This month we’re doing things just a little bit differently. Instead of a roundtable discussion between the two of us, we’re stepping it up a notch!
Our choice this month was The Book of Essie. It’s a story about Essie, a girl whose life has been on display for millions of viewers from the moment she was born. But there are secrets behind the cameras, secrets such as Essie’s pregnancy that would set ablaze the religious, wholesome image her family portrays on TV. Will Essie let the secrets continue or will she strike a match and watch as her family’s facade goes up in flames?
Thankfully, we had the absolute pleasure of interviewing the author of this month’s Book Club Pick, The Book of Essie, Meghan MacLean Weir! We talked all things The Book of Essie, who she would love to cast in the movie and and the difference between writing nonfiction and fiction!
Congratulations on your first novel being out! How does it feel?
It’s simultaneously wonderful and very, very strange. Writing a novel takes so long and, then, getting it ready for publication can take even longer. I love these characters so much and they were such a huge part of my life during those years that it took to finally get to this day, it felt strange that only a few of the people closest to me knew who Essie and Roarke and Liberty even were. It was like having a secret family I couldn’t really talk about. Just as I was finishing up my last shift in the ER before pub day, I walked around saying goodbye to people, since I would be travelling for a bit. And one of the doctors looked surprised and asked, “What book?” and I said, “The book I wrote. It comes out tomorrow.” He shrugged and told me, “I always thought you were kidding.” I think that pretty much sums up this process. In your mind, it’s one of the best, most exciting things that’s ever happened, but it turns out everyone else just thinks you’re crazy.
We know that you wrote a deeply personal nonfiction book, Between Expectations: Lessons from a Pediatric Residency, about your years as a medical resident. What was different about writing the two books?
Well, I wrote Between Expectations while I was a resident, so I was certainly better rested when working on The Book of Essie. I remember toward the end of residency I was deeply exhausted and, also, pregnant. My agent was waiting on the final chapters and she kept suggesting it would be best to leave the reader with a sense of hope, which I completely understand, but hope wasn’t something I had the capacity for at the time. I was just getting through the days. And, more than that, I didn’t want to lie. I knew the people most likely to pick up Between Expectations were students considering medicine or pediatrics as a career and I felt I owed it to them to be honest, to avoid the sort of rationalizing or revisionism we add when we look back from a distance on a difficult time. With Essie, it was fiction, and so I got to make it up. And that felt great. I got to tell the story I wanted to tell rather than the one I happened to be living, to give the reader what I, personally, would want in an ending, where maybe not everything works out the way you want it to, but there’s enough good in there to give you strength for whatever comes next.
The impression we got from the story was a distinctly TLC vibe. Was the network’s tendency towards religious families such as the Duggars and the Roloff’s an inspiration for Six for Hicks? And was it because those families are seen as more “wholesome” that you wanted to prove that they can be corrupt just as much as anyone else?
I just googled the name Roloff. I haven’t actually seen full episodes of either show. I’ve certainly binge-watched a fair amount of reality television, they just don’t tend to be the family dramas, maybe because I get too distracted wondering whether the kids on those shows really want to be there. I worry about whether they are old or mature enough to consent to that invasion of their privacy and the ways in which that will shape them. I’m not suggesting I know what’s right or best, I just find it distracting. But even without watching those particular shows, it’s almost impossible to not know about families like the Duggars, because their story ends up in the mainstream press and on social media. To say that the Duggars or any particular family was the singular inspiration for the book, though, would be too simplistic. History is full of people who do not practice what they preach.
You take the idea everyone has of reality TV and almost turn it on its head. Instead of the glossy version depicted in plenty of other books, you take that idea that, while it is grounded in some version of reality, it’s also about cultivating a brand which can oftentimes lend itself to secrets growing when they don’t fit in with that image. Was that what you wanted to do with the idea of reality TV?
I remember, years ago, when some of the early reality shows were being broadcast. They felt almost voyeuristic to watch. It never occurred to me that they were orchestrated, that they weren’t completely truthful. But now, I think it’s clear just how much production goes into shooting and editing and then selling of the show to the audience. It’s still fun, but it’s not a documentary. And when you see stars like the Kardashians leverage their celebrity for other business ventures, it’s impossible to not view these shows and these families as a brand of some sort. That’s not in and of itself a value judgement. Many celebrities branch out and throw their weight behind projects that would otherwise never come to fruition, which can be a very good thing.
Before we jump into the nitty gritty, let’s focus on the character of Liberty Bell. Essie chose her specifically for the image that was cultivated for her through simply being born and then breaking free of it. What made you create Liberty and choose that specific story for her?
I thought it was important for there to be a character in the story who has some outside perspective, who isn’t immersed in the world of the Hicks family or their church. And I wanted for Essie to have someone in the story reaches out to for help who could shine a sort of light on the kind of life and independence she might be able to someday have for herself. Liberty’s backstory, though, wasn’t at all fleshed out when I began writing. At the point in the story where I knew I needed to add dimension to her character, the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was all over the news. It had been going on a while, I think, before it was revealed that there were some children there and I was struck by how strange and potentially dangerous that might be for them. And that’s how Liberty’s story came to be.
