Kristin Waterfield Duisberg attended Bowdoin College and the creative writing program at Boston University. Her "real" jobs have been at JP Morgan and Massachusetts General Hospital. She has recently published her first novel, The Good Patient. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and two young children and is working on her second novel.
The Good Patient is the story of Darien Gilbertson, twenty-eight years old and ostensibly successful, and her struggle with self-destructive behavior, its causes, and her husband Robert's efforts, along with Dr. Rachel Lindholm, to understand who Darien is and what has happened to her.
Robert Birnbaum: When you go to a social event and you meet new people and they ask you, "What do you do?" What do you say you do?
Kristin Waterfield Duisberg: I usually say I am a mom, a stay-at-home mother…
RB: (Makes a face)
KWD: Yeah, I know.
RB: You are a published novelist with starred reviews in two trade publications.
KWD: It's a little psychotic. I am easing my way into saying I am a writer. I found that my life is divided in two, actually. I tend to know people who are stay-at-home moms with their kids and I know people who are writers and don't have kids. I am just now learning how to bridge that expanse.
RB: No writers with kids?
KWD: I am starting to meet more writers with kids… so it's starting to be a little more comfortable.
RB: Sounds like a band…
KWD: Writers with Kids? (laughs)
RB: How long have you been writing?
KWD: Seriously…it's a hard question because I have been writing forever.
RB: That's an answer.
KWD: I wrote my first book when I was four, in nursery school. It was about this turkey who was killed and his family was very sad.
RB: Don't tell. You might be able to use it.
KWD: This is true. It was one of these things where my nursery school teacher was so upset that I ended up revising it and making it a happy story. So I always thought I was going to write. When I was in fifth grade I tried to write a novel about the racehorse Ruffian and I kind of abandoned that somewhere a long the line. I really didn't start writing seriously until a couple of years out of college.
RB: Wait a minutethe horse novel wasn't serious?
KWD: Well, it was for fifth grade. I wrote letters of inquiry.
RB: Did you continue?
KWD: For myself. In fact I was always terrified of writing for any kind of public. I had to take a creative writing course in high school, and I wrote this story about this local basketball player with whom I was just obsessed. And my teacher was so taken with it, he grabbed me and said, "I'm going to submit this to The New Hampshire." Which is the alumni magazine at UNH and I was just appalled. That scared me off writing for a while.
RB: The acclaim and the praise scared you?
KWD: I was going to be exposed in this way. He kept trying to submit some of my stories to contests and I didn't want any part of it. I wrote in the dark of my closet and didn't admit that was what I was really doing.
RB: Were the stories dark?
KWD: Not particularly. What I actually ended up writing was far darker than the things I played with when I was younger. There was a much less distinct line between fiction and confessional memoir/journaling at that point. I was taking stories that were much more my own and being very thin in how I disguised them. I just wasn't comfortable with being revealed even if they were completely mundane.
RB: So it wasn't any stigma attached to being a writer?
KWD: The idea of being a writer is so abstract. I don't know what makes you a writer. I guess I can say I am a writer now because I can hold up a book and say, "Ta dah, here I am." Writing is one of those things I thought I would do in balance with five other things that I was interested in. I thought for a long time I would be a doctor.
RB: You have worked at a hospital.
KWD: I did. I worked at Mass General for about three years. And I actually still do a lot of freelance for them.
RB: What do you do for them?
KWD: I did corporate communications when I was there full time. And now I do just a lot of…
RB: Corporate communication? That's a fancy word for?
KWD: Oh, a fancy word for internal communications, newsletter writing. With Mass General there was a lot of sharing bad news with doctors and finding ways to candy coat it. Now I do more ghost writing. Particularly for the Department of Nursing. They are trying to get their nurses published in various journals, and I help them sound like polished writers.
RB: This notion that you thought you could write and do other things was based on what knowledge of writing? Do you think you can write novels and do other things?
KWD: I certainly don't now. (laughs) I did when I was younger. I came from a family that was very pragmatic in terms of you had a very defined career and an academic path or a vocation and writing was an avocation. I think my family always liked my writing but nobody felt that it was, "Like wow! This is something you could do with your life." including me. As I said I thought I would go to medical school or law school or do something else and have a career and write on the side. In fact, my first job out of college was at JP Morgan and I had had an internship at a magazine the summer before—a very boring computer magazine. But that was kind of my party line in interviewing—that I always thought I would be a writer but writing is something I could do on the side while doing a real job…
RB: Amongst your writer friends do you find that to be a typical attitude toward self-definition—saying what they are?
