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Author Talk: February 8, 2013

Priscille Sibley’s debut novel, THE PROMISE OF STARDUST, is a love story about a family torn apart by a medical crisis and the ethical dilemma of keeping a pregnant woman with no chance of recovery on life support for months in an attempt to give her unborn baby a chance. In this interview, Sibley talks about her inspiration for writing a story that deals with tough and at times unimaginable moral issues, the challenges she faced in capturing the perspective and voice of her male character, and the ways in which the book can be considered somewhat autobiographical.

Question: THE PROMISE OF STARDUST is a family story, a love story, and a story that deals with tough --- at times unimaginable --- moral issues. What inspired you to write this novel?

Priscille Sibley: I love being a nurse, but it isn’t an easy job --- not physically, not technically, and certainly not emotionally. We see people in crisis every day, but some situations are worse than others. Years ago I took care of a child who had been in a persistent vegetative state for an extended period of time. He did not respond to his environment. He had no spontaneous movement. He did not breathe or even blink. I don’t think he was suffering, but I didn’t believe that keeping him alive was in his best interest. My understanding was that the family had dissolved under the tension. If they ever visited, I never saw them. While I certainly don’t remember every patient I’ve ever cared for, I’ll always remember him. Nurses will all tell you we carry some patients with us forever. He is one of mine.

Sometime later, in 2004 and early 2005, the headlines were filled with stories about Terri Schiavo, a young woman in Florida who fell into a persistent vegetative state after suffering a cardiac arrest. Her family tried many therapies, but she remained unresponsive. Eventually her husband requested that she be disconnected from her feeding tube and be allowed to die. Her parents objected. A heated court case ensued. Pictures of Terri Schiavo looking like she was smiling were held up by the right-to-life advocates. At the same time doctors showed her CT scans, which indicated that Terri’s brain had severely atrophied. The entire situation disturbed me because, again, I found myself thinking about the child who was unaware of the feel of human contact.

I knew I would not want to live like Terri Schiavo or like that child, and I felt frustrated and sad. What possible good could come from this? What, if anything, could make this worth it? Then I had a “what if?” moment. What if she were pregnant? Of course in Schiavo’s case, it was impossible, but I found I couldn’t ignore my “what-if?” question, and I started to write a story about a man, the wife he loved, a terrible accident, and a family divided by the ethical dilemma of keeping a pregnant woman on life support.

Q: The political issues in the book --- right to live, right to die, a mother’s rights versus her unborn child’s, who speaks for the voiceless --- are divisive and highly controversial. Did you have any hesitations writing about such timely yet explosive issues? Did this impact the way that you approached the book?

PS: Controversy is definitely inherent in this premise, but I didn’t set out to write a political statement. I set out to write a human story. People get caught up in real ethical dilemmas every single day. What is right or wrong is not always as clear as a pundit’s sound bite. These kinds of decisions are affected by relationships and human frailties and love and denial and the need to hold on to what’s left after a tragedy. And sometimes the answers are not as clear as our principles. I’m not trying to be funny or disrespectful when I say the opinions expressed by my characters are not necessarily my own. They are there for balance. And yes, at times it was difficult for me to write those words. The opinions are there to pose the question: What would you want if this were you?

So I created a cast of characters who could speak to different sides of the dilemma. Linney loves helping women give birth to babies, and she loves her son and her daughter-in-law. Yet she’s in a position of having promised her goddaughter --- her Catholic goddaughter --- that she would never let her languish near death. Matt loves his wife, and he wants to do one last thing right for her. He wants their child. He’s clinging to the very unlikely chance he can salvage something from his and Elle’s life together. Adam is still trying to protect Elle. Jake has a cause he believes in and an old friend he wants to help. But I’m not even certain if there is a right or a wrong under the circumstances in which Elle’s family and friends find themselves. Matt picks a course, but I don’t think he’s completely convinced that he has done the right thing even in the very end.

Q: Writing experts often advise people to write what they know. In writing THE PROMISE OF STARDUST, did you follow this rule? How did you follow this rule, and how did you break away from it? In the cases where you were writing about something new, how did you go about researching and learning about your characters’ worlds?

PS: Ah, the rules! Because this is a work of fiction, I did not know everything my characters would need to know if they were real people. For example, I am not an astronaut. And thankfully Matt, the narrator, is not either. However, Elle was and I needed to learn a little bit about NASA. When my kids were young, I watched an endless number of videos about space, one of which talked about how a micrometeorite could potentially compromise a spacesuit. And so that became fodder for Elle’s adventure. I found the web site and e-mail of an astronaut online. I sent him a question and he kindly responded. (I have to say I love research sometimes. That was one of the coolest things I ever did.)

And although I’m a registered nurse, I am not a neurosurgeon, so I went back to the books to learn more about neuro exams and brain death determinations. I work with sick newborns, who really don’t have myocardial infarctions from years of unhealthy living, so I needed a refresher and update on heart attacks. Back to the books I went again. Google became a close friend. I spent hours in the medical library. I posed questions to other health care professionals. One of my writer friends is an attorney. She repeatedly sent me back to rewrite scenes. It was fun. It was frustrating. It turned into a book.

Q: As a woman writing a male character like Matt Beaulieu, did you face any challenges in capturing his perspective or keeping his voice authentically male?

PS: The challenges were significant, at least in my mind. If I could have told the story from any point of view other than Matt’s, I would have. But I wanted a reader to feel what was at stake for him. I wanted to show Matt and Elle’s love story, and since she could no longer voice it, Matt had to speak for both of them. Fortunately, I am surrounded by men. I’m raising three teenage boys, I have one husband, and I have six brothers-in-law (if no actual brothers). Men speak and see the world a little differently than women do. They banter with one another. Their one-upmanship is usually affectionate, not mushy, and when things are difficult, they try to solve problems rather than commiserate. Men. About the book are interesting characters. But I did spend a lot of time second-guessing everything from his reactions to his word choices.

