BookTrib Spotlight: Stephanie Wrobel

A Mother/Daughter Dance of Psychological Warfare

By Neil Nyren

“My daughter didn’t have to testify against me. She chose to.

“It’s Rose Gold’s fault I went to prison, but she’s not the only one to blame. If we’re pointing fingers, mine are aimed at the prosecutor and his overactive imagination, the gullible jury, and the bloodthirsty reporters.”

These first lines of Stephanie Wrobel’s DARLING ROSE GOLD are spoken by Patty Watts, 58, who’s just gotten out of prison after serving five years. For 18 years, her daughter Rose Gold had gotten sicker and sicker. She needed a feeding tube, her hair fell out, she could get around only in a wheelchair. The doctors were baffled; the neighbors held fundraisers.

It turns out Patty was poisoning her. The courts and medical authorities called it Munchausen syndrome by proxy, but nobody got it. Patty insisted she was doing it all for Rose Gold: “They don’t understand how much she needs me, how lucky she is to have me here.”

And now Patty is out, and with the glow of someone who has been vindicated, because Rose Gold has taken her back. Would she have done that if Patty was such a monster?

Rose Gold is 23 now and, yes, she’s learned to drive and bought a house and has a job, but it can be like old times: “This time, dear girl, I promise not to let you go.”

And she has a baby! Babies need a lot of care….

However, this is not the Rose Gold she left behind. She is no longer weak, and she has had five years to think about this day. She has waited such a long time for her mother to come home.

What follows is an astonishing story told through alternating viewpoints, a delicate—and sometimes not so delicate—mother/daughter dance of psychological warfare. Each woman has tricks up her sleeve, grievances to avenge, plans to execute. Each is playing the long game. But for one of them, that time is much shorter than she thinks.

Twisty, dark, compulsively readable, DARLING ROSE GOLD will keep you guessing—and gasping.

Stephanie Wrobel

Author Stephanie Wrobel says, “I first learned about Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP) from my best friend. She’s an elementary school psychologist in Colorado and has experience with the syndrome through her work. When she explained the illness to me, I was fascinated. I went down a research rabbit hole and discovered that the motivation behind MSBP is a need for attention or love from doctors and nurses. That’s a much more complicated incentive to wrap your head around than someone faking an illness for material benefits (e.g. money, avoiding court appearances, etc.). I thought getting inside the mind of someone like Patty would be a meaty challenge. Although Rose Gold is the eponymous character, Patty was the draw for me.

“I read a lot of books and news articles. The most helpful texts were Julie Gregory’s Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood—one image from the book that has haunted me since is her mother telling her that matches were lollipops so she’d suck on them in the car, not realizing they were making her sick—Michelle Dean’s Buzzfeed article covering the story of Dee Dee and Gypsy Blanchard; and Marc Feldman’s Playing Sick?: Untangling the Web of Munchausen Syndrome, Munchausen by Proxy, Malingering, and Factitious Disorder. I used these texts to create Rose Gold’s medical history. Digestive issues, allergies, and severe headaches are all common symptoms for victims of MSBP…stuff like tooth decay, how to fool doctors, the consequences of putting various substances in your bloodstream, etc. Not for the faint of heart!

“The most startling thing I learned is that perpetrators are most commonly mothers of children under the age of six. The age of the children didn’t surprise me—it’s easier to trick a young child—but the fact that it’s mothers committing the abuse did. These women are extremely attentive and eager to care for their children, yet they’re also the ones making the children sick. It’s hard for a healthy mind to square those two facts.

“In my opinion, one of the great mysteries of the disorder is whether and to what extent perpetrators realize they’re causing harm. From my research I learned that many people with MSBP are such accomplished liars that some have trouble telling fact from fiction. On the other hand, if you’re taking the physical steps necessary to doctor test results or poison a child’s food, how can you claim to be completely unaware? Since it’s rare for perpetrators to admit to any wrongdoing, many doctors apparently consider MSBP incurable. Patients who are able to assume responsibility for their behavior have a much better prognosis for recovery.