KWD: I think so. Writing is one of those things where there is always the next level. No matter what you achieve it's never enough. I had a friend who’d actually been published before graduate school who told me that. I thought, "How can that possibly be true? Once you have a novel out there, you have such a claim to the career and to the accomplishment." But I think that is part if it—the sense that, well if you got published somebody else got published by a more prestigious publishing house or got a bigger advance. Or got enormous reviews. Or published two books or five books. There is always the next rung up the ladder that you feel that you need to grab.
RB: That makes sense, but what is this other-directed kind of self- definition? People look outside for others to tell them they are a writer.
KWD: That's exactly it. Of course, you can go to school and get a degree in it, but it is not something like you major in business and then you get a job as a banker and then you say, "Oh I'm a banker." And you can prove it because you go to this office everyday where you are a banker. It is something you have to put out there and stake for yourself. It takes a lot of self-confidence and a lot of ego and some maturity.
RB: It's all arguable, but I can see one reason for not telling you are a writer is to avoid what are the dumb conversations that frequently seem to follow.
KWD: That's true.
RB: So anyway, here you are. You must be a writer because it's unlikely we would be talking otherwise—you have written this novel, The Good Patient, the main character is a twenty-eight-year-old woman who has spent half her life in self-destructive behavior.
KWD: Uh huh.
RB: So tell me why you wanted write this story?
KWD: I didn't start out intending to write a story about a person like this. The voice came to me first. In fact, when I was doing one of those real jobs, I started writing this when I was at JP Morgan and very bored with my job. As I said before there were things I had written that were almost autobiographical or very thinly disguised—and to some degree that's where this voice came from. Her voice is not far off from a kind less monitored and less polite version of myself. (laughs) Maybe the person I'd like to be sometimes. I felt like I needed to match some issues to it because I was surprised by how angry and relentless and pressured this voice came out. I had to pair up some issue with that in order for it to make sense. The psychology of the character was really the first thing that interested me.
RB: How clear were you on the character of the therapist that was a necessary part of this narrative?
KWD: It took me a long time to get her right. My earliest versions of her were kind of cheesy and canned. And not particularly good imitations of what I thought a good therapist would be. I knew Darien was going to be an interesting challenge for a therapist because she was very bright and very quick, very defensive, very experienced with therapy. Ordinary People is a wonderful book, but I didn’t want that therapist, the mensch who was going to be quirky and pick the lint off her sweater. I wanted somebody who was in some way a mirror of her. In some way the mother figure that she needed. It took me many bad therapy exchanges that I had written to get to that.
RB: I thought that this was the real challenge. That is, writing the protagonist is intuitive and you have a good grasp of her. But creating a good therapist—I'm not sure there are many models for that. And the mother, is she a stand in for all the goofy mothers of the world?
KWD: When I was first working on this somebody told me that I had written an "icky mother." At that point she was almost caricaturized. She was too extreme in her drinking and her sexual relationships and a lot of it didn't end up in the book. I tried to dial her back and make some of the "abuse" that comes from her be more subtle.
RB: The mother's abuse by omission and disinterest.
RB: How long did it take you to get this right?
KWD: (sighs) This is one of those things I'm sure my agent would kill me for admitting. It took probably…
RB: The agent. We'll talk about that…
KWD: (Laughs) Probably four years of writing, rewriting and cutting. I wrote an enormous amount in that time.
RB: How many drafts would that be?
KWD: I wrote a bunch of drafts that went exactly in the wrong direction that I just had to throw out. I wrote several drafts in which Darien stays in Culver, the town that she goes to, and becomes a grocery clerk and lives there for six months. Hundreds and hundreds of pages of that. Probably five or six [drafts]
RB: Why would that be a problem to say you spent a long time on this book? Why would anyone have a problem with that?
KWD: In this day and age you are supposed to crank ‘em out. You are supposed to be prolific.
RB: In this day and age it seems publishing is driven by agents and publicists and dealmakers. So you finished the book and then searched for a way to get it published.
KWD: Yeah, I did.
RB: And that took you to New York? Or a friend of a friend?
RB: How many agents did you have to show the book to?
KWD: Three. That was nice. I read somewhere that the average is a dozen. So I was steeling myself for that.
RB: After spending a good period of time writing a novel, how did you steel yourself for the ordeal to come?
KWD: That's where I retreated to my “I'm a mother, not really a writer” defense. I had other things going on. It was a psychological tool as much as anything.
RB: It has the benefit of also being true. So all the chips weren't down on one number?
KWD: No. The funny thing is, I am confident that—once I decided I was writing something—that I would have continued to write, maybe not continued to work on this, but I would have picked up another project. Maybe if this one hits maybe someone will look at the first one.
