Thanks for the story, Susan! I loved the central ideas, as well as a lot of the bits and pieces of the story, such as the concept of the hospital as an organism; and I appreciated the treatments of various characters. One of the cool facets here is the positive and spiritual portrayal of Christian practice. Do you feel like writing stories with a Christian perspective poses specific or unique challenges in terms of the market and/or the way the piece might be received?
Yes, definitely. A lot of people have had terrible experiences with organized religion and especially with Christianity, which since the fourth century has been much too cozy with empire. I describe myself as a “Proud Member of the Christian Left,” but I can’t blame anyone for being unaware that there even is such a thing, or deeply suspicious of the entire project. At the same time, though, spiritual care really is essential in healthcare settings. I’ve spent ten years as a spiritual-care volunteer in an ER, which is obviously where a lot of the story came from. I can attest to how much it means to patients, Christian or not, to have someone in that role. (There’s research about this, too: Spiritual practice makes people more resilient in the face of hardship.) We’re trained to talk to anybody, and proselytizing—which I’d never do anyway—is a definite no-no. To make Win’s character more palatable to readers, though, I deliberately made his faith rather fragile. He’s very isolated and having a spiritual crisis himself. At the same time, I tried to show that this is one reason he’s having trouble coping with his job. He needs support and doesn’t have it. He’s lost his connection to what’s larger than he is.
The notion of love and its role in death/the afterlife, as well as the way this relates to the needs of the dying and the dead, is a fascinating and powerful concept. I think one of the nice turns in the narrative is that Maisie, in having this great need—and (importantly) despite being an individual who some see as disposable—is also a provider, fulfilling that need for others. Is the role and treatment of individuals like Maisie important or personal for you?
Yes. Maisie isn’t modeled on any one patient, but I’ve met a lot of people like her in the ER. They show up with complaints no one can figure out, because what they really need is social contact; this is an inappropriate use of medical resources, but simply being with other people can also be genuinely life-saving. I’m very sympathetic to such patients, and—more generally—to anyone who tends to be stigmatized, including patients with addictions or mental illnesses. I have a history of depression myself, and volunteering is part of how I keep myself well, so I see myself in Maisie. Trying to help other people is how I help myself. I’ve also witnessed more instances than I can count of patients helping each other, even with simple things like cab fare or watching kids while someone goes off to X-ray. Being useful, which is how many of us demonstrate love in action, is a basic human need.
I enjoyed the way the story immediately develops a likeable protagonist, in the character of the vulnerable and flawed Win “for Winston.” What are some of your favorite techniques and tools to create a character who is both plausible and likeable?
To be likeable, I think characters have to be flawed! I can’t stand perfect characters; can you? As for techniques, one simple one is to contrast what the character most needs to do with a personality trait which makes that task very difficult. Win needs to advocate for more spiritual care in the hospital, and also needs to reach out to other people for his own sake, but his first impulse is always to evade conflict and avoid problems. This trait is a huge factor in his burnout and one reason he winds up in such a mess with his bosses. He’s also in the situation common to many professional caregivers of feeling like there’s nowhere he can go to get care himself.
I feel like this story really plays with identities and assumptions, with seeming contradictions built into the characters. For example, as mentioned above with Maisie, an individual who is “disposable” and, if anything, underestimated, but who can potentially be very helpful; with the tattooed and dangerous-looking ER staff; with Luz, who is physically small but very strong; and more. Do you draw these themes of contradiction and assumption from aspects of your own experiences?
Yes, very much so. When you think about it, the seeming contradictions make complete sense. Some of the kindest and most sensitive ER staff I know are people who look really physically intimidating; they’ve developed such good people skills because they realize they can scare patients just by walking into a room. Tiny women in marginalized jobs need to be tremendously strong to survive that experience. That’s true, really, of anyone at the bottom of any pecking order. By this definition, anyone we’re tempted to dismiss is likely to have astonishing smarts and tenacity. Some of my favorite ER patients over the years have been homeless guys; they often have a lot of problems, including addictions and mental illnesses, but most of them are also incredibly intelligent and articulate, quintessential survivors. You don’t stay alive on the streets without impressive internal resources.
What can we look forward to seeing from you soon?
I have a lot of partial projects, both short stories and novels, which I hope to finish someday! Right now, though, I don’t have much time to write. I’m in the middle of a career change—after twenty years as an English professor, I’m going back to school to become a medical social worker (big surprise, right?)—so between teaching classes and taking them, I’m very busy. I do hope to send out some new work this year, though.
Susan, thanks again for the story, and for your time!
Thank you for the thought-provoking questions. I’m delighted to have this story published in Lightspeed!
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