Interview with Jennifer Uhlich
Originally appearing in small spiral notebook, Spring 2006
JU: Let’s start with the writing of the novel. How long did it take? What sort of feedback did you seek out along the way? How was it expanding a short story? That, to me, seems like one of the hardest things to do—I always have a tendency to view stories that get good receptions as done deals, varnished and ready for display.
MW: I first wrote the story in graduate school, I think the very first semester. I kept returning to it and messing with it for a few months. This was around 2000, 2001. Then I let it sit till after I finished school. I knew it was time to try to write a novel, and I thought I might ease the way a bit if I worked with characters I already knew. I’d written nine or ten stories in school but this is the one in which I was aware that I was only catching the characters in a portion of their lives. Other stories, as you say, were over and done for me, but I thought there was more here.
The initial process of expanding it was really difficult, especially the first three months or so. I had spent years learning how to condense and cut cut cut. To try and relax and be expansive without chattering on about nothing was very hard, as was trying to find my footing in the opening pages, which changed countless times. It was a huge relief once the image and form of the story began to dissipate and I could see it more as the messy pieces of the beginning of a novel. I had a weeklong residency at Hall Farm in Vermont a few months after graduating and I trucked up there with my 60 pages, a plotline for the book, and a plan to come home in a week with a full draft of the novel. I didn’t realize that was totally crazy until I actually did it. A total skeleton draft, just terrible, but something to work with, which is everything.
Overall, from starting the novel to sending it out was about two years. But I’ve worked with and thought about these characters for close to 6 years now, come to think of it. Wow. I was afraid to turn away from the novel at any point because I had to know I could finish it. I was done with grad school, as I mentioned, which is not very well suited to novel writing anyway. But I knew some incredible writer/readers I had met there and at Bread Loaf and at Tin House, who helped me immensely. One read it twice, first the awful second draft and then again when I had made a big change in Kate’s plotline, a change that really solidified and pulled together the whole novel, actually. Thank God, because if he only had the image of that early draft in his head I’d still be embarrassed.
JU: One of the most striking aspects of You’re Not You, for me, is that despite the first person narration, I felt like Kate is as much a protagonist as Bec. It left me curious as to who came first. And I don’t mean that as flippantly as it sounds, because it creates a very complex dynamic: a character serving as the voice of another so completely that the two not only come across equally strong, but at times blend into each other.
MW: They actually were always both there. The first image I put down on paper was the scene when Bec traces Kate onto the mattress. There were a couple ways to go from there: I could focus on the relationship between the spouses, since they’re in Kate’s ex’s house, or I could focus on the relationship between the women. I was interested in the relationship between Kate and Bec. Bec’s focus is so relentlessly trained on Kate that it took a little time to get comfortable writing about Bec when she is walking around on her own. It felt natural to me to have the book in Bec’s head; in a lot of ways she is a little like me. (Though I experimented early on with third person.) That point of view also let me leave a little mystery to Kate and to her marriage. I love the idea of observing this faintly mysterious marriage without giving it all away at once.
JU: Which leads me to my next question: about Kate’s illness, and whether that too was there from the beginning. You mentioned Bec’s focus on Kate, and one of the most compelling aspects of their relationship is how at times Kate’s ALS is everything . . . and at times I nearly forgot she was ill, especially once it is just the two of them and Bec is comfortable in her role. The mattress scene is a good example; despite Kate’s physicality, it felt like two girls having fun, any two girls, and I half-expected Kate to hop off the bed when Bec finished. It also made the ending that much more shocking, and I feel like I should go back and try to map it out, day by day, in order to figure out what I missed.
MW: I’d be curious to hear what you see if you get around to it. Sometimes I felt a little as if I were writing a mystery, because I was trying to drop hints about everything Bec doesn’t know—I didn’t want her to comprehend every aspect of Kate’s illness and its ramifications, or for her to understand every private matter inside Kate and Evan’s marriage. So I was trying to telegraph to the reader that something is coming, yet also let them be lulled along with Bec into that sensation of, “This is just how things are, I’m comfortable, life will go on like this indefinitely…”
As for the illness, yes, it was absolutely central to the idea from the get-go. I’ve known people who have worked as caregivers, and people who have diseases that make them require this kind of aid, and it was that idea that interested me: What do you do with that forced intimacy? Do you embrace it and let it become something more than just work, or do you draw your boundaries really, really carefully and guard them like mad? How do you handle things like sex, or relationships, or just having your body right out there with someone you don’t know, but who you have to see every day (unlike, say a doctor’s office)? I think Kate does a little of both, actually, even as close as they become. She keeps a few things to herself.
JU: Once I finished the book I did go back right away to the doctor’s office. That closed door. At the time it felt like Kate’s just drawing boundaries, but in retrospect I suspect there was more going on. And that is part of the dynamic you introduce, with Bec and Kate oscillating between being intimate and being employee/employer. To what extent do you include your caregiver in your decision-making?
