Thursday, September 15, 2022

Q&A with Ellen Meeropol




Ellen Meeropol is the author of the new novel The Lost Women of Azalea Court. Her other books include Her Sister's Tattoo, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Ms. Magazine and Guernica. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.


Q: You write, “When I moved to the neighborhood built on the grounds of the former Northampton State Hospital, I was already working on this novel [The Lost Women of Azalea Court], but it was set elsewhere.” Where was the novel originally set, and why did you decide to set it on the hospital grounds?


A: Early drafts of the first few chapters were set in a neighborhood in a small industrial city in Massachusetts, where the story centered on an elderly couple, Iris and Asher. That setting was not inspired by much of anything other than being close to the medical center where Asher was a retired pediatric surgeon who refused to accept the death of his wife.


In 2017, my husband and I moved to the “hospital hill” neighborhood, created when the state mental hospital was demolished. Living there, I realized how much depth that setting could offer the story.


So, I resurrected Iris and Asher became a psychiatrist, the man who ran the hospital for the last 40 years of its operation and oversaw its demise. The novel begins when his wife, Iris, discovers unacceptable secrets about his work there and goes missing.


I became obsessed by the state hospital, spending hours in the hospital archives, reading 150 years of annual reports, studying the remaining buildings, and interviewing people who had worked at, or been incarcerated at, the hospital.


As I learned, as I lived in both the real present-day setting and the imaginary past setting, the ghosts of the women who lived at the hospital began haunting me—both the women with mental illness who, for the most part, did not receive the care they needed, and the “inconvenient women,” who were committed to the hospital because they did not fit into the social constructs of their time.


Q: How did you create your cast of characters, and what inspired the novel's plot?


A: My novels all have multiple narrators, but this one has more than most. There are 15 characters who have a voice in the book, plus first-person plural sections that form a sort of Greek chorus called simply, The Women.


I’ve always enjoyed reading novels that use a first-person plural (I’m thinking especially of The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett), and sections of “we” narration felt like the perfect way to tell this story.


The characters grew from the setting, a cul-de-sac of six bungalows originally built to house hospital staff but now condos. Most of the characters live in those six homes, or once lived there; others include the detective assigned to find Iris and a homeless woman who lives nearby.


The characters grew from the setting and the plot developed from those characters, from Iris and Asher and their long history together, especially the secrets they kept from each other.


Their neighbors, who had never been particularly close, grew more connected to each other as they searched for Iris, as they worried about her, as they began to understand their own secrets and trauma. The greatest joy of writing this novel was the way these very different characters, these lonely and angry women, came together as a group.

Q: The Library Journal review of the book says, in part, “This latest by Meeropol...the daughter-in-law of the late Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, contains mystery elements, but it’s primarily a story of loss, healing, and women’s strength.” What do you think of that description, and do you see your family history playing a role in the story (the Rosenbergs are mentioned more than once in the novel)?


A: My family history does not play a strong role in the plot of this story, not like it did in my last novel, Her Sister’s Tattoo. But this is a story about the ways in which past trauma, and the secrets we keep, stay with us.


For Asher and Iris, being Jewish is central to their identity, even though they are not religious, because antisemitism is real and important to them. In addition, the McCarthy period and the Rosenberg case form an important part of how they view the world, part of their vulnerability to the world.


So, the case, and Asher’s childhood experiences in the anti-Nazi resistance, are a critical part of their background, and of the social/political context of their world and the world of this novel.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I never know where a novel is going. I never outline, rarely have any sense of how the story will end. The process of discovery, alongside my characters, is a great part of the pleasure I get from writing. And yes, there are sometimes tangents and dead ends and backtracking, but eventually the story grows in a way that feels organic.


I’m not saying that this is the best way to write a novel, only that it’s my way. This novel, once I understood how important the place, the neighborhood, would be to the story, actually came together more quickly and easily than some of my other books.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a collection of short stories, linked by place and intertwined characters. However, I should admit that I have a fraught history with short fiction; many of my stories morph into novels, so who knows what will happen to these.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Just that it is tricky setting a novel in your own neighborhood. And that’s particularly true when that neighborhood carries such a heavy emotional baggage. I have a couple of friends who have strong and painful connections to this state hospital; my move to this neighborhood and writing this novel has been difficult for them.


I knew little about the treatment of mental illness when I started writing the story. I have done my best to learn as much as I can, to illuminate and share what I understand, and to honor the people who suffered in this place.


Salmon Rushdie said that “A poem cannot stop a bullet. A novel can't defuse a bomb...But we are not helpless…We can sing the truth and name the liars.” That’s what I’ve tried to do with The Lost Women of Azalea Court—sing the truth and name the liars.


There’s more information about the novel, links to essays about research and craft, and a full list of book events with registration details at my website, I’m delighted this time to be able to do a mix of in-person, virtual, and hybrid readings, including:


Sept. 14, 6:30 pm – Book launch, in-person, Forbes Library, Northampton, MA

Sept. 20 and 21, Northampton State Hospital in history & fiction: walking & reading tour

Sept. 22, 7 pm, Adventures by the Book VIRTUAL conversation, on Fireside Chat

Sept. 29, 7 pm, Reading & conversation with Caroline Heller, Odyssey Bookshop, S. Hadley, MA

Oct 3, 7 pm, Book event at Wellfleet Public Library, Wellfleet, MA

Oct 12, 5:30 pm, with Matt Tannenbaum, Lenox Library, Lenox, MA

Oct 13, 7 pm, with Randy Susan Meyers, Belmont Books, Belmont, MA

Oct. 27, 7 pm VIRTUAL event with Colin W. Sargent, PRINT: A Bookshop, Portland, ME


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ellen Meeropol.

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