RB: Now you have a completed draft and an agent. Then what happens?
KWD: She said I love it but it has to be half as long. It was about six hundred and fifty pages at the time.
RB: Didn't that used to be the editor's job?
KWD: Yeah. She just said, "Lose about half of it. Can't tell you what."
RB: Like record producers and under three minute songs and movie makers with films less than an hour and a half…
KWD: There do seem to be a lot of formulas for things. Nobody ever said this to me literally, but I do know the magic number is somewhere around three hundred pages.
RB: So was it hard to cut your novel?
KWD: It was less hard than I thought it would be. I was so wedded to all of it, as I was writing it. Why would I write it if I didn't feel that way about it? That time coincided with my husband's assignment in Paris. So I went to Paris for four months and I wrote and pushed my daughter up and down the avenue in a stroller and thought about what I wanted to do and got a little distance on the book. There were many pieces that could go. It was writing I liked but could live without. My husband had a much harder time with it. He read every draft and would say, "Oh you can't lose this. You can't lose that."
RB: You have writer friends locally. I assume they looked at the drafts. Were they first readers and help you through this?
KWD: Not really. The one person who was enormously helpful who introduced me to my agent Mary Evans was Michelle Chalfoun. She read the 650 pages several times and she had good ideas and she is also very good at not putting her hands in and saying you have to cut this and you have to add that.
RB: After you rework it and your agent starts shopping it is bought by St. Martins and then the editor there looks at it and says, "Perfect!"
KWD: Not quite. It was not a particularly painful process from there. I got lucky in that respect because I know that Linda [McFall] and I were well matched in terms of her style and what I was receptive to. I know many editors say, "Ah, this part in the middle is kind of muddy. You have to tighten it up.” She would say, "In this section, this needs to go quicker. I don't think you need so much about her job"… I hope I am good customer as well as a good patient. I responded well to that. That worked fine for me.
RB: It strikes me that is a truism that everyone needs an editor.
KWD: I recognize that something I have worked on for three or four years, I don't have objectivity on anymore. I am so far inside it. I know many people who are defensive and maybe they have a different set of eyes than I do. I feel strongly if it’s some thing that’s going to be out in the world, I'm [just] one opinion.
RB: We might as well continue this annotated chronology of the young novelist.
KWD: So far so good.
RB: So starred reviews in the trade publications like Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus and the publication date in February 10th. Now what?
KWD: I am doing a little touring. A little hopscotching around.
RB: What is the impact of those pre-publications reviews?
KWD: I hope it’s been positive. I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. One thing is that a couple have given away the secret that's at the middle of the plot. For me, it’s unfortunate because it changes the reading—you read this character completely differently knowing that about her. But I would hope those reviews would be helpful. They were an enormous boost for me because at every stage you can find reasons to doubt yourself.
RB: What are your expectations?
KWD: I had really hoped that it would give me license to write another book. It would do well enough critically that I could call myself a writer and hold my head up with pride about that. I read 90% of first novelists never write a second novel. I understand why now that I am starting again and writing these horrible sentences and completely doubting everything I have ever done. I wanted that stamp of validation to say that …
RB: You haven't read the Globe today have you?
KWD: No why?
RB: There was a big article on Junot Diaz and the fact he hasn't published.
KWD: Paralyzed after Drown. Which was so wonderful. It would be nice to have that kind of problem. To have written some thing so fabulous, so well received that I don't feel able to write another. I'm sure poor Alice Sebold is going to have problems to deal with coming out with her second.
RB: Do you think?
KWD: No, no. She actually had her memoir [Lucky] out before that. But it would be nice to make some money off it but as much as anything I had hoped to give myself that license.
RB: Is novel writing all the writing that you do? Any journalism?
KWD: I have written a lot of short stories that I should probably get out and tune up and try to get published. I have never actually tried that. I have been so focused on writing the book. Writing short stories is a wonderful break after writing something that takes so long. My problem with short stories is I tend to try to cram a novel into twenty pages. l am learning to get over that.
RB: What contact do you have with the writerly life?
KWD: Not a lot. Writing is my little oasis in some ways.
RB: You have a ten-month-old and a three-year-old?
RB: When do you write— at two in the morning?
KWD: My husband has his own business. So we try to stagger things. He gets up ridiculously early in the morning, works until three in the afternoon. Then I get a couple of hours in the afternoon and usually in the evening too.
RB: Have you looked past this book?
KWD: Yeah, yeah. I am working on a new one. Slowly and painfully.
RB: Is that the way you feel normally when you begin anything?
