Today I have the pleasure of welcoming Rebecca Brewster Stevenson to the Storage Room. Rebecca and I share an editor and have come to be writing friends over the last year or so. I am so excited about her new book, Healing Maddie Brees. It is poignant and thought-provoking as well as a beautifully written. I think it’s neat how we both wrote books about women dealing with cancer diagnoses and went about it in very different ways. I love that. Anyway, welcome Rebecca!
Thanks so much for this opportunity, Elizabeth!
Tell us a bit about your new book.
Healing Maddie Brees is the story of a marriage confronted by illness and memory. It follows Frank and Maddie Brees, who have tried to forge the very best kind of marriage, as they navigate a year of breast cancer. What should be a time of mutual support and new intimacy becomes a season of isolation, imbued with memories–for Maddie–of an old boyfriend who, once upon a time, seemed to be able to heal people. Given that context, what loving spouse wouldn’t want to seek out this ex-boyfriend for his desperately ill wife? But for reasons both spoken and unspoken, she doesn’t see things that way –and the novel’s conflict arises here.
Tell us a bit about Maddie Brees as a person.
Maddie is a woman who isn’t quite in touch with herself. She believes herself to be: she is deliberate in how she attends to her marriage, her children, her life. And is she honest regarding hardship: she doesn’t pretend that life isn’t plain difficult sometimes. But when it comes to her history, to her memories, to her reasons for decisions she made in the past, she has been dishonest–not just with herself, but with her husband, Frank. For her, cancer and the memories it evokes force her into a bracing honesty that she isn’t at all certain she wants.
Of all the illnesses Maddie could have, why did you choose breast cancer?
As with certain other cancers, breast cancer is both (obviously) physical and sexual. It taps into who Maddie is as a mother, as a sexual partner–and these realities intersect, too, with what Maddie slowly recalls and, in a way, relives over the course of the book. In writing about the body and marriage, I was intrigued by the words of Jesus in Mark 10:8, in which he speaks of marriage as two becoming “one flesh.” I wanted to work with the idea of one member of that marriage union becoming ill, and I wanted that illness to have specific ties to her sexual identity. In addition, sadly, breast cancer is not an uncommon experience. I have friends who have fought and won battles with the disease and were willing to share their experience with me. To the best of my ability, I wanted to express an honest and believable fight that honored those who have been through it.
The book delves into the connection between the body and the soul in an interesting way. Could you speak to that a bit.
Well, that body and soul are connected is an assertion that, for me, as I said above, is based on Mark 10:8. But it’s an assertion that is difficult (impossible?) to prove. We have no empirical evidence for the soul, for starters. And yet, I believe it is a common experience that one feels oneself tied to another whom one has loved–particularly if one has been sexually intimate with that person. To her irritation and later dismay, Maddie finds that she is still tied to Vincent, and Frank has a similar experience with Francesca. Both believe themselves completely free of their pasts, and they find themselves drawn back in unexpected ways. I wanted this book to ask questions about this phenomenon, this link between body and soul: Is it there? If so, what do we make of it? How might the veracity of this connection help us understand ourselves, or inform our decisions about what we do with our bodies? For all the wonderful gifts science–particularly medical science-has given us, I think there is a good deal we do not yet comprehend about our physical selves, and this book is an exploration of one corner of that.
Guilt has a strong role in Maddie and Frank’s lives. How do you see the roles of guilt and redemption in the novel?
I think guilt is a terrible thing–and also universal. Guilt begs for a response, and I was interested in how Maddie dealt with it: which was not only to repress what she felt guilty about, but to create a narrative that helped her handle it. That narrative was a lie, and of course Frank had to believe that lie too in order for Maddie to persist in it. When Frank is faced with his own guilt, he decides on honesty–but it’s interesting that Maddie wants to reject him for his guilt, when she herself is guilty all along. The fact that all of us is guilty of something can and should lead to redemption; our mutual guilt should open us to compassion. Sadly, much of the time, we respond to guilt with condemnation–and this is likely (my guess) because we aren’t honest with ourselves about where we have been wrong.
What is next for you?
I’m at work on my next novel, Church+Main, a book that takes its title from a building project here in Durham. The novel turns on ways I perceive westerners believe we can disaster-proof our lives: by living in the right place and getting a good education. The story focuses on a married couple who are both teachers, one in a private school and one in a public one, and explores the ideals and potentials of a good education against the very real needs that educators confront daily in an American classroom.
Where can we find you on the internet?
I would LOVE for you to visit my blog, “Small Hours,” which can be found on my website: rebeccabrewsterstevenson.com .
Rebecca Brewster Stevenson is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has a master’s degree from Duke University and has lived in Durham, North Carolina for over 20 years with her husband and three children. HEALING MADDIE BREES is her first novel.
Before dedicating herself to writing full time, Rebecca worked with Trinity School of Durham to develop the curriculum for the humanities department; she also worked as an English teacher at Cresset Christian Academy in Durham and at South Fayette Jr. Sr. High School in Pittsburgh.
Though HEALING MADDIE BREES is Rebecca’s debut novel, she has been writing for most of her life. Rebecca’s beautifully crafted personal essays on her blog “Small Hours” at rebeccabrewsterstevenson.com have earned her a strong audience of readers who enjoy her explorations of themes relating to family, marriage, faith, healing, writing, language, literature, and film.
A little bit more about the book:
A debut novel from a promising new voice in fiction, Healing Maddie Brees is the story of a marriage and the memories that pit themselves against it, of the uncanny power of the body in both disease and desire, and of whether true healing ever really happens.
Maddie Brees has been given bad news: She is seriously ill. But she also has an old friend, an ex-boyfriend who might be able to heal her. She was witness to Vincent Elander’s so-called miracles in the past. But that was a long time ago, a memory that she would rather stay buried.
Now she is happily married to Frank and mother of their three young boys. The religion of her past is behind her, along with any confidence she once had in it. With the onset of her cancer, the memories of Vincent won’t leave Maddie alone, and before long they are affecting everything else: her marriage, her husband, the things they thought they agreed on, the beliefs they thought they shared. Soon Frank, who was to be Maddie’s rock throughout her treatment, is finding fault-lines of his own. In this exquisitely written narrative, Stevenson explores the questions of honesty and commitment, of disease and isolation, and of the many shapes healing takes.
Buy the book from Amazon