There’s A Lot About Illness

"I don’t know, I hate the word theme. A lot of my characters are nutritionists, or have weird fanatical ideas about health and nutrition—you know, that people shouldn’t drink water with fluoride in it, or people shouldn’t be eating wheat or soy. There are a lot of characters who are interested in health and what Americans shouldn’t be doing, and who are kind of crazy and fanatical about it."

An Interview with Rebecca Curtis

Rebecca Curtis’s short story “Fish Rot,” about a mysterious disease sweeping the East Coast, appears in Issue Seventeen. In advance of Curtis’s reading from the story at KGB Bar on Tuesday, September 10, Emily Gould talked to Curtis about her writing and being a patient and health coach.

Emily Gould: You’ve been writing about similar themes and characters lately. Do we have a “Fish Rot” novel to look forward to?

Rebecca Curtis: I don’t think so.

EG: Really?

RC: I think that the stories I’m writing definitely have overlapping themes, and I’m using some things that overlap. I’ve noticed I’ve been using Pegasus University in a few different places. But to me they’re still stories. Unless some publisher says, actually it’s a novel, and they’re gonna market it that way, and it means better money.

EG: Well, what do you think a novel is?

RC: I’m a little old-fashioned. I think of it as something with chapters that are linear and we’re following a group of characters and there’s, you know, a dramatic arc that looks like a triangle.

EG: But the same themes keep coming up in your stories . . .

RC: I don’t know, I hate the word theme. A lot of my characters are nutritionists, or have weird fanatical ideas about health and nutrition—you know, that people shouldn’t drink water with fluoride in it, or people shouldn’t be eating wheat or soy. There are a lot of characters who are interested in health and what Americans shouldn’t be doing, and who are kind of crazy and fanatical about it.

EG: But if you had to name one overarching theme, what would that be?

RC: Well there’s a lot about illness. There’s a lot about people who have Lyme Disease, and then on the flip side people who are interested in underlying causes of illness in America. So, illness and health.

EG: Have you written or started to write about health and illness in nonfiction at all?

RC: Well, I wrote a nonfiction essay for Harper’s, in their sleep forum [August 2013]. They asked me to, and I don’t usually write nonfiction but I saw an opportunity to make a little money, and I also thought, hey, this could drum up some business for me as a nutritionist because a lot of my clients have trouble sleeping. It’s not one of the main things I do. Mostly people come to me because they have thyroid problems, or fertility issues, or they’re just really exhausted, or they’re very overweight—more serious things—but a lot of them also have difficulty sleeping. So I talked about that and about my own sleep. That wasn’t really talking about illness, but I talked a little bit about the connection between psychological issues and physical issues, which I think is interesting.

EG: Did you get business from it?

RC: Not yet. But a lot of my current clients wrote me emails, and were like, We read your article in Harper’s! We loved it! One of my clients was like, My husband and I read it out loud together—she’s a client who has a new baby, a fertility client—so that was really sweet. Actually I was kind of embarrassed, because I wrote very forthcoming personal things in the essay, and I don’t necessarily want my health coaching/nutrition clients to know embarrassing personal things about me, so I was kind of like, Oh, this is awkward, I’m someone who tells you what to eat, and what herbs will help support your adrenals, and now you know I sleep with my favorite blanket—I don’t actually, but that was in the essay just for fun. So, yeah, I got a good response from my current clients.

EG: What about the flip side? Do you have any clients who’ve read your recent fiction? What is their reaction to it?

RC: I don’t think any of my clients have read the n+1 story and I doubt any of them would, just because my clients are mostly middle-aged, most of them work corporate jobs. They’re very busy, they have kids, or little free time. I did have one client whose sister was a writer but she hadn’t read my book. So, so far it’s been two kind of separate spheres.

EG: Will that change with the publication of your story that’s forthcoming in Harper’s, which has some tonal and thematic similarities to “Fish Rot,” do you think?

RC: I know for sure that I have two clients that read Harper’s. So, yeah, it’s possible that some clients may see the Harper’s story and be curious, like, Oh, that’s my health coach, and then read the story. It’s fine, I’m not a very closed person, and I think most people understand that fiction is fiction, and that a narrator is not the author.

EG: Right, I think most everyone understands that.

(both laugh)

EG: Becky, I have to ask, because we’re doing this interview. Do you eat wheat or soy, or drink fluoridated tap water?

RC: No, not at all.

EG: Why not?

RC: Because my body hates them! And when I eat them, they make me sick.

