Mental Health Issues in Fiction

Does Web of Angels deal with any other mental health issues besides Dissociative Identity Disorder?

All of what are called mental health issues have some elements in common which are also true for DID (multiple personalities). The most important of these is stigma and misunderstanding, which cause shame, a feeling of being different, and a need to cover up what is really going on in someone’s life.

There are some differences, though, between emotional and mental states caused by traumatic experience and those which are organic (though people disagree about what is organic, if anything, and how much is situational).

PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and DID are a result of terrible experiences which a child (in the case of DID) or someone of any age (PTSD) can’t escape at the time but most simply survive in the best way possible. Neither of these are disorders in the sense that the mental and emotional responses are natural in the circumstances.

PTSD and DID result from situations where there isn’t support to process trauma as it occurs, either because it actually occurs in a family situation or because of a widespread disaster or war in which everyone is subject to trauma and the focus is on physical survival. The lack of support itself has long-term effects. But the potential for healing is great because the “mental health issues” themselves are natural responses. When the situation changes, people’s emotional states lag behind the present reality, but people can learn that it really is safe now. As that knowledge sinks in emotionally, then the trauma can be processed and laid to rest.

If (and again there is debate about this) mental health issues are organic, ie independent of situational causes, then the difficulty is how can that be changed when they aren’t caused by what’s going on in a person’s life? We know so little, still, about what causes non-situational mental and emotional distress. However learning more, destigmatizing it, and compassion can help everyone whatever they are dealing with.

How Long Did It Take?

“I saw on your video that it took a long time to write Web of Angels. Why was that?

It’s been an eight year journey! After I came back from China with my younger daughter, I spent a couple of years on a historical novel that went nowhere. Just to get a break from it, I decided, for a lark, to write about something else. It was the fastest first draft I’d every written, and about half way through got much more serious than I’d planned. At the end of it, I was gripped–called to write about the subject I’d chosen. It would be more accurate to say the subject chose me! And that was a good thing, because many trials lay ahead of me and many, many drafts. The challenge was to take a subject that I was passionate about and had expertise and knowledge in and turn it into literature. It was harder to do than beginning with a story and then learning about the subject! But I felt so strongly about it that my determination carried me past the defeats and the doubts to bring the book to fruition. Here we are, and I am prouder of Web of Angels than any other book I’ve written yet.

More About Emma

“I found Emma to be the most interesting character in RM. I was struck by this young woman who was sort of kept in this liminal space, floating between worlds in an abstract sense, as well as in a literal sense. I was wondering where she came from, and what her development was as a character in your mind.

Certainly in RM I was exploring the liminal. Another example that you haven’t mentioned, is that Emma is bisexual.

When I approached this chapter, I was, as a writer, thinking about the structure of previous chapters and wanted to play with it. Writing from the perspective of Emma in a delirium had all kinds of possibilities. I could follow the trajectory of the timeline less formally while also inserting flashbacks and a different setting, as well as exploring this aspect of magical realism through Emma’s experience with the angel.

In the novel, I wanted to focus on different characters who would give a sense of the variety of people who would live in a shtetl, so there had to be a child and an anarchist. I combined those in Emma and had her live with Alta-Fruma, who is so different from her. Those kinds of contradictions and meeting places interest me.

I’m glad to hear that Emma was your favourite character. It’s been so interesting to me that often readers do have a favourite, but there is so much variation in who that favourite is. As a writer, that is rewarding!


“While your story took place in the late 1800s, the women in the story for the most part were displaying a more modern profeminist attitude towards sexuality and some of the roles they played. Was there anything in your research that supported this position or in your view would it be a mistake to presume that this profeminist stance did not exist at the time?”

Women at that time period, late 1800’s, according to my research, were more free in their views then women were in the early 20th century. Sexology as a field of study developed in the 1890’s and, in part as a reaction to the growing freedom of the 1890’s “New Woman,” constrained women’s behaviour and relationships by a narrowing definition of normalcy.

In my research I found references to “women left sitting,” ie unmarried, who, between the lines, appeared to be lesbians. People were aware of it but turned a blind eye. For example, there is a 20th century Yiddish poem where the author wrote about her grandmother making reference to a lesbian relative who never married, while never using the word lesbian. At the time of The River Midnight, gay men and lesbian women were out and had clubs in Europe and it would not have been unusual in cultured society, such as in Warsaw, for two men (as they do in RM) to be obvious intimates.

