Marianne Wiggins Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Marianne Wiggins
Photo: Lara Porzak

Marianne Wiggins

An interview with Marianne Wiggins

An afterword to Properties of Thirst by Lara Porzak, Marianne Wiggins' daughter.


Massive stroke.

That's what the cardiologist on the phone was trying to explain to me. I could hear Marianne's voice in my head, "Oh, give me a break. Massive. Really? Why not gargantuan, super-sized or better yet, something more cosmic like galactic ... seismic ... why not call it a seismic stroke? That seems more operatic." I remember thinking, why is this doctor's voice shaking so much? "In all my years practicing stent procedures I've never had a patient stroke on my table—at first I thought she was having a seizure ..." The distraught doctor was clearly over-sharing, still processing the trauma he'd just witnessed. Helicopter. Searching now for a hospital in Los Angeles County with the appropriate facility to perform the thrombectomy.

As he rambled on and my grief began its stranglehold, all I managed to do was mutter on a strange mantric loop: "Please save my mother's brain ... she's brilliant ... she's writing her novel ... she's brilliant ... she's a professor ... she was nominated for a Pulitzer ... her novel is almost finished ... her novel is beautiful ... please save her brain ... she was nominated for ..."

Maybe all children would run a list of their parents' achievements in an attempt to resuscitate life into the unresponsive body lying on the hospital bed ... maybe not ... I did. And once I started I never stopped. Marianne was in five hospitals for four months and we met over sixty health-care professionals in various positions and I told each one that Marianne was working on a novel—only a few chapters left to go!—and in response, each would stare at me, most of them dismissively, asking only her weight and age. Isn't that on her chart? Why don't medical charts have a section for the patient's accomplishments? Hobbies. Places they've traveled. The people they love. The doctor who removed the clots from Marianne's brain told me she would "probably" be blind, "most definitely" never read and write due to quadruple vision (which clearly sounded worse than double vision)—because one clot was in her occipital lobe. One? How many clots had he extracted? Three. She would "most certainly" still have all her language but it was "highly doubtful" she would ever walk again. She might have a permanently paralyzed left arm, at best suffering neuropathy on her left side. She had had a right brain stroke but she might never open her right eye. Her stent was never put in so she might soon suffer a heart attack ...

The first days in the ICU were spent translating the "mights" and "maybes," "probablys" and "definitelys." I was waiting to discover the scope of her untethered reality and trying not to implode from my exasperation with our waking-nightmare, soul-destroying health insurance system.

A daughter's denial can be very powerful. Mine kept me going. That, mixed with an injection of magical realism—it was a few hours after holding Marianne's limp hand the first night in the ICU when I saw it: the maker's mark of the medical bed mom was lying in, the manufacturer's name stryker.

Properties of Thirst was there in the hospital room with us.

That piece of magical realism got me through to the next: Day Three in the ICU Marianne was still unresponsive but I watched her lift her right arm and begin a swirling pattern in the air. She always writes longhand and I convinced myself she was writing the final chapters in her dreams. Physical disabilities, I told myself, are not disabilities of spirit. Or talent.

And talent she has. Marianne is a force of nature, a behemoth of knowledge, lightning in a bottle, a woman who, with one roasted and spicy insight and a well-crafted phrase, can make you laugh riotously in the same moment that she puts your hidden weaknesses on public display. She can eviscerate with an adverb, inspire with an adjective.

She never went to college but was hired as a tenured professor at USC. She taught an autobiography class and called it "Just because it happened to you, doesn't make it interesting." She was known on campus as a professor with a big heart for anyone attempting to be an artist (she gave an A for a good Attempt)—but if you were her student and she liked your writing but not your ego, or worse, she didn't like your writing or your ego, she would let you know it in a verbal surgical procedure in full view of the entire class.

She was—and still is—a gorgeous woman.

Since my childhood, I've witnessed men fall in love with her at a glance and then wince from pain from one upper cut adjective to their simian ids. The woman is a prizefighter with words.

A male stranger once asked her if she was a model and she replied, "No, I'm full-size."

No daughter age forty-nine dreams of having her mother move in with her, and it is doubtful you'd find a mother age sixty-nine desiring cohabitation with her daughter, but we are now roommates and I am now her caregiver. And her new medical care is 24/7.

Both our lives have changed dramatically these last five years.

What can I tell you that has changed in Marianne since her stroke? So much.

I'd rather tell you what hasn't: her feistiness and wit.

Her ceaseless curiosity still propels her days forward.

My mother is a dreamer. All novelists dream for a living. She would tell you, "I lie for a living," but I'd rather call her a dreamer than a liar.

