|The author Rebekah Fraser, at a recent interview to chat about the book. Lucy Gellman Photo.|
Francis McKenzie is falling in love on the dance floor. The music has done its magic, the dance steps feel like silk beneath his feet. But he already knows it won’t work: the love interest is a patient on the psych ward where he works, which is a non-starter. And he’s the oldest person alive with cystic fibrosis, and has no idea how many years he has left.
This is the world in which Rebekah Fraser’s new novel The Orderly finds itself almost half a century ago, as it opens on Tewksbury State Hospital in September of 1969. Outside the country, the Vietnam War is raging, leaving no one at home unscathed. Back home in the Northeast, its aftermath forms a trail of mental illness and addiction, doling out depression in handfuls. As the novel hops back and forth in time, multiple storylines deepen on this trail: of great love, great loss, and great fear in a time of unprecedented warfare.
The novel, years in the making, was released in paperback Friday Sept. 21. Fraser, who is also the co-founder of the "Local Lit At Lotta" series (read more about that series here and here), is in the process of setting up readings as she finishes a book of nonfiction set to release in November.
What makes The Orderly, which Fraser classifies as “a dark love story,” are the characters who inhabit its universe. There is our titular character Fran, a kind orderly at Tewksbury whose love for dancing often outshines his disease, which has put a sentence on his young life. His brothers Marty and Will, a fellow orderly and medic in Vietnam. A mess of sisters and mother who fret over him still, each with their own trials and tribulations. And the patients at Tewksbury—a former debutante hit with depression, a survivor of domestic abuse who has suffered a breakdown, a motley crew of frontal lobotomies and sufferers of post-traumatic stress before it has a name. Fraser takes several of them on in the first person, switching tone as she narrates the same moments, told from different points of view.
For the author, the novel is a work of fiction, inspired by fact and family. As a girl, she grew up watching an aunt and uncle struggle with cystic fibrosis of CF, a genetic disease that causes mucus to build up in a person’s lungs, and often leads to an early death. She learned the symptoms just by being around them: increased risk of infection, frequent trips to the hospital, raspy speaking and breathing. Salty skin, sterility, petit stature. But also life lived fully in the face of illness, that refused to be defined by it. As her uncle grew older, she also learned what it meant to live a sweeping, true love story, that could begin in a psychiatric hospital and last until death.
In advance the novel’s debut Friday, The Arts Paper sat down with Fraser to talk about her process, voice, and the approach to covering something that is at once deeply personal, and has taken on a life of its own. A selection of that interview is below.
Your characters are difficult characters, and I want to delve into that. But before we do—where did the idea for this come from at the very beginning?
So, this is kind of a fun story. My eldest uncle passed away at age 59, technically from cancer, but at the time that he died, we believed he was the oldest person alive with cystic fibrosis.
Fifty-nine is really old for a person with cystic fibrosis.
It really is. We found out afterwards that there was actually a man in England who was 72. So Fran (the main character) is very loosely based on my uncle, who I didn’t really know that well. I think we actually had one conversation in my life. I didn’t even realize he knew who I was. Anyway … it was the last weeks of his life, and somehow I ended up on the phone with him. I’d never spoken with him on the phone. And he said “Bekah, I’m dying.”
I would have been 26 or 27. And we were not close, but this is someone I knew. And he was always part of my life … at family events, at family weeks at the beach, he would be there. We just didn’t talk. So I had this experience, from my earliest childhood, of listening to someone with CF. Which is a very physical disease. It’s coughing phlegm up a lot. It’s monitoring stool color. And my grandmother, it didn’t matter how old she was, they were her kids.
And did you all grow up close to each other? Like, physically proximate?
When I was very little, we lived with my grandparents. My uncle didn’t, but my youngest aunt did. She was a teenager, she also had CF. That was in Hampstead, New Hampshire … we lived with them until I was four. Living with my aunt the first years of my life, I was hearing this stuff every single day. There were visits to the hospital, because both of them were in and out of the hospital all the time.
So let’s get into the story …
The story itself was inspired by the one conversation that I had with him and his wife. My daughter was two months old, and I was living in Illinois. My husband and I went home to New Hampshire to introduce our daughter to everyone in the family who hadn’t met her yet. And my uncle, the one with CF, and his wife, were really dressed up. Like, they came to my wedding and they didn’t dress up. But they came to meet my daughter and he had a tie, and she had this beautiful blouse. And I was so touched by that that it kind of gave an opening for me to start a conversation. They were so in love with the baby, and I was just blown away.
So I said, “how did you two meet?” They told me that when he was an orderly on the psych ward, she was there as a patient. They used to have these socialization dances. Basically, they danced together and they knew right away that they were meant for each other. And they said to each other: “This isn’t the right time. If it’s meant to be, we’ll meet again." And then 11 years later he ran into her at some Elk’s Club Thing, and he went home with her and never left.
