Maggie Leffler grew up across the cul de sac from our house in Columbia, MD. For years her mother Martha and my wife Susan were the best of friends. Somehow, even in the suburbs, even when you hate to talk about it, word gets around if you’re one of those with the writing bug. It came as no surprise, then, when Susan asked if I’d be willing to take a look at the rough draft of a “novel” young Maggie, by this time in college, had written.
OK, OK, I agreed, admittedly not with delight – time is always precious to a writer. But to me it’s also part of one’s duty to the tribe to take a look at other writers’ stuff and provide a little feedback. More than fame, money, or smart advice, writers need readers.
I forced myself to read most of Maggie’s fat college manuscript. It was, as I remember, a complicated story involving a gang of neighborhood kids, the autobiography thinly disguised, having the sort of adventures teenagers do in young adult novels. To my mind, it read like the Bobbsey Twins go to junior high. There were a lot of misspellings and grammatical errors, the plotting wordy and unwieldy. In short, this was classic juvenalia.
My conscience and the personal ties between our families made me take it seriously, though. I marked up the manuscript with a copy editor’s eye and discussed it with Maggie, making a few gentle suggestions, asking more questions than giving advice. In my silent heart I thought, Poor kid. She’s got the bug and she’s got a very long road to travel if she expects to publish anything.
Maybe 10 years passed. Maggie went to medical school and did an internship and residency. The whole time she kept writing, nearly every day. Her mother died after a struggle with ovarian cancer, and Maggie kept writing. Eventually she sent me another manuscript to look at. This one shook my easy assumptions about who she was and her level of talent. Somewhere along the way she’d grown up as a writer.
This manuscript featured a young physician in training, much like Maggie herself, but with a lot of insecurities about becoming a doctor and a Bridget Jones-like uncertainty about romance. It was consistently funny, filled with an insider’s knowledge of medical lore and hospital situations, and honed to just the right length. Memorable characters sprouted everywhere and clashed dramatically, with quips. Yet the story was also threaded with serious themes: learning to accept death, assuming professional responsibility, and judging potential soul-mates. This was the book that got Maggie an agent and was published as her first novel, The Diagnosis of Love.
There’s a fundamental lesson here for any writer. It’s what my ninth-grade Latin teacher had us memorize in the form of a motto from Ovid: Gutta carvat lapidem, non vi, sed sape cadendo. This translates as: The drop (of water) carves the rock, not by force, but by falling often. Put another way – there’s no substitute for seat time. Maggie is one of those story-tellers blessed with the need to write every day and the sense that she’s most fulfilled when writing. You learn to write by writing. Maggie had listened to others, joined writers’ groups, worked at improving her stuff, but, most of all, she wrote night after night. She rewrote the draft of The Diagnosis of Love seven times, in fact.
In time Maggie produced a second novel, this one titled The Goodbye Cousins, a kind of sequel picking up some of the characters from her first novel. The latest manuscript of hers I’ve looked at is the screenplay version of The Diagnosis of Love she’s working on. What’s truly remarkable is that in the five years since her first novel came out, Maggie has gotten married, had a couple of little boys, and become a family practice physician in Pittsburgh. And still she writes.
She’s even taken the time to answer some questions about her writing for us at 317am.
Whom do you write for? Do you have a notion of who your ideal reader might be?
I mostly write for myself, because I love getting lost in the world of my fictional characters whose lives sometimes entertain me more than my own. The caveat, of course, is that I have always written in the hopes of being read, even when my only readers were my mother, my sister and my little brother. (I have a distinct memory of listening at the top of the stairs while they read my first unpublished novel, and they were laughing. This was good. They were supposed to be laughing). Although my audience largely consists of women, I have never set out to please a particular gender or age group. Mostly, I hope the story will resonate and that my readers might laugh.
Do you think of yourself as “a real writer”? If so, when did you start thinking that?
I have thought of myself as a real writer since I was in elementary school, when I would write stories, and my mother would call me a writer. I didn’t take this as her pride or my own presumption: I just assumed being a real writer meant someone who actually writes—and in my mind, that meant fiction. As a teenager I read “Seymour – An Introduction.” “When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion,” J.D. Salinger wrote—a sentiment I secretly identified with at the time. These days, having my own novels on a shelf in a bookstore is thrilling, but it doesn’t make me feel more like a writer. On the inside, I’m still the same elementary school kid, picking up a pencil and imagining things.
Which comes first for you – plots or characters?
Before I can begin to imagine what might happen to my characters, I generally have to get to know them. For me, plots emerge later and then get reshaped and rewritten again. With The Goodbye Cousins, I had to get to the end of the first draft before I realized
what I wanted the book to be about, but the basic nature and evolution of my characters, as inspired from the beginning, never actually changed.
You have a serious career and a family with a couple of young children. How do you find time to write?
Luckily, I have always been a night owl, which has allowed me to put my children to bed and still find a couple of hours to write. As my boys are getting bigger, I have to work much harder now to carve out the time, but sometimes that’s the best way for me to get started. At the end of a day, writing even a couple of paragraphs can recharge me.
Does your day job feed into your writing?
In some ways, I can’t imagine one without the other. I love the solitude of writing, but I love the human interaction of medicine. I love making up stories, but I also love listening to other people tell their own. Of course, the nice part of my fictional world is that I can fix everything.
Has being a member of a writers’ group helped you with your work?
Before I found a writers’ group, I would slog through draft after draft of The Diagnosis of Love, each one four hundred pages or more, without knowing where I went wrong. Then I’d persuade a couple of people to read it, and then I’d get discouraged about starting over. Inevitably, with any novel, there will be many drafts. But my writers’ group has shortened the process with their perceptive critiques and amazing ideas along the way. Besides that, they’ve made the journey entirely more fun.
You’re a published novelist, yet you travel to bookshops and libraries to give readings to small groups. How do you feel about the promotional part of the writing business?
Appearing in public and reading aloud in front of the audience is, for me, the very opposite of the restoring nature of writing. On the other hand, it’s hard to discover a new writer whose novel is buried back in fiction under the letter L. So I think it’s important to get the word out and encourage readers, and sometimes that means just showing up. Besides, I really do like to support the independent booksellers.
Are you working on a new novel at the moment, or are you recharging your creative batteries?
I’ve just finished up another draft of my screenplay of The Diagnosis of Love. Once I get that sent off, I’ll go back to working on my third novel about two generations of sisters.
Thanks, Maggie, and may the words continue to flow for you.