What happens when you discover a person from history and find them so fascinating that you want to know more and more about them? You write a novel about them, of course! That’s what Mary Beth Keane did after watching a TV documentary about Mary Mallon – ‘Typhoid Mary’ – an Irish cook living in New York who, in the early 1900s, was accused of spreading typhoid and imprisoned in complete isolation on an island off Manhattan, despite being perfectly healthy herself.
Hazel Gaynor met Mary Beth Keane while she was in Dublin promoting Fever and spoke to her about this fascinating woman and the unique challenges of writing her story.
‘Most people are familiar with the phrase Typhoid Mary, who was once described as the most dangerous woman in America,’ Mary Beth explains, ‘but I’d never really thought about the woman behind the name until I saw a documentary and became interested in her. I wanted to know more and get to know her better. Before I knew it, I was writing a novel! From the moment she hit the newspaper headlines, Mary became, in many ways, a one-dimensional character, separated from the real, human, fleshed out self. She became the synonym for germs and contagion which seemed very unfair and tragic to me, no matter what kind of person she was. I recognised that she had an interior life which I wanted to explore.’
Perhaps there was also more than a shade of Irish affinity between these two Marys, as Mary Beth has Irish relatives and is clearly very interested in and drawn to her Irish roots.
‘Mary Mallon felt within my wheel-house,’ she explains. ‘She emigrated and grew up with a foot in both worlds of Ireland and America, as did my parents. I felt like I knew her in a way. She was a very brassy woman, very combative. She gets in her own way and I saw why she was like that. She was tough and I liked her – I liked her for her flaws. I wanted to give her a voice – a chance to tell her story in a manner in which she was never afforded during her lifetime.’
Having found an individual whose story she felt compelled to tell in the novel form, Mary Beth admits that she wasn’t entirely sure what to do next.
‘I didn’t really know what to do with Mary, or how to do it!’ she admits, laughing. ‘I’ve always read history with interest, but I’m not an historian so had no intention of writing a purely historical account of Mary’s life. I read as much as I could, going slow and figuring it out, looking at the period of history, Mary’s backdrop, what matters to the average person like her. I found letters to the editor in the old papers very useful. They give a real sense of what concerned people at that time, their way of speaking, of putting sentences together. When I began this project it felt like a world that was very far away and sepia-toned and distant but the more I read the closer it became.’
Most historical fiction authors talk of the challenge they face in striking a balance between the historical facts they have uncovered during their research and the need to create compelling fiction. It is a writing conundrum which Mary Beth certainly wasn’t immune to.
‘There is always the danger to rely too much on historical fact which takes away from the story, or to show off an interesting thing you’ve discovered in your research!’ Mary Beth explains. ‘A Professor of mine used to say it can’t be about the buttons or the clasps on a shoe – once you get into that you’re in trouble, you’ve got away from what you are trying to achieve. Every time I was writing a scene, if I referred to my research notes, it killed the scene, killed the prose, and strangled the life out of it. I kept reminding myself that I was writing a novel. I needed to make Mary human above all, so I gave myself permission to do that and not become too fixated on the historical facts during early drafts. Anachronisms you can deal with later when the important work of telling the story is done.’
With so many authors struggling to find a publisher for their work at the moment, it is encouraging to hear how, for Mary Beth Keane, the publication of Fever is the result of many years of hard work and emotional struggle. She is also a great example to anyone wondering whether they will ever get time to write their novel between the day job, children and that tricky thing called ‘life’ which has an annoying habit of interrupting our precious writing time.
‘Fever was written over four years if you include the thinking period (which I am a big believer in). I had two children during that period so actual, active writing would be done in bursts. I would start writing at 4.30am to get some hours in before the children woke. A writer never knows how things are going to work out and I was always anxious about the time I was putting into my writing and whether it would pay off.’
She is refreshingly honest about how difficult she found the whole process.
