“I started thinking about ways in which the girls could cause trouble. I don’t think I had figured all this out consciously, but it made a lot of sense to me that the problem should come from their bodies.”
Sources of Clare Beams’ Inspiration:
Imagining landscapes across time
The theater of the classroom
Invented novels within novels
Little Women and texts from that era
Clare Beams and I met at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, where she was the fellow supporting Joshua Weil, my workshop instructor. I was already an admirer of her debut collection, We Show What We Have Learned, winner of the Bard Fiction Prize and a finalist for many other prestigious awards, including the Shirley Jackson Award, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, and more. Her stories are so impressively ranged and inventive. “Ailments” is set in 1665 and is about a woman harboring feelings for her sister’s husband who works as a plague doctor. This unsettling story is immediately preceded in the collection by “The Saltwater Cure,” a wistful account of the gentle charlatans who run an inn located next to a reputed “miracle” saltwater marsh in the 1930s. During her reading of the title story, in which a teacher literally falls to pieces in front of her students, there were thrilled gasps from the audience in the little theater.
When galleys became available for her much-anticipated debut novel, The Illness Lesson, I immediately requested a copy. The novel follows a prominent Transcendentalist, Samuel Hood, whose fame has been on the decline for many years since the failure of his last experimental utopian community. When a flock of bright red birds descends upon his farm, he takes it as a sign to establish, alongside his daughter, Caroline, and his “flock” of followers, a radical new project: a school that would strive to educate girls with as the same intellectual rigor and spiritual seriousness as schools for boys. Though all seemingly goes well at first, the girls begin to manifest disturbing and unusual symptoms: a red spot in the eye, rashes, and seizures. After traditional remedies are tried, a sinister physician is brought in to tend to them, raising the question: Despite the good intentions of Samuel and his followers, who really controls the autonomy of these girls’ bodies, the girls themselves or these men?
This winter, Clare and I had a phone conversation about her brilliantly eerie novel.
THE BELIEVER: With The Illness Lesson, how did you know that it should be a novel and not a story? And where did the inspiration come from?
CLARE BEAMS: At the time I started The Illness Lesson, I was living in Massachusetts. I had recently gone to visit Concord and the Alcotts’ house, then on to Fruitlands, which was this failed utopian community that Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s father, tried to start with some other collaborators when she was a child. It is beautiful, and I tend to respond to landscapes and start picturing what has happened in those places through time. Something about imagining historical stories gives me the distance and strangeness that I need in order to start playing with something in a fictional way.
Bronson Alcott was this fascinating contradiction of a person in that he had all these forward-thinking ideas about educating girls and boys in similar styles. He was staunchly anti-slavery, very courageous in a lot of his views. But Fruitlands was a really misguided experiment. They were basically fruitarians, but they didn’t know how to do that with any kind of nutritional guidance [Laughs]. No one actually knew how to farm. They almost starved to death the first winter. I started thinking about all the women who surrounded these male thinkers of that time, a lot of whom were saying these wonderful beautiful things, and yet around them is all this facilitating work that they don’t appreciate. A lot of those contradictions are still there, in that we tell women, “You can do whatever you want.” Yet in every family I know in which people have had children, the division of labor is never even.
So the place itself was very inspiring to me. Then I started playing with this image of red birds, and that was, in an image-related way, exciting to me. I started to think about what the actual situation might be that could bring out some of these contradictions and ideas. I had been teaching for six years at the time that I started this book. And teaching is interesting to me in fictional terms—in my story collection, too.
BLVR: I can see that—the title story of the collection, for example.
CB: Yes, exactly. I think that classrooms are an interestingly contained and pressurized kind of theater in which to look at power relationships. I started thinking about what would happen if there were a school. The father-daughter relationship emerged pretty quickly, too. In my first idea for this novel, there were going to be three widely separated periods in time to track through; this was going to be the earliest one, at the school’s founding, then there would be a section in the 30s and 40s at the school, and then a present-day one. Pretty quickly—maybe a year into writing—I realized that I was only interested in the oldest section. Also with the direction in which things kept going in this oldest section, I started to understand that the school was not going to survive past the end of that section.
BLVR: When did you get the idea that they were starting to become sick?
