS YOUNG is yet again a book about a mother and a son. Most of my decisions about a book take place at an intuitive level but I suppose I wanted to see what the mother-son relationship looked like years down the line. It's always interesting to take on the opposite gender, to look at the world, and at women, from the point of view of a man. After writing several books from the point of view of a man I have such sympathy for men! I don't know that Mac has a more objective view of the family, but as a child he felt things keenly; he's sensitive, thoughtful, has a wry sense of humor — he's the observer in the group.
4. Intelligent and introspective, Mac idolizes his worldly, macho cousin Buddy. Mac is awkward whereas Buddy is comfortable in any situation. As both mature through adolescence, we see a distance grow between them, especially when both face the looming Vietnam War. Buddy serves his country and Mac becomes a conscientious objector and their camaraderie is shattered after a disastrous meeting in 1975. Literally and figuratively, war plays a prominent role in the story of the Macivers. How does the specter of Vietnam and the loss of his own son in the Iraq war change Buddy's attitude towards Mac? Did current world events inspire you to write about war or was it a product of the sweeping historical canvas of WHEN MADELINE WAS YOUNG?
After 9/11 it no longer seemed terribly important or compelling to write domestic novels in which children go to therapy and make peace with their families or wives get empowered, leave their husbands, and meet a better man. Once I had the Madeline bit of the book — that was the kernel — my inchoate ideas about how families talk about politics, how in most every generation boys get sent to war, how an individual's and a nation's idea of goodness and evil shape policy -- came together in the Maciver family arguments. Madeline's story became embedded in the Maciver family and their times. Buddy and Mac's relationship is deep, loving, perhaps a little homo-erotic, hostile, and important to each of them.
4b. Although Mac and Buddy foil each other, their opposite personalities highlighting the other's strengths or weaknesses, they seemingly need each other as well. Their reunion specifically illustrates their intricate relationship — although they have matured and outgrown some of their familial rivalries, they still revert back to horse-play and competition. However, as adults their rough-housing seems therapeutic, a form of connection. How do their different personalities compliment each other? And why, is their relationship, although extremely difficult at times, so important to each character and the plot of the story overall?
Buddy and Mac were litter-mates. Because of those years at the lake house they have a bond that is not, perhaps, as intense as a sibling, but cousin doesn't really describe it. Litter-mates is the term they might use. If they hadn't had that bond, if they were strangers, they would never have been friends; they would have had no interest in one another; they would have been dismissive. Although they don't in some ways understand each other, they do have a deep familiarity of each other's proclivities. That makes for tension in a novel — two characters who have love for each other but deep-seated hostility.
5. As Madeline physically grows older (yet her mind remains permanently fixed), she becomes vaguely aware of her sexuality. In the spring of 1963, she begins "dating" Mikey O'Day, a neighbor who is handicapped due to a bought of meningitis as a baby. Mikey sings nightly at the local Dari-Dip, and Madeline is entranced. Madeline's burgeoning sexual development mimics the sexual revolution of the 1960s — Julia reads both The Feminine Mystique and The Second Sex — yet Mikey later moves to Florida with his parents and Madeline is devastated. Was it difficult to extend Madeline's stasis to her love life as well? How did your research help you successfully render the relationship between two mentally handicapped people?
One of the things that is striking about The Light in the Piazza is how impressionistic and brief Clara's medical history is. I read a lot about brain injuries — however, as much as I admire a book like Saturday I didn't want to write a novel that features specific details, page after page, about neurophysiology. Although Mac is a doctor he doesn't feel compelled to think about the characters of his childhood through the lens of medicine. In fact, Mikey's syndrome is not something he would have gotten as a result of meningitis. Mac would have known that but as a grown man but he chooses to continue to see Mikey just as the neighborhood gossip-girls presented him. Every person who is brain injured is different (so I read) — it might have been more medically likely that under the circumstances Madeline would be sexually aggressive and overweight but I did feel a certain liberty to invent her, brain injury and all, having my guide the statement that everyone who has been injured has unique behavior.
5b. Julia is a very strong female character. Endlessly patient and generous with Madeline, she simultaneously loudly voices her opinions about politics and the war, sparking heated family debates. Was the character of Julia modeled after anyone in your own family? Her daughter Louise finds her mother's attitudes hypocritical — Julia promotes civil rights and freedom, yet Louise accuses her of treating their housekeeper Russia as a servant or even a slave. As an adult, Mac realizes that perhaps Julia and Aaron limited Madeline's growth or possibilities as well. Is there a contradiction between Julia's strengths and beliefs in public issues and her actions in the home?
