Filled with her signature dark humor, Mona Awad's All's Well is a biting, surrealist satire of love, loss, female pain — and Shakespeare!
A MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF SUMMER 2021 SELECTED BY * ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY * VULTURE * LITHUB * REFINERY29 * GOODREADS * POPSUGAR * NOW MAGAZINE * BOSTON * AND MORE
“[A] sparkling valentine to the Bard. A dream of a novel, perfect for a midsummer night’s read.”—OPRAH DAILY
“A dazzling wild ride of a novel—daring, fresh, entertaining, and magical.” —GEORGE SAUNDERS
“Wild and exhilarating and so fresh it takes your breath away.” —LAUREN GROFF
“Oh my lord what a fabulous novel—knocked me out!”—MARY KARR
Miranda Fitch’s life is a waking nightmare. The accident that ended her burgeoning acting career left her with excruciating, chronic back pain, a failed marriage, and a deepening dependence on painkillers. And now she’s on the verge of losing her job as a college theater director. Determined to put on Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, the play that promised, and cost, her everything, she faces a mutinous cast hellbent on staging Macbeth instead. Miranda sees her chance at redemption slip through her fingers.
That’s when she meets three strange benefactors who have an eerie knowledge of Miranda’s past and a tantalizing promise for her future: one where the show goes on, her rebellious students get what’s coming to them, and the invisible, doubted pain that’s kept her from the spotlight is made known.
With prose Margaret Atwood has described as “no punches pulled, no hilarities dodged...genius,” Mona Awad has concocted her most potent, subversive novel yet. All’s Well is the story of a woman at her breaking point and a formidable, piercingly funny indictment of our collective refusal to witness and believe female pain.
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1 I’M LYING ON the floor watching, against my will, a bad actress in a drug commercial tell me about her fake pain.
“Just because my pain is invisible,” she pleads to the camera, “doesn’t mean it isn’t real.” And then she attempts a face of what I presume to be her invisible suffering. Her brow furrows as though she’s about to take a difficult shit or else have a furious but forgettable orgasm. Her mouth is a thin grimace. Her dim eyes attempt to accuse something vague in the distance, a god perhaps. Her bloodless complexion is convincing, though they probably achieved this with makeup and lighting. You can do a lot with makeup and lighting, I have learned.
Now I watch her rub her shoulder where this invisible pain supposedly lives. Her face says that clearly her rubbing has done nothing. Her pain is still there, of course, deep, deep inside her. And then I am shown how deep, I am shown her supposed insides. A see-through human body appears on my laptop screen showcasing a central nervous system that looks like a network of angry red webs. The webs blink on and off like Christmas lights because the nerves are overactive, apparently. This is why she suffers so. Now the camera cuts back to the woman. Gray-faced. Hunched in the front yard of her suburban home. Her blond children clamber around her like little jumping demons. They are oblivious to her suffering, to the red webs inside of her. She looks imploringly at the camera, at me really, for this is a targeted ad based on all of my web searches, based on my keywords, the ones I typed into Google in the days when I was still diagnosing myself. She looks withered but desperate, pleading. She wants something from me. She is asking me to believe her about her pain.
I don’t, of course.
I lie here on my back on the roughly carpeted floor with my legs in the air at a right angle from my body. My calves rest on my office chair seat, feet dangling over the edge. One hand on my heart, the other on my diaphragm. Cigarette in my mouth. Snow blows onto my face from an open window above me that I’m unable to close. Lying like this will supposedly help decompress my spine and let the muscles in my right leg unclench. Help the fist behind my knee to go slack so that when I stand up I’ll be able to straighten my leg and not hobble around like Richard III. This is a position that, according to Mark, I can supposedly go into for relief, self-care, a time-out from life. I think of Mark. Mark of the dry needles, Mark of the scraping silver tools, his handsome bro face a wall of certainty framed by a crew cut. Ever nodding at my various complaints as though they are all part of a grand upward journey that we are taking together, Mark and I.
