Interview: July 8, 2011
While TURN OF MIND is Alice LaPlante’s first novel, she has 20 years of experience as a writer and writing teacher, having earned the titles of award-winning journalist, corporate editorial consultant, writing coach, and university-level instructor. But she admits that fiction is her "true love." Bookreporter.com’s Norah Piehl spoke with LaPlante about her compelling literary thriller and the personal reasons for creating her 64-year-old protagonist, Jennifer White, who has Alzheimer’s. She discusses the challenges of delving into the mind of such a character and the crucial storytelling decisions that make it possible to follow Jennifer's thoughts all the way through her dementia.
Bookreporter.com: You've published numerous nonfiction books, including a writing textbook. What inspired you to write your first novel? How was the process of writing TURN OF MIND different from your previous projects?
Alice LaPlante: I’ve published quite a few short stories, and fiction is really my true love. I’d been working on a novel for a number of years, and finally faced the fact that it was dead back in 2008. I had a period of not writing fiction at all. Then the idea for TURN OF MIND came to me, and I was off. It was completely different from other writing projects in that it was so easy. I was just obsessed with writing it, never felt uncertain or at a loss about what to do next, and had a feeling of rightness about it from the very beginning. It was a great experience.
BRC: Jennifer White is one of the most compelling characters I've encountered in recent fiction. How did you come up with this idea for a character?
AL: The genesis for the idea was to create an older woman suffering from Alzheimer’s who may or may not have committed a horrible crime. For this to be a remotely plausible scenario, the character had to be strong and edgy, with a decidedly dark side to her. I didn’t do much conscious calculation about how those qualities would play out. As the plot unfolded, I just imagined my way into the mind of a fiercely independent and intelligent woman who had never played by the rules. Jennifer just happened spontaneously. I don’t know anyone like her.
BRC: Of course, what's most obvious about Jennifer is her dementia, but it occurred to me as I was reading just how few older women are the protagonists of serious fiction. Was that something you were thinking about as you developed her character?
AL: The last thing I want to do is come off as dogmatic. I don’t think fiction should preach, or provide morality lessons. Yet the fact that I consider myself a strong feminist clearly contributed to the book’s framework. I do believe that strong, complex women, especially older women, are underrepresented in fiction. Or they are confined to stereotypical roles.
BRC: Jennifer is certainly a character readers will empathize with, but won't pity; for one thing, she's too sharp (even a bit prickly) for that. Was it a challenge to create a character who was sympathetic but not exactly likable?
AL: A lot of my early readers expressed their ambivalent feelings about Jennifer. Amanda as well, actually. Neither is terribly likable. And the issue of how likable characters have to be is something that comes up time and time again when people discuss fiction. I happen to think that likability is over-rated. Can a character keep readers’ interest? That’s the real question. And can readers be made to feel compassion for a not-particularly-nice character? I believe so. At least, that’s what I tried to do in TURN OF MIND: to provide enough insight into the way Jennifer’s mind worked so that, however grudgingly, readers were emotionally engaged.
BRC: The narrative techniques you use to convey Jennifer's growing dementia while still furthering the plot are impressive and quite complex. Can you tell me how you figured out how to tell this story?
AL: I love unreliable narrators. Some of my favorite fictional characters are unreliable, and I’ve always admired writers who used a narrator with a skewed sense of the world to open up new ways to view reality. We could have quite a technical discussion of unreliability! I devoted an entire chapter to it in my textbook, METHOD AND MADNESS.
Basically, the challenge was: How to tell the story from Jennifer’s deteriorating mind without bewildering and frustrating readers? I used a number of different technical devices. For starters, the notebook. Although the reason given for the notebook that Jennifer keeps (and that others contribute to) is that Jennifer’s doctor has advised her to do it, in fact it was my way of getting in lots of important facts early in the book to ground readers.
Later, when Jennifer can no longer plausibly keep a notebook (she loses the power to read and write), I was very careful to delineate between pure narration (what was going on in Jennifer’s head) from the actual scenes (where characters were talking, to Jennifer or each other). Any time a character says something, it can be trusted: Jennifer has visual hallucinations, but not auditory ones. I’m told that in fact the book can be followed…which is a great relief. It was one of my main concerns when I first sent it out.
BRC: At times, the narration can seem almost disorienting, as if readers themselves are being thrown off-kilter in the same way Jennifer is. Was that a deliberate choice on your part?
AL: Absolutely. I wanted the readers to be immersed in Jennifer’s world. The novelist Robert Stone said something very smart along the lines of “the job of the writer is to push the reader out of his space, and occupy it.” I’m a big believer in that.
BRC: Have you had personal experience with friends or family who have had Alzheimer's?
AL: Yes. My mother has Alzheimer’s. Her mother had Alzheimer’s. It’s a terrible, terrible disease.
BRC: Jennifer's narration seems to come eerily close to what it must actually feel like as an intelligent, even brilliant person coming to terms with losing one's mind. How did you put yourself in this state of mind?
AL: It’s something I had been wondering, for personal reasons, for many years, because of my family’s history. It was very therapeutic to actually immerse myself in that space. Of course, it’s just my own imagining of what it feels like. The peculiar nature of the disease is that it would be difficult for someone in the throes of it to provide a reality check.
BRC: Jennifer's relationships with her children and caregiver are fascinating, not least because readers must do a lot of inferring based on clues scattered throughout the book. Maintaining anything resembling a real relationship, your novel seems to suggest, is one of the most challenging aspects of dementia. Would you say that's true for Alzheimer's patients and their families?
AL: Certainly, watching someone you love slipping away is one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the disease. There’s also the fact that, unlike what many people think, Alzheimer’s is not just a case of someone passively, benignly, forgetting. Sufferers typically do not go gently. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of aggression, frequent violence. Where does it come from? Is it purely the disease? Or is it pent-up frustration or rage that has been repressed and can be expressed now that social restraints have been thrown off? I’ve talked about this endlessly with my siblings and others with Alzheimer’s in their families. We may never know.
BRC: The murder mystery plot is central to your novel. Did you start writing envisioning the mystery or Jennifer's dementia?
AL: Dementia was at the core of the book. I’d been writing about it, on a personal level, for some time, but had never figured out a way to make it accessible to readers. When the idea that I could depict the disease within the framework of a mystery came to me, I was excited by the thought that I might have a vehicle to say things I wanted to say.
BRC: Again, including a mystery that readers need to solve seems to be a way for readers to experience, on some level, the uncertainty that is the primary characteristic of Jennifer's condition. Did you intend the mystery plot to help enhance readers' empathy for Jennifer?
AL: Not consciously.
BRC: What writers' work was most influential to you as you were becoming a writer? What other authors’ works directly influenced TURN OF MIND?
AL: I’m a huge fan of the British satirists: Muriel Spark, Anthony Burgess, Evelyn Waugh. Alice Munro (of course) is a goddess. I also read and reread the books in my library by Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, Marilynne Robinson, Grace Paley and Vladimir Nabokov. I can’t say that any particular book or writer influenced TURN OF MIND.
BRC: This is your first novel, but I hope it won't be your last! What projects are you working on now?
AL: My next novel is nearly finished. It’s entitled COMING OF AGE AT THE END OF DAYS, and it’s about a 17-year-old girl who becomes enamored with a doomsday cult, and embarks on a quest to hasten the end of the world by helping fulfill certain prophecies. It’s funnier than TURN OF MIND, at least I think so. A black comedy, of course. And with a happy ending.