Writing Angry Women: A Conversation with Novelist Ellen Meeropol
When I met Ellen Meeropol met at a Red Hen Press authors’ event at AWP in early 2018, we bonded over the climate activism in our third novels, Ellen’s KINSHIP OF CLOVER and my WEATHER WOMAN. We realized that in those books, we had written one central “magical” element into an otherwise realistic story. Now, as we both prepare for the September launch of new novels, we once again discover echoing themes and craft.
Cai: Your new novel, The Lost Women of Azalea Court, centers on a group of angry women fed up with misogyny to the point of action/reaction. Tell us about the story and what’s behind the story.
Ellen: At the center of my novel is Iris, an 88-year-old woman living on the site of a decommissioned state mental hospital and married to the psychiatrist who ran the hospital for the last 40 years of its operation. Iris has spent her life supporting her husband, Asher and mourning her best friend, Harriet. When she discovers the truth about what happened to Harriet, Iris goes missing, and her neighbors on Azalea Court dig into the past. This is a book about how we treat mental illness, about the sins of the past, and about sisterhood.
Cai, there is also an “angry woman, bad man” theme expressed in your new novel, Livid, isn’t there?
Cai: There is. Sybil is a fifty-something woman who finds herself serving on a jury with her ex-husband, Drew, from whom she is estranged. As the trial unfolds — the trial of a woman, Jessie, accused of killing her husband — Sybil allows herself to become unwisely involved with Drew, develops a strong identification and obsession with the defendant Jessie, and the rage she has long buried emerges. I wanted to write a book about the subtle, behind-the-scenes ways in which women are diminished and side-lined, and the resultant rage most women shoulder.
Ellen: Iris and Sybil are very different women, but they both are furious at the situations in which they find themselves. The angry woman theme is certainly not new in contemporary fiction; An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay, Red Clocks by Leni Zumas, and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn come to mind. But angry female protagonists are often labeled as “unlikeable,” as we saw with Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, whose main character Nora references the classically angry protagonist of Ibsen’s Doll’s House.
And, of course, the other side of the equation from angry women are the men.
Cai, you and I share an editor, Kate Gale at Red Hen Press. When Kate called me after reading the manuscript The Lost Women of Azalea Court, her first comment was that it was my most feminist novel yet. I think that’s true of Livid as well. Both of our novels could be read as Uber-feminist, almost man-hating. Sybil’s former husband Drew is not a very nice man, and neither is Eric, Jessie’s husband and victim. Asher, the husband of my missing woman, Iris, has done some very bad things. What are we saying here? Where are we going with this?
Cai: I was very aware when I was writing that most of the men in my book were coming across as assholes or buffoons. I tried to work against that but given the anger that prompted me to write the book, it was hard. I tried to bring some balance to Drew and Eric, and to Jessie’s defense attorney, and even to Jeff and Dan, though I’m aware that none of them is entirely likable. But, since this story is narrated by Sybil who, by the time she is relaying the story has been through so much at the behest of men, the negative portrayals did not seem unjustified. I was thinking about how sometimes women like to join in dumping on bad men, and I am hoping my readership gets on board with that.
What was your approach to the men in your book? Did you have the same concern I did?
Ellen: I did. The more I wrote, the more furious I became with Asher, who is responsible for horrible events. And that led me to thinking about the nature of evil, and the long-term consequences of trauma. Asher was a child survivor of the Holocaust and I’m very curious about how people who have suffered deeply at the hands of others, may rationalize their own bad behavior as necessary for self-protection. I tried to temper the bad things Asher did with an understanding of his trauma. Other male characters in my novel, like Donnie and Arnold may be clueless and ineffectual, but they’re not quite “assholes and buffoons” — I love that description!
Still, the men in our books clearly have the power at the beginning of the stories, and the women can be seen as “missing” from their own lives, at least partially because of the actions of their partners. Without giving anything away, the women do, in various ways, take back their power.
Reading your novel, Cai, I was captivated by the triumvirate of women at the center of the story: Sybil, Jessie, and Elise. They are so different, in background, in personality, and most of all in their relation to the action of this book. Their connection, their almost-merge, fascinates me.
Cai: I have always found that a relationship between two characters becomes wonderfully complicated when a third character enters the picture, or when there is a trio of characters to begin with. The charmed power of three. Sometimes that character might even be someone who is dead, or someone who is possibly not present but both people idolize or lust after. This complicates relationships in such a good way.
In my story three women have been deeply affected by the murder that is at the center of the story: Jessie, the victim’s wife; Elise, the victim’s mother; and Sybil, the juror. As you point out, these women are all very different from one another, cutting across all classes. I liked thinking about the power dynamics emerging from these cross-class relationships.
You, too, have a trio relationship with Iris and Harriet and Asher. I see Harriett as playing that complicating role in your story; she comes between Asher and Iris and prompts Asher to commit heinous acts. Her power is considerable even though we never meet her on the page; she also commands much of Iris’s action in the book. Can you talk about this power of three and how you employ it in your fiction?
Ellen: I see the trio in my novel centered instead on three women who are, each in a different way, lost and missing: Iris leaves her home after discovering her husband’s role in the disappearance of her dearest friend. Harriet triggers much of the conflict even though she’s been dead for decades. Lexi is the daughter of Iris and Asher, and she has never understood her parent or their choices. The women are connected by their pasts, by their anger, and by their determination for the truth to come out.
