When kindergarten teacher, Colleen Gallagher, arrives at her daughter’s house, she hopes to mend fences and pitch in with the new baby. Instead, she learns her son-in-law has ALS. As the young man’s condition worsens, she becomes his caregiver. Weeks turn into months. The grandkids keep her awake. The dying man isn’t noble. Her daughter resents her presence. Colleen is going broke, but feels compelled to stay. The powerful cocktail of love, duty, obligation, exhaustion, and frustration make it hard for her to remember why she ever asked for family leave. Now, she must decide which is more important, saving her daughter or saving herself.
About The Author
A former carpenter and mother of five, Marylee MacDonald began writing when her last child left for college. Her fiction has won the Jeanne Leiby Chapbook Award, the Barry Hannah Prize, the Ron Rash Award, the Matt Clark Prize, and the ALR Fiction Award. Her novel, Montpelier Tomorrow (All Things That Matter Press, 2014), was a Finalist in the IPPY Awards, the Eric Hoffer Awards, the Bellwether Prize, and the FaulknerWisdom Prize. She is widely published in literary magazines such as American Literary Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Folio, Blue Moon Literary & Art Review, Broad River Review, Chattahoochee Review, Folio, Four Quarters, New Delta Review, North Atlantic Review, Raven Chronicles, Reunion: The Dallas Review, River Oak Review, Ruminate, StoryQuarterly, Superstition Review, The Briar Cliff Review, and Yalobusha Review. She is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship for Fiction and residencies at Hawthornden Castle, the Vermont Studio Center, and Footsteps for Creativity. She has been a Writing Fellow at the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University, and she currently leads a writing workshop in Tempe, AZ.
The Theme of My Writing Journey: Life Intervenes
On December 7, 1971, my life changed forever. The phone rang, one of those old-fashioned, gurgling, trans-Atlantic connections.
“John’s been in an accident,” the caller said.
“Is he hurt?” I said.
“He died on the way to the hospital.”
John was my high school sweetheart. I was twenty-five. I was six-weeks pregnant. From this day forward, I would not have the luxury of staying home and writing the great American novel. I’d have to replace John’s income.
This photo was taken in 1970, the year John finished his PhD at Stanford and the year before we moved to Germany, where he had taken a job at a research institute.
Here’s me with the baby born seven months after his father’s death. In August, 1972, I was about to start graduate school.
Knowing that writers often taught as a means of supporting themselves, I enrolled in a Master’s program in English/Creative Writing at San Francisco State, wrote a novella, and earned a credential for junior college teaching. I didn’t relish the thought of teaching. I feared that teaching would siphon off my writing energy, and, anyway, how could I legitimately teach creative writing when I barely know how to put a story together? Two years later, the only jobs I could find were one–year gigs in Wyoming and Uganda.
Rather than uproot my children, I talked myself into a job at Sunset magazine. Later, I took a job at Addison & Wesley. After a year, they fired me. With an ice pack on my head and the lead weight of desperation on my chest, I read What Color Is Your Parachute? I made lists of my skills.
Oddly, one skill surfaced again and again. As a kid I’d built forts. I’d taken shop. I loved working with wood and tools. One of my undergrad friends from Stanford told me how much he made as a carpenter, and that convinced me to switch careers.
Working as a carpenter to support my children left me tired at day’s end, but I could write a story in my head while I carried sheetrock and hammer-tacked insulation. The first story I sent to a literary magazine came back with an acceptance and a $15 check. I received encouraging notes from New York editors. I thought building a career might bear some resemblance to building a house. I carefully laid the foundation by working on my writing after I finished the dishes.
I built the shutters, porches, and belvedere (the room at the top), and this is the house where I raised my kids.
In the 1980s when I remarried, I moved to Urbana, Illinois and married another scientist. I did not have a job, nor did I know any contactors who might have hired me, so I restored a condemned 1869 Italianate villa, hoping it would give me some local bona fides. Though I was writing again, I only wrote intermittently and had no “writing practice,” meaning a daily writing habit. My writing mentors in grad school—Kay Boyle, Ray West, and Wright Morris—never talked about the daily habit of writing, and I assumed they had blocks of free time that my life as a mother didn’t allow. Moms are infinitely interruptable. That doesn’t exactly go along with deep concentration.
In truth, I was a lot more concerned with improving my construction skills. By this time, I had graduated from grunt laborer to remodeling contractor. I could plaster, jack up tilted floors, remodelintg kitchens and baths, run wiring, and deal with cove molding. I hired apprentices and trained them, which was all fine, except that the late nights I had once spent writing now required me to work on bids. I wanted to write, but I had too many other things going on.
Finally, when my youngest finished college, I no longer had monthly tuition payments. My professor-husband accepted a job at Northwestern, and we moved from Urbana to Evanston.
A Room of My Own
Sitting down at my desk on the North Shore of Chicago, I finally began getting my head back into writing. I began with Writers Digest self-study courses. I signed up for writing workshops. Eventually, I found Fred Shafer, a dedicated, lit-loving guru of the written word. Every Saturday his short story workshop met for a three-hour session at his house, and once a month, his novel workshop came together to discuss novels. Working with Fred and doing close study of the writers he brought in–Tobias Wolff, Margot Livesey, Charles Baxter, Andrea Barrett, Francine Prose, Frederick Busch–I learned how to write scenes, develop characters, and revise. My participation in his workshops continued for years, a sort of extended MFA, only better. Apart from my husband and kids, my whole life revolved around the friends in made in that group.
More recently, I enrolled in Stanford’s Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing. It might sound like I’m a perennial student, but I’m not. It’s just that I’m still eager to pick up ideas that will make revision easier. My novel, MONTPELIER TOMORROW, took twelve years to write, and at sixty-nine, I don’t have the luxury of taking that long with my next book.
