I used to think that made me something of a slacker. I mean, surely the great theologians don’t read fluffy stories before bed. Of course the scholars are always immersed in heavy work. There can’t possibly be a use for my favorite kind of reading…can there?
When I look to Jesus himself, though, I can’t help but wrinkle my brows again. He wasn’t exactly sharing Harry Potter with his followers, but you can’t help but notice how often he used stories, can you?
Sometimes, a story just does the job better.
Enter a novel my book club selected recently: Do No Harm, by Fiorella de Maria (Ignatius Press, 2013). It covers topics I am praying about and pretty sick-to-my-stomach about, topics I don’t really know how to handle and things I don’t ever want to read about.
And yet I did. Because they are within the context of a story that gripped me from the beginning.
De Maria’s previous novel, Poor Banished Children was an example of literature, and it shocked me to read it. Not because of the topic (though that was sit-up-and-take-notice material too), but because it was so good, so well-done, so thorough and completely wonderful to read.
I was gripped by that story and even more by the clear characterization and vivid scenery. It could be used as an example for beginning authors of how flashbacks and memories can be used to move your story forward (as opposed to just being more muddle and fuddle).
Back to her current release, Do No Harm. The topic: the legal battleground that the emergency room can (and has?) become. The situation: a British doctor saves a patient’s life and is faced with criminal charges. The conclusion: oh, wait, I can’t tell you that!
The characters are flawless, the writing is beautiful (though not pandering or flowery). There are twists and turns, and I can say with no duplicity that I was shocked at the end. This book is top of its class. It’s not only fun and compelling to read, it’s a brain-turner that makes you think and consider.
Writing a book like this is no small feat. Let’s hear a bit from the author herself.
Sarah: Do No Harm is quite a novel, and it tackles issues that face us right now. Was there a moment when you knew you had to write it? What was your inspiration process like?
Fiorella: I always find that there is a particular moment when an idea starts to form in my mind for a story, but sometimes it occurs years before I finally start the process of writing. I was involved in the campaign against the Mental Capacity Act which was passed in Britain some years ago now and at one point, I was speaking at a conference in Rome and a doctor asked me what doctors in Britain were to do if they were presented with a living will instructing them to remove a patient’s food and fluids (so that the patient would dehydrate to death). As I answered, I think I used the words ‘under pain of an assault charge’ and I just thought, ‘But what if a doctor was charged? What would happen to him?’
Some years later, I was at another conference on end-of-life care and a young nurse asked a pro-euthanasia academic what she was to do if she were instructed to remove a patient’s food and fluids. He glibly answered, ‘Well, don’t worry. I think we’ll all just muddle through,’ but in medicine it is not always possible to ‘muddle through.’ Either the needle is inserted or it is not, either the tube is removed or it is not. I kept thinking how vulnerable and how alone a medical professional would be in such a situation. It was around that time that I started sketching out the plot and discussing it with friends.
Sarah: Who have you found to be most moved and impacted by this book and why? What’s your reaction to that?
Fiorella: I haven’t found that there has been a particular kind of person who has taken to the book more than others (though it is early days yet as the book has not been available for long) but I have been pleasantly surprised by how popular Matthew Kemble is proving to be as a character. Readers who have gotten in touch with me have said how much they love him and of course I am very happy about that. I feel great affection for Matthew so it is especially nice if readers feel the same way.
Sarah: What was your favorite part of the book? Was there a part that was difficult to write? A part that particularly moved you or that resonated with your own experience?
Fiorella: I loved writing the bantering conversations between Maria and Jonathan. I love the British sense of humour, particularly the way people laugh in the face of adversity and appear to insult one another when they are really very close.
I think I found the recurring nightmare and the scene where one of the characters gets beaten up most difficult to write because they were both based on situations I have either witnessed or experienced.
When I was a student I worked as an orderly in a hospital and witnessed a woman having her stomach rinsed out. It was terribly distressing to watch; I just remember how wretched she looked — desperate to live, but desperately frightened by the procedure — and I’m afraid I had to ask to leave the room as the tube was being inserted because she was crying so much.
The scene where one of the characters is lured into a room is based upon two different attacks I have experienced in my own life and the details are all there — the shocking pain, the sense of panic and helplessness, even things like the feel of the man’s breath against the victim’s face. It was very difficult to write and I couldn’t stop shaking afterwards, but in a way I also felt a certain sense of peace.
Sarah: What has been the greatest blessing in all of this — writing, publishing, being a rockin awesome author — for you? At the end of the day, what do you count as your biggest success?
Fiorella: I have wanted to be a writer since I was at primary school, so for me the greatest blessing in my professional life has been having the chance to write novels and be published. It is so hard for aspiring writers to get their work published these days, I just feel so fortunate that editors have believed in my work and enabled me to keep writing. I think my favourite novel so far is Poor Banished Children, but I enjoyed writing Do No Harm much more.
This is going to sound terribly sentimental, but in the end, the greatest blessing in my life is my family. I have a wonderful husband and four beautiful children I thank God for every day of my life. I couldn’t ask for anything else.
Sarah: And, finally, because I can’t resist asking, what are YOU reading? What keeps you up late turning pages?
Fiorella: My tastes are pretty eclectic, but at the moment I am re-reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, her memoir about the First World War.
If you’d like to read an excerpt from Do No Harm, stop over to my recent Book Notes post on CatholicMom.com.
Sarah Reinhard is a Catholic wife, mom and author whose nose is probably in a book if she’s not scraping something off of her shoes. Her latest book is A Catholic Mother’s Companion to Pregnancy: Walking with Mary from Conception to Baptism. Check out all of her books at http://sarahreinhard.com/writing/my-books/.
Visit Sarah’s website: http://sarahreinhard.com/
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