You know, I got Lyme Disease in 2007, around there, and I was really sick for two years. And it was awful. I would do anything to never experience that again and to always have decent energy. I want to be able to go for a run in the park and feel good and think sufficiently and well. And not have to deal with being sick. I mean, I don’t even miss wheat, how it tastes, anymore. And I realized that there are some things we think we like that we don’t actually like, that we teach ourselves to like. If I want carbohydrates, I can use, like spelt or sprouted spelt—there are so many substitutes.

EG: What about when you are traveling or what about when you have to go on tour for your book?

RC: (laughs) I don’t think I’ll have to. But you know, I travel from time to time. When I went to Morocco for six weeks, I think I mailed myself some sprouted spelt flour, coconut palm sugar, I brought some sprouted tortillas with me in my luggage. So I did bring some stuff with me but it was stuff they wouldn’t have.

EG: You mentioned that you have more energy and you feel better. Is your writing better?

RC: I don’t know. That’s for other people to say.

EG: I mean, does it feel better?

RC: You mean, better than before I got Lyme Disease? Or then when I had it?

EG: Well, both.

RC: I think so. I’ve become more clear-headed since not eating wheat and sort of figuring out what my body likes, and that shows in my writing, but my writing’s also gotten a little weirder too, so . . . (laughs)

EG: I was going to ask you about Lyme Disease in general. There’s obviously just more Lyme disease than there used to be but there’s also increased awareness of it, it seems lately. Why is that? What is “chronic Lyme”?

RC: People do refer to chronic Lyme. And it’s sort of similar in some ways to the idea of chronic fatigue syndrome. I mean, to me, chronic Lyme just means your body is not able to wipe out the bacteria. And so you’re continuing to suffer from the disease.

A lot of people might never get Lyme Disease because their body just wipes it out right away. And then some people might get bitten by a tick and get Lyme Disease but they’re easily able to wipe it out with like a month of oral antibiotics.

EG: So you think you got it so badly because you were already sort of compromised?

RC: Yeah. I think I didn’t know it, I felt fine, but my immune system was down. And there’s a lot of reasons for why that was. There’s always many factors. I changed a lot of things in my life. Part of it was diet. So, yeah, I don’t think most people really need to worry about Lyme and I think chronic Lyme definitely exists. People need really good doctors.

EG: Just what everyone has. Amazing doctors. Oh, and great health insurance.

RC: Right, it’s terrible, because usually the best doctors are always out of network. They’re really expensive, almost always.

EG: So how did you not go completely broke?

RC: I did! Well, you know, I actually had good insurance. I was teaching full-time at Columbia when I got Lyme. And I had the PPO, so you can go to an out-of-network doctor.

EG: Oh wow.

RC: I was lucky to have good insurance that covered a lot more than most insurances. But I did use up a lot of savings because there are other costs, like naturopathic doctors, nutritionists, supplements—you know, supplements are never covered.

EG: If this happened to me I would have to move in with my parents.

RC: Well you would be smart and you would take oral antibiotics right away and because you’re healthy, your body would kill it really fast.

EG: I would like to think so.

RC: Yes, it would be fine. You would knock it out really fast.

EG: What’s being a health coach like? You have to be professionally empathetic. Did you have to cultivate that?

RC: I think I did. I’m not by nature a very empathetic person. I think that’s actually why I can be a health coach. Because many of my clients have real horrible problems. You know, I have some clients who are a hundred pounds overweight, and just got left by a husband who cheated on them for thirty years, and they have a pituitary tumor and a goiter and enormous baby-sized benign tumors in their uterus. So, you know, their whole life is disaster. I have other clients left by husbands, with jobs they hate or with no job, and their whole life is miserable.

I’m just sort of like, And how are your bowel movements? How many a day? I’m a little cold. I think it’s actually helpful that I’m not an empathic person because it wouldn’t help if I started sobbing, you know, thinking about how bad their life is.

EG: A goiter, oh my god.

RC: Well, if you replenish iodine levels and eliminate fluoride from your water, then you don’t have to worry about goiters.

EG: If there’s only fluoridated water, and you’re thirsty, should you drink fluoridated water or go thirsty?

RC: Yes. I’ve done it. I mean, I just drank a Diet Coke.

EG: What’s your first thing that you do for people who are trying to lose weight?

RC: I do individual food testing to figure out what foods their body likes and doesn’t like. It’s different for everybody. I had a guy come to me who had tried the paleo diet, and he doesn’t need to lose weight, he’s skinny, but he was trying to get healthy. And his cholesterol went from like the high end of normal, I think it was like 180, and he did the paleo diet for six months and it went to 280. He had eliminated all grains and he eliminated all legumes—

EG: And he was just eating meat dipped in cheese?