KWD: Yeah, yeah. Well, what's harder this time—when I wrote the book I had no idea that's what I was doing. It just started as this rant at my job one day. And then I started building more things around it and then I had thirty pages. Then I said, "Gee, what I am doing with this?" Going out and deliberately saying, "Okay, I am going to write a book." It's a completely different mental process for me. I am much more self-conscious, particularly once having gotten to the place where you have been polishing the character and you know your own writing. It's hard to go back and figure out that stuff again. I am trying to set up different challenges for myself— writing with a completely different voice and perspective. It feels a little forced to me at first.
RB: Do you take a really long view?
KWD: I haven't done that. You're making me feel like I should.
RB: I don't think anyone should. It seems like—it's a pseudo-question. What's the point?
KWD: Exactly. Are you going to put a big chart on your wall and then if you don't hit it and you are on your deathbed you go, "Wait a minute I have to get these other things done”? I haven't looked at it that way. I do have a couple more projects I have in mind. But I am not in a huge hurry either. I don't feel I have to crank it out. I am confident that once I get those done something else will spring up.
RB: Wow, confidence.
KWD: That's the first time I've said that word? Are you going to bill me at the end of this?
RB: No, no. Maybe, I shouldn't say that so quickly.
KWD: I heard you say no. You were ribbing me about confidence. It’s an interesting question. I don’t know how much of it is modesty or false modesty, which would be pretentious in its own way. I was confident that I could write well. But I wasn't confident that I could write well in way that would communicate to the rest of the world.
RB: What is writing well if it isn't writing to communicate to rest of the world? Writing handsome pages?
KWD: Exactly. I could put beautiful words together and I could write a lovely paragraph or something that was moving to some group of people. But even now I am shocked—and I don't mean that falsely— when people say, “I was so moved by your book. I couldn't put it down. I laughed. I cried." Really? It's still surprising to me. It's better that swaggering and thinking, "I wrote the greatest book ever and bring it on."
RB: What do you read?
KWD: I tend to read a lot that is relatively current. I just read Atonement by Ian McEwan. It was just amazing. I am trying to read a couple of things around the next thing that I am working on. Which I know a lot of people don't like to do, but I don't see any reason not to. I love Jane Hamilton.
RB: Me too.
KWD: And Margot Livesey, who just has a discipline and control of style that is just absolutely amazing. I read a fair number of contemporary authors. I couldn’t wait for Donna Tartt's new book to come out. I'll more or less leave it at that. The Secret History is one of my favorite books—brilliant and wonderful. I found myself as I have been consciously thinking about technique, which I never took all that seriously—I have been reading some classic authors like Edith Wharton. Jane Austen. And I have always loved F Scott Fitzgerald's writing.
RB: Most of my reading is of living authors and recently published books. I did read The Great Gatsby last year for the first time since high school. I was awed. It also got me into reading older, so-called classic fiction. I read The Bridge at San Luis Rey, which was a wonderful story and fascinating as a product of a Yankee writer…
KWD: It's a sign of my age that I am valuing a lot of those older writers now. I had to read The Awakening [Kate Chopin] in high school. I read it again a couple of years ago and my heart just pounded the whole time.
RB: Amy Bloom was talking about her recent rediscovery of Anthony Trollope. Sherwin Nuland mentioned that he read Dickens again and then proceeded to read twelve of his novels. It seems like a little reminder and you get this great charge.
KWD: You wonder if the classics are presented when you are too young or something. I have had the same experience of reading things in high school that it’s a grind—you push yourself through it. Dickens is a great example. I read a couple of his books recently—Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield. Hilarious, wonderfully funny and witty. In high school I just looked to see how may pages there were.
RB: And, "What does this have to do with me?"
RB: The Good Patient is a very contemporary story. One that seems suitable for film. Is there is any thing afoot in that area?
KWD: I wish there were. If you know anybody, let them know.
RB: That's your agent's job.
KWD: She keeps saying if the right person picks it up, they will snap it up. I think the feeling is that it's so interior.
RB: Oh please.
KWD: (Laughs) If they can make Fight Club into a movie they can make this into a movie.
RB: And The English Patient. So the answer is no.
KWD: The answer is. Unfortunately.
RB: Meaning that would be greater validation?
KWD: I had my moral high horse when I was younger. That this was my work and I wouldn't want anyone reinterpreting it or when they think of Darien, thinking of Winona Ryder or Parker Posey or whoever. I am at that stage in my life, I would be happy for it to reach a wider audience. Look at what's happened to Mrs. Dalloway since The Hours got made a movie. Not that Virginia Wolff is benefiting. But still.
RB: You never know. Well, great. Thanks very much.
KWD: Well thank you very much; I appreciate it.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing