Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Q&A with Alison McGhee

Alison McGhee is the author of the new novel The Opposite of Fate. Her  many other books include Dear Sister and Never Coming Back. She lives in Minnesota, Vermont, and California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Opposite of Fate, and for your character Mallie?

A: When my kids were tiny I had a recurring nightmare in which I fell unconscious for many years and then woke into a world in which my children were grown. Life had passed me by and I was wild with everything I had lost.

The questions raised by that dream are with me still: If I were to disappear forever, what would I want my children to know about me? What would I want to tell them, and everyone else I most love? Even in the absence of consciousness, are we somehow still connected to those we love?

These questions felt worthy of a novel to me. In my very first novel, Rainlight, a young girl named Mallie grappled with the same questions in the wake of her father’s accidental death.

I had always wondered what became of Mallie, and I decided to find out in The Opposite of Fate. At age 21, the grown Mallie now finds herself living out a version of my long-ago nightmare. When she finally wakes up, she has to figure out how to come to terms with everything that happened to her all the months she lay unconscious.

Q: What do you think the novel says about the idea of consent?

A: The idea of consent is simple on one level: everyone has the right to decide what to do with their own body. Everyone has the right to make decisions that are right for them. But when your agency is removed, whether by political decisions or an illness that renders you unconscious, the idea of consent no longer applies.

Who then is the best choice to make decisions for you – a religious community that abides by its own sense of right and wrong? Or the people who have known you your whole life and believe they know what you would choose to do? These are two of the central questions of the book.

Q: What role do you see religion playing in the book?

A: I’m not a religious person and I don’t trust fellow human beings who profess to channel the will of a supreme being. Everyone I know who has ended a pregnancy has done so for good and personal reasons, and never lightly, which is why the ongoing erosion of abortion rights, and the role of religion in it, troubles me so much.

Yet at the same time I’m a novelist who believes that the act of imagining myself into another’s place is our greatest tool of empathy and compassion.

One of my personal challenges in this novel was to step outside my own beliefs and imagine myself into the point of view of someone who opposes abortion. This meant that I had to think deeply about religion and the role it plays out both personally and politically.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: No matter who we are, life throws things at us that we don’t want and would never choose for ourselves.

Mallie’s struggle to figure out how to live, once she wakes up into a changed world, might ring familiar and true to many readers. Not in the specifics of her situation, but in her profound desire to absorb what happened to her and somehow keep living as her essential self.

My greatest hope for The Opposite of Fate is that readers feel that they’re not alone in the human struggle to make sense of our lives and the things that happen to us all.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new novel in which the availability of DNA kits opens up new possibilities for an ensemble cast of characters, all of whom are affected in different ways by the results of their ancestry kits.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You should know how grateful I am to be a writer, to connect with readers in this invisible sort of way. It makes me feel less lonely as a human being, and I hope the same is true for my readers. Thank you!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Alison McGhee.


  1. All of your novels, Alison, deal with the human spirit, how we respond to external and internal turmoil, how we deal with others, how we connect. You are a master storyteller - telling us our own stories with fresh perspective.

  2. Alison, your comment about how you can use writing as a source of compassion for those who may be quite different from ourselves, is poignant.

    It has caused me to respect my friend and fellow author, Walt Kirn even more. His novel, "She Needed Me" is about a young Christian man who meets a woman while he is protesting at a clinic that provides abortion services. I know Walt is very unlike his main character, and I never understood why he wrote that book.

    Thank you for helping me to understand an old friend even better. Empathy all around!