Authors · Writing

A Perfect Life: Interview with Eileen Pollack

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Eileen Pollack’s third novel, A Perfect Life, “considers the moral complexities of scientific discovery and the sustaining nature of love.”

The protagonist, Jane Weiss, is a bright and devoted 30-something workaholic scientist researching the genetic marker for a neuro-degenerative disorder, Valentine’s disease. Her mother passed away from the disease she’s devoted to researching, and now Jane is worried that it may have been passed on to her and her sister. Jane’s father met a woman named Honey through his philanthropic work for the disease. Honey lost her husband to Valentine’s and brings her son, Willie, to meet everyone as she and Mr. Weiss announce their engagement and wedding within the year. Jane is happy for them, if a little shocked, and even more so when she finds herself falling in love with her soon-to-be stepbrother.

Set in Boston about 30 years ago, this first-person narrative takes the reader through a journey of love, scientific discovery, and family dynamics. Throughout, the reader can feel Jane’s confusion, anxiety, love, worry, depression, and elation. It raises ethical questions, like whether genetic testing should be done, and “the power to tell a healthy person when and how they will die” along with the unpredictable anxieties that would inevitably and understandably come with such a result.

Pollack’s control of language is brilliant yet accessible to a wide range of audiences. It’s a novel full of unique similes like comparing a scar to a “road hacked by a machete,” a life “like an engine misfiring,” “DNA strands like cellophane noodles” and clouds “like amoebae swimming past the light beneath a microscope.”

One of the first two women to get a BS in Physics at Yale, Pollack graduated at the top of her class. But after all the sexism she experienced, she felt burned out and frustrated, and walked away from physics. “I took some writing classes my junior and senior year from John Hersey, a wonderful teacher and human being.”

Pollack talks about her life as a writer, her new novel, and gives advice on MFA programs.

CB: What was your path like from your time at Yale to becoming a writer? 

EP: I got a job at a newspaper and really got an education in how the world worked, what people were really like. Writing on demand like that so much every day was just an amazing experience. Then eventually I decided to apply to Iowa’s MFA program. Iowa was really the only choice back in the day. You either got in, or you didn’t go anywhere.

CB: Iowa is considered THE program for writers. What was your experience like there? 

EP: Everyone had bad experiences there, but I got to work with writers like James Alan McPherson who were really wonderful teachers and role models. I can’t say I learned so much about writing from workshops. But I hadn’t read much contemporary fiction, and I didn’t know how to read as a writer. I didn’t really understand how a writer transforms experience into art until I hung around with McPherson. I also learned a lot from my classmates. They were doing interesting things and it was easier to imagine what they were doing than try to imitate Philip Roth. Some of my classmates taught me really useful things about structure. But the competitive aspects of the program were really destructive. It was a nerve wracking experience, so, years later, when I came to direct the MFA Program at Michigan, I made sure we tried to create a real community.

CB: What was the inspiration for your new novel, A Perfect Life

EP: As a science major, I felt one of my strengths was writing about science. Not science fiction, but fiction about people who lived in a world of science. Most writers don’t write about science. They write about what they know. Then again, I studied physics, not biology. I didn’t take a single biology class in college; I didn’t think about genetics at all. But I married a geneticist. I became fascinated by his work–he worked in a lab at MIT where his colleagues were trying to find the gene for Huntington’s disease. No one had developed a technique for finding markers for genetic diseases yet. I found it fascinating because there was a woman named Nancy Wexler whose mother had died of Huntington’s … it ran in her family. So she was 50 percent at risk, as was her sister. Her father had funded a research foundation to find a test for the disease, and Nancy was working on the team, so she was a woman who was working to find the gene for a disease that she stood a very high chance of inheriting herself. She was young and still could marry, but my understanding was she wasn’t going to marry and have children if there was a chance she had the gene and could pass it on to her kids. So that idea of looking to find a test for a disease that you might or might not have when you’re of an age to still make a decision about whether to have children really fascinated me as a writer.

I saw Arlo Guthrie was doing something with the foundation; his father, Woody, had died of Huntington’s, so Arlo was also 50/50 at risk for the disease. But I started to wonder, what if he and Nancy had met and fallen in love? Would they marry? Have kids? Would he agree to be tested? In real life, Arlo had already said he had no interest in such a test. He was already married and had kids. He said: “This is not how you live a life. Kids are a blessing, no matter what.” I thought: That’s such an interesting viewpoint! I thought: What would I do? Would I take the test? I also saw it as a very interesting love story. If you think about the Victorian novel, what could keep two people who were really in love with each other from marrying? If they weren’t of the same social class. Or if someone was already married and you couldn’t get a divorce. Things like that.  But today, if you love someone else, you can get a divorce. Social class and race don’t matter so much anymore. Nothing sets a barrier. So is it still possible to write a love story where two people can’t get married and have kids even though they love each other? Maybe if their genes were screwed up… So that struck me as a contemporary way to look at it, in the world we live in now. It’s science, their genes. And do we want to live that way? Where people want to have each other tested for x, y, or z before they get married? As we develop a chance to live a perfect life, science gives us a chance to live a perfect life— what does that even mean?

