More Than It Hurts You is an intriguing novel that delves into the nation’s faulty healthcare and legal systems, the 24/7 media and our obsession with fame, notoriety and attention. Author Darin Strauss focuses on the rarely discussed condition Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy in his third novel. To illustrate the story Strauss digs beyond racial divides and into the psyches of parents and role-models, healers and helpers. The story of a child being hurt by his own mother is told mostly through the voices of the white Jewish mother and father and the female African-American pediatrician who first suspects the Munchausen by Proxy case. More Than It Hurts You is riveting, effective, and provides as many questions as answers.
Darin Strauss, a writing instructor at NYU, recently answered some of my questions via email. Strauss also wrote Chang and Eng and The Real McCoy.
Amy Steele [AS]: Why did you become a writer?
Darin Strauss [DS]: Not sure why. I never thought about being a writer for real until I went to college. But as early as 6th/7th grade, I’d been writing novels, or at least the beginnings to novels (an updating of Frankenstein where an army of monsters takes on the US military; the story of a super sleuth, etc.).
AS: How does teaching writing influence your own writing?
DS: I try not to let it. Reading amateur work can be destabilizing in all kinds of ways. If it’s great, you can question your own abilities (“Hey, I’m spending my life working at this — how come some kid is so good her first time out?”). If it’s bad, you feel very enervated by it.
Still, it forces you always to think back on first principals, and to figure out exactly what it is you think makes a story go. That’s good to chew on.
AS: How do you get interested in writing a story about Munchausen by Proxy?
DS: I wanted to write a book that brings together a lot of the threads and fears of contemporary life — corporate greed, the modern mania for attention, loss of privacy, the maddening even-handedness of media coverage, a family’s threats from within and without. And, of course, race, gender, and health care. Just look at the current political landscape to see how important those last subjects are.
At the same time, I wanted the book to address the sort of personal themes that good literature looks into: such as, How much blindness does a happy life require? How well do you know anyone—even those closest to you?
And, of course, I wanted to tell a page-turning story. So, when I came across the most bewildering family mystery of our time—Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy—I thought I could get at those big issues, and still write a gripping book. MSBP is a disorder in which parents secretly injure their own children, just to get attention. (From the media, from their spouses, from the children themselves, whoever.) Often the children die. What earthly motive could explain harming one’s own baby? How would the community react? How would a hospital handle that?
The crazy thing is that Munchausen’s is much more common in the US than most people know. But it only happens in rich countries, such as ours or the UK. Places, coincidentally or not, where reality TV shows have become the rage—shows where people will do anything to get attention. MSBP is a disease of luxury, of idle minds.
AS: What kind of research did you have to do for More Than It Hurts You?
DS: I talked to a number of Munchausen experts, including the two most-quoted MSBP specialists, one on the East coast and one on the West. I also spent some time in the Montifore hospital’s family care wing.
AS: How did you write from such different voices? Male/female/different races
DS: Part of the fun of novel-writing – if such a dead lift can be called fun – is stepping into other minds. An African-American woman’s brain was, for a Long Island Jew like me, hard, exhilarating territory.
But you have to do that kind of imaginative leap when doing fiction. A good novel shows the world as world not as you see it, but as others do — and it helps us to understand that nothing is as simple as right v. wrong.
I often try to push that challenge. My first book, Chang & Eng, had a first-person narrator who was an Asian conjoined twin from the 1800s; none of those terms applies to me.
AS: What is your favorite aspect of this story?
DS: Hard to say; I don’t think of my books that way, breaking them up into parts I like or don’t like. I guess the most fun part was coming up with the story of my African-American protagonist, Darlene Stokes. I needed to restrain my P.C. reflexes. Darlene is a Black pediatrician who works to pry a baby from his white family. The challenge was to make this woman like me in temperament, without being me in blackface. Taking on that challenge reminded me of what fiction — and maybe only fiction — can do.
AS: Why do you like to write?
DS: Who says I like it? It’s hard work, and sometimes lonely work, and it’s scary work — you spend years working on something, and then send it out into the world to be judged. But it’s often rewarding, and it’s the only thing I’m good at. So, here I am.
AS: How do you keep your writing fresh? What motivates you?
DS: I try to read a lot. Zadie Smith says a writer should approach a library in the spirit of a buffet: take from the books you like whatever you can and move onto the next. That’s how you develop your own style: by smushing together a smorgasbord of influences. What motivates me is having a family to feed.
AS: What is the greatest challenge about being a novelist?
DS: I can’t narrow it down. Frequent rejection. Public judgment. Solitude. The whims of the marketplace. No health insurance. Etc. But the rewards are great, too. No boss. No set hours. Doing what you want.