Sure, the stroke altered her timeline, smashed her compass, shifted her sense of physical balance, and she can no longer cross the room unattended, but she can still murder the New York Times crossword in ink in record time. And now her treasure chest vocabulary has even more descriptive post-stroke words and terms: hemiplegia, dysphagia, homonymous hemianopia, left neglect, CAD in native artery, diplopia, nystagmus, facial weakness ... and these are just for her physical struggles. Her cognitive struggles have their own set: perseveration, impulsivity, emotional lability, cognitive fatigue, short-term memory loss (the last being perhaps the saddest).

Marianne lost a significant part of her memory in a single blow, most critically, her recent past—wiped out in a single stroke. It took a barge-load of repetition to reacquaint her with Rocky, Sunny, Cas and Schiff—thankfully, they were there on the page, waiting to greet her.

Marianne's right brain stroke may have eradicated her logic for quotidian sequencing (first the toothpaste, then the brushing) but she can quote Márquez, Borges and Shakespeare and she knows the lyrics to every song even if heard only once—because words are her lifeblood. When she was rendered speechless by her stroke and was lying in the ICU bed, I read to her around the clock, fueled by the adrenaline of grief, to help drone out the incessant metronomic beeping of the medical machines.

I was told by the doctors that the first ninety days for stroke survivors are the most significant for brain healing, so I latched on to that as a rescue line and read to her words words words words. By the time we were moved to the fifth and final hospital I had asked a friend to bring the unfinished manuscript of Properties of Thirst to the room. And I read it to Marianne on a constant loop. I must've read it to her ten times. Twenty-five times. Convincing myself all along that her own words could and would heal her brain, somehow creating a parallel existence: her shadow self living a shadow life reading her former self's words. Her past words resonating to heal her present narrative. A fogged vintage mirror for her to view her own reflection in once again.

The level of language Marianne lives with separates her from small talk. She abhors it. She much prefers to pass her time patching together the crazy quilt of a colorful sentence. With that level of language comes a certain loneliness but from Marianne's loneliness, an extremely rich interior life was born. Her characters became her closest friends. At age three she had an imaginary husband named Jake and by age five was writing her first character-driven prose. The first time I remember being reprimanded by Marianne was when I was seven and had carried only two dinner plates to the table—Marianne sharply informed me we needed another three for the three characters she was writing a short story about.

Life with my mom the last fifty-four years has been complicated, shifting like peripatetic wildfire, always dramatic, often beautiful, and our relationship was more times than not, in a word, painful. But being raised within Marianne's writer's weather patterns of silence and thunder charted my own artistic path. Marianne's lifelong commitment to putting her art before everything—and everyone—the very decision that was difficult for a young daughter to understand, is now the mandate which guides my decisions as a working photographer. Picking up Marianne's film camera at a young age to archive our many house pets opened the window onto the world of artistic magic for me. And my desire for Marianne's approval as the first viewer of my imagery was most assuredly my master class in making beauty. I fell in love with, and found my voice with, the medium of black-and-white film photography and it is still my passion.

When I saw stryker written on Marianne's ICU hospital bed, the very bed she lifted her writing hand into the air in a comatose state to "write" her dreams with, I decided not only as a daughter, but also as a fellow artist, to do everything in my power to help the unfinished book I love and the novelist I love. And during many exasperating mother/daughter-patient/caregiver exchanges over these past five years, it was our artist-to-artist bond that got me through. You can't save what you don't love. Helping Marianne to regain her balance within the terrain of her art form—a landscape which isn't mine—was a vertigo-inducing expedition and it will remain the journey I am most proud of having walked.

Marianne and I both believe that the sum total of the individual is the number of people who have touched one's life, even those who do so briefly. The Acknowledgements page may give the impression that Properties of Thirst took a village to help with verbs, paragraphs and plot points. It didn't. But it did take the daily kindnesses (small and large) and the shared conviction of others that Marianne's brain could heal and that she could regain her sense of self.

Most of the names are of the people who helped sustain Marianne's life, and therefore her creativity, since her stroke in 2016. One person we don't even know how to contact—a social worker who swept into an awful situation in hospital Number One at the exact right moment and advised me to do an insurance appeal—uncharted waters that I would, in turn, only advise family members with pocketsful of Dramamine to navigate—the course of Marianne's health care (we won the appeal) shifted climatically and without the decision to help our small family of two, this book would never have been resurrected.

Roads to recovery are paved with small generosities and Marianne's road map was drafted by many compassionate, selfless people. Every nurse, doctor, technician and caregiver Marianne saw deserves special mention on the Acknowledgements page. One life-changing doctor, for example, who asked, "Marianne, are you writing?" and when she replied, "No," was quick to respond, "Oh, you must. Marianne, do not let this crisis go to waste." A motto every artist should have tacked on his, her and their walls.

