An Interview with Ellen Meeropol
Ellen Meeropol is a mother to two, grandmother to one, and a nurse practitioner by training. She graduated from Stonecoast’s MFA program in 2005, and took early retirement from full-time nursing to devote herself to writing fiction. Her first novel, House Arrest, was published in February 2011 by Red Hen Books.
Meeropol’s novel chronicles the relationship between a young pregnant woman, Pippa, who is living under house arrest awaiting trial, and the visiting nurse, Emily, who is assigned to monitor Pippa’s health during this time. Despite not wanting to like one another, the women do, and Meeropol weaves their worlds together in ways that neither the characters nor their readers could anticipate.
One of the novel’s core themes is how political beliefs might collide with family relationships, and the ways those loyalties can be at odds. For Meeropol, the interface between family, politics, and sacrifice is extremely personal. Her husband, Robert (Robby) Meeropol, experienced sacrifice and loss firsthand: His parents were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Ellen Meeropol is a founding board member of the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC). Started in 1990, the RFC is a non-profit public foundation that gives grants to children in the U.S. whose parents have suffered harassment, injury, or imprisonment as a result of “progressive” political activities related to furthering peace, social justice, or environmental sustainability.
Meeropol now lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband.
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser: Writing isn’t your first career. How did you decide to write a novel?
Ellen Meeropol: I’ve always read an enormous amount and I’ve always admired writers tremendously. I envied people who could create worlds the way fiction writers do.
I didn’t begin with a decision to write a novel, not at all. Robby had been writing speeches for a long time, part of his work at Rosenberg Fund for Children, and Martin Espada, who’s a friend and a wonderful poet, kept urging Robby to turn those speeches into a book of essays. We started to look into the idea of a sabbatical, which is something not easily done when you run a non-profit or are a nurse practitioner, but we managed to carve out two months. I found us a cottage on the Maine coast. I hadn’t really considered what I would do with myself but a light bulb went on: If we had this time, perhaps I could write fiction. I had a real sense I could do it.
So, I enrolled in an online writing course. I had a terrific teacher and worked on short stories. Robby wrote the first draft of what became his memoir, An Execution in the Family.
SWB: Did you go from a few short stories to this novel?
EM: No. I wrote more short stories and then I wrote another novel first. Then, I decided to do the MFA program.
I’d read a very short report, just a paragraph, in the Boston Globe about a nurse assigned to monitor a pregnant woman under house arrest. That was the spark. I didn’t read anything else about the real events. I wanted to invent my own story from there. I tucked the paragraph into a drawer, because I was at work on that first novel. When I decided to do the MFA program, though, I pulled it out; this was the project I wanted to work on during my graduate studies. By the end of the two-year program, I had a solid draft. I worked on revising the novel for another year-and-a-half.
SWB: Did you know instantly what your story was, or who your characters were? Did you know how it would end?
EM: I knew I wanted the novel to raise questions. I didn’t know where it was going, though. I didn’t really know the characters. What I did know from the beginning was this: Pippa, the patient under house arrest, would ask something of Emily, her nurse, and what she would ask would be really hard for Emily. I knew that their relationship would be at the heart of the book.
It is also interesting that some of my readers have been really pissed off about Emily’s choices, and frustrated with me for the book’s ending. I’m delighted by readers’ strong reactions. It means they are really engaged with the characters.
SWB: Did you identify with one character over the others? Did you feel, as I sometimes do when writing fiction, that a character is you?
EM: I felt as if different parts of myself went into these characters. Emily’s more a by-the-rules person, and she’s a nurse. I’m a nurse, too, so I identified with her work. Pippa’s a free spirit. I like to think of myself as a free spirit; I try to nurture that part of myself.
Also Zoe, the little cousin Emily lives with and cares for, has spina bifida and this allowed me to write about something I know well, something that has been a big part of my life. Many of my patients over the years have had spina bifida.
SWB: Will medicine and nursing continue to feature in your fiction beyond this novel?
EM: Yes. Issues of health and medical ethics obsess me, including, as in House Arrest, how you build a therapeutic relationship across beliefs.