CB: I started thinking about ways in which the girls could cause trouble. I don’t think I had figured all this out consciously, but it made a lot of sense to me that the problem should come from their bodies. Their actual femaleness is the thing that the father, Samuel, has not totally accounted for because he’s made a point of not seeing the actual physical reality of his daughter’s life—or of anyone’s life, apart from his own. And in researching hysteria, I came across this historical treatment—it was a terrifying discovery to make because as soon as I read it, I realized that it was exactly what had to happen, but I really did not want to write it. As a result of my reluctance, in an early draft of this book, the girls got sick and the treatment happened in this rushed way. The big climax of the book came in this divulging of backstory from this friend they’ve taken a road trip to visit, in dialogue. You really know you’re in good shape when that’s your story climax: the big reveal about things that happened twenty-five years ago in dialogue. I had finished a draft of it and sent it to my agent, who said, “I love this, but what are you doing at the end?”
BLVR: I do think it’s funny—the things you’re told not to do, when you start to do them, can be an indication that, okay, yes, this is going off the rails. But then there’s the question of, “Well, but can I get away with it?”
CB: Right. Because I really love describing scenery. And I was like, “I can describe some new scenery instead of doing more with that horrifying treatment I don’t want to write.”
I put the book on hold for a while to work on the story collection, then the collection came out and I had another baby, so I had sort of been just picking at the novel. And I was like, “I will work on this book for the next five years and never actually fix it. I will be picking away at sentences and not doing the huge overhaul it needs unless I can carve out a concentrated period of time.” As a family, we decided to make that happen, and I basically sat down and wrote an entirely new second half of The Illness Lesson in about three months. I told my agent I would have a draft of it to her in early March. And starting in 2018, in January, I rewrote the last third to half of the book, then we sold it that April. It’s sort of this start-and-stop way of writing a novel, but maybe that’s how most of them go.
BLVR: It’s always interesting to hear how it actually all happened, that periods of interruption can happen and that it doesn’t stop the writer from producing a book or even producing a better book than they might have otherwise.
CB: I think that’s right. I think your subconscious is really picking away at things even without your knowing it.
BLVR: You mention the historical treatment that they put the girls through in order to deal with their hysteria. And there’s an Acknowledgments section that lists some of the research you had to do. What was that process like?
CB: I tend to be a writer who dives in wherever the spark is and writes until I kind of have to stop because there’s something I don’t know. I even will try to get a draft down as far as it’s possible with little asterisks next to things I need to go back and check or change. But in some ways, my whole life was research for this book. I grew up in Newtown, Connecticut, in this house from the 1730s where you kind of felt all the layers of history around you. The era in which Little Women was set always felt present to me, even as I was moving through my own present-tense life. And I was definitely a kid who loved reading books—not just Little Women, but many books of that era. My reading life felt more real to me than my real life a lot of the time. So the flavor of the time felt pretty natural to me, but there’s a lot you still have to check. I really didn’t know much about women’s medicine from that era, and I ended up reading a fair bit about that and also about the Transcendentalists, and some of their writing too—some Emerson and some Bronson Alcott. Even though these are not the Alcotts—they are my own creation—I needed the contradictions of these men’s thinking. I wanted to catch that as effectively as I could.
I also think by being the kind of writer who invents a species of bird, I liberate myself to some extent. I’m always a little uncomfortable being called a historical fiction writer. That doesn’t feel exactly like what I do. I don’t really care what the curtains are made of; I don’t really care what the physical layout of a living room would have been. I don’t want to get things wrong, but that’s not where the engine of the thing is for me.
BLVR: You’re not going the Hilary Mantel route.
CB: Right. I adore Hilary Mantel. But I think it’s a different approach—I think a lot of the engine of it is in the real historical record for her. For me, I want a sort of invented strangeness. I still have to do a lot of research, but I think it’s a slightly different process.
BLVR: You mention loving books of that time. One of the things I loved about your book is that there is a fictional historical novel in it called The Darkening Glass. We don’t really get to read a ton of this novel.
CB: You used to get to read more of it, and that was not a good narrative move.
BLVR: Formally there was more of it? Oh, that’s interesting. We know it’s based off the first failed community of Samuel and the story of his wife and the people who were involved. But then we have these wonderful excerpts at the beginning of each chapter, invented text from this novel. That kind of thing really excites me.
CB: I love that stuff. I could write books-within-books all day. I find that so much fun. I always knew The Darkening Glass was supposed to be a pretty bad gothic book, but originally I wanted the reader to be able to follow the plot of it. I was doing whole paragraphs of it at the start of each chapter. And as it turns out, even if a bad book is there because I was having fun with it, it’s still a bad book and it doesn’t make for a good reading experience to have such hefty excerpts. I also realized that you don’t need to have read The Darkening Glass to understand its purpose.