Which brings me to voice. The issue of voice, of being someone else’s voice, of being able to articulate your feelings and experiences. It made me curious about how it was for you as the writer—to take Kate’s character, her experiences and relationships and thoughts which are all now being shaped by her illness, and then filter that through Bec, who also has her own voice and her own struggles with voice.
MW: It is a sort of double filter. I was usually seeing the scene very clearly and just trying to let both people come through. Bec is constantly curious about this and that in Kate’s life; Kate tells her something and Bec extrapolates even further, and sometimes I tried to rein that in a bit: just let Kate say a line of dialogue without Bec jumping in and thinking, Gee, does that mean she wants this, or does that, hates this? And let Kate move, speak, or gesture, or what have you, and let that speak for her feelings without too much interpretation. This was difficult—Kate’s range of motion is limited, so a lot of the gestures, etc., I might normally use to indicate a character’s state of mind are out of the question. Technically speaking, there is the conceit that as Bec gets comfortable, the “translation” aspect of the dialogue falls away, and we read Kate’s voice without the constant process of double-checking words and such.
But then the bigger issue you may be focusing on, is voice as identity and expressing oneself in a much larger sense than just, “Hey, hand me that book.” Bec is both very uncomfortable speaking for Kate in private situations and also very protective of the privilege to do so. And very protective of Kate. I don’t know that she ever really had the experience before of feeling that protective of someone. So her occasional overzealousness comes from identifying with Kate a lot, and wanting to express her own feelings the way you would for any friend whom you think is being treated badly. Which is usually when it’s least appropriate. She’s doing this on behalf of Kate on a personal level, but speaking for Kate also is a source of pride to her. She’s proud of her closeness, proud of her success in this job. And that’s essential to her too—a feeling of accomplishment and competence that’s very new.
JU: I see what you mean, and I think that comes across very well—through these interactions with Kate, we get to see Bec developing emotionally, and it’s a development that she then carries over into other areas of her life. It’s almost as if—and let me know if I’m stretching it too far here—but it seemed as if speaking for Kate teaches her a little about speaking for herself. But I do find myself fascinated by Kate’s voice as well—that she is always filtered for us, whether it’s through Bec, Evan, even Lisa and the wider circle of caregivers and friends. It’s emotionally involving for the reader, because they are forced to grapple with what it means to lose that immediate ability to communicate . . . but also fascinating from the standpoint of the writing itself. It adds an element of unreliability to the novel; you’re communicating the experience of an illness that prevents straightforward communication.
MW: That’s very true, how filtered she really is. I guess you do keep getting these puzzle pieces about Kate from other people. Interesting. It was very hard to gauge as I was writing what cumulative effect this was having, maybe a little harder than it always is to see how your character comes across to readers. Obviously that varies widely. But it’s that much harder for the reader to know Kate, and they also have to decide how they feel about Bec’s presentation of her—do they trust Bec when she says she finds her aloof, or when she says this woman is so wonderful, or do they disagree?
JU: Questions, perhaps, that could also be raised in regards to Evan? Evan, as a character, is very challenging. Like Bec, I found myself having very distinct ideas about who Evan is simply because he’s married to Kate, and then having those ideas challenged, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.
MW: Oh yes. I started out making Evan way too hateable, which is not an actual word but useful nevertheless. And that was just boring, to have someone who’s just a jerk. What was most uncomfortable for you, when you say your ideas about him were challenged? To me the huge, underlying gap in that marriage is the issue of acceptance and handling Kate’s prognosis. Evan wants to behave as if they’re dealing with a long-haul illness, with something he’ll have to live with for forty years. And it’s just not; it’s much more acute than that. Kate can’t trust him to do what she wants with her own life and death, and that’s the real kicker. I’m actually sympathetic to Evan. I think he loves Kate, but he utterly refuses to deal with the real situation as opposed to the one he pretends it is. It’s like he acclimated only so far and then won’t admit matters have gotten any direr than that.
JU: Yes, I sensed that there’s only so far Evan can go . . . The challenge Evan presents, for me, is that he is neither purely attentive and loving nor is he completely uncaring; the discomfort comes from suspecting that most of us would fall into this middle zone. Evan, and to a certain extent Jill, made me wonder about myself. And this brings me to a larger question: You mentioned that you have known both caregivers and people who have similar illnesses, and I was hoping you could expand on that a little . . . one of the things you do very well in this book is delineate many different levels of coping, even many different levels of approaching Kate, and I was wondering if you were drawing on personal experience here.
