Novels based on historical figures are hardly uncommon these days; you could even say they were more than a bit of a trend. (Loving Frank.The Paris Wife. The Master's Muse. The upcoming Freud's Mistress).
Right now, we're crazy about Fever by Mary Beth Keane; it tells the story of Mary Mallon, better known to most of us as Typhoid Mary. Keane's novel is a thoughtful, sympathetic look at the working class cook who may or may not have infected much of haute New York on the eve of the 20th century; equally compelling is the portrait Keane draws of immigrant life, of politics (sexual and otherwise) and of the city that, somehow, we can never hear enough about.
I asked Keane, currently on tour in the UK, to answer a few questions about her book.
What's the elevator pitch for your book?
It's a novel about Mary Mallon, who was the woman known as "Typhoid Mary."
What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner is on my bedside table. I'm about halfway through and loving every word. I just pre-ordered Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on my Kindle and look forward to when it magically appears.
Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?
Oh Wow. Can I do this? This is a list that's always in flux. Dubliners. The Collected Poems of Seamus Heaney. Pale Horse Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter. My Antonia by Willa Cather. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Ask me next week and the list will be different.
Important book you never read?
Book that changed your life?
The Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle
What's your most memorable author moment?
While on tour for Fever, I boarded a plane in Boston and sat next to a person who was reading a review of my book in The Boston Globe. When she finished reading it she removed the page from the rest of the paper, folded it, and put it in the side pocket of her bag. I spent the next six hours thinking of ways I might tell her that I wrote that book, but the longer I waited the weirder it would have been to let her know that I'd been reading over her shoulder.
What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?
I've often fantasized about not needing sleep and feeling no physical side effects whatsoever. I'd be willing to plug myself in somewhere for, say, an hour a day (as long as the recharge system was hands-free and I could read or use a laptop during this period), but other than that I could just do what I liked with the WHOLE day and not have to waste all those precious hours snoozing. This superpower is only useful if I'm the only person who has it. If other people also get this ability -– and start ringing the phone at 3 a.m. –- then I'd like to select a new superpower.
What are you obsessed with now?
Time. Finding it, using it, stretching it, somehow.
What are you stressed about now?
Time. See above.
What are you psyched about now?
I'm excited and anxious to be starting a new book. I'm at the horrible part right now where every day is a blank page moment, but hopefully it won't be too long until I'm sure about where it's headed and I can feel good about it.
What's your most prized/treasured possession?
When I see this question asked and answered in other places people often say their kids. I don't consider my children to be my possessions, which is the only reason I'm not naming them here. As for material possessions, I have a box of letters my high school boyfriend -– who is now my husband –- wrote to me back in '93 and '94. In the same box is my high school diary. Though I don't think I've actually looked at any of the contents since 1995, I carted that little shoe box with me to college, and to every apartment and city I've lived in since, so I guess that means I treasure it, but I'm still afraid to reread what's in there. I'm SURE twenty years is not long enough. One day.
Author crush -- who's your current author crush?
What's the last dream you remember?
It was too disturbing to share. People will think I'm insane.
From Ulysses, Episode 17: "The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit."
Best piece of fan mail you ever got?
I got a letter a few weeks ago from a retired gynecologist who'd worked for Planned Parenthood in the 1960s and 1970s. He told me the highlights of his biography and it was just riveting! The letter was handwritten, four pages front and back, and at the very bottom of the second page when he'd run out of room he wrote in teeny tiny print, "by the way I'm writing because I liked your novel."