‘I wanted to quit – a lot! I was constantly grasping at time, feeling guilty, trying to juggle everything. Sometimes it felt too hard. You begin to doubt your own idea and wonder whether other people will find this as interesting as you do. I got so far in I thought I might as well see it through. To be honest, I felt like I was always winging it – and probably will be until the children are twenty years old!’
So, having persevered and seen it through and brought a critically acclaimed novel to market, what advice would Mary Beth give to aspiring authors experiencing that nagging self-doubt and days which seem to disappear at warp speed and leave no time for writing that perfect scene?
‘You have to be your own harshest critic and your own best cheerleader and be very honest with yourself at all times. Remember also that it is sometimes scarier to admit when something is good. Make sure it is your best work, above all else. Don’t worry too much about time, just make it good. And be honest with yourself – if you’re saying you don’t have time but you are watching a lot of TV or getting distracted on Twitter, are you being honest with yourself?’
And what is next from Mary Beth?
‘I am just in middle of promoting Fever in the UK and Ireland and it is just released in the US also. Early next year it will be published in France and Italy. As for the next book? The idea of someone waiting for the next book puts the pressure on and I am conscious of this, but my publishers are fantastic and it is early days with regard to my next novel. I am happy to sit with my ideas on that for a while before I start to talk about it seriously. It is difficult to be in this novel and also be thinking about another one.’
Given the success of Fever and the new fans Mary Beth has gained as a result, I think we will all be happy to give her as much time as she needs to produce her next, greatest work. No pressure then!
“Mary wasn’t arrested right away. There were warnings. Requests. It all started with an air of courtesy, as if Dr Soper believed that if he simply notified her of the danger lurking inside her body she would excuse herself from society. And after, when he and his colleagues resorted to far-less polite means, they said it was her fault for raising a knife instead of listening, for not doing as she was told.”
Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant in New York at the turn of the twentieth century, has battled fiercely to better her lot in life. She works her way up the ranks to cook for the wealthiest families in Manhattan, but leaves a trail of death and disease in her wake. When she is accused of spreading typhoid and imprisoned in complete isolation on an island off Manhattan, despite being perfectly healthy herself, she refuses to understand her paradoxical situation. Condemned by the press and public alike, she is branded a murderer, but continues to fight for her freedom.
In this unique perspective on the American dream, Keane takes the reader through vivid imagery to the Big Apple’s years of adolescence. From the tenement slums of the Lower East Side to the kitchens of New York’s wealthiest families, to a life of exile on an island in the East River, Mary’s tale, as the first known healthy carrier of typhoid in the New World, comes to life. This novel goes beyond her name’s infamy to reveal an intensely determined woman who worked hard to keep her unruly husband on the straight and narrow and to forge a better life than that found in the old country.
This fictional account is as fiercely compelling as Typhoid Mary herself and Keane presents us with a very cleverly wrought conundrum: was Mary Mallon a selfish monster, or was she a hounded innocent?
About the Mary Beth Keane
Fever is Mary Beth Keane’s second novel. In 2011, she was added by Julie Glass to the National Book Foundation’s ‘5 under 35’ for her first novel The Walking People. She lives in Pearl River, New York with her husband and their two sons.
(c) Hazel Gaynor
Hazel Gaynor runs writing.ie’s Carry on Writing blog and is an author and freelance journalist. She started writing when she left her corporate career in March 2009; initially focusing on her award-winning parenting and lifestyle blog, Hot Cross Mum. She has since gone on to write regularly for the national press, has appeared on TV and radio and writes a book review blog for Hello Magazine as well as regular features for writing.ie.
Her debut novel ‘The Girl Who Came Home – A Titanic Novel’ was self-published in March 2012 and went on to become a number one bestseller on the Kindle Historical Fiction and Historical Romance charts. Staying with her passion for historical fiction, Hazel has just completed her second novel, for which she hopes to find a publisher very soon!
Originally from North Yorkshire, Hazel has lived in Kildare for the past seven years with her husband and two young children. Hazel was the recipient of the Cecil Day Lewis Literary Bursary for Emerging Writers in October 2012.