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The Difficulty of Writing a Difficult Woman

Terrible-VirtueEllen Feldman's latest novel, Terrible Virtue, takes on an enormously complex and polarzing subject: Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. Here Feldman discusses the pitfalls inherent in writing a novel centered on such a challenging character--a project she abandoned three times over ten years, only to be drawn back by "the near impossibility of the endeavor."

Terrible Virtue is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of March in Literature & Fiction.


The Difficulty of Writing a Difficult Woman

Books are writers' children. Asked which is our favorite, we scrupulously reply, I love them all. Asked which gave us the most difficulty, we say each had its challenges and rewards. But I'm going to break with custom here. Of the several novels I've published, Terrible Virtue, based on the life of Margaret Sanger, was the hardest to write. It also had the longest gestation period, ten years from first inspiration and early research to publication.

I gave up in despair and abandoned the book once, a twice, a third time. I could not bring Margaret Sanger to life on the page, but Margaret Sanger would not let me go.

The day I tossed it out for the first time, or at least put it in the dormant file, I ran into a friend. When he asked how I was, I confessed that I had just given up on more than two years of work. He was so appalled that he told the story at a dinner party that evening, and for several weeks I got calls and e-mails of condolence. They were kind, but they didn't make me feel any less a failure or a traitor. I was deserting a friend I had lived with, intensely and intimately, for two years. After writing another novel in the interim, I tried again. A year later, I put the novel aside a second time. Would I never learn, I chastised myself, and once again turned my hand to another book. The third time I returned to the idea and again failed, I was furious at myself for throwing good months and years after bad. Why couldn't I relinquish this obsession, which clearly was ill-conceived?

The answer to why I couldn't give up the book is the same as the answer to why I was having so much trouble writing it – Margaret Sanger, her singular genius, her towering achievements, and her maddening contradictions. How do you bring to life a woman who was at once selfish and altruistic; loyal and ruthless; arrogant and insecure; devoted to improving the lot of all women and fiercely competitive with other women; determined to expose society's hypocrisies and a maker of her own myths; a breaker of sexual taboos who somehow managed to maintain a spotless public persona; a woman who married twice, but didn't believe in marriage, and had countless affairs to prove it; a mother who loved her children but was hopeless at caring for them, and endured the worst heartbreak a parent can know?

It would have been demanding enough to capture this charismatic larger-than-life character in a biography; it was daunting to try to penetrate her mind and heart, which any successful novel must do. But the near impossibility of the endeavor is what attracted me in the first place. As a young woman, I had admired Margaret Sanger and her triumphs, but the more I read about her, the more her incongruities confounded me, and the more determined I became to try to figure out what made this towering figure tick. For that only fiction will do. And in fiction, perhaps more than in any other literary form, what we leave out is as important as – perhaps more important than – what we put in.

Therein lay the key to writing Margaret Sanger. I had been adhering too closely, not to the facts – I was determined to stick to those, and I have – but to the minutia of Sanger's life. I was sacrificing the essence of the woman to the details of her existence. I was losing the magic of the individual to the particulars of her struggles, strategies, marriages, affairs, and encounters with her children. I had become a bore on the subject of Margaret Sanger rather than a novelist bringing to life her indomitable spirit. When I realized that, when I took a step back to see Margaret Sanger whole, she began to come alive in my imagination and on the page.

I have lived with Margaret Sanger for a decade. Even when I was writing about other characters and times and places, she occupied a corner of my mind. I can't say she is always sympathetic, but I can say she is superb company – exhilarating, inspiring, passionate, brilliant, capable of great love and petty hate, canny about her cause but often blind about her personal life, and always deeply human. She is, in the end, the woman who not only wrought a major social revolution but, more than any other single person, fashioned the sexual landscape we inhabit today.

And here's a footnote to the story behind the book. While I was doing the research for Terrible Virtue, I had a recurrent surreal sensation. The contemporary headlines I was reading with my morning coffee were uncannily similar to those of a century ago that I was unearthing in libraries and archives. The experience made me realize that from her opening of the first, then illegal, birth control clinic in America in 1916 through her founding of Planned Parenthood to her role in helping develop the Pill in the 1960s, Sanger's story is alive with yesterday's struggles and as timely as today's headlines.

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