Interview with 2019 Cheuse Center Grant Recipient Melissa Wade

Interview with 2019 Cheuse Center Grant Recipient Melissa Wade

Melissa Wade is a fiction writer in George Mason University's Creative Writing MFA program. Currently, beyond tutoring at the GMU Writing Center, Melissa runs her own photography company and writes narrative nonfiction and short stories. She hopes to use photography in her proposed novel, which centers on the travels of two brothers, one who is seeking to end his life with the support of a death-with-dignity organization in Switzerland. 


What have you been up to?

Since I’ve been back, I’ve been transcribing interviews. I have over three hours of recorded conversation and as I listen to that time with the leaders of Switzerland’s physician-assisted suicide organization LifeCircle, I am struck by how much I loved interviewing. I was nervous about it, having never really done a “professional” interview before, but I relished it in the moment and came back feeling like I want to do more and more interviews. I have even looked into some contacts I can make with Right-to-Die organization leaders here and have set up a few phone interviews with leaders in Great Britain and Australia. The challenging part in writing about the intriguing people I met on my travels is to capture them fully in words, but I am trying to do that in my nonfiction piece. And also, of course, in the novel, in a fictionalized way. I met most of these amazing people in Switzerland, but a few as well in France. I started my trip in Paris, then I traveled to Lourdes to visit Our Lady of Lourdes Sanctuary and its famous healing waters, and I ended my time in France in Provence, visiting the Abbey of Senanque and experiencing the food culture of Southern France (my main character is a retired chef). From there, I traveled to Basel and Berne in Switzerland, where I met with doctors, organization leaders, and volunteers of LifeCricle. Then, I spent a day each in Montreux, Spiez, and Lucerne to soak up a bit more of Switzerland’s beauty and culture, and then to Zurich to end my research and travels there.

What did you hope to learn by the end of your trip? Was it what you expected?

From my time in France, I hoped to learn how travelers interact with religious sites. From Switzerland, I hoped to learn about three layers of their assisted suicide practices—that which occurs between doctor and client and that which occurs between doctor and law, as well as how the Swiss people feel about suicide tourism. As for what I expected out of my travels to pilgrimage sites and churches in France, I think I overplayed the drama of these spaces in my mind before visiting. I imagined the places full of emotion and need, which was there in Lourdes, but most of the other sites seemed valued more as museums of religion rather than faith-filled locations. The tourist culture seemed to magnify this feeling—with an emphasis on tours and pictures and souvenirs from famous cathedrals and sanctuaries. I even went to stand outside of Notre Dame in Paris, which was under heavy construction because of the recent fires. Despite the five-foot fence around the property, tourists still insisted on selfies with the part of the structure you could still see in the background. The act seemed to say “I was here” but without actually seeing the building in question. Even in Lourdes, because of the thousands of tourists that visit the healing site yearly, the sanctuary is run like a museum, with its plexiglass walls around the grotto, locker-room-like partitions for bathers, and numerous walls and ropes to facilitate lines. This all intrigued me, for these churches were built to please the eye, to amaze in their beauty, but also to inspire spirituality. I didn’t expect to dig into tourist culture as much as I did, but then I realized the value in that, since the main characters in my novel are tourists, taking a last journey through France so that one can participate in suicide tourism in Switzerland. The tourism angle is all through that, and the complicated layers of tourism, especially in religious places, has raised questions in my writing that I hope will interest readers.

As for Switzerland, I came back wishing I had spend more time there and less time in France. I enjoyed talking with the leaders of LifeCircle and the people, and I was in awe of how much those interactions flavored the supporting characters in my novel. I expected to get an inside look into assisted suicide in Switzerland, and I did, but I didn’t expect to be inspired so much by the people I met on the sidelines. For example, when I visited the town of Spiez, where I stayed a night in the historic servant house connected with the Spiez castle, I gained so much detail about the culture of Switzerland from my hosts that building the world around LifeCircle’s death room took on new meaning and depth. Originally, I thought of Switzerland as this end to my characters’ journey, but after my travels, Switzerland became a turning point. I discovered that the leaders of LifeCircle care so much for their clients emotional well-being before their deaths that sometimes they suggest they make good with family members, spend more time with their loved ones, find a little more joy out of life before their death date, so clients will end up postponing their scheduled deaths in the willingness to do that—to make the most out of the life they have left. And that fit the structure of my novel perfectly.

