Up Close: Maxine Mei-Fung Chung
One Woman, Multiple Personas
By Dawn Ius
Maxine Mei-Fung Chung isn’t the first author to explore dissociative identity disorder—that particular mental health condition remains popular among thriller and suspense storytellers, both in book and movie formats. But for her debut, Chung wanted to do more than just entertain—she wanted to educate about the condition, and help dispel some of the myths surrounding it.
In THE EIGHTH GIRL, she introduces us to Alexa Wú—a deeply damaged but brilliant young woman whose complicated and chaotic life is manipulated by a series of alternate personalities. Much of the story is told through the narration of her sessions with her therapist, where we learn about each of her personalities in startling detail.
Although few people know of Alexa’s condition, her best friend Ella does—and it’s this relationship that eventually lures Alexa—and readers—on a dangerous journey that starts at a high-end gentleman’s club and will leave you wondering: Does the truth lead to self-discovery or self-destruction?
In the following Q&A with The Big Thrill, Chung shares insight into her publishing journey and explains how her experience as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist informed the characters in this staggering debut.
I loved THE EIGHTH GIRL—it was one of the few times the tag “electrifying and breathlessly compulsive” actually fit the reading experience. Please share a little about the inspiration for this novel.
Thank you! The idea came about as a result of my work and continued research into trauma-based clinical work. (I’m a psychoanalytic psychotherapist.) In my practice, I experience people who are living with DID (dissociative identity disorder) very differently to how they’ve been rendered in past entertainment culture, and I wanted to offer a different perspective that was both empathic and authentic in its portrayal.
I admit to having an unnatural fascination with identity disorders, but I actually learned a lot reading this book. Clearly your extensive background played an important role in creating such authenticity, but were there other resources you leaned on?
Thanks, it’s great to hear you learned a lot reading THE EIGHTH GIRL. That was one of my hopes when I started writing it. The novel itself isn’t based on any particular person. For many years I’ve been researching the devastating impact of early childhood trauma on one’s mental health and what we do in terms of survival mechanisms. I wanted to create a heroine, a young woman who, having survived traumatic life events, found herself the unwitting keeper of secrets with a desire for the greater good. I mainly leaned on my learning as a clinician but also on my conversations, research, and advocacy for women and girls who have survived trauma.
THE EIGHTH GIRL tackles some deep and topical issues—mental illness, misogyny, etc. Aside from a breathlessly compelling read, what do you want readers to take away from this novel?
I really hope it encourages people to pause and think, so there can be an ongoing conversation regarding mental illness. Fiction, I think, can be a powerful means for exploring mental health. All too often we can assume, because someone holds down a day job and has friends and interests, that they are coping and happy and stable. But as a clinician for close to 15 years, I’m still learning there are all manners of coping strategies and defense mechanisms to protect people from seeing what we’re really grappling with. We never fully know what a person is feeling, or sometimes struggling with, and I wanted to explore how we might be more attuned to people’s lives.
This is an ambitious debut—and thanks for taking the risk! Please share a little about your publishing journey.
Thank you so much. It’s been a terrific experience so far. I knew I had a story to tell so I set about pouring my heart into it and writing when I could, alongside working and raising a family. I was fortunate to secure an agent who really encouraged and believed in Alexa Wú’s story, and so began a journey of research, writing, and edits. I couldn’t be happier that William Morrow is publishing THE EIGHTH GIRL—it’s been a huge and satisfying learning curve!
I was fascinated by the storytelling structure. The psychiatrist-patient sessions are so raw and compelling—which to be honest, could have gone the other way if not for your skill. What were some of the challenges you faced when writing this book?
I guess one of the main challenges was to do justice to the therapeutic journey and relationship. Psychoanalysis is a two-way conversation. I wanted to challenge the stereotyped portrait of the remote, passive psychotherapist, and also create a story where we see and listen to the workings from both patient and psychiatrist. Often, and especially with a more classical approach, readers tend to just hear from the psychotherapist—but I wanted to create a story where we see and listen to the workings from both sides of the room. While writing THE EIGHTH GIRL I embarked on the idea of “lingering shock,” and having both Daniel and Alexa as unreliable narrators offered a great vehicle for this!
Unfortunately, you are debuting at a time of global crisis, which means your promotional efforts are somewhat stunted. How are you compensating for not being able to take part in events and signings that are often so critical in spreading the word?
It is unfortunate, particularly because like most authors, I experienced so much solitude when writing my novel and I was excited about the prospect of engaging with readers, booksellers, and event organizers—but I also realize THE EIGHTH GIRL will be in bookshops after we’ve all gotten through this awful crisis. I’ve been doing podcasts and interviews where possible, and also trying to be emphatic on social media about supporting not just my novel but other debut writers and indie bookstores.
Please share a little about what you’re working on next.
I’m currently working on my next novel, which centers around the life of an actress and asks questions about mother-daughter relationships and how early intimacies shape our physical and sexual self. It also has a good dose of lingering shock as well as psychology, and suspense.
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