Q: There are four types of love --- storge (familial love), philia (love between friends), agape (unconditional love), and eros (romantic love) --- all of which appear and are important in THE PROMISE OF STARDUST whether it is between Matt and Elle, Linney and Elle, Matt and Linney, Matt and Jake, etc. Do you think all love is equal?

PS: This is an interesting question, but it is one for which I don’t have a simple answer. I didn’t want to make anyone in the story wholly right or wholly wrong. They see Elle’s condition from their own perspectives, and I messed with the typical dynamics. Elle and Matt are almost a family from the very beginning of their lives because they live next door to each other and their parents are lifelong friends. Matt could have easily seen Elle as more of a sister than a lover. They are childhood friends, first loves, and eventually husband and wife. After her accident, I do think he demonstrates his love for her has become unconditional, and I believe true love, be it for one’s parents or friends or lovers or children, is unconditional. It must be unselfish to be real.

Q: Matt and Elle have been in love with each other for a long time, but they do break up and date other people. Do you think it was important for them to break up in order for them to ultimately be together?

PS: Here’s the romantic in me: Matt and Elle’s love was more powerful than either of them was prepared to handle when they were teenagers. It almost swallowed their dreams. It might have if Celina had lived. Then what would have happened? Would they have been able to stick it out? Having the chance to concentrate on their demanding careers instead of each other made it easier for them to attain their individual dreams. Of course, Jake and his wife married fairly young and stayed married. He gave up his political ambitions though, and Yvette didn’t have a demanding career. So there are examples of young love working in the story, too.

Q: After Elle’s accident the Beaulieu and McClure families are forced to make decisions for her, and Matt and Linney have very different ideas about what this means. Do you think it’s possible for one person to completely know another person?

PS: That’s a question for the ages. I’m not even certain we know ourselves as well as we think. Linney loves Elle like a parent, and she loves her son. One of the limitations of telling the story from Matt’s point of view was that I couldn’t get into Linney’s head. If I could have, she would have shared some interesting insights into Matt and his denial. He is a fairly reliable narrator, but he only sees the story from his singular point of view. There were things he did not know about Elle, either. On the day they went on the rollercoaster, he said he often told her things he said to no one else, but they didn’t talk about Adam. They didn’t talk about Carol. Some things were out-of-bounds. No, I don’t think we know everything.

Q: Many first novels are semiautobiographical. Is this the case for THE PROMISE OF STARDUST? Do you see yourself in any or all of your characters? If so, which ones?

PS: It’s not a story about me or my family or anyone I know, and I’ve never witnessed this scenario in the workplace. That doesn’t mean the story didn’t emanate from me. As a nurse, I have had a front-row seat to terrible suffering; my first nursing job was in a burn unit. I have taken care of children with fatal diseases, and I’ve taken care of babies who were born with problems which made it impossible for them to survive. At times, I’ve wondered if we (health care professionals) were trying too hard to extend life. I still wonder that some days, and in an oblique way I’m asking that question in THE PROMISE OF STARDUST.

And I did borrow little details from my life here and there. One example is that Matt and Elle grow up in Freeport, Maine, a town I’ve loved since I was a kid. Their house is down on Wolf Neck Road, which is a real place, although their house is a figment of my imagination. There’s a lovely state park on Wolf Neck, a forest with hiking trails. Casco Bay is on one side of the peninsula and the Harraseeket River on the other, and I envision their property as part of the state park I’ve wandered around in so many times.

Another (bigger) thing I borrowed from my life was that my own mother died when I was fifteen. The circumstances were very different than Alice’s death. My mother’s illness was short (no hospice care was involved), and I did not go through a teenage pregnancy. (If anything, her illness made me more of a goody-goody than I was before.) But when I needed a reason for a young, healthy woman to be adamantly opposed to being kept on life support, I pulled that one out of my bag of tricks. Even seeing my mother on life support for a short time was enough to put a dreaded fear into my young soul. I thought the motivation would be sufficient to send Elle charging off to write an advanced directive.

Q: What books and authors have inspired you? Are there any books that you continue to go back to?

PS: I don’t tend to reread books. I might pull one off the shelf again to savor a passage or two, but I don’t reread books in their entirety very often. I do love stories of redemption. I loved LES MISERABLES. I also think Jodi Picoult does a great job of building tension. In THE PACT, Picoult tells a devastating detail on the first page, but several hundred pages later I was yelling at the book, “Don’t do it!” as the characters were replaying what happened on page one. I mean, that’s just fabulous when a writer can evoke that kind of emotion from a reader. Alice Sebold had me yelling at THE LOVELY BONES, telling one of the characters to get out of there. In THE MURDERER’S DAUGHTERS, Randy Susan Meyers had me saying “Just let someone love you.” Whenever a writer can get you to shake your fist at a character’s stupidity, cry, or laugh, they’ve pulled off something great.

Q: If you could choose a dream cast to play your characters in a film, who would you include and why?

PS: Oh, my. I barely described what Matt looked like other than to say he was tall, and in the epilogue he says his eyes are dark. For me, he’s telling the story. He has a confident sense of himself, but I don’t think what he looks like is important to him. How he sees Elle is important though, and I tried to make his perception of her intimate. She’s the center of his world. I pictured Claire Danes when I thought of Elle, mostly because I’d seen her grow up on screen. Initially I saw Linney as Tyne Daly, an actress who can portray an opinionated and simultaneously tender character. I can’t say I mentally cast anyone else with actors.