It is such a delight to welcome Susi Fox to Behind the Pen today, chatting about her chilling debut novel, Mine.
From the press release – ‘Inspired by a nightmare she had herself, Fox has drawn on her experience as a doctor and mother to tell the story of Sasha; a woman who is adamant her newborn child is not hers.’ Are we talking about a literal nightmare that you had one night, or, and I’m almost reluctant to ask, an actual living nightmare where something similar to this has happened?
I actually had a dream – or more aptly, a nightmare – in which I showed a baby in my arms to a group of faceless people gathered around me and insisted, ‘This is not my baby.’ None of them believed me; they all stepped away. I awoke from the nightmare, terrified. The feeling of horror at not being believed in such a situation, even in a dream, lingered in my consciousness for weeks. When I attended a writing retreat for doctors soon afterwards, I began to write a story based on the dream. This became one of the early chapters of Mine.
I was a little shocked to read this in the press release: ‘We also know that women’s pain in Emergency Departments is often not treated as quickly or as aggressively as that of men. Similarly, women’s symptoms are more readily dismissed, their stories unheard and patients’ instincts can be ignored by medical professionals.’ Yet as I read Sasha’s story, examples of the above, within the context of my own experiences, started pressing their way into my consciousness. How instinctive is this inclination? Are we far too programmed as a society for this to ever change?
I think the inherent biases within medical systems are representative of society as a whole, rather than being unique to medicine. Yet despite these widespread community biases, society is most definitely evolving. For example, I had never expected to see women allegations of sexual harassment or abuse being honoured and believed in such a widespread manner during my lifetime. It has been profoundly satisfying to see this beginning to occur. In the same manner in which societal change is occurring, medical systems are changing and modernising and starting to be mindful of societal stereotypes and biases.
Novels about motherhood have experienced a subtle shift in recent years. Do you think we are making progress on balancing myth with fact about mother-baby bonds or do we still have a long way to go in practice?
I think the mythology about the instant attraction between mothers and their babies still persists in our collective consciousness. It is taboo for mothers to admit they don’t find their babies attractive, or that they are not bonding with their baby right away; and yet we know that these are not uncommon, and completely normal, feelings. I look forward to the day when women can be completely honest about their mothering experiences without being stigmatised or judged by others. I’m afraid we still have a bit of work to do in this arena!
How much of you as a doctor is in this novel compared with how much of you as a mother? Which side weighed in more heavily?
Creating fictional characters in my mind, out of a conglomeration of things I have seen, heard and read over the years has been deeply satisfying. Using my imagination was much more enjoyable than the portrayal of facts or depiction of any real life events.
Writing a protagonist so different to myself in Sasha was challenging, as I found myself not wanting her to make her final decision at the end of the novel. And yet it was very powerful to allow her the possibility of making a profound ‘mistake’.
What is your overall message of intent with this novel, in a nutshell?
My overall message is that it is human to make mistakes. Despite the enormous challenges of motherhood, women expect perfection of themselves, particularly in the mothering sphere. Yet guilt, self-blame and shame benefit no one. It is when women can recognise the commonality of their feelings and experiences that they can allow themselves forgiveness for their ‘mistakes’, their innate humanness. Bringing self-compassion to one’s experiences is profoundly powerful and healing for men and women alike.
Have you always written? Are you currently balancing your career as GP with your writing? How do you go about making time for your writing within limited hours?
I have been writing since I was about eight years old. I had the good fortune of studying a combined medicine/arts degree, and then continued my writing studies at RMIT. I work part-time as a GP and write in the evenings. I also write in any snatches of free time I manage to find. The medicine and writing complement each other beautifully; both involve aspects of storytelling albeit in very different ways.
Where do you normally write? Is it in the same place every day or are you an all over the place writer?
I write wherever I am and whenever I can – on a writing retreat, at the kitchen table, in my car, in waiting rooms, even in my lunch break at work. I do have a writing desk but I find I work best when I move around.
I hope you can tell me that you have plans to keep on writing?
Absolutely! Writing is one of my greatest joys. I plan to continue writing for the rest of my life.
Can you tell us something about yourself that not many people would know?
I love curries so hot, they burn my throat as they go down.
If you could trade places for a week with any other person, living or dead, real or fiction, who would it be and why?
I would love to be Sherlock Holmes. His intellect and reasoning capacity are inspirational. I love how he always manages to crack even the hardest of crimes with his skills of deduction.
Read my review of MINE here.