Emily Culliton’s debut novel, The Misfortune of Marion Palm, relates the dark comedic tale of a Brooklyn Heights wife and mother who, after embezzling a small fortune from her daughters’ private school, decides to go on the run, leaving behind her children and her trust-fund writer husband Nathan, not to mention the life she used to know, with wildly unpredicted results.
It comes as no surprise that Culliton names dark comedy as one of her favorite literary genres. “I particularly enjoy the ones written by women,” Culliton said. “Muriel Sparks was a big influence on me. Especially after World War II, she wrote many dark comedies about the social system and how it broke down, doing it with not only dry humor but also in bizarrely structured ways. I enjoy a good mystery, so Agatha Christie is very important to me.”
Due to the nature of the story, which between wildly funny scenarios also interjects the more serious topic of two children abandoned by their mother and the consequences that follow Marion’s decision to leave them, I wanted to ask Emily Culliton what could be so fascinating about a mother who cuts loose from her family.
What was it about writing a story where a wife and mother goes rogue and on the run, that appealed to you?
I think it was the exploration of a fantasy. Giving up everything all your responsibilities and having the opportunity to become an entirely new person. Many of us might have this fantasy, but what happens afterwards? I’m not a mother or a wife, but I wanted to see what this character would do and how it would ripple out and affect the people around her.
The Misfortune of Marion Palm has been compared by some to Maria Semple’s novel, Where’d You Go Bernadette? Do you see the similarities between the two?
I read it after I finished writing my book because my agent suggested it. She said, “you should read this other ‘mom on the run’ book.” And I loved it. But I think she (Maria Semple) is up to something very different, because the mother (in her novel) is definitely nicer than mine! (laughs)
Marion’s motivations for doing what she does are at times unclear. Are her intentions to cut the cord completely with her family or just to experience a different life for a while?
When I wrote it, I was exploring the angle that this is a woman who ultimately believes she’s going to be caught, that she’ll have to pay for what she’s done and that her family will too. At the end of the day, Marion believes she is someone who shouldn’t be around her daughters and that she will be as terrible as her own mother was.
I wrote Marion as a not very sentimental character to begin with, and I think she would be a “rip the band-aid off” kind of person. She’s panicking too, she knows that the school is about to be audited and she must make a series of decisions very quickly. They may not be the best decisions, but she commits to them.
Would you say she cares about her daughters even though she leaves them behind?
I think she does. I believe she cares about the women they’re going to become and how they’re going to be treated in the world. I think in some ways she knows that they’re more Nathan’s kids than hers. That they’ll fit into Brooklyn in ways that she never did and have opportunities that were not available to her. The ways that she cares for them are not the ways we expect mothers to care for their children. In truth Marion never wanted to be a mom, but then she became one. Now, she’s looking forward to this new part of her life as well.
How difficult was it to balance the humor in the novel with the more serious issues like abandonment and embezzlement?
In many ways, it was a pleasure to write Marion because she doesn’t dwell on what she’s done. I could be lighter there and look at the humor of the situation. Also, with Nathan I could play around, but then when I got to the kids I thought, ‘well something bad has happened to them, they just suffered a trauma.’ Trying to write how they would react to their mother’s disappearance and not getting bogged down in those scenes, trying to keep it active was challenging. But I had to admit that they would react strongly to their mother going away.
Were you concerned that readers wouldn’t connect with Marion? She’s not a very sympathetic character.
I try not to think about that (laughs). I mostly wanted to make sure that with the decisions she makes, the reader also follows along with her. Maybe I was hoping that the thrill of it would be compelling, going off on your own and leaving behind the person that you once were.
Is Marion running from something else besides the authorities? Maybe escaping a life she doesn’t want?
Oh absolutely! She’s actually proud of the way she embezzles, how smart and crafty she is and she wants recognition for that. So, she’s also running towards what she could be if someone just gave her the chance.
Marion doesn’t really seem to be that much in love with her husband, or he in love with her for that matter.
I think he loves her at the beginning. She does make his life better (laughs). His life definitely becomes more meaningful to him when she’s there, but I don’t know if he quite understands what he loves about her. I don’t think Marion is concerned about Nathan that much.
The ending is quite a surprising one. Was that the one you visualized from the start?
I had no idea where it would all end up. I think part of it was the structure, how all these things were unfolding and how the story would step forward. The final note at the end was my editor’s idea. The original ending was the scene before that, and my editor told me, ‘you need something more here.’ I did feel that Marion’s daughters are the heroes of this story. Both Marion and Nathan are so wrapped up in their own minds that they don’t realize they have these two girls who by and large are surviving.
Can we expect a new novel from you soon?
I’m working on it as we speak! It’s a bit early to reveal much, but it’s about another woman behaving badly. That’s all I can say right now.