Were there any surprises on your trip? What's something unexpected that you came across during your research abroad?

I would say the biggest surprise was the research that developed on tourism through my travels. Even though I had an idea of how overrun these popular destinations might be with travelers, I was still surprised by some tourist behavior. I couldn't help but feel naive in that, as if I should have known about the hoards pouring in to see the Eiffel Tour even in 90 degree heat, and the families stopping to take group pictures within the mass grave that is the Parisian catacombs and the lack of line etiquette at 4pm outside the Louvre and the disregard for the "no pictures" sign inside the cathedrals. I should have known, but I was still taken aback. For myself, I had made it a goal to be a traveler not a tourist of these countries, and I had only planned one day to tackle the “touristy sites” of Paris, but out of that one day came a major theme of my investigation, one that impacted many scenes in my novel. Another unexpected discovery came through the legal battles fought by one of my interviewees, the former president of LifeCircle, Erika Preisig. I came to Switzerland only a week after her court trial, one in which she was found guilty and fined for malpractice in administering the drug in physician-assisted suicide. The trial was prompted because the state deemed it unacceptable that LifeCircle had assisted the death of a woman with a history of mental illness. I knew this going into Switzerland, but I thought that Ms. Preisig’s case was pushed forward by grieved family members, but learned through my interview that many government officials do not support assisted voluntary death, even though polls say that the Swiss people do, and so the state has been aggressive in seeking ways to prosecute right-to-die organizations. I hadn’t expected to learn so much about the setbacks LifeCircle has faced in terms of legal battles, since Switzerland is one of the most progression countries on the issue.

What's something interesting you've discovered about the medical culture in Zurich, and how will this effect your novel?

Many of the right-to-die doctors in Switzerland, I learned, do not like suicide tourism—that is the allowance of foreigners to come to Switzerland for physician-assisted suicide—not because they are against helping these people, but because they believe that it puts a bandaid on a bullet wound. Many believe that other countries need to develop their own rights surrounding physician-assisted suicide, so that their people can have peaceful deaths at home, rather than face harrowing travel and die on foreign soil. This is the reason that LifeCircle attempts to speak out on the issue as much as they do, as opposed to Dignitas in Zurich, an organization that seems to value their privacy around the issue more than its development elsewhere. I think the complications and controversies around assisted voluntary death in Switzerland add interesting setting conflicts in my novel, ones that reflect the conflict between my two brothers—one of whom values his right to die when he wants and how he wants and the other who is wary of “suicide” at the mercy of strangers abroad.

How has your trip impacted the way you think about what you are writing about? What has influenced your work the most?

I was so lucky to take this journey, because I got the chance to live what my characters do in the novel. I tried to travel as they might on a final journey, seeking connection and possible peace and fulfillment. I discovered that travel doesn’t easily birth these things. I witnessed how such selfish tourism doesn’t always have a positive affect on a site, how it can become a screen between place and people, a veil that prompts superficial interaction. Beyond that, I got to act out a meeting with the doctors of LifeCircle, hear what they would say to an American client seeking assisted suicide, see the room in which the death would take place, and develop an understanding of the therapy that happens before any deadly medicine is prescribed. The empathy shown by those from LifeCircle will impact my work the most. Like I said, it became a turning point in my novel. The way they understand death as a part of life, as a step in someone’s journey, seems to make their clients feel like valued humans with life stories, rather than just bodies to treat until the hearts fail to pump. They shared many stories in which they acted as life coaches, helping clients connect with their family members before death, helping them take care of regrets and last wishes, helping them come to terms with their own feelings and thoughts on their exit. End of life care, Erika said, is not about ending pain but ending suffering, which is more emotional and mental than its counterpart. I think that is what my novel has become, a story about suffering that can’t be healed by chemicals, one that comes to the surface even more noticeably when two brothers move about on foreign soil.