Sheltering: Clare Beams on Being Surprised by Your Own Book
The Author of The Illness Lesson Talks to Maris Kreizman
On this episode of Sheltering, Clare Beams speaks with Maris Kreizman about her recent novel, The Illness Lesson, published on February 11. Beams talks about coming up with enough activities to keep her three-year-old entertained, having a book launch that “felt like her wedding,” writing a novel the world will never see, and reading Angela Carter in quarantine. Please purchase The Illness Lesson online from your local bookstore, or from Bookshop!
From the episode
Transcription generously provided by Eliza M. Smith
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I’m Maris Kreizman, and I’m so happy to be here with Clare Beams, all the way from Pittsburgh! Hi, Clare. How are you doing?
Clare Beams: Good, I’m so happy to be here.
Maris: Yay. And so, you’re in your home office?
Clare: Yes, on the third floor of our house in Pittsburgh.
Maris: Amazing. Introduce yourself and tell me how you’re doing, how you’re hanging in.
Clare: I am the author of this novel, The Illness Lesson, which came out in February. And also this story collection, We Show What We Have Learned, which came out in 2016. I live in Pittsburgh with my two kids and my husband. And yeah, I’m doing fine. I had never really planned on homeschooling, and here I am. I mean, none of this is an actual problem in the context of everything that’s going on.
Maris: Sure, but you’re still allowed to complain.
Clare: Well, the 3-year-old is just—I mean, you put a lot of thought into something to do with her, and she’s done in ten minutes.
Maris: What’s been on your lesson plans?
Clare: Well, the 7-year-old has actual distance-learning stuff from school, which is great, although that is also somebody’s full-time job, to sit with her and get her through that stuff, because she’s 7. We don’t really have anything for the 3-year-old because she was just going to daycare/preschool, and they don’t have an online platform to do distance learning.
Maris: It’s just Sesame Street at that point.
Clare: Exactly. We’ve been doing a lot of that, and a lot of, “Let’s learn about colors! Let’s find all the blue things we can find in this room.” It’s an exercise in everybody’s patience, I think.
Maris: Yes. Tell me more about The Illness Lesson.
Clare: So, the book is set in 1871 in Massachusetts. At the outset of the book, there’s a new descending of a flock of red birds, who were in this town in Massachusetts a long time before, decades earlier. And this aging philosopher named Samuel Hood decides to take this as an omen that he should start one last bid for fame. He’s going to try to open a school for girls that’s going to be founded on the radical principal that girls might actually be able to do all the things boys can do.
Clare: Right, I know, shocking. He wants to begin this school, so he ropes his daughter, who is 29 and has really spent her whole life tending him and the dying embers of his fame and his career, into this project with him. And he also has this one last acolyte named David, who Caroline, his daughter, is rather smitten with. And the three of them are going to open this school. So they do, and then things go wrong. The girls begin to manifest these mysterious symptoms. The book is kind of about, what will they then do with that, this descending of illness.
Maris: It’s almost like there’s a quarantine—
Clare: It’s just a little bit like that.
Maris: —and there are a bunch of men who think they know science, or pretend like they know science, coming in and telling us what to do.
Clare: Right, exactly, and pretending like they know everything, really. That to me is what the book is about: what happens when one group of people—in this case Caroline and the girls—that group has been taught to put somebody else’s judgment before their own. And sometimes the people whose judgments you’re trusting, you shouldn’t be trusting those people’s judgments. So, it has some resonance.
Maris: Tell me about how it’s been—you were able to do a little touring at first.
Clare: A little bit. I feel really lucky, actually. The book came out February 11, and I had this wonderful, just like, enormous warm book launch here in Pittsburgh. It felt a little bit like my wedding, it was people from every circle of my life. And my older daughter was there, and she gave me—right before it started, and I was trying to set up a cheese plate—she gave me this book she made at school that I didn’t know she’d made, so I was weeping and setting out cheese. And people from my Zumba class and people from my book club and all my writer friends. So I did get to have that.
Maris: Was this at a bookstore?
Clare: It was run by White Whale, which is this wonderful independent bookstore in Pittsburgh. We actually had it at this beautiful art studio, Michael Lotenero’s art studio in the Strip District of Pittsburgh, because it had a little more space. It was just one of those magical nights that I’ll remember forever. So, I got to do that, and I got to do a handful of other things. I got to go to Boston. I had one leg of what was supposed to be a several-legged tour.
Maris: And how has your digital leg been?
Clare: Not bad! It’s so wonderful that people are doing things like this. It’s so much better than nothing. It does allow for everybody to feel connected, which is really wonderful. There was sort of a weird disorientation, which I think everybody felt. I went from book tour to constantly with my children, so there was a little bit of just, how on earth is this going to work? These events that have been cropping up are a wonderful consolation in the middle of all of that.
Maris: Here’s a question I’ve asked some of my digital authors. Is there a question you wish you had been asked at a book event that I can ask you now?
Clare: Oh, wow. Let me think. I am sometimes asked this, but I think it can be helpful for people to hear about all of the unseen work that goes into these books that seem to just appear. From the outside, sometimes it looks—if you’re trying to be a writer, which is where I felt like I was for many years—it can feel like people just sort of do it, like here’s a book that appeared from nowhere. I wish I were asked more about all of the work that’s never seen, that went in before the work that actually pays off.