Joseph Boone, who spearheaded the hiring of Marianne at USC, believed in Marianne's teaching abilities before she had discovered them in herself and has been an enthusiast for this novel before and after her stroke. The ever-backpack- clad Joe (JoBeau) Bohlinger, Marianne's former student, turned up at our doorstep countless times to read passages of his favorite novels, short stories and poems to a healing Marianne in the winter of 2016, always calling her "Professor," always bringing his good cheer—I firmly believe those shared days of teacher-student readings healed Marianne's soul. It quickly became clear that Joe was the perfect person to help Marianne reunite with her own words. In 2017, after Marianne had received multiple eye surgeries and could maneuver a ruler line by line down the page to keep her focus steady, the three of us started reading Properties of Thirst aloud, this time with Marianne's voice taking the lead: an extremely slow process which never seemed arduous thanks to the beauty of the prose and the excitement and incredulous outbursts from Marianne: "This is so well written!" "Lara, this is fantastic!" and each time reminding her, "Momma, you wrote it," we'd hear the exact response with Scooby Doo–like inflection: "I di-id?!?!?"

And then that megawatt smile.

We read the manuscript aloud multiple times over the course of 2017 and 2018. Eventually Marianne and I began discussing Rocky, Cas, Schiff, Snow and Sunny as if they were relatives—gossiping about their daily shenanigans and potential adventures, anything to bring them back into the fabric of Mom's memory. I would place them into different scenarios and ask Marianne how they would react, attempting to bring them back to the forefront of her brain. Each time we reached Rocky's death she'd gasp: "Oh, no! He's DEAD?!?!" "Yes, Momma." "WHY?!?!?" She'd cry at the thought of losing him and then we'd have the same experience the following month. Thankfully, with time, the trenches for her new neural pathways were dug deep enough and Properties of Thirst was back in her memory and she began dreaming her novel again.

Henry Dunow has been at the helm of Marianne's career as her stalwart agent for decades and in the winter of 2018, with the help of the solicitous Ira Silverberg at Simon & Schuster, David Ulin was brought on as editor. David had written a glowing piece for the Los Angeles Times about Marianne when she had first moved to California, and Marianne and he ended up teaching at the same university: their paths had crossed, but they didn't know each other well. David's blind leap of faith jumping into our lives during our season of catastrophic change was nothing less than an epic gesture of kindness. Only a special type of human could take on the resuscitation of a creative force such as Properties of Thirst. None of us knew exactly how to tackle the enormity of helping Marianne, so we decided to simply meet weekly to read the pages aloud and discuss. Three newly acquainted friends with the same goal of finishing the novel always discussing art, often sharing stories of interactions with other artists (aka gossiping about artists), dishing dirt on the politics of our nation and sometimes creating good ideas for dialogue and a possible ending. Many pistachios and cheeses were consumed sitting around Marianne's small writing desk as Marianne, David and I read, massaged and discussed passages and, in time, completed the novel.

At night I would try to read Mom's chicken scratch handwriting in her pre-stroke notebooks, searching for directions to The End. At the time of her stroke, she was working on a book involving Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, a play about Queen Lear, a memoir titled How to Write a Novel, multiple short story ideas and even some lines of poetry. I chiseled my favorite passages out, "nuggets" I called them, and made a lengthy patchwork document for myself and David to stitch together — a navigational map to an unseen destination which eventually led the way to The End.

At some point during those months the powerful alchemy of Art happened: the process of finishing the novel shifted from being an impossible burden to being the very life-affirming thing that helped us to heal. And that's how we did it. Wisely, and slowly. Word by word.

Not insurmountable.

I recently found this scribbled in one of Marianne's old notebooks: "A NOVEL'S NINE LIVES:

1. It visits you. Inspiration.
2. It takes shape in your mind.
3. It assumes characters.
4. It won't leave you alone.
5. You fail it.
6. You fail it better.
7. It's a curse.
8. It's a blessing.
9. It goes and lives in strangers."

And now, dear stranger, it's yours.

Thank you for keeping this novel alive.

Lara Porzak
July 2021
Venice, California

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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Books by Marianne Wiggins at BookBrowse
Properties of Thirst jacket The Shadow Catcher jacket
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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Marianne Wiggins but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
How we choose readalikes

  • Margaret Atwood

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    Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, and grew up in northern Ontario and Quebec, and in Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master's degree ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
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  • Traci Chee

    Traci Chee

    Traci Chee is a New York Times bestselling author of the YA fantasy trilogy - The Reader, The Speaker, and The Storyteller. Shortlisted and nominated for multiple awards and accolades, Kirkus has also starred each of her ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    Properties of Thirst

    We Are Not Free
    by Traci Chee

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