For her debut novel The Kept Man, writer Jami Attenberg fashioned a nice, big challenge for herself: having her main character unravel a mystery about her husband’s life — a husband who was not dead, but in a coma for six years. It’s easy to create a character who is a widow; examples abound in fiction and in real life. But how do you go about creating a character who has one foot in marriage, and one foot in widowhood? Attenberg explains how she did it, in this installment of The Big Idea.
I can’t tell you an exact date my big idea for The Kept Man came to me, but I know that it was the first line of the book: “I have been waiting for my husband to die for six years.” I do recall hearing it said to me, as if there was a voice in my head, a character already starting to form. Jarvis Miller introduced herself just like that. And then soon I met her artist husband Martin, who was sitting in a nursing home in Queens, keeping his wife hostage in a way, while he hovered on the verge of death. She sells off his artwork in order to keep him alive, because she can’t let him go. That is until she uncovers something about his past that makes her wish she had never met him.
The Terry Schiavo case had a great deal of influence on the book, of course. Her situation was getting a lot of press right around the time I was starting to write. I was just sort of noodling with new ideas, and her story struck me as I think it did a lot of people. I remember watching that video her parents had floated to the media, the one where it looks like she’s watching the balloon bounce around, and she looks somewhat responsive and alive. How desperately her parents must have clung to those moments! I read also the opposing analysis of that video, that it is common for a coma victim to have an involuntary ocular response to light and motion. I could not help but be both fascinated by and empathetic to her parents, and what they needed to believe.
And of course I thought about the opposite side of the coin, being married and unable to move on in your life. I don’t know much about Schiavo’s husband – and I didn’t want to know much, because I wanted to write my own story and not a fictionalization of reality – but I thought about how hard it must have been, his half-widower existence. And that notion of having one foot in the door, and one foot out of it, is a persistent theme throughout the book. The rest is invented.
But I will admit I imagined Terry Schiavo was down the hall from Martin in that nursing home in Queens. Her family was there the same time Jarvis would crawl into bed with her husband and seek comfort from him as they both slept. I liked thinking the same nurses tended to both of them. I hoped that their family members loved the artwork in the lobby of the nursing home, just as Jarvis did. And I was comforted by the idea that they all drank the same grubby coffee in the cafeteria, and gave each other sympathetic smiles.
Jami has a slate of book appearances for The Kept Man, including one tonight (February 20, 2008) at the Boxcar Lounge in Manhattan, appearing at 8pm with Stefan Block, Keith Gessen, Suzanne Guillette and Diana Spechler. Find out about it and other appearances here.