Maris: Clare, tell me about the research you did for this book.
Clare: Well, thank you. I guess I’ll say, even a step before the research, I have another novel in a drawer that will never be seen by the world. That was not just some juvenilia, this is something I worked on for eight years, and it just wasn’t good. I think that was—not exactly research, but practice and learning. And so that was something that was being worked on continuously, at the same time as my story collection.
Then this book took seven years—not of continuous effort but of start-stop effort. In the middle there I had a couple babies. Moved to Boston, did a lot of teaching. But if you’re writing something that’s set in 1871, you do have to undertake a fair bit of research, even if you’re also the kind of writer who invents a weird species of bird.
I didn’t know that this book was going to be about mass hysteria when I started writing. I knew that the girls were going to cause trouble, and that the trouble was going to come from their bodies in some way. And then once they started having these symptoms, I ended up having to do a lot of reading about that, and then just about Victorian medicine, which is where I came across this horrific treatment that the girls end up having, which was not a thing I knew about.
Maris: I was fully shocked and blown away.
Clare: I was too, when I came across it in the reading! I had this feeling of, well, crap, now I have to write about that. Because I knew it belonged in this book in a very deep way, and I knew that I did not want to write it. I had an entire draft of this book, two years into working on it, in which I sort of halfway wrote the treatment and then sent Caroline and David on a road trip to go meet a character who’s no longer in the book, who’s a friend of Caroline’s dead mother. There was this big reveal of plot information from 25 years earlier that happened in dialogue with this friend. She was like, “Let me tell you!”
Maris: “Here’s a story for you.”
Clare: And I was like, something about this feels not quite right. But it took me a lot of years to face that I really had to write that treatment. Like, really write it.
Maris: It’s so funny, because when I describe the second half of your book, it feels so modern, even though you’re writing historical fiction—except that, damn, they did that? That is based on fact.
Clare: Yeah, and I had a draft of this before we all learned about Larry Nassar as well. There’s something that feels both modern and timeless, because apparently it just jeeps happening. It has happened forever. This treatment is essentially sexual abuse, but I think what my book is really about is the forces that make it possible. Because Hawkins is sort of this evil doctor who corms in and perpetrates this treatment, but the only reason he can do the damage he does is because Samuel, the sort of benevolent father, lets him in. The book to me is a lot about what we enable when we deliberately look away from something.
Maris: I love the daughter so much because she comes to the realization that she knows so much and she’s so well educated, and what does that mean if you have no agency?
Clare: Right, agency. Because I think the central tenant of her education, when she looks beneath everything her father has taught her, is that her father knows more than she does. It’s like she has been taught to greatly value her mind and judgment, except if her judgment ever conflicts with her father’s. I think she spends a lot of the book learning that sometimes she knows things he hasn’t taught her, and that that knowledge might come with responsibility.
Maris: She is a bit of a superhero.
Clare: She is! It’s a slow curve, though. There are characters in the book that you expect less from in some ways, like David’s wife, Sophia, who shows up and we kind of dismiss her because Caroline does. But she is able to act with a moral clarity earlier than Caroline can because she hasn’t been encumbered. She hasn’t had the same kind of education, but she hasn’t had the same kind of education, right? She hasn’t been taught not to know something if it conflicts too much with what someone more authoritative is telling her.
Maris: Changing the topic completely, what have you been—whatever you want to talk about: eating, reading, watching.
Clare: Let’s see. I’m reading Wise Children right now, the Angela Carter book, which I am loving. It’s zany, and it’s dark, which is usually the thing that draws me in, but it’s gleeful too. There’s all these sets of twins and illegitimate births and half-acknowledged paternities. It’s great. It’s about these aging vaudeville dancers who are the illegitimate children of this great Shakespearean actor. And they’re kind of reckoning with this mess of a family around them, only some of whom have ever acknowledged that they are, in fact, family. It’s really fun.
Maris: It’s super fun. That’s a good quarantine read.
Clare: It’s great. I just love it. I recently finished Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas, which I thought was so great. I thought the language was so exciting. It just sort of woke me up in a way that I need right now, in this time of—if we’re lucky—this time of sameness.
Maris: And she takes a topic that—you think teenage girls and their food issues would be a topic we’ve discussed over and over again, but she puts it in a completely different light. It’s like a different language.
Clare: Exactly, yeah. The way that they see so clearly everyone around themselves and also themselves, but that seeing becomes this terrible trap of constantly having to evaluate and re-evaluate, and then turn all of that inward. I thought it was so great, and it’s really funny too. Very, very dark, but funny too. So those are some grownup things I’ve been doing. A lot of what I’ve been doing is helping my 7-year-old write a book. Speak to her class over Zoom, over lunch. Which is cute. They’re trying to have group connection too, which is nice.
Maris: That’s so sweet. And a little sad.
Clare: Both things. It’s hard to explain to them why we’re doing this without freaking them out, which is also a problem I’m having with myself.
Maris: Exactly. Well, thank you so much. This has been a real pleasure. I love The Illness Lesson, and it was so good to talk to you.
Clare: This is just such a treat. I think those of us who had books come out right around now—it’s a small sadness in the scheme of everything that’s happening, but still. You work on these things for so many years, it’s wonderful to still have people to talk about them with, so thank you.