MW: I worked in a very mild, administrative way for a person who had MS, really not as caregiver at all. I lent a hand with correspondence, helped in the restroom a bit, made her lunch. That was just for a summer after college. I didn’t have anything like the level of involvement Bec has, but it still had me thinking about what it would be like to have your body just start to quit on you, as well as how I saw more of her life and friends, etc., than your average administrative assistant would. So that may have planted a seed. Then later I did know someone who had worked as a caregiver and also someone who had ALS. Kate and Bec’s stories are really nothing like these people’s lives were, but the details jumpstarted it, and so did my own experience becoming friends with people in this situation.
As far as social graces go, I turned out to be a much bigger weenie than I thought I would be. We probably all do. Trying to figure out whom to look at when someone is talking but I’m not good enough at understanding them yet, feeling awkward when communication runs through different channels than usual. It just made me think about how even small things make such a seismic shift. You think, “I’m sure I’m the sort of person who will always see to the core person within,” and then realize that you relied on the cues that aren’t available to everyone in the same way to get to the core person, if that makes sense.
JU: It makes perfect sense, and you can see Bec going through this process too, taking her cues from Kate, Evan, and Kate’s friends, and finally being able to “read” well enough that she can look out from a perspective near to Kate’s. It’s a very privileged position, and I think it’s a valuable one to present to readers, as most of us will never get that deep no matter what our connection to a person with ALS or a similar illness.
There hasn’t been very much written about ALS, has there? I mean in terms of memoir/fiction. Tuesdays with Morrie is the only one I can remember receiving national press; I found a few more memoirs at the local library (I Remember Running, Tales from the Bed), but not that many. Did that affect your writing in any way, the possibility that you are charting largely unwritten territory?
MW: I haven’t seen much about it either. I actually never read Tuesdays with Morrie, especially not once I started writing this, because I didn’t want to be influenced. The research I did was a few books here and there that mainly focused on personal stories rather than hardcore medical issues, and they were not books I had ever come across anywhere but on a specific library search. The idea that writing about ALS was uncharted was not too much on my mind. (Partly because writing about illness in general is so very charted that I was concerned about distinguishing myself from a Sweet Novembery, the-dying-teach-us-how-to-live kind of thing.) But I was thinking about the fact that I hadn’t read any fiction or memoir (not that my knowledge is exhaustive) that tried to be as candid as I wanted to be about things like sex, what happens to a marriage, and all that. And I hadn’t seen much dealing with disease and sexuality and intimacy in a way that tried to approach it levelly and straightforwardly rather than with the sense that this is something weird or prurient. So the sexuality in the book was what I felt was the most uncharted.
JU: Well, and it is a part of the book that springs out at you, because it seems to touch upon so many undiscussed areas at once: sexuality and illness/disability, women’s sexuality, different models of intimacy. It made me squirm a little, but it also felt honest and it was very . . . touching, for lack of a better word. And it seems to open a door for Bec as well. Moments like that, or Bec joking with Kate about her illness, really rubbed up against my preconceptions—I had simply never thought of Kate as a sexual being. But of course she would be. How much do we automatically write off once we see a wheelchair, a body language that is different from our own?
MW: Right, or no body language at all. And yes, I think we write off a lot. Maybe out of discomfort, like with sex, or, as with humor, just because it’s hard from the outside to imagine how a crisis gets drawn out over day-to-day life. You can’t stay at a fever pitch of emotion. Sometimes you just watch a movie. You make really sick jokes and sometimes they’re hilarious and sometimes they’re just really bad jokes. Another thing to consider is the whole issue of touch. Just casual touch, as Jill wonders about at one point, the hello and goodbye kiss or hug.
JU: Or the babies at the wedding, which made me a little teary-eyed. And as a culture we are very careful about touching, aren’t we? We have laws about it and ethics about it and concepts of personal space and boundaries. Yet touching can also heal, emotionally and physically.
I agree that it’s extremely difficult from the outside to imagine coping on a daily basis, and that made me think too about how Bec’s family and friends view her job. Her parents seem to approach her job with the attitude of, well, if she’s good at doing this, then she should go forward and focus on it, i.e. study nursing; but at the same time her mother especially seems ambivalent to Bec’s newfound focus . . . sort of desperate for her daughter to do something, but does it have to be this? It made me wonder if you felt like this was also a larger cultural attitude towards caregiving as a profession.
MW: I think the main issue is a personal one. Bec’s mom’s main issue is, as you say, that Bec needs some kind of focus. Nevertheless, she didn’t send Bec to college (which she herself never went to) in the hopes she’d be a caregiver. Though she wants Bec to gain confidence and direction, she’s not comfortable with the fact that Bec’s version of direction has been to immerse herself so deeply in another person’s life. This is not the education and the focus she wants for her, and she tries to redirect her toward a profession (like nursing) rather than what she sees as a part-time job growing beyond its borders.
