Monday, July 28, 2014

The Inspiration for The Virtues of Oxygen by Susan Schoenberger + Giveaway! (US/Can only)

The Virtues of Oxygen
Susan Schoenberger

From the award-winning author of A Watershed Year comes a heartrending story of unlikely bonds made under dire straits. Holly is a young widow with two kids living in a ramshackle house in the same small town where she grew up wealthy. Now barely able to make ends meet editing the town’s struggling newspaper, she manages to stay afloat with help from her family. Then her mother suffers a stroke, and Holly’s world begins to completely fall apart.

Vivian has lived an extraordinary life, despite the fact that she has been confined to an iron lung since contracting polio as a child. Her condition means she requires constant monitoring, and the close-knit community joins together to give her care and help keep her alive. As their town buckles under the weight of the Great Recession, Holly and Vivian, two very different women both touched by pain, forge an unlikely alliance that may just offer each an unexpected salvation.

Where I Got the Inspiration to Write The Virtues of Oxygen

In 2009, when I was still trying to sell my first novel and in a bit of a writing slump, I happened to read a New York Times obituary about a woman named Martha Mason. She died at 71 and had lived for 60 years in an iron lung, or negative pressure ventilator, after contracting polio at the age of 11.

I’m old enough to know that iron lung wards were common in hospitals before the polio vaccine was widely disseminated in the 1950s, but I had no idea that a handful of people still lived in them. I couldn’t stop thinking about what kind of life that would be—all brain, no body. As luck would have it, Martha wrote an autobiography late in life with the help of a voice-activated computer. As I read her own words and began to understand her indomitable spirit, I decided that my next novel would feature a character based on Martha’s experience. I didn’t realize at the time that the iron lung would evolve, in a sense, into a character of its own.

The Virtues of Oxygen tells the story of Vivian, who, like Martha, has lived most of her life in an iron lung, and Holly, a young widow who is one of Vivian’s rotating volunteer caregivers. Holly is a casualty of the Great Recession and the contraction of journalism, but she can never compare her troubles to those of Vivian, who is paralyzed from the neck down and can’t breathe unless the machine pumps air into and out of her lungs like a bellows.

In one of the opening scenes, Vivian’s house loses power and Holly must hand-crank the iron lung to keep the oxygen flowing. It’s a harrowing episode, but one that lets the reader know that Vivian is completely dependent on a machine that both traps her and keeps her alive.

In the portion of the story told in Vivian’s voice, I trace her experience as a young child who contracts polio and barely escapes death by the grace of this miraculous machine. As she grows, the machine, in some ways, becomes her tormentor. As a teenager agonizing over her fate, she’s unable to kill herself because she is powerless to stop her own breathing.

As I was writing the novel and talking about it, I realized that many people—especially those under 40—had never heard of an iron lung. It was challenge to describe how such a machine, with its Medieval-sounding name, looked and functioned while giving readers a sense of Vivian’s love-hate relationship with it. I saw the iron lung in my book as a testament to human ingenuity, as well as a symbol of the incredibly complex ethical choices we face in the modern era of medicine.

The characters in the fictional upstate New York town of Bertram Corners rally around Vivian and protect her after her parents have died. In return, she is their moral touchstone, their confessor and sometimes, the town gossip. She and the town have an inverse relationship to the Internet, which unshackles Vivian from her circumscribed existence just as it helps to undermine the town’s economy.

In many ways, the iron lung is just as flawed a character as Vivian. It can be temperamental, awkward and difficult, but it keeps going because it has a purpose, just as Martha Mason, who wanted to be a writer, did for so many years. I hope readers of The Virtues of Oxygen will be as inspired by her story as I was.

About the Author

Susan Schoenberger is the author of the award-winning debut novel A Watershed Year. The Virtues of Oxygen is her second novel.

Before turning her attention to writing fiction, she worked as a journalist and copyeditor for many years, most recently at The Hartford Courant and The Baltimore Sun. She currently serves as the director of communications at Hartford Seminary and teaches writing classes at the Mark Twain House in Hartford.

She lives in West Hartford, Connecticut, with her husband and three children.


Books à la Mode is giving away
 one finished print copy of The Virtues of Oxygen—yay!! To enter, all you have to do is answer Susan's question:

I dream vividly almost every night, so writing can be a devious way of getting to tell people my dreams. How often do you dream?
Please make your comment MEANINGFUL. Comments solely consisting of stock responses or irrelevant fluff like "Thanks for the giveaway!" will not be considered for entry. Susan and I really want to hear from you guys! :)

Don't forget the entry eligibility terms and conditions!
Sponsored wholly by the tour publicist and publisher—a huge thank you to TLC Book Tours and Lake Union Publishing!
Giveaway ends August 11th at 11.59 PM (your time).
Open to US and Canada residents only—sorry, international readers! Check out my sidebar for a list of currently running giveaways that are open worldwide—there are plenty to choose from!
Void where prohibited.
Winners have 48 hours to claim their prize once they are chosen, or else their winnings will be forfeited.
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Good luck!