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Interview Fri Sep 23 2011

Interview: Jacquelyn Mitchard

Jacquelyn Mitchard knows how to do research.

A reporter for twenty years before authoring her first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, Mitchard applies her journalist's obsession with fact-gathering to the process of writing fiction.

"You get a Tupperware box, the big kind, the kind you put sweaters in, and you do all the interviews in the world."

While it may represent a tremendous investment of time and energy, it's also an insurance policy.

"I [take] copious notes, just to make sure I [don't] get anything wrong — [even] for two paragraphs. I do way, way more research than is warranted, and I always will. People can say that this is a really stinky book, but they can't say that stuff is wrong. Ever."

DSC_2268_4_1.JPGMitchard recently appeared, alongside friend and fellow-writer Elizabeth Berg, at a literary event organized by the Chicago Tribune. Discussing her new book, Second Nature, A Love Story, Mitchard has had to adapt to what life has thrown at her more than once, much like her recent novel's protagonist, Sicily Coyne.

The recipient of a full face transplant many years after a church fire left her horribly scarred, Sicily is confronted by the awesome task of having to reinvent herself on every level — the "challenge of inhabiting the face. It doesn't look like the other person, and it doesn't look like you — it looks like both. There's necessarily a changing of your nature."

To write the character more convincingly, for a few days Mitchard wore a blonde wig, "so that every time I passed a mirror I would have to stop and look at myself and say, 'Yeah, that's me.' To understand, even the tiniest bit; to see a face, your eyes looking from that face, and to not recognize it as yourself."

As if learning how to reinhabit herself on the bodily level weren't difficult enough, Sicily is also weighed down by the burden of how to live her life after receiving such a weighty gift.

"She has to endure a great deal of self-doubt" about the choices she makes after the transplant — not only from her family, but from the donor's mother. Her decision of how to live her life no longer concerns only herself, because everything she does is haunted by the question, What am I using this face for?

While we often think of the ethical considerations on the part of hospitals and doctors, when choosing who will receive transplants, Mitchard's research shows the other side of this equation.

"There's an enormous sense of obligation" felt by transplant recipients, "not just toward the donor but toward the world." These individuals feel that they have "to make everything count," and even that they have to be "noble" human beings, because the donor's family "made a noble decision".

The title, "second nature", should perhaps have been written in the plural. "For [Sicily] alone, there are about six, [although] they're successive natures. There are many different iterations of one person's hopes and dreams and plans, and how those are carried out."

"I have constantly," she adds a personal note, "whether I wanted to or not, changed course."

Mitchard's experiences have, perhaps, given her some healthy cynicism. In its most pared down form, the lesson of Sicily's story is be careful what you wish for. "The truth of this book is that having your dreams come true is not something that comes free."

More importantly, it's a story about resiliency — which, for Mitchard, "is not just an instinct, it's a conscious choice." People must choose to be resilient, and they have to reaffirm this choice moment by moment.

"Are you gonna show up? Or are you not gonna show up? This is really the essential choice that we make every day."

Although having taken some fiction writing courses in college, from an "amazing teacher whose students included David Foster Wallace," the experience just "didn't turn the crank for me — but I sure had a good time with it at the age of 16."

Instead, her decision to begin the process of writing her first novel sprang from the tragedy of losing her first husband to cancer. And despite her literary success, she doesn't think of herself as being "a natural".

She's not, she insists, like some people encountered at writers colonies, who "just sit down at the dinner table and take their baby carrots and say, 'Oh my gosh, I wrote thirty pages today! I was just channeling from the universe!' That's not me."

Still, Mitchard has kept at it, this creative process "painful like birth," through grief, gain, and devastating financial loss. She remains focused on the future, eyeing the story she most wants to tell.

"A ghost story, absolutely."

In fact, Mitchard "just wrote my first — is it a ghost story? Well, it's darn creepy."

She contributed a "creepy story about a curse" to an anthology called Live Forever, in honor of science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is her mentor, with whom she "began corresponding when I was a very young woman, and who I've corresponded with forever."

This tale, inspired by Bradbury's writings, is only the beginning.

"I would love to write a collection of ghost stories, or one sustained, spooky narrative. I love creepy things, I read creepy things, [and] I love the connection between old things and haunted things. So that's my ambition."

In the end, it seems Mitchard knows how to do more than research.

She knows how to show up.


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