For this visiting author seminar, we'll by joined by Mary Beth Keane. She earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Virginia. She's the author of several novels, including this one, Fever. It's the story of Mary Mallon, otherwise known as Typhoid Mary. She was identified as the first immune or asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid Fever in the United States. In reconstructing Mary Mallon's world, Mary Beth Keane drew on a wealth of primary sources, including some personal letters by Mary Mallon and others. including a number of medical records attesting to her confinement on East Brother Island. even the documents relevant to her Habeas Corpus proceeding. the, the novel is a rich act of historical imagination. In her seminar with my students at the University of Virginia, Keane talks in a number of ways about the craft and the genre of historical fiction. How she relates to it as a writer the kind of choices that she made, the creative choices that she made in writing the novel Fever about, for example. Third person versus first person, why she chose one over the other. any number of aspects of research and so on. relating to the craft of historical fiction, and, and how to reconstruct a world like the one in which Mary Mallon lived. she was a really enigmatic figure, a fascinating figure. and I think in our discussion you'll see some aspects of the invention and the active historical imagination that this novel represents really coming across. So, I hope you enjoy this visiting author seminar with Mary Beth Keane. And so Mary Beth Keane, thank you so much for joining us. >> Thank you for having me. It's great to meet you all. and to be back at UVA. I think I should probably start with a confession. I understand you've met several other authors so far this semester, and I may be the only one who wrote what's been described as historical fiction, but I don't consider myself a historical novelist. I never thought I would write something like this that is set so far in the past, and is based on a real person. and so it was Mary's particular story that really spoke to me. And the thing that spoke to me most, was that her story was so contempary, and I felt that it applied to life now, as much as it applied to life then. And the, the gap between our times sort of narrowed, the more I read about her and got to know her. and I think if that narrowing had not happened, I wouldn't have been able to write this book. And so, I was an English major, like a lot of you. I majored in literature at Barnard, and then I did my MFA here. And although I feel like I worked hard, I didn't have to do the kind of research that historians do, you know, when they get to the upper levels. And for this book, I sort of had to dive in and figure out how to find primary resources, how to find the things I need or I needed to write this, this story. And it was completely haphazard in the beginning. I just read as much as I could. and I decided early on that I didn't want to take notes. Because notes would, I felt, choke the life out of the fiction. If I kept referring to notes then, the characters would not be animated. so I've read and read and read, and tried to search for people's voices from that time. Try to hear them, their concerns. You know, I, I spent a lot of time researching things that didn't end up being as helpful as I hoped they would be. You know, I read about Theodore Roosevelt. I read about Panama Canal. I mean, how does this apply to Mary's story except in a very trickle down, sort of way. the things I was most concerned about were what the average person working in the servant class in New York City in this period was worried about. And once I started getting into those things, again the world felt closer and closer. I also figured out when I was writing the fiction that that's where this story was going to live for the most part. When I began this project, I thought I was going to further dramatize the events that were already on the public record. There are things about Mary Mallon's case that have been written about in Dr. Baker's memoirs and Dr. Sopor's memoirs and newspapers of the time, and those were her capture. The way that she went kick and screaming has been confirmed in a lot of different places. her time on North Brother, the dates of her capture, things like that. But it ended up that the things that animate a novel, and I think this is the main difference between fiction and non-fiction, are the things that are most interior to character. And for those things I had to basically, you know, look inside myself and, and put the research aside and just start writing, fiction, excuse me. and so with that in mind, I started writing around the main events that were on the historical record. I knew I had to in, include them and, and at the beginning of this project, I sort of made a contract with myself. I don't think there's a point in writing about a real historical figure if you go way off script like some people do sometimes. I always find that a little bit disappointing, and I wonder what the point is. and so I knew I wanted to keep the, the main events of her life intact. But she was made a one-dimensional character from the moment the phrase Typhoid Mary hit the papers. And so my job was to make her, you know, fully