Stories about politics and families are compelling to me. As a writer committed to political beliefs, it’s often a challenge to balance ideals with craft, to embed political questions into my work without sacrificing a compelling story, and to write about things I care so deeply about without getting preachy about issues.
SWB: You began writing in Maine, and Maine figures into your fiction. Did you also grow up there or was it a familiar place before that summer sabbatical?
EM: No, I didn’t grow up there. Being in Maine and starting to write coincided for me, and it has become one of those places I just love. I feel very connected to Maine. It’s the place that opened up the world of fiction for me.
I really love books that create a place-based universe that a reader can continue returning to, like Andrea Barrett does in her fiction. I love her work and I like when place carries that kind of resonance.
SWB: Other than Andrea Barrett, what writers do you admire and feel influenced by?
EM: Gillian Slovo is a South African writer who writes about that country. Her mother was killed by a letter bomb in London when she was young and political ideas figure into her work. I’m also influenced by Laura Hobson’s work. She wrote issue-oriented fiction in the middle of the last century; her novel Gentleman’s Agreement is about class and race.
SWB: Given how important family is in your books, how has your own family responded to your work?
EM: My family’s been great. Robby and my daughters are engaged readers and offer a lot of feedback. They see a lot of themselves in the characters. It’s been really fun to share my writing with them.
My father is blind and relies upon talking books. The process for making those books is complex. I have a friend who’s a rock musician and a sound engineer so he helped me in the studio and we recorded me reading the book. We then paid Perkins School for the Blind, which puts out the talking books, to make a cartridge of my book that fits into the reader machine, all so that my dad could listen. Perkins School was so wonderful to help and then asked to put the book into their catalogue because they liked it. I was so honored to give back in a small way, since that service has pretty much saved my father’s sanity.
My dad mostly reads — listens to — science fiction. I can’t tell whether he really liked my book, but he liked getting to hear it.
SWB: Have you taught? Do you want to teach and write, or mostly write?
EM: I’ve taught workshops through our local organization Writers in Progress and I teach a week-long workshop at World Fellowship Center’s summer camp, essentially a summer camp for lefties. I don’t want to teach more than those occasional workshops, though. I like to have time to write. I also need some flexibility in order to be available to my dad. He’s 93 and lives nearby in an independent living community. I see him three times a week and help to coordinate his needs.
SWB: It seems as if you’ve been very actively promoting House Arrest.
EM: Yes. I’ve given a few readings in bookstores, like Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and near me, the Odyssey Bookshop, where I also work very part-time. I work there mostly to remain that much closer to books! I love it.
I’ve also traveled a lot, to conferences and book festivals. The people who attend book festivals are very engaged, passionate readers and I’ve really enjoyed meeting people that way. I’ve met many writers too, and I’m so appreciative of how warm and welcoming they have been to me as a new writer.
Given the state of publishing these days, authors really have to do a lot to promote their books, especially literary late bloomers like me. Red Hen Press is a small publisher, and they take risks on quirky books, political books. They don’t have a big PR department or anything like that! So, it’s a grassroots effort to promote my book. The word is getting out, though, and that’s enormously satisfying.
SWB: Do you write nonfiction, or plan to write nonfiction?
EM: Many years ago, I did a little nonfiction writing for a publication called Seven Days, almost a lefty Newsweek. I reviewed Jane Lazarre’s book, Mother Knot. They are always rich topics, politics and motherhood.
The other nonfiction writing I’ve done is for medical journals. That’s a very different kind of writing. I worked at Shriners Hospital for 24 years and still do, part-time. I have treated many children with spina bifida and I’ve written professional articles about the high incidence of latex allergies in these patients. I was one of the early researchers to look at this.
SWB: What happened to that first novel you wrote?
EM: Well, I put it aside to write House Arrest, and then returned to it. It’s about two sisters who become estranged over a political action. We’re shopping this book around to various publishers.
SWB: What are you writing now?
EM: I’m almost finished revising a third novel, a story in which a math professor is kidnapped by federal agents and taken for interrogation at a civilian detention center off the coast of Maine. The story is told from the professor’s point of view, as well as from the perspective of two FBI agents and two people who live on the island. It has been truly frightening to write. All this — and having House Arrest come out — has kept me extremely busy but I’m having a terrific time.