Let me tell you about a play I found written by a Yiddish author in the 1890’s. God of Vengeance by Sholom Asch was a play about a brothel owner. It was really about his hypocrisy in running a brothel and wanting to donate a Torah to his synagogue. But as a side plot, his daughter was in love with one of the (female) prostitutes and they ran away together. This was all matter-of-fact and not a matter for expressing shock in the play. The father was upset about his daughter’s involvement with a prostitute, but no mention was made of his being shocked about her being a lesbian. The stage directions included a kiss between the women. This play was not only written, but published and performed. During my research I was personally very surprised to discover that attitudes toward homosexuality were more progressive in the 1890’s then in the 20th century. While this play was written in 1907 and successfully performed in Europe, the play was controversial when performed on Broadway in the 1920’s and resulted in obscenity charges. The play was similarly controversial when performed in 1992!

You have to remember that there is a different view of women’s roles in the west and in the shtetl. Jewish men’s business was Torah, ie study of religion. Women’s business was in the marketplace. That seems feminist to a western woman whose view of women’s roles comes from the British middle class ideal where, in the Victorian era, women in the middle class were “angels of the house.” British working class women also stayed home after marriage but did piece work in the home to earn money. By contrast, at the same time in the shtetl, most women were involved in the marketplace, in trade or in some small business. Poor men also did so; men whose wives could support them studied Torah. (Some wealthy families could obtain husbands for their daughters who were Torah scholars and then support them in their study so they didn’t work.)

In the 19th century wealthy shtetl families obtained secular education for their daughters, which, again seems feminist by western views of education. But their sons received a strictly religious education because that was considered more important. Daughters of wealthy families weren’t entitled to a religious education, so, ironically, they were by our standards better educated because they learned literature, languages, science, etc. In poor families sons received a basic religious education which would enable them to read Hebrew for prayer. Daughters were not entitled to have that, but got the basics which would enable them to conduct commerce (read and write in Yiddish and perhaps Polish or Russian). Women read whatever they could get their hands on. Book peddlers who brought Yiddish books to shtetls were very popular.

Faygela is based on real Yiddish women who were authors in late 19th century Europe. In fact, to make it more believable, she is not as accomplished as they were because she lives in a backwater and she doesn’t have many opportunities there. I went to great lengths to make sure that anything I wrote in RM was true to the time period in fact.

However having said all that, I would add that the purpose of writing historically is not only to bring a past time to light but also to view it through the lens of the author. That is the purpose of any sort of writing. I put my perspective of beauty, truth, justice, injustice and love into the story. So although everything in RM is factually correct, my guess is that what you sense in the writing as feminist is the gloss I put on it, which is different than how a conservative male writer would portray the shtetl.

Most writing about the shtetl was done post holocaust by men with the ethos of the mid 20th century influencing their portrayal of it, and that is one of the reasons I wrote RM. I felt that the other materials available on the shtetl were skewed to that particular perspective, rather than reflecting the vigour of women’s lives as I knew them to be.

At the Moulin Rouge by Henri de Toulousse-Lautrec, 1892

At the Moulin Rouge by Henri de Toulousse-Lautrec, 1892


The Role of Theatre

“What is the role of the theatre in The Singing Fire?”

East End Londoners not only went to the theatre, they fought over their favourite plays and rival actors the way Londoners today fight about rival football teams. Patrons, ie fans, including men, sent chocolates and flowers to their favourite actors, male and female. This passion was all the stronger for the Jewish community. Yiddish theatre was new and all the more beloved because of its novelty. Historical plays gave pride to new immigrants who’d left the legal oppression of Eastern Europe for the legal freedom but more subtle oppression of being an impoverished and hardly liked minority in London. Melodramas were popular because their humble lives were written large on stage and given meaning, more beloved than today’s favourite t.v. soaps and night time dramas.

Jacob Adler’s affair with Dinah Shtettin, both actors in the Yiddish theatre, was the subject of much pleasurable gossip in the Jewish community.

Jacob Adler, most famous actor of Yiddish theatre, London and New York

Celia Adler, Yiddish actress in NY, daughter of Jacob Adler and Dinah Shtettin

Unfortunately for London and fortunately for New York, the panic in the theatre that arose from the cry of “Fire!” led to several deaths and the closing of the theatre. The fire turned out to be a false alarm, but Yiddish theatre in London was suspended for quite some time. The actors and writers left for New York, where Yiddish theatre began to flourish as a result of their arrival.

Old London Live

“Did you visit London before writing The Singing Fire?”

Yes, I did and I was able to see some of the streets and buildings I wrote about, with a guided tour from a relative who had herself lived there before the war. Unfortunately much of Whitechapel was bombed out, but this film is a wonderful live glimpse of London 1903.

And here is Petticoat Lane in 1903.

Favourite Characters

“Who is your favourite character in The River Midnight?

I’m often asked this question by readers who have their own favourites and I’m happy to report that their favourites include all the characters in the book other than Yarush. That’s to be expected in a novel with nine major characters.

All of the characters have something of me in them and something that isn’t me. They’ve all taught me, as have the characters of my subsequent books. The one that is most like me is Faygela, because of her passion for writing. In early drafts, I had some trouble in writing about her, identifying too closely, until I made her the mother of 6! Her domesticity and early motherhood brought a natural distance between us. Rather than being a young mother in a small, tight, but restrictive community, I am an old mom of just two in Canada’s largest city!