human and flesh her out and give her an identity that she didn't have in public at that time. And so I started writing into the spaces that were not known. The times she goes off the radar. The times before she's captured. And things like that, and try to write into the quietness and then get at a full life in that way. with that in mind, I'm going to read a little bit from a section that's a little bit further along than, I think, the chapters that were assigned. It's on page 166. the struggle of this novel, for me, was figuring out whether Mary knew what she was doing, and if she was capable of understanding what, what the doctors were telling her, and I had to decide if that's something she was just hiding from herself, if she was lying to herself, or if she could truly not believe what they were saying. And I think it's not a black and white question. I think there are lots of things in contemporary life, in Mary's life, that we have trouble accepting. And so there are, I think, gray areas of knowledge, especially about things that are troubling. And that was the sort of moral center and the heart of the book: figuring out if Mary understood that she was guilty or not. And at times, like in our own lives, we shut the door on troubling knowledge. I think we do this and people we love do this all the time. But then there are moments where we're vulnerable, and we sort of admit to a certain, you know, amount of guilt that we then, you know, deny happened the next day. And so that back and forth with Mary, I think, was the heart of her struggle, and my struggle writing the book. So, on this, in this section she's bee released from North Brother and during that period in her life, I imagined her so eager to get off the island and, and, and feeling so urgent about getting help. and finding a voice in all of this. That I imagine her not really making a lot of time to decide whether she was guilty or. It was almost an irrelevant thing. You know, she wanted to get off the island. And then once she did, I imagine she had a little time to calm down and take a look at what exactly had happened to her, because it was so confusing to her for two and a half years. So she's at the boarding house. She's just, you know, a few days off the island. She's try to make her way in New York City for the first time since her arrival as a person who is not a cook; she's working at a laundry, which is a new identity for her. and, and so this is her sort of reflecting at night in the boarding house. At night in her narrow, single room the light from the lamp not strong enough to read by, Mary lay on her back and remembered she was still young. She was working, she was luckier than most. She was not a woman who felt loneliness. She was not a woman who got weepy or complained. She was not, had never been, and wouldn't become one now. And then, as sometimes happened when the hour got late and there wasn't enough to occupy her, and she couldn't sleep, and her whole body felt full up with the question, with a question in need of an answer. Though she couldn't think of exactly what the question might be. She thought of him, the other him, that baby, that boy, dead now for 11 years. She imagined Mr. Kirkenbauer remarried with other children, another wife, another new house. Did anyone ever visit that boy? He'd been thriving when she met him. He'd been growing and running and learning his words. And accepting everything he was taught with joy. And then Mary had arrived for job, and he was dead within five weeks. That one, that baby, more than any of the ones on Dr. Soper's list, more than even her sister's twins, who'd seemed like little more than empty vessels from the very start, more than any of the ones they accused her of harming, Tobias Kirkenbauer bothered her most. If it was her fault, like they said it was, if she was to blame, if she was a walking, breathing germ, a death sentence, if it was her arrival that had killed him, her letting him eat off her spoon, her kissing him and squeezing him If he really did die because of her, then she asked Jesus for mercy. She didn't mean to, she told God. She didn't know. Late at night, long after the borders were most likely asleep in their beds, she wondered about all those lab tests that came back positive, and all those lectures that gave, they gave to her, about typhoid bacilli, and hot soup versus cold salad and what heating at high temperatures does to food and where germs like to grow and thrive and how, in all likelihood, it was her ice creams and puddings that were to blame. She fought back to the ship that brought her to America. And all those bodies that had been dropped into the grey ocean, a trail of heavy sewen up sacks she could follow back home. If she ever chose to leave America one day. Anyway, it didn't matter anymore. Mary told herself in the morning, as she rushed to rub a wash, washcloth over her face. It didn't matter, she repeated, as she struggled to pull on thick tights under her skirt, and watched her own breath hover around her face, as she grew more agitated. She knew once again that she hadn't killed that boy anymore than she had killed any of the other people in that great, wide, filthy, throbbing city. It would be laughable really if it weren't already criminal for them to have locked her up, one woman, a