I lie like this, and I do not feel relief. Left hip down to the knee still on vague fire. A fist in my mid-back that won’t unclench. Right leg is concrete all the way to my foot, which, even though it’s in the air, is still screaming as if crushed by some terrible weight. I picture the leg of a chair pressing onto my foot. A chair being sat on by a very fat man. The fat man is a sadist. He is smiling at me. His smile says, I shall sit here forever. Here with you on the third floor of this dubious college where you are dubiously employed. Theater Studies, aka one of two sad concrete rooms in the English department. Your “office,” I presume? Rather shabby.
Downstairs, in the sorry excuse for a theater, they’re waiting for me.
Where is Ms. Fitch already?
She should be here by now, shouldn’t she?
Rehearsals begin, well, now.
Maybe she’s sick or something.
Maybe she’s drunk or on drugs or something.
Maybe she went insane.
I picture them, my students, sitting on the stage. Swinging long, pliant legs over the edge. Young faces glowing with health as though they were spawned by the sun itself. Waiting for my misshapen body to hobble through the double doors. Quietly cursing my name as we speak. About to declare mutiny, any minute now. But not so long as I lie here, staring at this drug-commercial woman’s believe-me-about-my-pain face. A face I myself have made before a number of people. Men in white lab coats with fat, dead-eyed nurses hovering silently behind them. Men in blue polo shirts who are ever ready to play me the cartoon again about pain being in the brain. Men in blue scrubs who have injected shots into my spine and who have access to Valium. Bambi-ish medical assistants who have diligently taken my case history with ballpoint pens but then eventually dropped their pens as I kept talking and talking, their big eyes going blank as they got lost in the dark woods of my story.
“For a long time, I had no hope,” the woman in the drug commercial says now. “But then my doctor prescribed me Eradica.”
And then on the screen, there appears a cylindrical pill backlit by a wondrous white light. The pill is half the yellow of fast-food America, half the institutional blue of a physical therapist’s polo shirt. I believe it would help you, my physiatrist once said of this very drug, his student/scribe typing our conversation into a laptop in a corner, looking up at me now and then with fear. I was standing up because I couldn’t physically sit at the time, hovering over both of them like a wind-warped tree. I still have a sample pack of the drug somewhere in my underwear drawer amid the thongs and lacy tights I don’t wear anymore because I am dead on the inside.
Now I attempt to hit the play button in the bottom left corner of the YouTube screen, to skip past this hideous ad to the video I actually want to watch. Act One, Scene One of All’s Well That Ends Well, the play we are staging this term. Helen’s crucial soliloquy.
Nothing. Still the image of the blue-and-yellow pill suspended in midair, spinning.
Your video will play after ad, it reads in a small box in the bottom corner of the screen. No choice. No choice then but to lie here and listen to how there is hope thanks to Eradica. The one pill I didn’t try, because the side effects scared me more than the pain. No choice but to watch the bad actress bicycle in the idyllic afternoon of the drug commercial with a blandly handsome man who I presume is her fake husband. He is dressed in a reassuring plaid. He reminds me of the male torso on the Brawny paper towels I buy out of wilted lust. Also of my ex-husband, Paul. Except that this man is smiling at his fake wife. Not shaking his head. Not saying, Miranda, I’m at a loss.
Knock, knock at my door. “Miranda?”
I take a drag of my cigarette. Date night now, apparently, in the drug commercial. The actress and fake hubby are having dinner at a candlelit restaurant. Oysters on the half shell to celebrate her return from the land of the dead. Toasting her new wellness with flutes of champagne, even though alcohol is absolutely forbidden on this drug. He gets up from the table, holds out his hand, appearing to ask her to dance. She is overcome with emotion. Tears glint in her eyes as she accepts. And then this woman is dancing, actually dancing with her husband at some sort of discotheque that only exists in the world of the drug commercial. We don’t hear the sound of the music at the discotheque. The viewer (me) is invited to insert their own music while “some blood cancers” and “kidney failure” are enumerated as side effects by an invisible, whitewashed voice that is godly, lulling, beyond good and evil, stripped of any moral compunction, that simply is.
“Miranda, are you there? Time for rehearsal.”
