The genre I post most often about on this blog is memoir, because, well, I’m a memoirist, and teach creative nonfiction. But I also love fiction. I love novels! I especially love to come across novels by emerging writers, and especially if these writers happen to be mothers. So you can imagine how excited I was to crack open Remedies, the first novel by Kate Ledger, who is a mother of a six-year-old daughter and twin 3-year-old sons and lives here, in the Twin Cities.
Remedies is a stunning debut novel about Simon and Emily Bear, a couple who have grown apart in the fifteen years since their infant son died. It’s a story of loss and healing and the lengths to which people will go to not feel pain. Ledger’s prose is tight and her narrative is engrossing.
Simon Bear is a doctor who runs a private practice from the basement of the couple’s home, and he’s obsessed with treating his patient’s chronic pain. When his father is in a car accident and fractures his ribs but feels no pain, Simon is convinced that he’s discovered a cure for chronic pain.
Emily, who is a partner in a PR firm and likes everything in its place, struggles with what kind of mother she is as she constantly battles her rebellious thirteen-year-old daughter. She seems dead inside, dulled by the energy it takes to protect herself from grieving her son. But when Will, an old flame, reenters her life, something inside Emily begins to thaw.
I have long wondered how Donny and I would have managed if Stella had not made it out of the NICU. We experienced her hospitalization and the long, isolated months that followed so differently, and it put a tremendous strain on us. But we always did come together. Eventually we sat down with each other on the couch and hashed out our emotions, trying to understand one another. But the loss of a child is altogether different, and I’m amazed by my friends and their spouses who have had to navigate this terrain.
I have more to say about Remedies, but I’m going to hold myself back because I have the author, Kate Ledger, here at Mother Words today, and she has been gracious enough to answer a few questions.
KH: Can you talk a little about how this book started? Was it with an image, a character, an idea?
KL: I write about health and medicine for a living, and I get to talk with a lot of doctors about their work. I was awed by several physicians I’d met who’d made incredible discoveries or developed new treatments. I decided I’d write a novel about someone who’d discovered a cure for something, and chronic pain seemed like a complex and amazing thing to cure. My first scratchings, though, were about character: what kind of person would believe he’d made a remarkable discovery, one that was quite possibly helping people but that also came with no actual proof? But as I dug in, it became clear that this doctor’s desire to cure pain in other people came from an inability to address his own emotional pain. I began to imagine Simon Bear in the context of his family, his desires, and the losses in his life. I imagined that this was a man whose marriage was in great trouble. The book became deeper then, and evolved into a story about a family and emotional pain, in particular the difficulties of experiencing—and sharing—grief.
KH: You began writing Remedies over a decade ago, before you were married and became a mother. How did your relationship with the subject matter (a troubled marriage and the loss of a child) change after you became a mother?
KL: Even though I knew Simon’s marriage was in trouble, for a while I wasn’t sure what that trouble was. The answer clicked after I had kids. It was a scary moment, though. I’d been thinking about Simon and what might be plaguing him. I asked myself what I was most afraid to write, what words was I most afraid to see on the page? As a new mom, I was most afraid of losing my child. And I was also afraid of the blame that might linger between two parents when it wasn’t clear who, if anyone, was at fault for that loss. My first response to the idea was to resist it—no way, I can’t write about that! And my second thought, feeling that I’d hit on a very vulnerable aspect of human existence and certainly of parenting, was that I had to write about it.
KH: A big part of this story for me was about the power of loss and how something as huge and devastating as the loss of child can pull partners apart. I’m wondering how you settled on this loss as the one that would come between Emily and Simon. Did you do any research on the affects of losing a child on a marriage?
KL: I did do research about loss. That was excruciating and humbling, and I spent a lot of that research time choked up and teary and feeling grateful that my kids were doing well. I did some reading about the effects of loss on a marriage. Some studies—though not all—suggest the divorce rate after the loss of a child is astoundingly high. Mostly I was concerned about how difficult communication might be between two parents who’ve lost a child. We all grieve differently. We need comfort at different times. We experience the need for answers, rationalizations, spiritual connection differently. For all their flaws, Simon and Emily Bear have a deep sense of respect for each other. For years, they’ve both been shielding each other from grief. They’ve done everything in their power to move beyond their tragedy. But my feeling was that if you don’t address that pain, it not only doesn’t go away, but it becomes heightened. And it gets expressed in your life in new and uncomfortable ways.
KH: What was the most surprising thing that happened in the process of writing Remedies? (In terms of the narrative itself, your writing process, or how you approached the material.)
KL: All of it surprised me. I was surprised when the final draft looked completely different from the first draft. Same basic story, but completely different book. I was surprised the day I finished—because I hadn’t dared imagine that I’d reach a day when I’d lean back and say, “Wow, I’m done.” I was surprised a few days later to realize there was more I wanted to patch in the middle of the book and the patching turned out to take two months.
KH: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
KL: I think one of the most challenging parts of any type of writing is trusting the fact that the first draft is a first draft. You might hope what immediately bubbles up out of you will be polished and perfect, but getting to the final stage is an arduous process.
KH: Can you talk a little about how your writing life fits in with the rest of your life—mothering and teaching?
KL: That’s an interesting question. I assume you mean time-wise. Writing is like other work. And I spend each work day working on some form of writing or another. The writing part is pretty lonely. Some days, especially if I like what I’m working on, I find writing like problem-solving and it’s incredibly energizing. I go back to being Mommy at the end of the work day, and I think I’m better with my kids having occupied that other space for a time. I think my children are proud that I write. My daughter has been like a publicity force, telling people about the book. One of my three-year-old sons recently put on my one pair of high heeled boots and paraded around the room saying, “I’m going to do a reading.” I guess that’s what I look like.
KH: Can you describe the editorial process? (How much did you revise the manuscript after it was sold? Can you also talk a little about what it’s like to work with an editor?)
KL: I was tremendously fortunate to work with Amy Einhorn. She began her own imprint at Putnam, and she’s selected her own books, which means she’s working directly with the writers on about 12 books a year. She chose The Help and The Postmistress, both of which became bestsellers. She’s lovely and very incisive, and I felt this great sense of trust that the book was in great hands because she sent me an e-mail at one point saying that she was in her office and had to go fix her make-up. She’d cried while reading the book. She didn’t ask for any structural changes in the manuscript, but she did send pages of revision notes with lots of questions and requests to flesh some things out more thoroughly. I wrote another 40 pages. She was very specific, and I loved her ideas.
KH: How does it feel to have this book out in the world? What kinds of responses are you getting from readers?
KL: The most amazing thing is the way readers have hooked into the book from all angles. I’ve gotten e-mails from people who’ve said that the book affirmed their decade-long experience with pain. Others have written to say the book made them reflect on their marriage. There’s a spiritual aspect to the book, too, a longing for community and ritual, and people have responded to that, too. The most moving e-mail was from a woman who wrote that she and her husband lost a child five years ago, and that the effects of that loss have continued to ripple through their marriage. She wrote that it was both difficult and comforting to read Remedies, and that even though their outcome was still in progress, the book had come along at exactly the right time.
Thanks for taking the time to be here, Kate!
Go get this book, people.