Isn’t it? It’s one of the most romantic stories … kind of bizarre. And so that stuck with me for years. I tried to write a screenplay about 10, 12 years ago. And it was a terrible screenplay! I was trying to follow every formula of screenwriting.
I realized I didn’t know them very well, and I was interviewing family members to fill in the gaps. Because at this point, my uncle had passed. And actually, so had his wife. So I was trying to fill in all these gaps, and make the story cinematic. It just didn’t work It was terrible. So I let it go.
Suddenly, a few years ago, I was reading a book on writing … Wired For Story, by Lisa Cron. It’s about the neurobiology of how we take in stories, and what hooks us. I was doing freelance writing not just for magazines, but for organizations. But about halfway through the book, the characters Fran and Irene started nagging at me, really saying “tell our stories.”
I didn’t look at the script. Nine years later, I thought—I’m not going to try to recreate the people who were part of my family. I’m going to take the germ, the love story, and I’m going to take some basic things, like the fact that he had CF and worked in a psych ward, and I’m going to think about what creates that person.
I wanted to ask about that. You have characters who are complicated by their illness—both mental and physical—and then you have characters who have multiple layers of trauma. Part of this story is happening in the 1960s and 70s, which of course is the Vietnam War. And so for you, how were those puzzle pieces coming together?
Well, the main thing for me was that everything had to come from character … and having the endpoint in mind. Then there are a couple little actual things that happened in my family that I just felt made sense for the story.
The uncle who I thank in the acknowledgements is the only uncle that I have left. He was a psychiatric nurse for his whole career. Prior to that, he was a medic in Vietnam. The letters that he was sending home so terrified my grandfather that he reached out to someone with power … and was like “please get my son out of there.” And they did. And the day after my uncle left, his entire platoon was wiped out.
So that’s true.
That is true. That was too good not to include. And it worked so well for the story, I felt, because it really sets the stage for like, “this is the time that we’re in.” And this would be profoundly affecting the protagonist, because he has a family member over there. So he’s constantly afraid of this. And the more I thought about it, I realized that it’s going to be affecting everyone. There is no one in this story, taking place in New England during the Vietnam War, who is not going to be affected by this.
There are so many things going on in my mind all the time that it’s really hard to tell you what I was thinking three years ago when I started writing this. But I can tell you that the things that influenced me were a couple of family stories. And the work that I did for the Polus Center for Social & Economic Development. They do social and economic development with vulnerable people in developing nations.
Very often those people are victims of land mines. I interviewed a number of coffee growers who had tripped a land mine that slipped on their property in a mudslide, and ended up losing a leg. And then I interviewed a land mine removal expert for another article. So that opened my eyes to a whole world that I had never thought of.
And then in 2114, my daughter expressed an interest in volunteering in a homeless shelter in Worcester, Mass., which is near where we were living at the time. She was too young to do it alone. So they said, “if you come with her, it will be okay.”
We would spend the night in the shelter, which was incredibly intense. So a lot of the trauma that’s in the book came directly out of my experience with these women. Not that any of their stories are here … other than abuse. But it was just more the feeling—the feeling of desperation, the feeling of fear, the feeling of “why is this happening to me?” The feeling of trying to figure out how to get out of it. A lot of these women wanted to talk about what was happening to them, and a lot of them were coming out of physically or sexually abusive stations … many with kids in tow.
That leads me right into my next question. I want to ask about cultivating voice, because you have multiple characters, all of whom speak from the first person, and they're all very different people.
So, I think some of it comes out of my childhood. Hearing the voices that I heard growing up in southern New Hampshire and the Boston area as a child. And then some of it comes … I think it comes a lot out of where I’ve been, and who I’ve known, and different experiences.
You know, Jackie [who becomes one of the main characters] being the type of girl who was expected to debut but was then deemed not good enough to debut. I went to college with a lot of girls who were debuting. I’d never even heard of such a thing.
Wait, you mean like debutante balls?
I have a cousin who debuted. We’re like night and day. Two very different people. She’s in Missouri.
So, the people that I knew, they were debuting in New York, where they grew up.
Wow. Well, that’s much fancier than Missouri.
Maybe! You never know. But I did some research, and sure enough, there was a whole debutante scene in the Boston area. I thought—that’s kind of perfect. She’s just in this whole other world that Fran can’t relate to as someone who didn’t graduate high school and grew up in a rural area.
But knowing that about her, it’s easy to say “well, she’s going to be very articulate.” She may also be very mentally ill, and she may devolve throughout the book, but she is going to be very articulate.