CB: You hear about celebrities paying money to select certain characteristics (a boy with blue eyes, for instance) and it makes you wonder what length people will go to in order to get a perfect life. Are we breeding certain things out? 

EP: Even the notion of a healthy pregnancy— I have a friend who is severely disabled, but she’s a wonderful person who’s had a successful career as a filmmaker. If her parents had known she was going to get this disease that left her in a wheelchair, would they not have had her? That would have been a real loss for everyone concerned. She actually became a character in the novel, the protagonist’s best friend, who is working to find the cause of a different disease. There’s a black character who wishes her son only had a 50/50 chance of getting hurt or killed as a young black male in this country— what about that risk?

CB: Very few novels portray the lives of women in science. What’s the inspiration behind your decision to write about a female biologist?

EP: I wrote [A Perfect Life] quite a long time ago, and I was having a very difficult time getting it published. I was told men won’t read fiction written by women. And women/ women’s book groups, I was told, won’t read anything that has science in it. This was told to me by female editors! There was just this feeling that women were scared of science, and they wouldn’t read a novel that has science in it. But then I wrote a nonfiction book called The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club, and it got a lot of attention. Suddenly, the topic of women in science, in STEM fields, was very hot.

CB: What happened after all of this rejection? 

EP: Well, I’ll tell you the truth, because most people don’t. I was very angry and depressed and frustrated. You have to have good friends who keep telling you not to give up, people who believe in you.

CB: Tell me about your writing process. 

EP: I’m a pretty methodical person, and I try to write every morning no matter what. And I think that’s really key for a lot of people. Whether you feel inspired or not, whether you think you have the time or not, you have to make writing a priority. It was harder when I had a young son and when I had health problems. But having summers off, that’s the best part about teaching, because that’s when you can get real work done. I can’t really write new stuff when I’m teaching. So I tend to write a first draft of something during the summer so I can really be immersed in it. But I can revise during the year. Some writers write line to line: the first line has to be perfect before they move on. And they don’t revise much. But I’m not that kind of writer. I think, I take notes, I do research, but then I write the ugliest what I call “zero draft” because I can’t even dignify it by calling it a first draft. I tell my students you have to be so forgiving of yourself. If you feel too bad about how the writing is while you’re working on it, you’ll never get anywhere. Then, when I revise, it’s pure pleasure, because from draft to draft I’m just getting happier and happier. I just keep doing that over and over. I take it as far as I can take it.

CB: Do you have a network of writers you show your work to? 

EP: I was in a wonderful writing group after I left Iowa, and I’m still in touch with those friends. One of my most trusted readers is a former MFA student who I just think is a brilliant reader. I like to have a number of readers because it’s such a burden to keep asking any one person to read your work. I need readers less often now, though, than I did when I was just starting out. I can get a manuscript further on my own.

I think that’s what MFA programs are good for— finding people to read your work. I know some writers who are terrific writers but not good readers. If something’s wrong, they can’t articulate what’s wrong. So when you find someone who has those qualities, you buy them dinner a lot and be nice to them.

CB: How do you develop the skill of articulating what works and what doesn’t in a piece? 

EP: As a teacher, I’ve thought a lot about what I can do to help my students develop this critical feedback skill. I think most people in an MFA program have a good sense of language, character, and whether something is plausible or not, but there are questions about structure to ask: What do you think makes a story a story? What makes a story satisfying? Maybe a character wanted something and got it, or didn’t get it? Or maybe a story is about how people change? You tend to develop that sense of structure by reading a lot of stories. And you ask yourself: What made this a story for me? This was satisfying, but why, what happened? Or you read a story that doesn’t work for you, and you ask what didn’t happen in this story, what left me feeling unsatisfied.

In fiction, it’s called the sense of structure, what makes a story a story. David Means or Lydia Davis, or Ben Lerner, someone who doesn’t write traditionally structured fiction— they’re doing something that makes a story a story and not just a bunch of words. So, if you want to write nontraditional stories, you need to be able to articulate that to yourself— what makes a story a story for you. Take the story apart. It may involve drawing an upside down triangle. I do a lot of diagramming of my stories for my students. Not in a first draft, but you have to have some way to look at the story’s narrative structure. No one would build a building without a sense of what a building looks like. What arcs will make it satisfying and give it some shape?