cook, when every corner of America hid a pestilence just waiting to be stirred up, set free. And so when the real writing came in, I felt like I had to leave history aside and write sections about Mary and her humanity that weren't tied to a particular time and place. And so, some people don't understand when I say that history came far second to character. Character comes first, history comes second, and I think that's true for, for all you know, good historical novels. Not just this one. well I'm happy to take your questions if, I hear you guys are good at having questions. Yes. [LAUGH] >> They're very good. >> you just mentioned how, like you want us to create her humanity, which I think is really interesting. And this passage kind of ties into a lot of conversations we've been having, which is sort of debating what to what extent Mary is aware that, or not aware that she does have typhoid. That she is affecting these deaths, and whether, and how, in certain parts, she acknowledges the deaths, but she doesn't always acknowledges, she doesn't always acknowledge her role in them. So I was wondering, you know, what was your choice in that. Was that tied into making her more human, or was it more of an effort to maintain historical fiction? Or, like, how that played into your effort to create her humanity. >> I think I just tried to be true to what, how I might have reacted to this sort of news. I was roughly the same age or, I am roughly the same age as Mary as when she's caught. And I, I tried to comprehend it from her point of view. New York was, was violent It was filthy. And, and some of the challenge of this book was washing away all that charming, you know, sepia color that we see from period pictures and stuff. And looking at it for what it was, which was a place where people died, all the time, of diseases like typhoid, like diphtheria, you know, pneumonia tuberculosis. And And with that in mind, I believe that Mary could legitimately deny, within herself, that she was responsible for all these deaths. If typhoid is everywhere, especially in tenements, and it pops up at a home where you're working in, the only significant thing about that is that she brought typhoid fever, which was a poor person's disease Into a rich person's home. And otherwise, you know, her life was not the life of her employer. They didn't see a lot of typhoid fever, but she did. And so I had to decide whether she legitimately didn't believe what they were saying about her, and in the end, I did. I think, though, you can still allow for certain possibilities. Like again when your feeling most reflective about your own life did I do this am I to blame I think she must have had moments like that but ultimately I think only at the very end of her life in my imagination did she allow the possibility that this really did happen the way they said it did. On page 297, there's the most profound sentence in the book, or several times it's in the book, I think, because I was waiting for Mary to come to a realization either that she felt guilty that she didn't, and it's on page 297 where she's in the kitchen at the hospital, and she says that the, this is the second paragraph, I know that, she said. And when she said it, she realized that she wasn't just being agreeable. She did know, and that it had been a risk worth taking. was something they would never be able to understand. And, here we see her conceding to the possibility that she could have caused those deaths. Now I'm wondering if, at this point in the novel for you, was this, Mary, coming to the realization that she had throughout the whole novel, or was this a capitulation to what people had been pressing for her to understand for a long time? >> I, I sort of thought of this moment as a cliff that she'd been backing up to a little bit, if that makes sense. It was there, she sort of knew it was there, but at this moment she sort of turns around and faces it. And I, I do think she sort of steps back from that later, you know, in that back and forth I imagine her having about all of this, but she's exhausted here. >> Mm-hm. >> Alfred has just died. And I think when, you know, as author, Mary doesn't know, or maybe she did in real life, but in my imagination she didn't know there are so many other people who are being identified by this point as healthy carriers of typhoid fever people who worked in the food industry, people who were repeat offenders, and who never, nobody was ever held indefinitely except for Mary Mallon. Even people who went back to cooking after infecting people, and infecting far more people than Mary Mallon ever did. And so I think this was written with, you know, a lot of authorial knowledge placed onto her. You know, to some extent, and I think she felt that, you know, she felt the unfairness of this situation from day one. Even though she couldn't articulate it. She wasn't as educated as the people who were keeping her captive and so she, and they dismissed her because of her, you know, status as an immigrant, because she was a woman, because she was not educated. But I think she always felt that it was unfair. And in that way, they were both right. You know, that the people, Dr. Soper and his cronies were right. She was doing what they accused her of doing. But she was also right when she felt it was unfair.