The Fine Line Between Fact and Fiction
People always ask me how much is fact and how much is fiction in MONTPELIER TOMORROW. The anecdote I told you about my first husband’s death is fact, but knowing that an irreconcilable loss can drive a plot, I reconstituted that traumatic life-episode into a fictionalized version of what I knew to be true about grief and its aftermath.
The protagonist of the novel, Colleen, fiddles with the wedding rings on a chain around her neck. She communes with her dead husband. Readers understand that while Colleen is reliable in most areas of her life, when it comes to her own unresolved grief, she is blind. This drives the plot because readers want to know if the character will or won’t be able to let go of old baggage.
The triggering incident that brings all this to the surface is ALS. The disease forces the old grief to the surface. Once ALS enters the picture, it sets in motion a chain of “becauses” that form the backbone of the plot. It’s because of this old wound that Colleen decides to stay and help her daughter. She’s trying to make up for all the times she wasn’t there before. Working out of the wound provides the plot’s underlying architecture.
When I was working on the novel, I looked out the window of my apartment and saw a house that seemed like just the kind of fixer-upper Colleen would have finally been able to afford. The house was brick, and imagined it like the one in “The Three Little Pigs.” Nothing could blow it down, not even ALS, and in that house, Colleen would feel safe, if only she could get back home.
Evanston is also unique for its beaches. When Colleen was living in Washington, DC, caring for her son-in-law, she was thinking about how much she’d rather be walking on this beach, a ten-minute walk from her imaginary house.
Scene or Summary?
When readers flip through MONTPELIER TOMORROW, they will see a great deal of dialogue. That was an artistic decision. The average reader has much better recall for what happens “in scene.” Writers are frequently advised to “Show, don’t tell.” Ordinarily, I like to balance the two. However, in this book, I wanted readers to zip themselves into Colleen’s body-suit and walk the caregiver’s walk.
I had a second reason for choosing to tell the story in a way that puts readers “in the moment.” When characters behave badly to one another, readers can make their own judgments about who’s right and who’s wrong. At book clubs, it’s really interesting to listen to comments about the characters’ bad behavior.
When book clubs discuss the book, people often make comparisons to their own lives and the choices that present themselves when someone gets sick.
Most readers have felt that Colleen’s voice carries the story, but despite her experience, Colleen makes errors of judgment. She gathers the data—again, as we all do—but she is not clairvoyant and misreads the clues. One thing that’s interesting about Colleen is that she isn’t the mom-who-sacrifices-everything kind of mom. She’s a rescuer, but she has limits. She often exceeds those limits, but only for a time.
I haven’t talked much about the dying man, Tony. Suffice to say, he isn’t noble. He’s funny, but he’s a pain in the neck. If readers want a noble dying man, they ought to read Tuesdays With Morrie. My book is more like Tuesdays With Morrie’s Mother-in-Law. In many ways, I consciously chose to have the characters in this book play against type.
I guess what I’m saying is that these are decisions I made in how to tell the story. I don’t often let the reader come up for air. I smiled when I read a comment by one recent Amazon reviewer. “Secure your seat belt, Montpelier Tomorrow is a fast-paced ride. From page one, it dashes along – just like real life, except this suspense novel does not involve action stunts, but chronicles real life human drama.”
I Have a Lot to Learn About Marketing
At the time this book was accepted for publication, I had no idea the final six weeks prior to publication would be one of the most emotionally intense periods of my life. I reread the manuscript four times, and the last time, I threw my head down on my arms and sobbed. At bookstore-readings certain passages make my throat close down to the size of a straw. I don’t mind crying in front of an audience, and I just plow ahead until my eyes clear.
Prior to publication, I was unaware that Amazon and Goodreads would play a crucial role in helping readers find my book. Like Rip Van Winkle emerging from his century-long sleep, I knew nothing about social media. I didn’t have a Facebook or Pinterest account, and I scoffed when people talked about Tweeting. My publisher, All Things That Matter Press, gave me valuable guidance, but post-publication, I faced a steep learning curve. I now have a blog on caregiving and two author sites, one based at the Authors Guild, and the other my writer’s web page where I blog about writing, craft issues, travel, and “finding my bliss.” This is a term my web consultant stuck in there. She thinks I’ve lived an interesting life.
I’ve been astounded by the many generous and insightful comments from readers. At a talk I gave one night, a man in his eighties approached me and asked me to sign his book. “I’ve never been able to forgive myself for not ‘being there’ when my mother had Alzheimer’s. Your book helped me forgive myself.”
“Why is that?” I said.
“Because, as I read this, I saw that perfection is unattainable. We’re all just doing the best we can.”
Apart from the five-star ratings, specific comment posted on Amazon and Goodreads have meant the world to me. To have written a book that moves readers emotionally has always been my goal.
“It’s rare to find a novelist who can write about powerful emotions with meticulous honesty tinged with bemused humor,” one person said.
“Montpelier Tomorrow is a great read for those who love a good story and a memorable read for those who enjoy impeccable writing,” said another.
I hope that this book will give readers a glimpse of what happens when ALS strikes a family. Certainly, every family will react differently to the challenges of the disease and the intense caregiving needs of the patient.
The book was named a Finalist in for the 2015 Eric Hoffer Awards and the IPPY Awards, but what means the most to me is when I hear from an individual reader about how the book affected them.
This one really got me. “Wonderful book, so true what happens at a family with ALS , my daughter husband has ALS, it is not a easy life for the CAREgivers, in fact, like my daughter with no help, it is exhausting…..and also sad for the person who has ALS they are helpless and know there life is going.”
Where to Buy the Book
At Amazon: http://amzn.to/1e010iI
From Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/1za4zv4
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