After her mother's stroke, Lara Porzak helped finish new novel 'Properties of Thirst'
Saturday, August 6, 2022
NPR's Scott Simon speaks with novelist Marianne Wiggins about her latest book, "Properties of Thirst," along with her daughter, Lara Porzak, who helped her mother finish writing it after a stroke.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Marianne Wiggins' new novel, "Properties Of Thirst," is sprawling, expansive and lyrical. It's a series of love missives about families, fortunes and the American West set in the opening months of the Second World War. And it's melodic and clear-eyed about America's offenses, too. The fact that we can read this novel at all is a kind of masterpiece. Marianne Wiggins endured a massive stroke in 2016 when she was just a few chapters short of finishing "Properties Of Thirst." Her daughter, the photographer Lara Porzak, helped guide the story to the end. And Marianne Wiggins, the Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of "John Dollar" and "Evidence Of Things Unseen" and other great novels joins us now.
Thank you so much for being with us.
MARIANNE WIGGINS: My pleasure.
SIMON: As does her daughter - thank you very much.
LARA PORZAK: Thank you, Scott.
SIMON: Marianne, tell us about your protagonist, Rocky Rhodes. He's a big deal back east. Why does he want to come west and become a rancher?
WIGGINS: He's a big man. I make a point of saying that he always feels cramped. I think he came west for wiggle room, just to move his shoulders around, to reinvent himself. He comes from - let's let our listeners in on what we would know if we were reading the book - he's a very, very wealthy man. He inherited a lot of money, and he's trying to shrug his family off. So he goes west.
SIMON: And we may be need to remind ourselves that this is when the West was really the West. That's where a lot of people kind of washed up or went in search of new lives.
WIGGINS: Well, they still do, Scott. I'm speaking to you from California now, and I can tell you, yeah - 'cause if you can't do it in California, you're going to fall off the edge.
SIMON: Let me ask you about one of my favorite characters - because the nation is pitched into war. An incarceration camp for Japanese American citizens is opened adjacent to the ranch. Rocky doesn't like that, does he?
WIGGINS: No. But I don't think very many Americans knew about the incarceration camp. And I had not been taught it in my high school education - my high school or grade - I wasn't taught that we rounded up domestic enemies - potential enemies - on the basis of their race. And I was affronted. How dare my American education not teach me about a landmark decision on the part of our nation?
SIMON: And I'm fascinated by your character - a lawyer - Department of Interior lawyer named Schiff.
SIMON: He grows to quickly loathe his work and feels a sense of identification with the people that he's incarcerating.
WIGGINS: Well, you buried the lede. He's Jewish.
SIMON: I was hoping you would deliver the lede.
WIGGINS: That's very generous of you. Thank you, Scott. I mean, he's really torn up about this. He doesn't think that these citizens of the United States were part of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and he doesn't see any reason why they should be incarcerated. Nevertheless, he's in charge of the camp.
WIGGINS: So it's someone who's facing the wall of his soul.
SIMON: Can I turn to events of 2016?
WIGGINS: You can turn anywhere you want, Scott.
SIMON: Or (laughter) - well, do you recall what happened in 2016? Has it come back to you now, or...
WIGGINS: My daughter Lara should probably take over the narration because what happened to me infected my brain. And I don't really - I had a stroke. So I live now with my adult daughter who is sitting beside me, giving me the worst look in the world.
WIGGINS: Well, I'm sorry.
SIMON: Now, we're - we happen to be chatting over a Zoom connection...
SIMON: ...And I thought - judging from a distance, I thought her...
WIGGINS: Yeah. You don't know her face, Scott.
SIMON: It's true. All right. You got me there. All right.
WIGGINS: No, I am in the care of my daughter. And I feel guilty as a mother to have put her in this position. But she has saved my life, yes. And she saved the book first, then she saved my life.
SIMON: Yeah. First things first.
SIMON: Lara, let me turn to you. You saw a name on the hospital bed...
PORZAK: I did.
SIMON: ...Which (laughter) - let me get you to tell the story.
PORZAK: Well, it was the third night, perhaps, or maybe even the first night.
PORZAK: Marianne was in the intensive care unit for a while. And the manufacturer's name of many hospital beds is Stryker, spelled the same exact way as her character Stryker - S-T-R-Y-K-E-R. And that moment of magical realism just gave me the strength to power through and say to myself, surely this is a sign. This must be. This will happen. The book will be finished.
PORZAK: And then when Marianne was paralyzed and in a comatose state, still had not even opened her eyes, in the middle of a dream state, she just lifted her right hand and was clearly writing. She writes everything longhand, has always written longhand. You're not the best typist. No offense.
WIGGINS: No. No. I know I'm not. Neither was Hemingway.
SIMON: (Laughter) Take that.
WIGGINS: Take your typing school, and you know...
SIMON: Marianne, there is no nice way to say this. How hard was this experience for you of being bereft of this extraordinary, I don't mind saying, genius for words that you have?
WIGGINS: Well, I didn't - I had no sense that I was bereft. My sense of self was based on my former capabilities. So it wasn't like suffering a wound that I could see. Nor did I have anyone - this is very important - nor did I have a medical diktat saying you'll never write again. In fact, a doctor swooped in and said, do not let this crisis go to waste.
WIGGINS: And that was stunning.
SIMON: Lara, you say in a beautifully done afterword that your mother can be a prizefighter with words.
SIMON: And at times, your relationship had been painful.
SIMON: I think painful is exactly the word that you use.
PORZAK: That is the word.
SIMON: Did holding the hand of your mother and working together help you see into her soul in a whole new way?
PORZAK: Absolutely. The experience post-stroke of reading every single notebook and reading her thought process - 'cause again, she wrote longhand - when I was trying to search for the ending and search for the ending and see if there were any breadcrumbs, any notes there for me to help her, that was truly profound. For a child to go through that thought process of a parent while taking care of that parent - and I would help you all day long, Mom, and then at night, you know, by a burning candle - it was really that strange - flip through all your notebooks and watch your brain work. It was such an honor to be able to do that. (Crying) But it was also heartbreaking because your brain was suffering very much at that time. But it was like having Mom back. So it was a beautiful process - hard, very difficult, but beautiful.
SIMON: Lara Porzak and her mother, Marianne Wiggins, in Venice, Calif. Marianne's new novel, "Properties Of Thirst."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.View this story on npr.org
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