BLVR: There’s something so interesting in the contrast between Samuel, who is such an intellectual, buttoned-up figure, and these excerpts, which are so romantic and full of emotion. This invented novel sounds kind of sexy—as much as it would have been for the time. It added such a foreboding quality to what was going on, since we know that community failed and there was a big drama with him and how it ended and the man who wrote the book.
CB: Miles Pearson is kind of the opposite of everything that Samuel wants to do and be as a writer. His whole book is full of feeling, and that is strange to Samuel. So it’s this exiled thing that’s making its way back into the book as the girls’ bodies are insisting on themselves, despite the fact that they’re being told, “It’s just like you’re boys, and we’re going to educate you just like you’re boys” in a way that’s beautiful in its intention but doesn’t account for their lived reality.
BLVR: Right. The world isn’t going to treat them like they’re boys.
BLVR: There’s such careful attention to the sentence, too, speaking of language.
CB: Sentences are always the part I love the most. I think as writers we learn a lot about ourselves in terms of where we bristle during the editing process. I have the worst time, emotionally, with copy editing. It’s not that I’m contending that I’ve made a perfect choice in every situation, but I have thought about that comma that the editor is taking out. You think you’d be way more offended when someone is like, “Your story has a huge gaping hole in it,” but I’m always so grateful for that. And it’s funny because, as a reader, I will be carried along by a great story even if the sentences are a little bit plodding. But as a writer, the sound of it—if I don’t have that, I don’t have anything. I will completely give up on a project that doesn’t sound right to me. But if the sentences are sparking, that will make me keep trying with the story.
I think Hilary Mantel is a great model. You want the sentences to feel as though they have the flavor of the time, but you certainly don’t want to seem like you’re trying to write a book as if you lived in that time. When you’re writing something that’s set in the past, there’s a certain music that you want to catch, but it also needs to feel alive, and you’re really writing it because it says something interesting about our era.
“Ailments” in my story collection was hard for me since it’s set in the 1600s. It was a little further in the past than I had gone before. I kept writing versions of it that were so stilted, and then there were versions of it that sounded like the people were living in our era. It took a really long time to get the sound of it right. I had a little bit of that here, too. Although, for some reason, and I think this just happens occasionally, Samuel’s dialogue came pretty easily for me. I could just hear him. And he gave it a lot of the right of-its-time-ness, just through the way he was speaking. So giving him some space to talk was sort of helpful in finding that right sound.
BLVR: Except for maybe one of them, they’re mostly all well intentioned. They have all the right ideas of wanting to develop the minds of these girls, but they can’t provide them with what they need. These days, we might call these men, “the good guys.” They mean well, but because of their privilege, there are things that they miss. David is a good example; he’s only able to go so far because his own privilege makes him oblivious to things but also makes him a bit selfish. I was wondering what it was like to write these men.
CB: You’re right, there’s one exception, one guy who’s pretty much evil. But what interested me about the book was how the other men make that evil possible. In both of David and Samuel’s cases, it’s a choice to not see what they don’t see. They have willfully looked away from the stuff that is challenging to their ideas.
The book is a lot about Caroline learning that she has to separate herself from this father that she has always known is limited in some ways but whom she also deeply, deeply loves and admires and who has also formed her mind. And it’s about her realizing that her mind—even if he helped to form it—can do things he didn’t teach her to do. And she has to find a place that’s big enough for her. She’s not going to be able to stay with him and facilitate his life anymore. David turns out to be a slightly different case; I see him as someone who turns out to be not quite as impressive as he first seems. A lot of what Caroline and Samuel have been seeing in him is stuff they’re putting there because they need so badly for it to be there. David, by the end of the book, I feel fed up with; Samuel is still heartbreaking for me. I’m angry at him, but I also do just find him kind of irresistible.
BLVR: Ultimately, it’s not their book, it’s the book of Caroline and the girls. The most compelling character to me was Eliza. Something so interesting is going on, in that she’s one of the first to start getting sick, and—for personal reasons, but also for reasons of her personality—she’s also extremely fond of this romantic text, The Darkening Glass. So there’s this question Caroline has, basically: Is she faking it? For the drama of it, for the romanticism of it. Caroline starts to wonder that, and I felt myself as a reader—since we’re in Caroline’s point of view—start to wonder that. But then the novel does something so smart, which is that it pauses every so often to remind you that these are just teenage girls. Eliza is not some sort of mastermind supervillain; she’s just a very young girl. I was wondering what it was like to write that tension and believability from the men’s point of view but also from inside Caroline and the novel itself.
