Tag Archives: writing fiction

Jodi Picoult’s Occult Mystery

Occult: adj: “of involving, or relating to supernatural, mystical, or magical powers or phenomena.”

 

Jodi Picoult’s 23rd novel Leaving Time, is surprisingly so much more than a moving saga about grief, loss of a mother, and the wonderful world of elephants. I just finished reading this nearly over-whelming book, even as her next block buster debut’s this week. Leaving Time has haunted me for a week since I completed it. Not just because it confirms what I’ve always considered: that elephants live more dignified, loving lives within families who protect and support one another. Or that love lasts beyond time and space, so when we lose someone we love, the love survives. But what intrigues me most, as a writer, is how Jodi interweaved the occult within the fabric of this mystery in a way that slips the unassuming reader—the reader who would not normally read a book with paranormal aspects—into the thick of the drama. Not until the very end do we learn that two of the main characters are, in fact, dead and were the entire manuscript. We are left questioning the dimension in which they lived, one where the dead continue living a bustling life which contains a world with school, family, binging, boozy nights, dating, money problems, work issues, rent to be paid, etc. It’s a dimension where it’s possible they (and everyone within it) don’t realize they are dead, and they don’t have all the answers, nor the ability to find the people they love. The notion that we die and all the answers are revealed, is turned on its head. The common held belief that our dead loved ones are a thought away, is also dismissed, as 13-year-old Jenna, the main character, searches for her mother Alice Metcalf, a scientist who studies elephant behavior. Jenna hires a broke, formerly-famous psychic named Serenity, and a washed-up, pessimistic, alcoholic detective, Virgil, to help her find Alice. In the end, we learn that Virgil and Jenna are both dead (as well as everyone else they connected with, such as Jenna’s grandmother, a policeman, a lab assistant). Yet, they all seemed to lead vibrant lives with other people in them, bars to go to, cars to drive, policemen to talk with, school teachers, clients, landlords, etc. But apparently their world must lie on another plane of reality, like fine line of ice below the surface of our perception, that somehow, Serenity can see. But even Serenity doesn’t realize Jenna and Virgil aren’t alive, until the very end.

 

Most of Jodi’s interviews about Leaving Time concern the plight of elephants, how they grieve, and how wonderful a metaphor their ability to grieve, is, to her then first empty nest at home. She doesn’t say what motivated her to create such a walloping metaphysical surprise at the end. Stories of the elephants are woven into the book via Alice Metcalf’s notes, that Jenna reads. Alice is a researcher who has lived in Africa, as well as on a New England sanctuary with her husband and then three-year-old daughter Jenna, when she disappeared after a tragic accident leaving one person dead and one mentally insane. Jenna, who was three at the time of the accident, can’t remember what happened and had to be raised by her stoic grandmother. This story alone, is compelling enough to be a best-seller with all the ups and downs of who actually got killed and who slipped away and why. And the glimpse into the world of the elephants and how they are tragically being hurt by poachers, is critical for the world to understand. See this video for example.

What I find ultimately puzzling, is how Jodi manages to pull together so many subplots and themes into one novel, without losing me at any turn. She tackles the occult and afterlife, the plight of elephants, a murder, mental illness, spousal abuse, infidelity, suicide, mother-daughter and grandmother friction, the struggle to follow ones dreams as a mother, and a daughter’s unfailing love for her mother, and the huge emotional and unbearable loss a child endures when a parent abandons them.

It’s a beautiful novel. It’s powerful. It’s unlike any other I have read. Jodi Picoult is only getting better with each novel. You need to read it.

And with a side note to my fellow writers, isn’t it remarkable to think that Jodi Picoult, New York Times best selling author (whose last nine novels debuted number one on this prestigious list) was rejected by 100 agents before one believed in her?

Keep going my friends. And read her book for inspiration!

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Seeking the Write Life

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What a dreamy writing spot I had last year in Greece! This is where I wrote a bulk of my last novel, Between Thoughts of You.  I led a Yoga & Writer’s Retreat in a remote area of Styra, Greece on the Delenia Cliffs—about a 30 minute drive from Nea Styra port and where few cars enter, due to hair-line turns on rocky, unpaved roads. These ancient roads roll past trails leading to ruins called Dragonistas, or pre-historic Dragon Houses of unknown origin mentioned in the Iliad. What an inspiring spot to write! For me. (But it might have been too remote for some of my yogis, lol.) I have a bohemian side from my North Carolina roots where I was raised near horse farms and in what Californians would consider rustic terrain.  I love being close to nature, hiking, listening to crickets—especially when they are competing with crashing waves. Add a night sky filled with stars and you can see why I didn’t mind living in a barn for a week—even if it had bats and huge spiders! I gave the main house to the yogis, who had pool and cliff and Aegean views, as I had my private writing spot every morning and most afternoons.