I think the parents do reflect a larger attitude toward these professions as being underpaid and depressing. And of course they generally are underpaid. (I can’t speak for depressing.) Yet I also think it’s a moot point for them to worry about Bec becoming a fulltime caregiver forever—to me, this is an unexpected circumstance that won’t be replicated. It’s more about Kate than it is about a new professional direction.
JU: But why is it, for you, a circumstance that won’t be replicated—is it simply not in Bec’s character to choose caregiving as a profession? While her relationship to Kate definitely oversteps boundaries of employee/employer relationships, I did wonder if it might not be something Bec would come back to someday.
MW: From a writing standpoint it seemed too simplistic that in this job Bec has found her vocation for good. (Though in a way I think she does, with cooking, that is less of a straight line.) It felt wrong to me, and therefore to her, when she tried to replicate the job, so I trusted that feeling. What she loved about the job had to do with the person who employed her. Plus I find it intriguing to veer away from the Capital-T Truths about talents and doing what you love and then you’ll have your career—that sometimes luck and chance converge into a singular experience, but it doesn’t continue forever.
JU: Can you say a little more about the importance of cooking? Food serves as a sort of touchstone throughout the book, and really worked to mirror/highlight the changes happening with Kate and Bec.
MW: Part of it is simply that I love to read about food. Some people like details of landscape, which bores me senseless; I love to know what people are eating or drinking. Food, like sex, is such an effective way of catching your characters unawares or vulnerable, devoting themselves to desires they may or may not approve of or even have thought through. I used to do some food writing, and when I first got out of college and wanted to learn about food and wine, I went to the best restaurant I could find at the time and worked there for three years as a waiter. (The restaurant in You’re Not You slightly mirrors that one.) I still cook a lot and read about food a great deal.
For Bec, cooking becomes another duty in which she is increasingly competent, sophisticated, sure footed, and, most importantly, in which she takes pleasure. It made sense to me that this would be the path she’d take professionally, at least right now, one that grew directly out of her job with Kate but not so predictably as if she had decided, “Now I’ll be a caregiver for good.” For Kate it’s both natural and bittersweet to have this lovely food prepared that she can eat only minimally. Natural because if you’ve eaten a certain way your whole adult life, you wouldn’t suddenly tell someone to entertain in your own home with Cheez-Its and pretzels. So when she wants Bec to cook, she asks her to cook the way she, Kate, would have. Yet she makes a place in her life for that cooking well beyond what’s necessary, and she does it because Bec enjoys it so much. She does it to keep Bec happy. All that food, semi-useless and more trouble than they need to take, came to seem to me a real mark of generosity and even tenderness, and a completely unspoken one.
JU: Yes, even the prose you use to describe the food is very tender and loving. It struck me in the same way as when touch is focused upon: it’s sensual, an act of caring. And it seems to give Bec a greater degree of independence. . . yet at the same time it’s something she is sharing with Kate, the savoring of food, learning from Kate and perhaps letting Kate live vicariously through her—? I’m thinking of the dinner with Jill specifically.
MW: You know the interesting thing to me about that dinner with Jill, as far as Kate living it vicariously, is the money issue. Bec’s actually looking forward to behaving like an adult, paying for this lovely pricy meal, etc., and Kate insists on paying for it. It isn’t meant to be controlling but it’s a moment when their agendas butt heads a little bit. That whole night, really, she is very much there, not always in the way Bec wants. The food issue oscillates a bit as the novel goes on, from a way of staying close to Kate to a path to independence and competence, and back again.
JU: Speaking of agendas, I did go back and reread sections, mapping out the hints as to what’s coming, and the strange thing is that in that second read I had almost an opposite reaction: the first time through the ending came as a shock, but the second time I felt almost as if Kate engineers everything, moving everyone around her into the places she wants them to be, whether it’s far away or very close to herself. Perhaps I’m reading into it too much? It made me think, though, about how we manage and control our lives, and what we forgive in people’s behavior. Had Kate been well, I would have thought her manipulative, or selfish. But the ALS seems to justify her behavior.
MW: That’s fascinating that you responded so differently the second time! I think Kate’s behavior seems more mapped out in retrospect than it was in the moment. I don’t think she necessarily has a Machiavellian plan all along, but I do think she acts in protection of certain things. So she’s thinking ahead in some ways—any of her employees would be less likely and less able than Evan to exert control over Kate’s future. She needs control because she’s down to some pretty stark choices. That said, her behavior could be manipulative—and you’re right, we all control our lives in these ways without articulating them as such, often in the way we just avoid feeling crappy in that particular way, at that moment, and for the immediate future. And I think sometimes Kate’s behaving in that way. But is everything she does defensible because she’s ill? Perhaps not. I don’t quite have an answer. Like Evan’s behavior, and like some things Bec does, it’s arguable either way, which is what made it compelling to me to write about.