However, I would have to say that Hayim has a special place in my heart. The best aspects of him are based on my husband.

Historical Facts

“Do you change historical facts when you’re writing fiction?”

My own personal contract with history is that I use the facts as they are. Sometimes that’s limiting because the facts aren’t as I would (at first) like them to be for the sake of my story. But then i find that historical facts open up new avenues for my story that I’d have never considered because the facts are often more surprising than fiction ever is. It is my challenge and my opportunity to make the story both truthful emotionally and historically, and at the same time an engaging and engrossing one. I love history and that love of it is for the complex and rich reality of what has come before our time and has led to our time being what it is. My current work is with a novel set in the present, but in creating this present time in a specific place, I’m interested in what’s come before and so there is still some history in it. I’ve really enjoyed doing research on my neighbourhood and broader research on my city and what existed before its founding.

Writer’s Trajectory

“Did you always want to be a writer?”

When I was fourteen, I already thought of myself as a writer and when I was sixteen I started submitting short stories to magazines. But the path wasn’t at all straight-forward. I lost all confidence in myself when I was twenty and thought I didn’t have what it took because a real writer should be getting maple-leafsup at 5:00 am and writing before going to work and I was already so old! It was a sad and difficult time. I did not believe in my gift or myself, and there wasn’t anyone in my life then to encourage me or to set me straight on the 5:00 am thing. So I gave it up, not realizing that it was like giving up my arms and legs until years later I started writing again, at first just in a personal journal. Then slowly, very very slowly, I got the confidence to write short stories, again, and submit them, to write about my life, to write a novel. One step at a time. Slowly, slowly, slowly as loving people came into my life and my life flowered so did my work

Unusual Structure

“How did you come up with the structure for The River Midnight?”

The River Midnight evolved naturally even though the structure is an unusual one. I started out with a short story, titled “Big Women and Small Men,” that was published in Parchment, a small literary magazine. It was about a midwife, Misha, in a small shtetl in Poland, who was admired by Faygela, the baker’s wife, and hated by Hanna-Leah, the butcher’s wife. Misha was unmarried and pregnant, and the story was about the reaction of the village. After writing the story, I still couldn’t get the characters out of my mind. I wondered first about Hanna-Leah and the intensity of her feelings about Misha and where they came from. That led to another story, “The Stranger in the Woods,” published in another small literary magazine, Fiddlehead. But the characters still wouldn’t leave me alone! I wondered about her husband, and what was behind his impotence. At that point, I knew that I needed the scope of a novel, but I continued on with that approach. Each chapter was a discovery of another character’s point-of-view and experience, adding to my (and the reader’s) larger picture of their world as a whole, and the way that people’s limited perspective gives rise to false assumptions about other people’s actions. With a bigger perspective and more information, those actions take on a different significance, which can lead to reconciliation and redemption.


“Do you use an outline or other method to plan your books?”

I’ve tried using an outline, thinking that it would keep me on track and off the tangents and detours that seem to plague me. But instead I ended up totally stuck and that book has been shelved now for several years while I went on to another.

Every writer has an individual process. Some writers plot and outline, some work out a chapter or a scene in their heads before writing, others work it out by writing. That’s the kind of writer I am. I have to write before I figure it out, badly at first, then better. I start with a character and a setting with dramatic potential, and see where it goes–usually somewhere else entirely.

Wandering in the mist, taken by author Dec 27/08

Wandering in the mist, taken by author Dec 27/08

There are twists and turns, surprises, revelations, and only when I’m finished five, six, seven drafts does it all come together. At that point it all makes sense to me, but I never see it in the beginning. Not so far anyway. Every book is different. Who knows what the future will bring!


Pen and Paper

“Do you write long-hand or directly onto the computer?”

The very first sketch I wrote of The River Midnight was long-hand on fullscap, typed onto my computer every evening. But it was only about a hundred pages of manuscript! A book length mansucript is four to five times that. My wrist cramps up when I write long-hand. Not to mention how scrabbly and illegible my handwriting is. An extremely boring and useful highschool course in typing (yes, actual typing, on an actual old-fashioned typewriter) plus many years of writing have made me a fast typist (or keyboarder as it’s now called!). Ever since that first sketch, everything has gone straight into my computer. On the note of typewriters, my first short stories were typed on an ancient portable typewriter that wasn’t even electric. Not all of the keys printed visibly. The e was half gone. And from time to time I’d have to clean, untwist, and otherwise baby the keys. When I left home I got an electric typewriter, which sat on a closet shelf. My kids were fascinated by the antique technology when I took it out and dusted it off, but it didn’t work at all and I laid it to rest.