Watching the actress’s merriment in the discotheque is embarrassing for me. As a drama teacher, as a director. And yet, watching her rock around with her fake husband, wearing her fake smile, her fake pain supposedly gone now, I ask myself, When was the last time you danced?
Knock, knock. “Miranda, we really should get going downstairs.”
A pause, a huff. And then I hear the footsteps fall mercifully away.
Now it is evening in the world of the drug commercial. Another evening, not date night. Sunday evening, it looks like, a family day. The bad actress is sitting in a nylon tent with the fake children she has somehow been able to bear despite her maligned nervous system, her cobwebby womb. Hubby is there too with his Brawny torso and his Colgate grin. He was always there, his smile says. Waiting for her to come back to life. Waiting for her to resume a more human shape. What a hero of a man, the drug commercial seems to suggest with lighting. And their offspring scamper around them wearing pajamas patterned with little monsters, and there are Christmas lights strung all across the ceiling of the tent like an early-modern idea of heaven. She smiles wanly at the children, at the lights. Her skin is no longer gray and crepey. It is dewy and almost human-colored. Her brow is unfurrowed. She is no longer trying to take a shit, she took it. She wears eye shadow now. There’s a rose gloss on her lips, a glowing peach on her cheeks (bronzer?) that seems to come from the inside. Even her fashion sense has mildly improved. She cares about what she wears now. For she is supposedly pain-free. LESS PAIN is actually written in glowing white script beside her face.
But I don’t believe it. It’s a lie. And I say it to the screen, I say, Liar. And yet I cry a little. Even though I do not believe her joy any more than I believed her pain. A thin, ridiculous tear spills from my eyelid corner down to my ear, where it pools hotly. The wanly smiling woman, the bad actress, has moved me in spite of myself. The fires on the left side of my lower body rage quietly on. The fist in my mid-back clenches. The fat man settles into the chair that crushes my foot. He picks up a newspaper. Checks his stock.
But at least my video, the one I’ve been waiting for—where Helen gives her soliloquy, the one where she says yes, the cosmos appears fixed but she can reverse it—is about to play.
And then just like that, my laptop screen freezes, goes black. Dead. A battery icon appears and then fades.
I picture the power cord, coiled in the black satchel sitting on top of my desk, the cord gray and worn like the snipped hair of a Fury. I contemplate the socket in the wall that is absurdly low to the floor, behind my desk. I picture getting up and hunting for the power cord, then bending down and plugging it into the socket.
I lie there. I stare at the dead laptop screen smudged by my own fingerprints.
Snow from the open window I cannot close because I cannot bend keeps falling on my face. I let it fall. I close my eyes. I smoke. I’ve learned to smoke with my eyes closed, that’s something.
I feel the wind on my face. I think: I’m dying. Death at thirty-seven.
The fat man on the chair whose leg is crushing my foot raises his glass to me. Drinking sherry, it looks like. Cheers, says his face. He is pleased. He settles deeper in. Returns to his newspaper.
I shake my head in protest. No, I whisper to the fat man, to the back of my eyelids. I want my life back. I want my life back.
“Miranda, hello? Miranda?”
A soft knock on the half-open door. And then that voice again from which I instantly recoil. The fires rise, the fists clench, the fat man looks up from his newspaper. I can hear the new age chimes in that voice twinkling. It is the voice of false comfort, affected concern, deep strategy, it is a voice I often hear in my nightmares. It is the voice of Fauve. Self-appointed musical director. Adjunct. Mine enemy.
“Miranda?” says the voice.
I don’t answer.
I feel her consider this. Perhaps she can see my feet poking out from behind the desk.
“Miranda, is that you?” she tries again.
I remain silent. So I am hiding. So what?
At last I hear her retreat. Soft footsteps pattering down the hall, away from my door. I breathe a sigh of relief.
Then another voice follows. Decisive. Brisk. But there is love in there somewhere, or so I tell myself.
Grace. My colleague. My assistant director. My... I hesitate to say friend these days. Both of us the only faculty left in the once flourishing, now decrepit Theater Studies program. Both of us forced to be the bitches of the English department. All of our courses cross-listed. Offering only a minor now. Grace and I share this pain; except, of course, Grace has tenure. As an assistant professor, four years into the job, I am more precariously employed.
“Where are you?” she asks me now.
“Just here,” I say.
I feel her suddenly see me. Firm footsteps approaching. Timberlands, even though we are nowhere near mountains. She’s wearing a hunting vest too, I’m certain. Camouflage, possibly flotational. Grace is always dressed like she is about to shoot prey with a sharp eye and a clear conscience. Or else hike a long and perilously ascending trail. And on this journey, her foot will not stumble, though the terrain will be uneven, treacherous. She will whistle to herself. Her footfall will frighten all predators in the dark woods. Her footfall is the sure stride of health coming my way, and I feel my soul cower slightly at the sound. I keep my eyes closed. I will her away. Can I will her away?
Her boot tips rest at my head, stopping just short of my temple. She could raise her boot and stomp on my face if she wanted to. Probably a small part of her does. Because that’s what you do with the weak, and Grace comes from Puritan stock, a witch-burning ancestry. Women who never get colds. Women who carry on. Women with thick thighs who do not understand the snivelers, the wafflers, people who burn sage. I picture those women in my daymares, the great-great-great-grandmothers of Grace, standing on Plymouth Rock or else a loveless field, donning potato-sack dresses patterned with small faded flowers, holding pitchforks perhaps, their bark-colored hair tied in buns, loose tendrils blowing in an end-of-the-world wind, which they alone will survive.
Now I feel Grace’s small bright eyes assess the situation as surely as I feel her glowing with actual health beside me, a health that is unbronzered, unblushed. Grace does not ask what I am doing lying here with snow on my face beside a dead laptop. This is not the first time she has encountered me in a strange configuration on the floor. Nor does she comment on the absolutely prohibited cigarette.
Instead she walks over to the window. Begins to close it.
“Unless you wanted it open?” she asks, but it isn’t really a question.
“No,” I say.
She closes it easily—I feel how easy, as I lie here, staring at the ceiling—and for a brief, brief moment, I hate her. I hate Grace. I long to slide into Grace’s pockmarked skin and live there instead of here. How easy. How lovely. How lightly I would live.
She takes the dead cigarette from my fingers, the column of ash sprinkling over me like so much fairy dust, and tosses it into the garbage. She hops onto my desk. Pulls a cigarette from my pack and lights it. This is a bond, a small defiance Grace and I silently share, illicit smoking in the office, in the theater. Basically, wherever we can get away with it. I watch her booted foot swing to and fro over my face.
“Well, they’re waiting for you, Miranda.”
“Okay,” I say. “Just trying to give my back a break before rehearsal. Just need a few minutes here.”
Long pause. Should she ask or shouldn’t she? Dare she open that can of worms?
“Are you all right?”
“Fine,” I lie. “Just you know. The usual.” I try to smile, to put an eye roll in my voice, but I fail miserably. I hate the crack in my tone, the whining simper. If I were Grace, I’d crush my own face.
“Right.” She takes a sip from her water canister and looks down at me, lying on the floor, with my legs on the chair seat and my feet dangling in their holey tights, my bare, unclipped toenails there for her to examine.
“Well, whenever you’re ready,” she says.
“I’m ready,” I say. But I don’t move.
“All right. Well. I’ll leave you to it, then.” She’s about to get up. Panic flutters in me, briefly.
“How are they tonight?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do they seem... how do they seem?”
“How do they seem?” she repeats.
“Well... are they... mutinous?”
Grace considers this. “Maybe. They’re down there, at any rate.”
“Miranda, do you want one of us to do the talking today? We can, you know. There is that option. You can give yourself... a break.” This from Fauve, who has apparently been standing silently in the doorway all this time. I look over at Grace. Why didn’t you tell me she was there? Grace merely looks down at me lying on the floor. I can’t help but feel like a deer she has just shot. She’s looking at me to see if I am a clean kill or if she needs to put one more bullet in me for good measure.
“Is it your hip?” she asks.
“Oh. I thought it was your back?” Fauve ventures. She is invisible to my eye, but I can feel her hovering in the doorway, the chimes and feathers of her. Clutching that silvery-blue notebook in which I imagine she records all my inconsistencies, my transgressions, with an ornamental pen that dangles from her pendant-choked neck. All false concern that is also taking literal note in shimmering ink. Sharing her findings with Grace.
She told me it was her back.
She told me it was her hip.
“It is,” I tell them. “It’s both.”
“I’ll be right down, all right?” I say.
“Do you need help up?” Grace asks.
It’s like she doesn’t even ask for help.
It’s like she’s always asking for help.
Well, nothing helps Miranda.
“No. Thank you though.”
“Well,” Grace says, mashing her cigarette into my teacup, “I better get down there.”
Fauve says nothing about Grace’s cigarette. If she just found me in here smoking, as she often does, she’d cough and cough. Wave her hand violently in the air as though attempting to swat at a swarm of flies. Scribble scribble in her notebook. But Fauve just smiles at Grace through the smoke.
“I’ll go with you,” Fauve offers. “I have to photocopy something.”
What sort of a name is Fauve, anyway? I once asked Grace at a bar after rehearsal. Sounds like an alias to me. Grace looked at my nearly empty wineglass and said nothing.
They leave together. Hand in hand, I imagine. Surely Grace’s ancestors would have burned Fauve’s ancestors at the stake, wouldn’t they? Pale women who cast wispy shadows. All feathered hair and cryptic smiles. Reeking of duplicity and mugwort. How Fauve and Grace became friends is a true mystery to me. Not a mystery exactly, I know when it happened. It happened, I suspect, after my falling-out with Grace. Fauve insinuated herself then, of course she did. Stepped right in on her soundless sandals.
I am so glad when their footsteps fade away. The fires within actually quiet a little. The fat man might abandon his post to make tea.
I get up, and for a moment I fill with hideous hope. But no. The entire left side of my body is still ablaze. The right side is in painful spasm. All the muscles in my right leg still concrete. The fists in my back have multiplied. The fist behind my knee is so tight that I can’t straighten my leg at all, can only limp. My foot is still being crushed by an invisible weight. I think of telling Mark this at our next session. But would he believe me through the wall of his certitude?
Our ultimate goal, Mark will say during a session, often while stabbing needles into my lower back and thigh, is centralization. To move the awareness (he means my pain) from the distal places (he means my leg) and return it to its original source (he means my back).
The distal places, I murmur. Sounds poetic.
Mark appears confused by this word, poetic.
You could think of it like that, I guess. He shrugs but looks suspicious. As though this way of thinking is part of my problem.
From the bottle marked Take one as needed for pain, I take two. From the bottle marked Take one as needed for muscle stiffness, I take three. I look down into the dusty bowels of the plastic orange pill jar, and I briefly consider taking all of them. Throwing the window back open. Falling to the floor. Lying there and letting the snow fall and fall on my face. Pressing my hand to my chest until the pounding of my heart slows and then stops. Joe, the custodian, possibly finding me in the morning. I’ll be beautifully blue. He will grieve. Will he grieve? I picture him weeping into his broomstick. Didn’t a fairy-tale heroine die this way?
I take a well-squeezed tube of gel that contains some dubious mountain herb that one of the polo-shirted, one of the lab-coated, one of the blue-scrubbed, said I might try, that is useless. You could try it, they all say with a shrug and a Cheshire cat grin. I rub it all over my back and thigh and I tell myself it does something. I can feel it doing something. Can’t I?
Surely it’s doing something.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for All’s Well includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
From the author of Bunny, which Margaret Atwood hails as “genius,” comes a dazzling and darkly funny novel about a theater professor who is convinced staging Shakespeare’s most maligned play will remedy all that ails her—but at what cost?
Miranda Fitch’s life is a waking nightmare. The accident that ended her burgeoning acting career left her with excruciating chronic back pain, a failed marriage, and a deepening dependence on painkillers. And now she’s on the verge of losing her job as a college theater director. Determined to put on Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, the play that promised and cost her everything, she faces a mutinous cast hell-bent on staging Macbeth instead. Miranda sees her chance at redemption slip through her fingers.
That’s when she meets three strange benefactors who have an eerie knowledge of Miranda’s past and a tantalizing promise for her future: one where the show goes on, her rebellious students get what’s coming to them, and the invisible, doubted pain that’s kept her from the spotlight is made known.
With prose Margaret Atwood has described as “no punches pulled, no hilarities dodged . . . genius,” Mona Awad has concocted her most potent, subversive novel yet. All’s Well is the story of a woman at her breaking point and a formidable, piercingly funny indictment of our collective refusal to witness and believe female pain.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Miranda encounters three strange men at the Canny Man. After drinking the golden remedy drink, her chronic pain is temporarily relieved. Who or what do you think these three men represent?
2. Miranda frequently references her performance as Helen in All’s Well That Ends Well, her most successful role. In what ways does Helen’s character shape her relationship with her students, coworkers, lovers, and herself?
3. Miranda’s chronic pain is regularly dismissed by her male physical therapists (and her friend Grace) as a matter of mind over body. What does this disparity in experience and treatment indicate about the way chronic pain conditions are viewed? How is the experience of pain management gendered in All’s Well?
4. Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well is commonly categorized as a “problem play,” or both a comedy and tragedy. Would you describe this novel similarly? In what ways are they alike, and in what ways are they different?
5. How does pain translate to performance throughout the novel?
6. Have you ever studied or watched a performance of All’s Well That Ends Well? What was your experience of the play? Discuss the themes which pair with All’s Well.
7. When Briana makes her abrupt return following her illness and discovers Ellie has taken over the role of Helen, she demands to play the role of the King. After noticing that Briana “attempts threat, confrontation, but she can only manage so much through the veil of pain” (p. 208), Miranda allows her to perform Act Two, Scene One of the play. How does this performance reflect the dynamics between Miranda and Briana?
8. Have you ever participated in theater or performance arts? How did your experience compare to its portrayal in All’s Well?
9. Miranda’s perception of Briana and Ellie vary greatly. What do their representations reflect about how Miranda sees herself?
10. In the beginning, Miranda’s theater students are seemingly unafraid of her. After the theater received its largest donation from the three men and Briana gets sick, the students, and even Grace, grow distant and fearful of her. How does this fear affect Miranda?
11. The golden remedy drink at the Canny Man is eventually taken off the menu due to a limited supply (p. 351). What do you think its significance was throughout the novel?
Do you think this is the beginning of Miranda’s end?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. One of the three mysterious strangers at the Canny Man quotes Helen’s lines 218–219 from Act One, Scene One of All’s Well That Ends Well when first meeting Miranda. Look up this soliloquy from the play (you can find it online at http://shakespeare.mit.edu/allswell) and try performing for one another in your group. How does it feel? What is Helen saying in these lines? Why do you think these lines are so memorable to Miranda?
2. How well do you know the Bard? Explore the Folger.edu website for information on Shakespeare’s plays, study guides, and more. You can even stage a screening of the Folger Theater’s production of Macbeth, which can be viewed on their site: https://www.folger.edu/video-macbeth-folger-theatre.
3. Pour your own “Golden Remedy” cocktail:
2 ounces whiskey
3/4 ounces ounce St-Germain (or 4 ounces ginger beer)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
orange peel for garnish
Fill a highball glass (or mason jar if using ginger beer) with ice.
Add the whiskey, St-Germain (or ginger beer), bitters and mix.
Serve with orange peel garnish.
4. Visit Mona Awad’s website at http://mona-awad-grou.squarespace.com to learn more about her and her other works.
A Conversation with Mona Awad
Q: The portrayal of chronic pain is so clear and visceral on the page. Can you tell us about the autobiographical element of All’s Well, especially as it relates to chronic pain?
A: A number of years ago, I hurt my hip and had to have surgery. It was a rough recovery and, because I’d been unstable on my legs for so long, I ended up injuring my back. I had disc herniations that caused all kinds of neurological symptoms down my legs, affecting my mobility. There was a point where I couldn’t sit down at all, couldn’t drive, couldn’t close a window, could barely walk. I remember feeling very helpless and scared because a lot of the issues were neurological and chronic at that point, and so somewhat invisible, subject to debate, and difficult to treat. But the pain was absolutely real. I was going from one doctor to another, one therapist to another, most of whom were pretty dismissive and just threw pills at the problem. I was at my wit’s end and I started dreaming not only of relief but of revenge. One of the most satisfying things I could imagine back then was a woman who could offload her pain onto people who hurt her or didn’t believe her. And so Miranda was born.
Q: Miranda becomes frustrated by needing to convince others of her pain and its validity; many patients, especially women, feel the need to “perform” pain to communicate it to others. It’s interesting how this dovetails with the theatrical element in All’s Well. How did pain and theater intersect in writing All’s Well?
A: One of the things that’s so hard about having chronic pain, having any kind of pain that’s not visible, is communicating it to others not only for the purposes of relief, but to be understood, to feel less alone in it. In order to explain my pain not only to doctors but to friends and colleagues, I would find myself performing it a little. And that act of performing inherently causes you to second-guess yourself, which is so scary: the pain is a reality that you’re living but because of the performance element of sharing it, your reality immediately becomes suspect. That’s why I chose a former actress and drama teacher to be the main character and to have the story set around theater production. I think there’s an inherent relationship between performance, pain, and belief. And, of course, gender plays a role in credibility too. Because Miranda is a woman and because she performs for a living, she always feels like faking. In the novel, there’s a scene where her bosses, the administrators of the college, are confronting her and they tell her to sit down in this office chair. She knows if she sits down, she’ll be in so much agony but she can’t imagine telling these three men, her superiors, that she wants to stand and then towering over them. She’s also afraid that they’ll think there’s the drama teacher up to her old tricks again.
Q: Many readers have commented on how much they love the clever overlap with Shakespeare. Can you speak more to what Shakespeare means to you personally and how his work inspired parts of the story?
A: At the time that I was experiencing this debilitating pain, I was also a graduate student and I was teaching and reading Shakespeare and the plays really spoke to me. They have these wonderful, miraculous reversals of fortune that feel so exhilarating even when things go awry (which they often do). Also, Shakespeare is endlessly inspiring because there’s so much room to play; there’s so much openness complexity in his heroes. He’s just brilliant at creating these very complicated monsters of human beings: people for whom we have sympathy, people who charm us, but who always challenge our sympathies with their flaws. All’s Well That Ends Well and Macbeth were especially exciting to me because both characters—Helen and Macbeth—have a hidden desire that seems impossible to realize within the world of the play. They each have to take a kind of wildly transgressive action to make that dream come true. And it does come true—in one case very darkly, in another case very eerily happily. Like so many Shakespearean figures, they’re both villainous and heroic. And that’s Miranda—she is both the villain and hero of her own story.
Q: Often authors are asked who would be the dream actor to personify their main character, but in this case Laura Dern is already attached to play Miranda! Are you excited to see what she brings to the character?
A: Yes! Laura Dern is the master of capturing charged, heady states of emotion. She can go from the crazed depths of despair to maniacal elation and joy, which is important for this book. She’s so brilliant at playing the villain and the hero, so I’m really thrilled, because that is the essence of Miranda.
Q: All’s Well isn’t the first time you’ve used dark humor in your writing. Why do you think you gravitate to that as a tool?
A: In my books, I’ve always been interested in humor as a way to move through darkness and alienation. A lot of the material in All’s Well is drawn from some lived moments of real helplessness and pain where I was truly at a loss and didn’t know if I would ever be well. But even in the midst of really dark moments, there’s always a part of me that’s laughing a little—either at the absurdity of the situation or the obvious human foibles and flaws that are making it awful, or I’m laughing at myself. I can’t help it and I’ve always done it in times of darkness. First, because I think it helps to cope, but I think it’s also a part of seeing the truth of that darkness as a whole. Comedy is part of the truth of tragedy—and tragedy is always part of the truth of comedy; they’re different curves on a story line but they connect. That’s what inspired me to bring comedy and tragedy together in this novel. Miranda is desperate to stage this comedy with this happy ending that she wishes were her life. But offstage, she has to live this tragedy over which she has no control. Each world says something profound about her relationship to the other.
