Culture

On Writing, Marriage, and Writing About Marriage in Fiction

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Editor's Note:

Michelle Richmond is the bestselling author of The Year of Fog, No One You Know, Dream of the Blue Room, Golden State, and the award-winning The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. Her latest psychological thriller is The Marriage Pact. Here, Michelle discusses the joys and challenges of modern marriage, and how she devised the plot for her newest novel.

The first great novel I read about marriage was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I was an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, dreaming of becoming a writer. Yates, who was the university’s visiting writer at the time, lived in a tiny duplex down the street from my friend Caroline’s apartment. I’d often see him driving his beat-up hatchback, and I’d sometimes serve him and other writing professors at Storyville, the restaurant where I waited tables. He was thin and stooped, and seemed to always be coughing into a napkin. That image of the author, who still suffered from the effects of the tuberculosis that plagued him as a young man, will forever be linked in my mind with the image of the tortured marriage between Frank and April Wheeler that forms the heart of Revolutionary Road. Yates’s novel presents a bleak and devastating view of marriage, in which escape is impossible. Frank works long hours to achieve the trappings of success; April yearns for a life of more passion and meaning. Over time, their disappointments become poisonous. Having grown up in a household with two loving parents whose constant marital strife nonetheless made home life somewhat stressful, I found the story utterly absorbing and all too true.

I’d like to think that marriage has evolved a great deal in the decades since Yates introduced April Wheeler. I have now been married for sixteen years. Early in MY marriage, after we’d had a big argument (I can’t for the life of me remember what we’d fought about), my husband said to me, “Marriage should be a refuge. Work is hard. Life, sometimes, is hard. Marriage shouldn’t be. Marriage should be where we both come to relax.”

I took his words to heart, and they have been the defining principle of our marriage: we strive to be a refuge for each other. That is not to say that my husband and I never fight (obviously) or that we haven’t had our struggles. But through it all, I have always thought of my husband and my marriage as my safe place, our refuge.

When I began writing The Marriage Pact, I knew that I wanted to write a suspenseful novel that delved deep inside a modern marriage. But there were so many novels about marriage. How could I write a domestic thriller, but make it completely different from anything I’d read?

I decided early on that this would not be a novel of husband against wife. Rather, it would be a novel of husband and wife together, pitted against something bigger and infinitely more powerful than themselves. I wanted to write about two people who love one another immensely, and who will do anything to protect that love. And although there would be deception, lies between husband and wife would not be the driving force. Instead, Alice and Jake’s love and commitment is tested – and tested severely – by an outside entity: The Pact, a secretive, exclusive organization whose mission is “to help people have a happy, lasting marriage.”

Like the founder of The Pact, I think that marriage can help individuals be better versions of themselves. Do some married couples tear one another apart? Sadly, yes. Is balance impossible for some couples? It is. But as an adult, I have more often witnessed marriages in which both parties are at least trying to do the right thing, and in which each spouse strives to support the other. I decided to explore that kind of marriage, with all its joys and challenges.

Although more than half a century has passed since the publication of Revolutionary Road, many novels about marriage still feature heroines much like April: a woman who is primarily confined to the domestic sphere, wishing for a bigger and more passionate life, wondering what her husband is up to, while the husband toils long hours, lies to his wife, and often fails to understand her desires. While many marriages, of course, fit that model today – after all, Revolutionary Road has stood the test of time in no small part because of its universality – I believe the modern marriage has room for a great deal of variation. In The Marriage Pact, I wanted to flip the familiar narrative on its head by portraying a wife who works long hours and loves her job, and a husband who feels more invested in the marriage than his wife – all of it told from the husband’s point of view.

For all their differences, my character Alice and April Wheeler share one dangerous misconception. “I still had this idea that there was a whole world of marvelous golden people somewhere,” April Wheeler says, “people who knew everything instinctively, who made their lives work out the way they wanted without even trying…Sort of heroic super-people, all of them beautiful and witty and calm and kind, and I always imagined that when I did find them I’d suddenly know that I belonged among them, that I was one of them, that I’d been meant to be one of them all along.” When Alice and Jake are invited into The Pact, they think they have found the golden people, a group so perfect, so “witty and calm and kind,” so at ease in their skin, that they can help the newlyweds have the perfect marriage. But Jake and Alice learn, as Fred and April did, that perfection comes at an enormous cost.