SPOILERS AHEAD! I REPEAT: SPOILERS AHEAD!
Speaking of Liberty, her mother is an interesting character. Whereas Celia is a fabricated version of herself, a polished matriarch, who, not unlike Kris Jenner, is looking to fix problems before bad press tarnishes her family’s brand, Liberty’s mother embraces the fact that she essentially followed a cult leader and prides herself on remaining true. However, both of them take the truth, Celia about Caleb and Liberty’s mother about the death of Justice, and refuse to let the truth create change. Were the two meant to be the same versions of the same people?
They weren’t meant to be the same, necessarily, but they were each mean to be representative of the paths different women might take in a world or a community where it is men who are viewed as the decision makers and the leaders. Celia is submissive to her husband at church, but takes charge in the home and, because the domestic arena isn’t enough for her, she expands it to encompass the show and the family brand. Liberty’s mother, on the other hand, makes a choice to put her faith in Quentin Ames and to relinquish some of her individuality to follow him. I think that sort of devotion can withstand a lot, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence that the truth is different from what Ames might say. People ignore facts so they can continue to believe what they want to believe all the time.
Essie and Roarke are essentially in the same position: his parents tried to take the gay out of him and her parents overlooked both of their daughter’s rapes. Is that why you wanted Essie to choose Roarke over say, someone like Blake?
I felt that Essie was more likely to be drawn to someone who was misunderstood or trapped in a way, and I loved the idea of these two people starting out in very different places and finding a path together where they are each allowed to be more authentic versions of themselves. Also, it was important to me that the romance with Roarke be clearly fabricated, that readers not be left wondering will they or won’t they as the story progressed. And I wanted the friendship they develop to be seen as just as precious and rare as any sort of romantic love.
Did you know that when she would become pregnant that it would be via rape? Because up until she told Roarke, I had assumed, in the way that he had, that she was merely seeing someone on the sly.
For me, the story was always one about abuse and the cover up of that abuse by her family. But I didn’t want the story to be about Essie, the victim, but rather Essie, the hero. I think veiling the origin of the pregnancy early on allows readers to get to know her first, without the past abuse being the one thing that defines her.
What really intrigued us, and disgusted us to be quite frank, was that not only did both of her parents know that he had first done it to Lissa and had done nothing about it, but that Naomi knew and did and said nothing. Was that intentional?
I actually toyed with the idea of Naomi not knowing, but I wanted to explore what it means to be complicit at all different levels of involvement and power. Clearly, Essie’s parents were in a position of power and should have made different choices. The audience, in tuning in to watch Essie on TV, were also complicit to some degree but maybe powerless to stop it. And Naomi was an interesting in between because she had a more personal connection to Essie, yet did not have the sort of power the Hicks elders did. I wanted readers to have to grapple with the ways in which she fundamentally fails Essie while still, throughout Essie’s childhood and on the surface, being very kind.
This story is so important, especially in a time such as #MeToo and #TimesUp. Were you influenced at all by those stories in writing Essie’s journey?
I always find it incredibly flattering to be asked this question, but there’s no way I could ever write a book so quickly. I sent Essie to my agent in the fall of 2016 and it didn’t change all that much after that, so it was done before #MeToo or #TimesUp occurred, or at least before they gained significant momentum. The fact that Essie seems like it could have been a response to either of these movements just means that #MeToo and #TimesUp were long overdue.
Okay, now to the fun part. If this were to be made into a movie, who would be in your dream cast? I personally see Max Minghella as Caleb. I don’t know why.
I’ve been seeing trailers of Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade and I have to confess that part of why I want to go see the movie is because I think she would make a good Essie. I love the idea of Ed Harris, circa Apollo 13, as Essie’s dad. Meryl Streep, obviously, circa The Hours, as Celia.
What are you reading right now?
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel and Call Me American by Abdi Nor Iftin
Any advice for any aspiring writers?
To keep writing. I’m not the first person to say that, I know. But I think it’s important to recognize just how much works going into getting a book written and sold and onto bookshelves. It takes years, just like becoming a doctor. I wrote my first novel more than ten years ago and it never sold. Maybe it would have if I hadn’t been in residency at the time and had been able to keep revising it. I’ll never know. But I had a commitment to my hospital and, later, a commitment to my family. All of these things impact how productive you can be creatively. If I had never written anything again because that first manuscript didn’t find a buyer, then I wouldn’t be answering these questions for you, now.
We want to say thank you so much to the lovely Meghan MacLean Weir for talking with us about this fantastic book and to the lovely humans at Knopf for gifting us this small treasure.
The Book of Essie, a book that is impossible to put down, is available now at all major booksellers through Knopf.