The Next Big Thing: My novel in progress, “The Expert”

The Next Big Thing is the latest spin on an old time chain letter. It’s a blog chain that’s circulating in which a writer answers ten prefab interview questions about a current project, then tags other writers to do the same. I was tagged by a UAA MFA poet, Zack Rogow, and I have tagged some other Alaska writers. I’ll link them up once they’ve posted responses.  It took me an entire month to get around to doing this, which surely does not explain why my car broke down and why I’m currently recovering from a cold, does it? (Really, I’m not at all superstitious. Even so, I couldn’t dare to break the chain.)

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

It’s a novel tentatively titled The Expert.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Close to one ago I was at a party, venting about ethics (or the lack of it) with an old friend who is a psychology textbook editor, and we shifted from talking about ethical debates in creative nonfiction to ethical debates in psychology, including an infamous experiment by “Father of Behaviorism” John Watson. The experiment he did, conditioning an infant named “Little Albert” to become afraid of furry animals, was pretty bad science – a single subject, a questionable setup using a perhaps abnormal child, and an overly passionate desire to prove a theory (never mind that little thing called evidence). Nonetheless, it became one of the most referred-to experiments of all time. My interest in Watson led me, that very same night, to start searching for more information about Rosalie Rayner, the 19-year-old research assistant, later mistress (and even later, wife) of Watson. I wanted to see that period, and the outcome of that flawed science and its later effects on the entire Watson family, from her perspective.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Always a fun question but I’m not deep enough into the novel to know yet.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In 1920s Baltimore, young psychologist Rosalie Rayner struggles to become an independent, professional woman, both aided and ultimately thwarted by her famous lover (later husband), pioneering behaviorist John Watson.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It will be represented.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I started researching it in March 2012 and am getting close to the halfway point, one year later.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, which managed to convey with sympathy and intellectual depth a portrait of another difficult affair-turned-scandalous-marriage (of Mamah Cheney to architect Frank Lloyd Wright), and other books about strong women in various time periods, from Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women to Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife. All of these books reveal the familiar conflicts of women in past time periods, accurately and tenderly rendered, providing greater perspective on our own times.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

As mentioned above, what inspired me at first was indignation about unethical practices in the field of psychology. What has kept me inspired is the task of bringing a mostly-forgotten woman – a footnote of psychology and history – to life on the page. I am still struggling to understand why such an intelligent woman fell for John Watson and put up with as much as she did. I’m hoping the writing itself will bring to me to at least a provisional understanding.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

John Watson, with Rosalie’s help, went on to become a famous parenting expert, thanks to his 1928 bestseller about raising your kids, with “classic” advice like: never kiss them, a handshake will do. I had no idea how much his parenting advice shaped (or misshaped) earlier generations, and how difficult it was to overturn that brand of anti-attachment parenting. Dr. Spock came along just in time.


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