Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Elizabeth Letts (page 2)
 Talking with
Elizabeth Letts
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Elizabeth Letts

Which came first — the character of Clara, the storyline or the “big picture” theme?
When writing Quality of Care, it was the situation, or premise that came first — it’s virtually impossible to work in obstetrics without thinking about the what-if possibility that something terrible might occur on your watch . . . so I think the premise was incredibly compelling. Then I thought about a real worst case scenario — what if that patient had a special relationship of trust with you? I knew before I started writing what the basic outlines of the plot would be, although I do not work from an outline. The characters emerge along with the writing, and the theme is something that I start to recognize as I’m deep into the story and I realize that I’ve used certain repeating motifs that I wasn’t consciously aware of at first. It is my goal that my stories be entertaining and quick to read, but that the reader is left with something to mull over afterwards as well.
I certainly did my share of mulling after reading Quality of Care — about the capriciousness of life with its accidents and fate, as well as the more conscious choices we make and their consequences. What about you — what do you consider important motifs in the book?
Several of the characters face situations that are beyond their control — Clara’s accident, Eleanor’s struggles with her daughter, Gordon’s tragic loss of his wife. When faced with the unpreventable and the inexplicable, what do you fall back on? But I didn’t want the story to be about a lawsuit, per se. To me, this book is primarily about Clara’s spiritual journey. But I was also interested in the role of the caregiver — you see a variety of ways of caring in the book — the self-sacrifice of the nurses, Clara’s incredible sense of duty — the way she believes that if she tries hard enough she can guarantee a perfect outcome every time. Gordon’s attempts to save his brain-damaged daughter. Eleanor’s tough love. Lydia’s belief that she was somehow fated to save Clara’s life. All of them were showing their care in the best way they knew how. So the question the book posits is — where is the line between caring for the people you love, or for whom you feel responsible, but still letting go and accepting the fact that you do not control their destinies? For Clara, it was her personal journey of discovery — what happens when you realize that all of your years of dedication and skill and training are still not going to save the day every time.
Sounds like one of those lessons we all learned in the Peace Corps.
   Oh, definitely. We all join the Peace Corps with the assumption that we’re going for the express purpose of doing good. And we all discover over time that life is rarely as black and white as that. I like to believe that the intent to do good will triumph over time, but not without teaching us to be humble about it.
So, you went from the Peace Corps and continuing to teach English as a second language, over to the health care/obstetrics field. When and why did you start writing novels?
   I started writing in July 2000 when my family was moving from New York to Pennsylvania. I was in between jobs for a while, and all of a sudden, it just hit me. I thought, I don’t want to be one of those people who dies thinking she has a novel in her. So, from one day to the next, I just started writing seriously. And once I got started, I worked like a demon.
When and where do you write?
As a working mother with three school-aged children, I have to grab time and make the most of it. Fortunately, my work schedule leaves me with some mornings free to write — my best time is when my kids are at school and the house is blissfully quiet and empty. But between sick kids and days off and half days and conference days (not to mention the evil vacations), well, the truth is I write any time I can, otherwise I’d never finish anything. As for location, I work at a desk in my dining room right next to the kitchen. People traipse in and out all the time. Kids interrupt me. The phone rings, or I run to the store to pick up a loaf of bread in the middle of a chapter. Virginia Woolf said that a woman writer needs “a room of one’s own” — I mean yes, it’d be nice, but a corner of the dining room will do in a pinch.
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