Thinking about these two novels, I wonder if we both use the trio structure as a craft device to even the power balance between the male and female characters. In both books, as in life, the main male characters have more clout. But as a triumvirate, perhaps three women with less power — Jessie, Elise, and Sybil in your book, and Iris, Harriet, and Lexi in mine — develop their sisterhood power and persist.
Cai: One of the things that complicates that theory is that there is a central relationship in both books that is never enacted in scene on the page. Iris and Harriet were best friends in the past, but she is dead when your book begins, so we never see a scene between them. Sybil and Jessie have a relationship that is conducted exclusively in Sybil’s head, so there is no scene between them either. This absence of “in scene” portrayal could be very undramatic. How did you approach making an on off-the-page relationship as powerful as one that is enacted on the page?
Ellen: Such an interesting question, Cai, and I’m not sure I have a good answer. Certainly, Harriet appears in flashbacks, both from Iris and Asher’s POV, but she also has long been a mystery figure to their adult daughter Lexi, who has become obsessed with Harriet and her role in her parents’ lives. Each of these characters — Iris, Asher, and Lexi — have a very different emotional image of Harriet. Eventually, Harriet’s presence — her ghost! — joins the entire group of Azalea Court women, as they try to understand the past and find some justice in the present.
I’m curious how you negotiated this issue, of a critically important character who does not appear in person, in Livid?
Cai: The character of mine that is somewhat “off the page” is Jessie herself. We see her in the courtroom and hear about her actions from witnesses and attorneys, but we never see her interacting with anyone and only at the end do we hear her speaking. So, to bring her to life, I had to use Sybil’s imagination. And I tried to make her imaginings as vivid and detailed as possible though of course they are not real (though they could be real). I hoped these vivid details would make her come alive. I think vivid details are the way to make anything fictional come alive.
While we’re talking about characters on and off the page, I was surprised that you give narrative voice to so many characters in your novel. I counted over a dozen! I have written novels with multiple points of view, but never that many! What were you thinking, and did you worry about having so many viewpoints?
Ellen: Crazy, huh? Actually there are fifteen characters who narrate this novel, plus a Greek chorus of “the women.” I see this novel as an ensemble piece, almost the story of a fictional neighborhood, of the people who live there now, and the people who lived and died there during the time of the state hospital. So many of the women in this story have been broken or are missing. My challenge was how to include many voices, how to dramatize their different observations of the action both now and then? The Greek chorus was a way to bring them together, for them to connect with each other.
Cai: That is fascinating. And, the title of your novel, Lost Women of Azalea Court, tells us right off that Azalea Court is central to the novel. Can you say more about that? I am interested in the role of this place because at first most of your characters hardly knew one another, and in the end the women–or most of them–have bonded, different as they are. How did the place itself figure in this development?
Ellen: The setting, the hill where the mental hospital once stood, was the major inspiration for this novel. My daily morning walk around the neighborhood, on the sidewalks and trails, was an important part of dreaming up the story. Most days, I sit for a spell on a stone bench at the edge of the hospital burial ground, where unclaimed bodies of hospital patients lie under unmarked graves. Some of the old buildings still stand, repurposed as apartments and condos. The old coach house, Building 9, which now houses a landscape design graduate program, sits right across the street from my condo. I am looking at it now through the window as I type. The history of these buildings and the people who suffered here trigger much of the emotion for the story. In a very real way, I wrote this novel to honor the place and the ghosts of the people who were incarcerated here. The story, and my anger at that past, grew from the setting.
Reading your novel, Cai. I felt that your subject was personal too. What’s most important to you about this story? Where did the spark come from?
Cai: I was inspired to write this book by the excruciating Kavanaugh confirmation hearings which enraged me so much. I hated the way he belittled Christine Blasey Ford; I also thought he appeared unhinged and dishonest, and yet he was confirmed. It was a classic example of a (white) man with power crushing a woman with far less power. It is such a common story. I wanted to chart the emergence of Sybil’s latent anger. She has not been physically abused, but she has been diminished by men in other ways which is the case for so many women. Over the course of the story, in which the murder trial unfolds, she develops strong alliances with other women around her who have been wronged, abused, and belittled, most notably Jessie, the defendant, but also Elise, the mother of the victim.
It’s interesting what you say about trying to understand your character Asher, and through him explore the nature of evil, because that is exactly what is driving my current novel-in-progress. I set out to probe the nature of evil, upset by the evil that seems to have been released at large across the globe now, but of course that is a very abstract goal. I had to find the story that would enable such an examination. And once you find the story it takes on a life of its own and veers a bit from what you originally had in mind. But we’ll see where it goes. I am at the point of doubting whether the whole thing coheres, but when I express doubts to my husband, he reminds me that I always go through such doubt. Hopefully, I will get to the other side! What about you? What are you working on?
Ellen: One of the things I’ve learned about myself as a writer is that I get very attached to my characters. I often invite these characters back, recycling them into new stories. For example, Jeremy, who was a nine-year-old in my first novel, is the college-age main character in the third, and his twin brother Timothy lives on Azalea Court. I’ve decided to embrace this weird propensity and am working on a series of linked short stories centered around another important semi-imaginary setting in my novels, a trio of islands in Maine’s Penobscot Bay.
Cai: I’m glad you’re doing that. I’d love to read some short stories of yours. Before we finish, I want to sing praises for Red Hen Press. They always encourage authors to get to know one another and to work together on events and such. Without the press, you and I, living on opposite sides of the country, would probably not have met one another. And these two novels would not have had the chance to meet each other either!