CB: When you work on a novel, do you write it all out and then revise? Or do you employ pre-writing, character sketches and such? 

EP: As I struggle through the zero draft of the novel, I keep a notebook about who these characters are and where the plot is going, so when I revise the zero draft, that helps. It’s not until the third or fourth draft that I have something solid. I tend to write complicated novels with lots of characters so I have to take notes.

CB: There’s a stylistic choice to not use direct quotes in most of your dialogue scenes. What was the effect you hoped to achieve?

EP: I didn’t want the science to weigh down the actual dialogue. The way a scientist would actually be talking might be incomprehensible for a layperson.  So I’m trying to give an impression of the scientific explanations rather than the actual jargon the scientists might be using.

CB: Who are your favorite authors, and how do you discover new ones?

EP: I mostly read junk growing up so I’m still trying to catch up on the classics, but I did read Dickens as a child, so I count him as a big influence. Joan Didion, Alice Monroe, Alice McDermott…But it really was Iowa: Flannery O’Connor and Cheever and Carver and those people I never would have found otherwise. And then just getting in the habit of finding other writers. I think that’s what’s best about an MFA program, teaching you how to read, how to find the writers who will inspire you.

Michigan has been a great place to be because everyone comes through Ann Arbor with our reading series. It’s a major Midwestern stop. Whoever comes to Michigan I get to hang out with, like Alice McDermott, whose work I’ve admired for years and years.

CB: Do you think MFA students should come into a program having read certain pieces of literature?

EP: About 10 years ago [Michigan’s MFA program] instituted a reading list for incoming students. The whole idea might seem a little retro because it makes it look like we have a canon. We do have a fair number of dead white males on the list. But the writers on our faculty are a diverse lot. And when we teach, we’re usually talking about a very diverse pool of contemporary writers. That said, there were some really cool writers before you even get in the 1700s. It’s nice to have books in common or stories everyone has read that we can talk about with each other. At the end of the first year, everyone takes a written exam in which you’re supposed to go back to the books on the list and talk about what you can steal from those writers. You start to realize, hey, people in the 1800s were thinking about race and class and gender. Or you learn something from the way Flaubert wrote a sex scene.

CB: What should potential applicants consider in MFA programs? 

EP: Don’t go right out of undergrad. You’ll have much more to write about, have a tougher skin and more confidence. You’ll want to take your work as far as you can possibly take it on your own so that it’s the best you can do and you don’t know how to make it better. Plus, waiting and growing as a writer will help you get into a program.

Even if you do get in, if you’re working on a project that is still young, then all the help you get from your instructors and all the contacts you’re going to make aren’t going to help you publish the book. I think waiting is a really good idea. You’ll know when you can’t take your work any farther. When you can’t stand not having more time to write.

Also, consider where the students are happy—you can do this by visiting the program  and talking to them. If you find a place where you get funding, that means they are serious about you and you’re not a cash cow. I don’t think location matters; it’s such a short time. You can come back home; home will still be there. Make sure the faculty is devoted to teaching and not only to their own writing. It’s sometimes hard to tell who will be teaching there and not on leave, but overall you should be able to tell from the program’s overall ethos. And make sure you’re not competing with other students over funding packages.

CB: How do you make a life your yourself as a writer for long term?

EP: I think the mistake people make is to imagine they’re going to write a first book that’s going to become a best seller and they’ll get a great teaching job and they’ll be set for the rest of their lives. But it almost never happens that way. There are some visible examples, but it’s the one percent. The first book is important, yes, because you might not get a chance for a second, but you have to find a way to sustain yourself over a lifetime of ups and downs. You need to find pleasure in the writing itself apart from whether it gets published or not. And a way to support yourself even if you’re not getting paid for writing. Make sure your job is reasonably enjoyable because you might be doing it for a long time. Surround yourself with people who really believe in you as a writer. There might be many, many years when you’re not publishing. I think the mistake is that people coming out of an MFA think they’ll have this award-winning book and that’s the only way to be a writer. I mean, that’s lovely, but that happens to virtually no one. I also try not to worry too much about what other people are doing. Competition can be unnecessary and counter-productive. There’s an essay called “Envy, The Writer’s Disease” by Bonnie Friedman that I give my students.  Writing isn’t about speed. There are no winners and losers. There are many different ways to make a life as a writer. This could be editing or teaching or nonfiction online writing. I have a former student who’s now editing for jezebel.com and has gotten a national reputation for doing that. So when her novel is good and ready to come out, it will get a lot of attention.

There’s no one path to being a writer. It’s an art. That’s the one thing, if you’re not writing, you’re not going to become a writer.

For more information on the author, visit eileenpollack.com.

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