REVIEW: EVANSTON REVIEW, FEBRUARY 5, 2002
Love of writing took root at Washington School
BY KATHY ROUTLIFFE
It can be an unsettling thing, creating someone on paper only to discover that your feelings about them can change. Writer Terra Ziporyn knows that.
The Evanston native has seen it happen with the men and women in her first novel, “Time’s Fool.”
Take Josiah Morrow, for example. He’s not particularly likable. In fact, as the story makes quite plain, he is an unlearned country man of the 19th century, hypochondriacal and more than a bit lazy.
Or consider his son Galton, a well-regarded Boston doctor at the turn of the century, prim and self-righteous despite his origins in a bizarre breeding experiment at the very real Oneida colonies in upstate New York.
There are others. There’s the very real John Humphrey Noyes, who started that breeding experiment, painted as a complex mix of utopian purity and hypocritical lasciviousness. And there is the quite fictional Catherine Allen, who interferes with others lives in the name of religion and refuses to see the failings of Noyes, who she loves.
Those characters, both rooted in history books and given birth from Ziporyn’s imagination, have companions in the novel. All of them have faults, all of them are men and women who have themselves at least partly to blame for their troubles.
Yet all of them burn with a passion to advance humanity, to do good and to be better human beings.
And for Ziporyn, who now lives in Maryland with her husband and three children, that sometimes makes all the difference.
“I came to love all my characters,” Ziporyn said recently. “I hope that’s what I always do. However evil or obnoxious or reprehensible their actions might be, I think it’s my duty as a novelist to understand them.”
The story of Josiah and Galton, Catherine, John Noyes and the others with whom they interact is Ziporyn’s first published foray into fiction. But it isn’t her first published work.
She is a successful medical and science writer, with an impressive list of writing and editing accomplishments: a co-author of the Harvard Guide to Women’s Health; co-author of “Alternative Medicine for Dummies” and author of The Woman’s Concise Guide to a Healthier Heart; and former associate editor at the Journal of the American Medical Association.
She is also author of many medical and health articles for magazines as varied as Business Week, the Missouri Review, the Archives of Internal Medicine and JAMA.
Her love of writing goes back much farther than these adult efforts, to the days when she was a student at Washington School in Evanston.
“I always wanted to be a writer. As soon as I learned to read and write, I used to write short stories, as early as third grade.”
Her interest continued as she went to Evanston-Skokie School District 65’s first lab school, a move she jokes “may give you a glimmer of my interest in utopian societies.”
After graduating from junior high school, Ziporyn attended Evanston Township High School and became features editor of the Evanstonian. She was determined to become a writer. She just didn’t know how to go about it.
“I sort of got sidetracked, in the sense that I decided I didn’t have it in me to be the artist, and be a waitress while I followed my true endeavor.”
But she listened to the words of one of her teachers, who told her that even if she wasn’t sure of making an immediate living as a fiction writer, she could still follow her star.
“My teacher said any kind of writing you do makes the writing you care about better, at the very least because you learn to control words. I took that advice.”
After graduation in 1976, Ziporyn went to Yale University, still unsure of what she wanted to make her major. Once there, she was surprised to discover she was interested in science.
Even more important to her future, she discovered the field of science and medical writing, something she said changed her life.
She had reluctantly realized that one dream she’d had, of studying medicine, just wasn’t realistic. But medical writing was within her grasp.
“I said, ‘I can do that and, earn a living.’ My theory was I’d make a living as a nonfiction writer and some time be able to segue into the fiction.”
The time was right, because the craft of science and medical writing was undergoing a sea change.
“The idea back before then was that a lot of people were writing about science who didn’t know about it. They tended to be people who’d written obituaries and just moved up the ladder,” she said.
Toward her end, she studied for degrees in history and biology, and worked at Business Week as an intern between her junior and senior year.
Ziporyn graduated summa cum laude, then returned to Chicago for graduate school at the University of Chicago. She earned a doctorate in the history of science and medicine while conducting graduate level research in biopsychology.
Her doctoral dissertation was about the popularization of medicine at the turn of the last century, then called the progressive era. It was work that would ultimately find its way into “Time’s Fool.”
“I was always very interested in these people. They were visionaries, although they were a bit self-righteous. They still had some very important social movements that were innovative. They were the first to have public health organizations,” Ziporyn explained.
“They tried to help people control their own health, and tried to educate people about their own health.”
One of their greatest causes was the fight against diseases like syphilis, and her knowledge of that found its way into her novel.
Ziporyn won a series of writing fellowships, from groups like the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass.
Even as she made a name for herself in the medical and science writing field, she continued to work on her fiction. That continued through her move back to Boston in 1985, her marriage to James Snider in 1986, and a subsequent move to Vermont.
Vermont was the birthplace of Noyes’ first Oneida colony in the 1840s, and, she said, it probably brought forth her novel as well.
The history of Noyes and his colonies, which flourished for about 30 years after a rocky start in Vermont, is strange.
Members of the group worked under a system of that advocated shared property, shared parental duties, pleasurable work and free sexual relations between consulting adults.
Several years into life at the colonies, Noyes started a controlled breeding program, convinced that it would be a godly experiment into creating purer human beings. Those taking part had to agree to pre-approved sexual relations for pregnancy, a concept key to Ziporyn’s novel.
The other key concept is the progressive medicine movement in which she places Galton Morrow. Morrow is depicted as being obsessed both by his ancestry and filling in mysterious gaps in that, and by his efforts to force the issue of syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases into the open in a sexually repressed society.
Both seemed to dovetail for Ziporyn.
“I think this book really brought a lot of parts of my life together,” she said. “Vermont reminded me of things I’d picked up in my life.”
“For years I wondered what it would be like to be born out of someone else’s science experience. What effect would that have on their psyche, what would their life experience be?”
The efforts of medical reformers and colonists were similar, she said. Both wanted humans to be better and more spiritual. But the colonists, in particular, failed to take human nature into account and refused to realize that human selfishness has its place in the scheme of things.
As she looked at the divergent pieces of history, she realized she had her long-looked-for novel.
“For some reasons, some things just hit you in the gut. Then you realize they all have relevance to each other and you say, ‘Aha! This is a novel!’ ”.
She took notes and did research during the early 1990s, going to the site of the Oneida colonies, which broke up near the end of the 1870s. There are still descendants of colonists living in the area, which helped bring her research alive for her, she said.
She and her family moved back to Illinois in 1994. They looked for a home in Evanston, settled for one across the border in Wilmette, and Ziporyn began writing “Time’s Fool” in 1997.
She wrote it as entries from the diaries of several major characters, since journal writing was a major emotional outlet for people in the 19th century. And she interwove the concept of self-deception into the plot because it seemed to walk hand in hand with the problems of the Oneida communities and the fight for open discussion of sexual diseases.
Ziporyn, who is now working on a second novel, said she is pleased with the result, largely because of the richness of her material.
Noyes was a fascinating man with charisma and some credible theories, she said. He understood that communal child raising helps improve a community’s cooperation, and understood that individual property ownership cut down on it.
“And he understood that if women constantly have children they can’t improve themselves,” she said. “That was a big thing in the last century.”
“But he had a lack of understanding of emotional ties. What happened if you did have emotional ties, mutual desire and ambition and love?”
“He forgot we have other sides of us that give us incredible misery, but also incredible joy, too.”
“Time’s Fool” is published by Ex Libris Press. Copies are available at the Web site www.Xlibris.com (telephone 888-795-4274), amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com on the Internet. It also may be ordered through the “Books in Print” database available through many bookstores.