RC: He wasn’t though. I mean, he wasn’t eating tons and tons of butter and tons of bacon and tons of beef, but he would eat some beef. He was eating beef and pork on a fairly regular basis and he had eliminated grains and legumes. So he’s an unusual example because I saw him today and I was like, yeah, it’s fine, you should go ahead and have that oatmeal for breakfast and you can have sprouted grain cereal. Don’t eat grains three times a day—but it’s fine for you to have some grains. And you should eat more legumes. But with most clients if they want to lose weight, I tend to encourage them to eat sprouted grains, and for most of them, I’m telling them to eliminate wheat and eat a lot more vegetables, a lot more whole fruits.

EG: What’s your tactic with people who are skeptical in general?

RC: You mean, if they’re my client? I tell them not to sign on with me. The couple times that I’ve sort of convinced someone to sign on with me, they ended up being very angry at me, and not improving at all, and trying to sue me or Yelping me or wanting their money back . . .

EG: Yelping you?

RC: I did have one woman who Yelped me. She was a very angry person and kind of crazy. I learned the hard way. I give free initial consultations for anyone who wants one, and I really did learn the hard way not to try and convince someone to sign on if they show skepticism or reluctance because that person is going to be really hard to deal with and it’s probably not going to work.

EG: Do you say no to people?

RC: There have been times when I’ve failed to give my closing pitch and be like, Here’s what I can offer you. Instead I just say, Thanks for coming in.

I haven’t said no to anyone yet. Usually the clients I do work with choose to work with me because they already accept to some extent that weird things like muscle testing work and they’re already open.

EG: I have a hard time, thinking with my rational mind, why does this work?

RC: Well, your body has all this information. I believe your body knows almost everything that there is to know in the universe. Your body, whether or not you know it, knows what your mother’s doing right now and what she wore today. And what she ate today. And it knows, you know, what Keith’s doing right now, and what your best friend from college is doing right now and what she had for dinner.

EG: How does my body know all that?

RC: Because—OK, some of these theories are like any yoga class. Because on some karmic, cosmic, intracellular level, we all are connected, you know, we’re all energy and matter. That’s the extreme end of the spectrum. But it’s easier to see something like, if say my body doesn’t like wheat, and when I eat it there’s some inflammation that happens in my stomach, I might not be aware of it consciously but my body is aware of it. So muscle testing just asks the things that your brain isn’t consciously aware of but that your body knows because it happens in the body.

EG: How else would you find out what the body has to tell you?

RC: I don’t know how else. I mean, a lot of my clients, if I test them and it turns out their body doesn’t like quinoa, for example, which is common. They’ll say, Oh I never liked quinoa. I forced myself to like it because I was told it was so healthy. But it always kind of tasted gross to me.

EG: Have you ever met a person who thinks that quinoa tastes good?

RC: It is kind of gross. I think it’s gross, but my body hates it. Most of my clients who test well for it, they think it’s delicious.

EG: Should people not eat things they don’t find delicious?

RC: I think yeah. In an ideal world, if your system is clean, and your electrical system is working well, and things are working well, if something’s good for you it should taste good to you. With the exception being sugar, so Haagen-Dazs will always taste pretty good to us, or a Snickers bar. But in general, lentils are good for you and they should taste good. And if they’re bad for you, they should actually, if you really pay attention, taste kind of bad to you.

EG: Huh. Well I like it. Simple.

RC: I think a lot of people are out of balance and everything’s a mess. There’s always inflammation and toxins in their bodies, so they might eat a whole mess of foods and think that it tastes OK and not realize that actually they don’t like it.

EG: I feel like I should have asked you more about writing . . .

RC: That’s OK.

EG: Is illness a metaphor for the larger ills of the world, in your work? Or is it not a metaphor, and it just is a larger ill of the world, all our illness?

RC: I think so. I mean, I think that illness is a sign that our body is giving us that something is off in the world or for the person. So if someone comes down with mono or lupus or chronic fatigue, I feel like on some level their body is telling them that something in their life is off. There’s something they were meant to do that they’re not doing, or some relationship that’s toxic that they need to get rid of, or some issue in their childhood or somewhere else that they haven’t addressed. I mean, that’s a little hippie-dippie . . . (laughs)

This doesn’t mean that I don’t think there’s also concrete physical reasons for illnesses that can also be addressed, that can be helpful. You know, why not.

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