Q: Another feature of your books is exploring female dynamics, specifically (but not limited to) the ways in which women can be cruel to one another, and how friendships can endure mutual cruelty. Can you tell us a little about how this plays out in All’s Well, and why you’re drawn to writing complicated relationships? Will you talk about that and maybe give an example of one of the complicated relationships in the book?
A: I’m very interested in how women internalize misogyny, the ways we’re complicatedly cruel to each other, the ways we subtly or not-so-subtly draw power from each other’s moments of failure and weakness. It makes me shiver like no other cruelty, because it can be so layered, subtextual, and hard to pinpoint and parse out. It’s like chronic pain—it’s there but it’s tricky. In the book, there’s a conflict between Miranda and her lead actress, Briana, a very privileged rich student whose parents are funding the theater program so Miranda pretty much has to be her servant, and Briana always gets to do whatever she wants onstage, even though she’s not a good actress. They antagonize each other in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It was very fun to explore those power dynamics. Briana’s strength and power amplify Miranda’s feelings of weakness and frailty, which begets its own cruelty and desire for retaliation. I’m also really interested in those moments of reversal when suddenly the power dynamic between women shifts. What happens when the weak suddenly rise and the powerful fall? This book explores how each position can be a dark, shaping force for the other.
Miranda also has a colleague and friend, Grace, who directs the play with her. Grace is this sturdy, no-nonsense New Englander who’s never been sick a day in her life. And that makes Miranda feel weak, pathetic, and resentful, even though she loves Grace. And of course Grace, because she’s only known health, doesn’t quite believe Miranda’s pain. She helps her but she’s still withholding, judgmental, dismissive. They’re small cruelties but they add up and they impact the friendship. I’m interested in how friendships can hold those small cruelties, those subtly toxic elements, and still ultimately be sustained by a love and a need that’s greater.
Q: All’s Well also shines a light on the misogyny of the health care industry; what drew you to capture this on the page?
A: I think the biggest thing is just how hard it is to be taken seriously, to be looked in the eye by doctors. I remember my doctors always looking at and talking to my partner, never to me, and if I was alone, just looking away. That’s an experience that Miranda frequently has in the book. Also, doctors quickly grabbing at “anxiety” as the reason why you might be in this shape. I felt pressure to make sure I wasn’t displaying any signs of stress so they had no reason to dismiss me or shut me up with a drug. I found there was a lot of pressure to be a good patient and to conform to some sort of progress narrative that my therapist or surgeon might have. And when your body fails to get better, they sort of want to blame you. So in All’s Well, Miranda is very anxious to prove that she is a good patient to her physical therapists and her doctors. But because she’s not improving, they dread her and don’t really know what to do with her anymore and they just kind of randomly experiment with her during therapy appointments—let’s do some tests, they say. It breeds a toxic relationship and a power dynamic that makes her really helpless, desperate, and ultimately worse off. There are some very sadistic surgeons and physical therapists in this book.
Q: Maybe it’s because of the Shakespearean angle, especially Macbeth, or the novel’s interest in feminine power, but witchcraft feels present throughout the book. Can you speak a little a bit the role of witchcraft in the book?
A: Part of what drew me to Shakespeare, and to these two plays, was the witchery. I’m fascinated by witches, especially as a woman living in New England, where the novel is set. In All’s Well, there are some seriously powerful witches and the most sinister ones are actually men. Macbeth’s three witches show up as three demonic businessmen and they are a force to be reckoned with. They represent this grander misogyny, this matrix of power that Miranda has to operate inside of, both in the medical world and at the college where she works. But I’m really interested in the ways women can claim agency within that matrix. Witchcraft and the occult have always fascinated me, particularly their framing of the feminine as a source of power. Witchcraft feels like a radical response, a way for women to tap into another kind of force and to subvert this matrix. One of the central characters, Ellie, Miranda’s pet theater student and a teenage witch, even tries to heal Miranda with magic. So this book has a lot of fun with the circumventing powers of witchcraft and the occult as well as its damning connotations—there’s even a witch trial of sorts. But ultimately it’s the redemptive power of the feminine, its potential for empowerment and healing that this book celebrates.