[The character] Irene—also not graduating high school. She was growing up in that time, in that place, where racism wasn’t even a word, because if you weren’t white, there was something wrong with you. So, very different manner of speech. You know, I’ve been told I have an ear for dialogue, and I think it’s just because I’ve listened to a lot of different people.
And you’ve lived a lot of different places, right?
I have. I grew up all over the Northeast, I went to school here in New Haven, I met people from all over the world, and then I lived all over the country.
And you were at Yale, right?
I would say that’s interesting, because several people in this book do not speak like Yaleies.
And so within that world, did you feel like you needed to be really delicate in birthing these characters? Being responsible for the words that were coming out of their mouths?
Not because of that. No matter what I write, I think I feel responsible for the words that are coming out of people’s mouths if it’s fiction. And if it’s nonfiction, I feel like I’m responsible for the words that are coming out of my pen.
There was never a point where I felt that I was writing down, if you know what I mean. Like I never felt that I was patronizing … mainly because these were the voices of my childhood. If not my family, then my neighbors. I grew up really poor. The only reason I maybe sounded more articulate is because I grew up in the theater … but then going to Yale shook some of the Massachusetts accent out of me.
So it’s not like … I don’t feel a sense of classicism as I’m writing. It’s just like, these are the people that i grew up with. These are my family, these are my friends, these are people who I lived near. That’s what the voices were.
One of the things that I noticed with one of the characters, Irene, is the phenomenon of code switching. She’s trying to improve herself, and realizes that the world wants her to be a different person to do it. I’m wondering if you, Rebekah, can talk about what you brought of that to the novel as well.
Being at Yale, I did pay close attention to certain things. I never wanted to be someone who was ignored or dismissed because I lacked whatever was considered the proper manner or the proper speech.
When I was growing up, if someone asked “how are you,” the answer was “good!” And where I come from, the answer is “good!” But when I was at Yale, I had a boyfriend who explained to me that that is not correct—he did it in a really crass way that I actually won’t go into—but he explained that the proper answer to that question is “fine” or “well.” And I changed from that moment on. Except when I go home.
Returning to the idea of trauma in The Orderly. Some authors have talked about having sensitivity readers, who have life experiences that the authors may or may not have themselves. Did you do that? Were you worried about readers being triggered?
No. But Annita [Sawyer, who was one of Fraser's readers]—and I’m not sharing anything private because she writes about it in her book Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass—she spent years in a psych ward when she was a teenager. I think it was early to mid sixties. She’s a therapist at this point, and she never mentioned it being triggering.
Sensitivity readers might have been a good idea. On the other hand, I guess I kind of feel like, it’s fiction. If you don’t want to read it, don’t read it. Like, close the book and give it away! Nobody’s forcing anybody to look at this, I hope. There are all sorts of ways where different people can get triggered at different times. We’re entitled to those responses, but I’m not going to censor myself and my creativity because it might offend someone.
Are you hoping that this book will double as bringing awareness to cystic fibrosis in a way that isn’t medical or clinical, or patronizing?
I mean, oddly, no. In part because I love the character Fran, and I hope readers do as well, but I don’t want anyone to get the idea that this represents cystic fibrosis. This represents one person’s fictional experience, and was written by someone that does not have it.
When I was writing the book, I was not thinking about how it represented the disease or people with it. Once it became clear that it was a novel, and once it became clear that I was definitely going to try and get it published … I would hate to put more pressure on a work of fiction than there needs to be. It’s meant to be an entertaining, hopefully somewhat inspiring story. Everything I write is meant to be somewhat inspiring, possibly entertaining. If it’s nonfiction, possibly informative or educational. This isn’t meant to be educational. It’s meant to be entertaining.
But that said, two characters in the book have this disease. So it presents me as an author with a great opportunity to raise awareness about the disease and raise funds for research (five percent of book sales will be donated to cystic fibrosis research). But not in the way that people might think.
At its core, I see it as a love story. And of course, we’ve talked about your response, which is very no BS, of “Oh, you don’t want a love story? Then don’t read it!” But that said, why a love story and why right now?
That’s what the story was. That was always gonna be what it was. That’s reason one. Reason two, for me, is because I love love stories. I love love! I am a hopeless romantic, for myself and for everyone else.
And for the world, I feel like love is something that we need to think more about, and to focus on especially in dark times. That’s why, on the back [of the book jacket], the hook is “love can boom in the darkest of times.” That doesn’t just refer to the times these characters are in, mentally and socially, but also to where we are in the world right now. This is a pretty scary time to be alive, especially in this country, but love is still blooming and it still can bloom. I think that that’s a message that we all need to hear.
Find more about Rebekah Fraser’s work at https://rebekahlfraser.com/.