Robin Oliveira’s debut novel, My Name is Mary Sutter, was selected as our September Read of the Month. Please enjoy the second part of her fascinating interview with SLR contributor, Adele Annesi.
There are a fair number of novels and stories set during the Civil War. Were you concerned that the theme was a bit overexposed? What was the greatest challenge you faced in giving the topic a unique spin?
When I told a friend about my book, he turned to me and said, “Not another #@$%ing Civil War novel?” But I was confident that MNIMS was about a forgotten aspect of the war: its medical challenges and the subsequent development of medicine in America as a result. Much had been written about the subject in non-fiction, but not in fiction. I felt the story had to be told, because the history of it encompassed vast displays of personal courage in the face of widespread despair. Nurses and doctors sacrificed themselves in a way we can hardly imagine now, just a hundred fifty-five years later. That particular history carried great power, and I had faith in that power. The greatest challenge was not caring what anyone else thought. I simply wrote the book and decided that if I had wasted years writing a book that no one else would care about, then c’est la vie. The story had to be told.
One of the heaviest themes of the book is the pull of family obligations – particularly for women – contrasting their desire to follow their own path, as Mary opts to disappoint her own mother and avoid returning home to help with the birth of her twin sister’s baby. As a debut novelist, have you experienced that common “guilt” women feel when we pursue our careers? How do you balance it all?
I wrote the book while I raised my children, and, like all mothers, I made choices regarding the best use of my time. My choice to pursue writing and attend graduate school while my children were students themselves resulted in my not attending their PTA meetings, serving on school committees, or pursuing other communal activities regarding my children’s scholastic experience. Given the values of the area in which I live, this was a socially ostracizing choice for me and perhaps for my children. But I was also lucky. Because my husband was able to support me in my endeavor, I did not have to steal family time from the evenings or work while the children slept. I worked while they were in school. But there were moments I regret. I had to be away on my daughter’s sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth birthdays because they fell during the residency period of my graduate program. I have carried guilt about that ever since, and probably will to my grave, no matter how much she says she forgives me. But it is difficult to say how much any of this affected them, positively or negatively. My daughter just graduated from college and my son is entering his junior year. They are proud of me. In many ways my pursuit of a difficult path that resulted in success modeled for them something I could not have achieved had I set aside my own desires to fulfill some ideal picture of attendant motherhood.
How did you decide on the third-person omniscient viewpoint, and what were the challenges and advantages of writing from this perspective?
I made the choice as I did the research into the medical and political conditions under which the entire divided country was laboring. Mary’s desire to become a doctor required that the reader understand the complicated environment in which her desire was to play out. This was not merely a story of one women’s fight against gender bias, it was a story of the evolution of modern medicine and nursing, the political and martial intransigence that prolonged the war, and the family saga representative of many family sagas of that era. To present that story demanded omniscience. To have kept to third person limited would have meant a less overarching picture of the conditions of the war.
The challenge involved finding a way to smoothly transit from one point of view to the other and to gain control and personality of the narrator. In order to carry the reader from one person’s POV into another’s, to smoothly summarize events, and to allow commentary in the form of aphorisms, the move between the general and the particular was made sentence by sentence, from the narrator’s all-knowing aspect until the reader was comfortably transported inside a particular character’s point of view. For instance, in the first paragraph in chapter six:
Six weeks later, on a warm afternoon on June the fifth, 1861, a petite, dark-haired woman, often mistaken from afar for a child, strode three diagonal blocks down New York Avenue in Washington City. Crossing the cobbled street, Dorothea Dix dodged bands of drilling soldier on Pennsylvania Avenue, then swept up an ill-tended slate walkway to the tall double entry doors of the president’s house, where roving sentries let her pass with a nod. Presenting a letter confirming her appointment with Mr. Lincoln, she took in the tattered rugs and dingy walls that adorned the entryway of the Mansion and decided that chief among the needs of the new president was a better housekeeper.
In the first sentence, the narrator states time and place and describes the new character. In the second, the narrator names her. In the third, the proper name is reduced to a pronoun, thereby establishing intimacy. At this point the reader is inside Dorothea Dix’s consciousness. The reverse of this is performed to move out of her point of view into another character’s.
To introduce the narrative breathing space to include aphorisms, the narrator pulls back. For example, on page 249:
They were both standing now, shouting to be heard over the baby, whose cries seemed the repudiation of life itself. Amelia’s face eschewed sorrow for fury and indignation. The satisfaction of anger. Later she would regret everything, but latent remorse would not repair the damage. For all the things we say to our children for their own good, very little good ever comes of it.
The space is made for the narrator to utter the last sentence, an aphorism, because she has pulled back from the points of view of each of the characters and is freely observing. In this instance she remarks not only on what Amelia feels but what she will feel in the future, something that third person limited viewpoint would not allow.
This telescoping in and out, sentence by sentence, allowed my narrator to roam from character to character, across time and space, to tell a fuller story than more limited points of view would have told.