Julia is not based on anyone in my own family, no. My own mother probably shares Julia's political beliefs and although she goes to city council meetings and takes part in her community I would not call her an activist, (and also, my own mother is and was physically beautiful — a stunner, in fact). I think Mac is correct when he's arguing with his sister about the housekeeper, that Russia is a product of her time, that a 60 year old black woman who has worked for the same family for 40 years can't simply go out and get a job at Marshall Fields (No Macys!) and find happiness. Julia, too, would have understood the complexity of the race situation, whereas Louise is a young firebrand, a girl who is all fury.
6. In the final chapters, the adult Mac accompanies Madeline to Italy. They revisit the piazza where the young Madeline met her first love before her accident, Mac desperately wishes for Madeline to remember this happier time. He tries to trigger her memory by telling her a story of a beautiful, young girl who meets an Italian man on a bicycle. Does she remember anything of her "previous" life? Does it matter if she does? Why is it so important to Mac for her to remember this particular event? Why does it take Mac so long to realize that the family did very little to improve her daily life or expand the limits of her mind?
In her 80's, on that trip to Italy, I doubt that Madeline remembers anything about that love moment. I think it's probable though, that after the accident she remembered pieces of her old life that her long-term memory was not as disrupted as her husband believed it to be. Mac wants Madeline to remember the beautiful Italian boy because he's a little drunk, because he has a genuine if perhaps cockeyed need to have her seize her old self. I'd argue that Julia Maciver did try to help Madeline improve her mind, especially at first, doing puzzles with her, reading to her, doing craft projects. Mac doesn't question the fact that his parents infantilized her because she was always as she was — something as he grew up he accepted as a matter of faith. It takes his Aunt's bullying him to make him think about Madeline in a different way.
7. Your books all have Midwestern settings. Does the Midwest represent a particular slice of American life to you? How does a sense of place inform your characters and their story?
I've always lived in the Midwest. I can't un-tease this part of my life, my self, from the other parts. When people ask me what it is to be a Midwestern writer I don't know what to say. Would I write differently if I lived in Mississippi or Colorado? Probably. But I can't say how.
8. Julia's death initially angers Mac. There are suspicions that she knew of her illness, but did not take steps to prevent her death. As a doctor Mac feels he has failed his mother, yet Aaron reminds Mac that Julia didn't want to be strapped to a high chair outfitted with a drool bucket. Why does Julia decide to die without medical help? Is it a reflection on Madeline's limitations that Julia has witnessed and aided?
I think Julia has heart failure. I doubt she knew she was going to die. But also, I think she would have been happy with her fate, if she'd been able to plan it.
8b. Julia's death also rejoins Aaron and Madeline. They have come full circle, growing old together as they had originally imagined before her accident. What does their later relationship represent?
I suppose if it represents anything it is the old fashioned idea of duty, of staying the course in marriage.
9. How does Mac's childhood and his relationship with Madeline affect his relationship with his own daughters? Did his mother's strength, education, and generosity influence the way he raises his own children? Did Madeline's childlike personality help him more easily relate to his daughters?
I think his relationship with Madeline directly affects his relationship with his wife. He ends up with a woman who is somewhat child-like — (he even calls her Lamb, just as his mother called Madeline Lamb). He's stuck in a marriage — no way out for the dutiful man that he is — but without the benefit of a third-wheel.
10. On the surface, Mac's early childhood seems idyllic — loving parents, neighborhood friends, a large summerhouse where his extended family gathers for holidays and reunions. However, Madeline's misfortune haunts Mac's life — if it wasn't for her bicycle accident he would not exist. The tumultuous political environment of the Vietnam War and Gulf Wars places a further stress on Mac and the world in general. Although WHEN MADELINE WAS YOUNG begins in the seemingly innocent 1950s, Mac's life is never uncomplicated. Does the beginning of the book evoke a more innocent time in America and then illustrate a troubling progression? Or do the Maciver family's uniqueness and the world's political difficulties show that there never was truly an innocent period?
I don't think the 1950's were an innocent time, and the Macivers wouldn't have felt it was so. Despite the prosperity of the 1950's, the recent war, the revelation of the death camps, the dropping of the bombs, the McCarthy hearings, the race issues — no, this was not a time of innocence. The Maciver family argues through the decades and the same mistakes are made.
11. You portray Madeline's character with extreme sensitivity and care. How did you blend her adult attitudes and needs with her childlike demeanor and state of mind? Did her intellectual and emotional regression highlight her personality before the accident?
I wrote a lot of drafts, is about all I can say.
12. What are you currently working on now? What book have you recently read and enjoyed?
Alice McDermott's After This is the best book I've read in a decade. She is sublime — in a class of her own.
I'm reading and thinking towards a new book but don't know what, exactly, it will be.
From the Hardcover edition.