A Discussion with Joy Fielding
The First Time moves back and forth between three points of view, Mattie, Kim, and Jake. Why did you create three perspectives? Was it difficult to create Jake's point of view?
This is the first time in a long while that I've told a story from several different perspectives, and the first time ever that I've attempted to speak with a man's voice. My readers know that I don't like to repeat myself, that I make a conscious effort to do something a little different with each book, that I like to experiment with different styles. It was fun watching this complex story unfold through the eyes of three different people, to try to convey the wide variety of emotions each is feeling, to make the reader understand and care about all of them.
Surprisingly, writing from the male perspective wasn't as difficult as I thought it might be. I just thought of the various men in my life, husband, friends, relatives, and tried to imagine how they might think and react in similar circumstances, remembering how they had reacted in other situations and expanding on that.
The teenage daughter Kim is she based on your own daughter? Why did a teenage character play such a major role in this story?
As the mother of two daughters, now 21 and 24, it's hard to think of a teenage girl not playing a major role in one of my stories, although Kim is not based on either of my girls. Rather she is a composite of a number of young women, including both my daughters and my own younger self, as well as a figment of my imagination. Kim has such a major role in this book because she is the reason that Mattie and Jake are a couple in the first place, and her responses are central to the storyline.
The scene where Kim loses her virginity is unique. Can you discuss how you created this scene?
I wanted to deal with this in a way that hadn't been done before, and I think I have. The scene is funny, a little horrifying, and very real. It also relates in a very direct way to the title, although this just one of many 'first times' to which the title refers. Kim makes a very conscious decision to lose her virginity at this time, knowing she herself is the product of a 'shotgun wedding.' On a subconscious level, she is probably trying to get to know her mother better and to hasten her own coming of age.
The First Time discusses Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Why did you choose ALS and what research did you conduct?
I wanted to write a book about the healing powers of love. I did not want this to be a book about a disease. Nor did I want the novel to be depressing. ALS is a devastating disease that offers little or no hope and kills those afflicted within a relatively short period of time. However, it is also a disease that is relatively pain-free, and because it follows no set pattern and affects its victims in different ways, it allowed me more freedom as a novelist to tell my story.
I researched the book by talking at length to a neurologist, and by contacting the ALS Society.
Although the book deals with serious issues, there are parts of The First Time that are very funny. Can you explain why/how you interject humor into this novel?<
I believe that humor is a very important quality. People use humor to diffuse and cope with all sorts of traumatic situations and events. Humor is important for both the character and the reader as it helps you deal with the tragedy. In general, humor makes even the most seemingly unsympathetic character more likeable. If a character is funny you can forgive them almost anything.
In The First Time, Mattie's real name is Martha, Jake's full name is Jason, and Honey (the mistress) follows them to Paris under the name Cynthia Broome. Can you discuss the use of these aliases within the novel?
One of the things I'm trying to say in this novel is that things are rarely as simple as they seem and that people are rarely what they first appear to be. Mattie, Jake, and Honey (itself a nickname, quite apart from Cynthia Broome) are complicated people trying to discover their true selves. The use of nicknames underlines that they are not necessarily who we first take them to be, or even who they, themselves, think they are. In contrast, Mattie's daughter, Kim, and her mother, Viv, were deliberately given very short, direct names.
Why is the relationship between Mattie and her mother such a tenuous one?
This is a difficult, very complex relationship, nothing at all like the relationship I had with my own mother, but indicative of many strained mother-daughter relationships. I wanted to show how isolated Mattie was, how cut off emotionally she'd always been. In this way, she and Jake are very similar. They were both the product of unhappy childhoods, and the rift between Mattie and her mother is another one that is healed through Mattie's illness. Viv finally becomes the mother Mattie always needed.
The depictions of child abuse in Jake's dreams are extremely vivid, as are the details of Mattie's father and his departure. Did you consult with therapists or victims of child abuse for these scenes?
I'm very familiar with therapists and therapy, having taken an advanced University course in family therapy, and having been through several years of therapy myself. I've also talked with people who've suffered abuse as children.
When Mattie discusses euthanasia, she says that she can't ask Jake to break the law, and she can't ask a doctor to risk her medical career. What are your opinions regarding euthanasia?
I think this decision is a personal one, and that if a person is terminally ill and in pain, then they have the right to determine the time and manner of their death.
Why didn't Jake try to find his brother while Mattie was alive?
Until Jake came to terms with his childhood and his role in his other brother's death, he was unwilling to try to find him. It was simply something he couldn't deal with, so he chose not to. Mattie makes him realize that he isn't the bad boy he's grown up believing himself to be, and once he accepts her love, he's able to accept himself, and hence free himself to look for his brother. The inference is that he starts the search before Mattie's death and that eventually he will locate him.
Can you discuss the role of the childhood portrait of Mattie in The First Time?
The painting is at once a reminder of the innocence of childhood and a reflection of Mattie's real self. It speaks of the permanence of art. While life is fleeting, art remains, with the power to capture us as we once were and to keep us that way forever. Also, the picture gives us a clue as to where Mattie's interest in art began, why she chose it as a career, and why it plays such a huge part in her life.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
I was always writing, and if not actually writing words down, making up elaborate scenarios for my cut-out dolls. I sent my first story off to a magazine when I was eight years old. The magazine was Jack and Jill, and the story was rejected. At twelve, I wrote my first TV script, the story of a twelve-year-old girl who murders her parents. Like my story to Jack and Jill, it, too was rejected. Still the thought of it caused my parents many a sleepless night.
As soon as I got to university I decided I wanted to be an actress. I acted in about twenty campus productions and starred in the student movie, Winter Kept Us Warm, a fixture on the art house circuit even today. After I graduated from the University of Toronto in 1966, with a BA in English literature, I went into acting full-time, moving to Los Angeles, where I acted in an episode of Gunsmoke and got to kiss Elvis Presley. Eventually I returned to Toronto and went back to writing, always my first love.
How do you create the characters and ideas for your novels?
My main characters are all aspects of my own personality, although their stories are very different from my own. Still, I find that I approach the heroines as if I were a Method actress. I think, how would I react if this were happening to me, what would I say if someone spoke this way to me? Sometimes, I try to take the easy way out by neglecting the characters and concentrating on the plot. This never works and I have to start again. I have to create a history for the characters, figure out who they are, what their backgrounds are, why they act the way they do. This often necessitates creating a family tree. Once I do that, everything tends to fall into place, because behavior is motivated by character, and the characters have a sense of history, as opposed to having been born into a vacuum as adults.
Everything in life is potential for a book, everyone I meet is a potential character. I occasionally get snippets of ideas from magazines and newspaper articles, even from the headlines. More often from something that is happening to someone I know, occasionally to me. I use whatever I can and nothing is sacred. I find that the more of me I include, the more successful the book, the more readers can identify with.
What is it that you most enjoy about writing?
Writing is the only time in my life when I feel I have complete control. Nobody does or says anything I don't tell them to - although even this amount of control is illusory because there comes a point where the characters take over and tell you what they think they should say and do. As a child, I played with my cut-out dolls until I was fourteen years old, long past the age when my friends still played with them. That's all I'm really doing today - still playing with my dolls and letting my imagination run free.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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