JB: The Cappadora family was featured in your first book, The Deep End of the Ocean and you bring them back in Second Nature. In fact, we see that Beth Cappadora becomes surprisingly close to Sicily. Why does using utilizing the reappearance of characters from one book to another seem like a good idea?
JM: With continuing characters, you have to be careful about flaws because unless it's a very literary novel or the flaws are the point (I'm thinking here of John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany), you have to convince readers to embrace a character who has flaws, because there's a belief about how you'd react in the same circumstances and that way is usually very positive or even heroic -- and that's exactly how I am too!
You try to think you'd be the best at this. But the psychology in this book is based on real accounts of people who are disfigured, and it affects people in ways that aren't always attractive. It's the same way as dealing with depression in another person. Depressed people are sad, and it's awful that they're sad, but they sometimes behave in ways that are deeply provocative or upsetting to other people. They're not fun to be with.
Personally, I thought Sicily was just what she should be, smart and strong but also naive and bewildered, and really able to put up a good front by talking tough. As for the Cappadoras, it wasn't a marketing decision. So many people, thousands of people, have asked me, what happened to [Beth's son] Vincent? And I knew that Vincent would not have grown up to be a perfect human being, either, not given his temperament.
I thought, what if Sicily -- with this new face which actually would be aesthetically very good, given that this book is set about ten or fifteen years in the future, when face transplants won't be so uncommon -- were to run toward love and fall for just the most attractive, worst possible guy, in the encyclopedia entry about commitment issues for reasons of his own past?
But it was natural, because she already loved Beth, who had documented this whole process [face transplant] because of Sicily's past, because of the fire and its being the stuff of legend on the West Side of Chicago. Why think up new people to populate a place you already know, if the people who already know are already there, frozen in time, like the game Statue Maker? They were perfectly interesting people.
JB: Agreed. All that medical information, both about burns and recovery and the whole field of organ transplants, was fascinating. And I found the most compelling images to be Sicily's prosthetic nose, on the one hand, and her inability to eat properly, a routine task we do daily and take completely for granted. Was it hard to find the right balance between giving enough grisly details to make it real without grossing readers out or turning them off?
JM: Readers still found it grisly! I did an insane amount of research on burn injury and musculature and anatomy. For me, the prosthetic nose was one of the tenderest details, the way she had to take care of it because it was, you know, the Cadillac of prosthetic noses. It was just fascinating, like the way a prosthetic nose, for example, attaches (with magnets!).
I majored in Biology, and, I have nine children, thus, you know, nothing grosses me out. I'd have gone on forever. But yes, had to back off on some of the detail. Burn victims go through an incomprehensible hell -- so, by comparison, the face transplant, even though it required, well, removing Sicily's existing face, was relatively simple compared with the fifteen surgeries she'd had to try to mend the tissue on her face. In real life, that would have been more like thirty surgeries, each more appalling than the last.
JB: Magnets? Yikes! What a concept. The book is very steeped in firefighter culture and lore. It sounded very authentic to me. How did you accomplish that? Did you get to ride around with them?
JM: Oh, yes I did! I spent two weeks with the gallant ladies and gents at Madison Wisconsin's Southside Station 6, and they taught me with generosity and detail. Firefighters in a number of cities surrounding Chicago also answered my questions. You know, there is no better job on earth than theirs. Indeed, they could get badly hurt; they could die. But who can do what they do, deny instinct for the greater good, as they do?
Despite danger, there is such intense training, minute attention to safety and detail, that tragedies such as what happened to Jamie Coyne are almost unknown. But authentically, if they happen, they happen in those kind of gruesome old buildings where fire can't escape. My pal Eric used to be an English teacher before he became a firefighter, and he told me, "You know, you admire police. They lay it right down every day. But when the police show up, people grumble. When we show up, everybody cheers. Here come the Marines!" They're just so cool. I guess they know it, but can you blame them?