CB: For many drafts of this book, Eliza was sort of a supervillain. I always had fun writing her, and I always knew that there was more to her, but she was sort of performing her role in the story, she was just performing all this tension. I think the book got a lot better when I started to understand that we needed to find her maddening, but we needed to have sympathy for her, too. She is not and cannot be a villain, because she’s a victim. But she also can’t be just a victim; she has too much agency for that. Once I stopped to think about it, I knew she needed to be many things at once. I think a lot of the tragedy of the book lives with her. She is the one that I’m most worried for at the end of the book. Samuel is not in great shape either, but he kind of deserves what he’s getting. Eliza really doesn’t deserve what she’s gotten, ever. And she’s the one who has gone so deep into this that it will be maybe difficult for her to extricate and have a normal life after this. But I think there’s a lot of force to her; the book started to live a little more once she got more complicated. A similar thing happened with Sophia, David’s wife, but in a different direction. She was originally this easily dismissible, Bible-thumping character. I knew that I was in better shape and better territory once she actually started to show some real moral courage and act in ways that, as a reader, we’re wishing Caroline would act at times.
BLVR: I thought she was so well done, too. Because, again, we see her from Caroline’s point of view, and Caroline is naturally jealous and resentful of her, since she thought David was free, before Sophia shows up. She wants to naturally flatten her, in order to deal with her own feelings. And I thought that was so well done, because she does gain so much more complexity as the novel goes on and Caroline realizes, “She’s a good wife, she’s a good woman.”
CB: And she’s also not stupid. The thing Caroline has always been taught to be proud of is her mind, so I think it’s easy for her to initially feel superior to people in the intellectual arena, who don’t know the things she knows. Sophia doesn’t have an education like Caroline’s, but Caroline learns through dealing with her that there are many ways of being taught about the world.
BLVR: When I was reading the novel, I couldn’t help contextualizing it in our own current political era. And one of the things that came to mind, in a harrowing way, was the U.S. gymnastics team abuse scandal. I wondered if the writing became difficult, and how you dealt with that.
CB: I had come across this treatment, and written it into the story, long before Larry Nassar was discovered and disclosed. I had no idea I was writing a book that would tie into a hot-button issue of the moment. I think it’s very strange that a nineteenth-century book turned out to do that, maybe four or five years into its seven-year writing process.
I remember saying to my agent, “I will probably never write another book that’s timely in this way, because if I set out to do that it would be terrible.” And she said, “But Clare, you’re writing about women. This is not an issue of the moment; this is an issue we’re going to be talking about forever.”
I’m very grateful I had written at least a version of the treatment before the Larry Nassar scandal was disclosed. Somehow, the fact that it existed already made me more confident that it did need to be there, that it was something that belongs to this book before it had a contemporary echo (or before I knew about the contemporary echo, anyway). But it was weird; I’ll never forget listening to a radio interview with one of the mothers of Larry Nassar’s victims, and she was in the room when it happened. He had covered her daughter with a towel, and she was trusting him more than she was trusting her own eyes. What happens when we give authority to something that’s not ourselves? That’s Caroline’s whole dilemma. She has spent her life not trusting her own judgment as much as other people’s, and her own judgment keeps rearing its head and saying, “Nope, this doesn’t make sense.” So she has to figure out how to navigate that.
BLVR: My last question is about the red birds, the trilling hearts, which descend upon the landscape and give the school its name. There’s an element of magical realism to them. They collect scraps from the girls’ belongings: ribbons, pieces of clothing to make their nests. And the nests become increasingly more elaborate as time goes on and more birds flock to the school. I saw their inability to be contained, their wildness, as being linked to the girls and the men not ultimately being able to control their bodies.
CB: When the birds showed up, I had no idea why they were thematically important, I just knew that it felt exciting to describe them. And it was important to me that Caroline’s interpretation of them be different than the interpretation of the men. The men are deliberately reading them as this amazing symbol, this beautiful sign, that they are headed in the right direction. I knew that the birds needed to be really creepy, and I wanted Caroline to feel as if she was the only one really seeing that creepiness for a long time. I wanted them to be something that would bring out a sense of contradiction in what was happening at the school, that there could be different readings of something that could be really opposed to each other. They gave a fun sense of menace to things every time they showed up, so I started to bring them in more and more because I thought that sense of menace was serving the story well. And eventually it became important to me that they be tied to the physical bodies of the girls. The birds are one more physical insistence on a different reality than the symbolic reality that the men are trying to give these girls. There’s a sort of meaning that Samuel is trying to create that doesn’t leave a lot of space for actual fact and actual physical experience. The birds are thematically a symptom of that, of something that doesn’t fit where it’s being put.