W.W. Norton’s Q & A with Brad about Miss Jane
Q: Miss Jane is based on your great aunt who suffered from the same genital birth defect as your main character. What was your great aunt’s condition?
As was common in her day (she actually lived from 1888-1975, but it applies to my Jane’s day and time, too), no one really talked about it. And so no one alive by the time I came into the world really knew “what was wrong with Aunt Jane.” Her name wasn’t really Jane, by the way. She was Mary Ellis Clay, and my mother didn’t even know how she came to be called Jane. “Jane” is not on her gravestone. In any case, one of the more difficult parts of my research was figuring out what her condition may have been. I had little to go on: her known incontinence, and a late discovery that she had only one opening for the elimination of waste, which led me down a long path of crossing out this and that possibility. Based on those two facts, and some things I learned doing research, and the fact that she lived a long and apparently otherwise healthy life, I finally decided she probably had something called “persistent cloaca,” a rare condition that occurs only in females and only in about 1 in 20,000-25,000 births. To simplify, there are no external genitalia, and only the one (small) opening for waste. Sexual intercourse probably would have been all-but impossible. And my great-aunt wore heavy undergarments, essentially diapers, her entire life and was very secretive about her condition. Everyone just pretty much pretended it didn’t exist.
Q: This novel took you 13 years to write. Did you labor over it because of how personal the story was to you?
My version is that it took me 10 years to figure out how to write it, with a couple of derailed or aborted drafts in there, and then three years to write once I figured out how to write it. But yes, the fact that I was trying to imagine what was a real (but secretive, very private) life, the life of someone my mother and others had known in a sense or to a degree, someone I’d actually laid eyes on once when she was very old – all this made it harder for me to write the book because I had a hard time getting around what I didn’t know about my own aunt, if that makes sense. In order to imagine a realistic, believable, fictional character for the novel, I had to get around feeling confounded by the fact that my great aunt’s life was a mystery. For some reason, it was unreasonably hard to invent what I didn’t know, to make fiction from what I was seeing as unknowable fact.
Of course, I wrote and/or wrote on several other things while trying to figure out MISS JANE, including the stories in ALIENS IN THE PRIME OF THEIR LIVES. If I’m stumped on something, I don’t just sit around; I work on something else and let my mind work on the bogged one without the meddling presence of my limited intelligence.
Q: Did your great aunt leave many artifacts behind that you referred to while researching the story?
Nothing. I had a couple of anecdotal “facts” from my mother and her sister, a few from older cousins who knew her a little when they were small. No surviving medical records. The nursing home (my Jane Chisolm does not go to a home) where she stayed at the end of her life had disappeared, along with any records from there, including names of anyone who worked there. I did not know who her doctor had been and besides he would be deceased as well and his records destroyed or disposed of.
Q: Why did you decide to fictionalize some of her story?
When I was in my mid- to late 20s, already divorced and somewhat forlorn, love-wise, I came across an old black-and-white snapshot (the kind of print with the crenellated edges) of an apparently teen-age Jane in a box of old photos at my mother’s house. She was quite attractive. When I asked who the girl was and learned it was Aunt Jane, I was intrigued. My mother told me that Jane had loved the local community dances and was quite popular with the boys. And in the photo she looked flirtatious, as if the picture were being taken by some beau. I asked my mother how Jane could have managed that (the dances – and possibly a boyfriend), with her condition, and of course she had no idea. That led me to wonder about Aunt Jane’s life in a way I never had. Had she known love, or some young version of it? What, then, happened to that? And everyone said Aunt Jane was a “cheerful” person. Was that true, or a front to cover a long ago, unavoidable sadness?
That particular photo, by the way, mysteriously disappeared. My mother could not recall it. Almost as if I made up the memory of seeing it. The memory feels very real, to me.
Q: Did you know her well growing up, and were you aware that she was different?
No. I saw her only that one time, when she was brought to one of my mother’s family’s weekend gatherings, something that happened most Sundays when I was a boy. She was a mysterious figure, though, even then, even (maybe especially) to children. I never spoke to her, that I recall.
Q: Much of the novel is about how Jane was an outsider. Given how difficult it was to be different, why didn’t Jane seriously consider having an operation to fix her genitalia once it was available to her?
There was no successful, complete surgical repair to persistent cloaca until, I believe, 1982. Her condition involved more than genitalia, more than a relatively simple malformation of this organ or that; it involved her entire urological makeup. Very rare, extremely difficult to repair. By 1982, my aunt had died; by 1982, Jane Chisolm in the novel is 67 years old and accustomed to living alone in the country. She has little social life, and no interest in a romantic life, anymore. Her doctor and friend, Dr. Thompson, somehow knew she would not want stop-gap treatments involving a colostomy and – later – a permanent catheter.
Q: Conversations about gender, sexuality, and identity are becoming more and more commonplace. Why do you think that is?
Just as we now have immediate surgical repair options for infants born with persistent cloaca and other, less extreme conditions, we’ve made these great leaps in terms of “coming out of the closet” whether it involves sexuality or conditions and diseases once considered shameful or too embarrassing to disclose. Some very brave people got fed up with living a lie, or keeping something that was central to their lives a secret, as if they would be driven from the village or stoned to death for revealing what was simply the truth about who they were and are. So, we’re experiencing a revolution. It’s still in progress, of course, but there’s momentum. In spite of her reported “cheerful” nature, it made me sad to imagine Aunt Jane living a life so circumscribed by a condition she could do nothing about. I thought she must have been a very brave, strong woman. I tried to give my character Jane Chisolm the same strong, resilient personality that I imagined my aunt to have had.
Q: Your first novel, The Heaven of Mercury, also takes place in Mississippi during the early 20th century. What is it about this time and place that you find so compelling?
I suppose it’s because there were still so many vestiges of that time surviving in the Deep South when I grew up, and I heard good stories from my parents and aunts, uncles, my grandmother, and their friends. You heard those stories, and you could imagine them vividly. They’d happened in the past but, of course, that past still existed in so many tangible, palpable ways. That’s not so much the case, anymore, in most places in the South. But I came of age in the Civil Rights era, feeling a little bit helplessly snagged between the old “moderate,” mostly passive racism of my elders and my own liberal views (you couldn’t win at the dinner table), in love with the pace of the past and disgusted, horrified by the crimes of class and race, the oppression and general meanness, that so tainted it. It was like living in some weird temporal-social lacuna. You could be liberal, progressive, but you were nevertheless trapped by who you were. When you have lived in that kind of involuntary moral limbo (and it continues today, in its own way), and that is associated so strongly with a place, how can you not have it always in mind? MISS JANE is not a novel about race, not much, but it is very much a novel recalling a time and place that had all-but disappeared after my childhood.
Q: Although you grew up in Mississippi, you now live in Wyoming. Do you still consider yourself a Southern writer?
As you suggest in the previous question, I still find it so compelling. And, as I imply, it’s kind of inescapable. I can’t seem to stop thinking about it. I guess it takes a lifetime to figure out a place like that, and – if you came from it – what it means to have come from it. I moved to Wyoming just 11 years ago. I guess it was too late to consider myself anything but a Southerner living in, and trying to adapt to, the real West. Maybe, if I live long enough, I’ll feel more of a divided identity. But so far, as much as I love this place in so many ways, I still feel mostly like a transplanted Southerner.