“Two of the most instructive novels for DRG are also two of my all-time favorites: We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. I wanted this book to fall somewhere in between: part sobering analysis of a mother/child relationship gone wrong, part unhinged horror.

Neil Nyren

“Getting Rose Gold’s development and voice right was the hardest part. In some drafts, she was too tough in the opening chapters. In others, she was still too much of a pushover halfway through the book. It also took me a while to understand that I had to leave behind much of my own knowledge—pop culture, colloquialisms, social etiquette—because Rose Gold grew up in a captive, sheltered setting. I had to imagine what it would be like not to recognize any faces on the covers of magazines, to not pick up on a coworker’s sarcasm or understand when a friend was avoiding you. The world would feel entirely alien because you never really belonged in it.”

The writing was helped immensely by two elements of Wrobel’s professional life. First was her background as an advertising copywriter: “Those jobs taught me a ton about writing, but I’ll highlight three things specifically: first, I learned how to come up with a lot of ideas quickly, so as not to get overly obsessive about writer’s block or ‘the muse.’ Second, I learned the art of concision—a lot of billboard copy doesn’t allow for more than six words! And, perhaps most importantly, I learned the art of rejection. Creative directors are not nearly as sympathetic to artistic sensitivities as book editors are. My advertising days got me used to having my ideas literally ripped off the wall, which has helped me develop a thicker skin when it comes to being edited.”

Second was the MFA program she joined at Emerson College: “I set a few goals before I began. The first, and by far most important, was to finish a submission-ready novel by the time I completed the degree. I started working on the opening chapters of DRG my second year of school during fall and spring workshops. My thesis advisor then worked with me all summer and fall of 2018 to hone the manuscript for my thesis project. In November I sent it out to agents. The program saw my novel through from beginning to end.

“Before the MFA, I had no access to published writers, which meant no qualified feedback, and if I’m being honest, I didn’t take my writing seriously either. Making a career as a novelist just seemed like such a long shot, and I had a job and bills to pay. The MFA expedited the craft improvements I would’ve made—slowly! painstakingly!—on my own. For people like me who thrive in structured environments, the program gives you two years to learn everything you can about writing in a systematic way.

“Really, I did nothing but write and read for that period of time, and I loved every minute of it.”

Following that, “I’m lucky to report that my publishing process was pretty smooth. I had assembled a list of relevant agents to reach out to by fall 2018. In mid-November I began submitting the novel via the good old query process. I signed with my agent, Madeleine Milburn, about a month later. We made a few changes to the manuscript, and then she took the novel on submission the last day of February. Ten days later, we committed to US and UK publishing deals! I had mentally prepared for the agent/book deal process to take a very long time, so I was shocked it went the way it did.”

Shocked, too, that the deals were for two books. “I knew my agent was pursuing two-book deals, but I had no idea whether this would come to fruition. I learned about the US, UK, and Canada deals all at the same time on March 8, a day I will certainly never forget as long as I live. I am still having a hard time wrapping my head around it.”

Not such a hard time, however, that she hasn’t been deep at work on that second novel. When reached last October, the first draft was finished and she was elbow-deep in revisions: “It’s the story of a guilt-stricken woman trying to pull her wayward sister out of a wellness center called Wisewood, located on an island off the coast of Maine, whose inhabitants are exhibiting some cult-like behavior. It’s a psychological thriller from three points of view: the leader, a member, and a concerned relative, all of whom will do what is necessary to get what they want.”

Stephanie Wrobel already knows what readers will want, and she delivers spectacularly in DARLING ROSE GOLD.

*****

Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as the executive VP, associate publisher and editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. He is the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among his authors of crime and suspense were Clive Cussler, Ken Follett, C. J. Box, John Sandford, Robert Crais, Jack Higgins, W. E. B. Griffin, Frederick Forsyth, Randy Wayne White, Alex Berenson, Ace Atkins, and Carol O’Connell. He also worked with such writers as Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva, Martha Grimes, Ed McBain, Carl Hiaasen, and Jonathan Kellerman.

He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com, and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.

 

This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet:

 

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