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As the yogis decided to snorkel or sight see or hire drivers to take them to towns with restaurants and bars, I stayed put and wrote. Yes we had sunset yoga & meditation classes daily and three writing workshops, but days were open to explore. I mainly stayed put. Maybe I should have ventured out more, but I was focussed. I did this in Rome the previous spring—writing most of my days in seclusion, and walking around after sunset for inspiration. It helped me craft this novel and finish the first half. I was so close to finishing the whole draft when we were in Greece, that I just had to keep going.  As a full-time single mom, I get so few full days to write. You may say that I fight for the time to write, when most of my friends lament of paralysis and procrastination. I can’t wait until that’s all I’m battling! For me, I juggle school stuff and homework for the boys, cooking, laundry, cleaning and soccer during the week—and I admit that I may not juggle it all that well. The minute I start to visualize where my novel is going, I find a way to sit down and write, whether at school, on the side-lines of a game, or even in bed at 5 a.m. where my black notebook lives in my side drawer. I dream of the days when I live “the write life” —meaning a life where I can devote five hours a day to my writing. I’m not even sure how I’ve managed to write three novels and am starting my fourth as the last nine years have been filled with sorrow, diapers and now a teenager all navigated solo. But it’s my journey. While I should be proud of what I’ve accomplished, I’m not completely. I’m determined to get better at my writing and at managing my time & life with my boys. I sent my last novel to beta readers and friends and must have edited it five times. I dream of the day when I get published traditionally. I love collaboration. I’ve been an editor of magazines, and I dream of working with an editor and agent and having that contract so I can write full-time, while of course teaching 2-3 yoga classes a week for balance and sanity! Until then, I will sneak writing time. I will steal a few moments here, a few moments there, and have a messy home for it and prepare too many frozen dinners.

My boys know that I’m focussed. I spoke with an executive at Random House earlier this year, showing him my synopsis and he said to me: “can you just get an agent so I can help you.” The traditional route demands representation. Self publishing demands marketing and self-promotion savvy. I don’t mind doing some, but I’m already writing my next novel. Who knew it would be harder to get an agent than to write to novel? But I continue to try and I continue to learn. I’m pitching an agent every week, as well as small publishing houses, a few have my novel now for consideration. I’m submitting to writing contests as well. It’s a business and I need not take rejection so personally, as many agents and publishing houses have specific genres/voice they are seeking and it changes constantly due to fluctuations and trends in the market place. I’m keeping an open mind and open heart.

And until that contract manifests, there is always another yoga & writer’s retreat! Next summer I’ll be in Spain watching my 16-year-old perform in opera houses and symphony halls. Isn’t that amazing? I can’t wait to watch him play violin, (and probably cry!) and then set up shop for my yogis. I’m debating between Madrid & Barcelona…I love both. There is power in creating space virtually, emotionally and physically to write while in inspiring get-a-ways. There’s just something magical that happens when taking that plunge—getting on a plane, leaving our bills, our neighbors, our little world behind that can become suffocating or distracting. It allows us to open up to possibilities. In the very least, it allows us to get inspired and talk about our dreams. As adults, it’s easy to shut down and lean into responsibilities, demands and fear. But without a little adventure and a little exploration, life becomes dull and heavy. We all need and deserve an injection of inspiration!

I can’t wait to tell you where the next retreat will be. And in the meantime, I’ll continue to juggle: to seek balance between loving my boys and supporting their needs, while striving to write another captivating novel that hopefully shows the power and survival of love—that always exists, even in the broken places.

Until then, have a beautiful month.

Laura x

Mysterious Temporary Amnesia

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Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I belong? What is my purpose?

These are existential questions that I find myself asking from time to time—especially after a crisis or the death of a loved one.

But can you ever fathom asking these questions literally? What if you lost yourself— utterly and completely—all at once? Imagine that suddenly you have NO idea who you are, or where you are from, and your surroundings are completely foreign to you. Your sense of self and location vanishes in a wash of temporary amnesia. What would you do?

Skeptics wonder if temporary amnesia is possible. Many say the condition must be a hoax dreamt up by those who seek an escape to their circumstances. Others argue that temporary amnesia is some sort of subconsciously-triggered chemical reaction within the brain in response to extreme stress, or blocked memories of violence or childhood abuse as they begin to surface.

Neuroscientists and psychologists really don’t have an explanation for the documented and treated cases of temporary amnesia that have occurred around the world. But they do happen. And I’m completely fascinated by them. At one point in my life, eight and a half years ago, I slipped for a few minutes, into the unknown. It was only for a few minutes, but it was terrifying. Walking my then 7 year old to a play-date, I said good bye to the mom and then turned to walk back home. Suddenly, nothing was recognizable. NOTHING. The street, the street name, the houses. I turned and walked down a street, lost, then turned around again, not knowing how to get back home, where my baby was with a sitter. I sat down and began to hyperventilate. Now I didn’t forget who I was, but everything else was a blur. I was under extreme stress, so I’m convinced that my brain was on tilt. I had just discovered the night before (via snooping) that my husband was continuing his affair that he had promised was over. I had little sleep, as my baby was colicky.  Later that week, before my husband had returned, I fell, while holding the baby. While on a walk, picturing him with his mistress, I just couldn’t breathe. I became confused and suddenly stopped breathing, passing out. I came through due to the baby crying, but walked home in a fog, getting lost several times. I didn’t have amnesia, but definitely a mild state of dissociation from severe stress. Those days are long gone, thankfully.

But I am forever fascinated by them, and the stories of others who lapsed into complete amnesia. In fact, they have inspired my next novel (working title Orbiting Jupiter). My protagonist develops temporary amnesia while on vacation, and for three months, believes she is someone else—while everyone in her family thinks she has been kidnapped or has died. That’s all I’ll reveal now, as I delve into mysterious aspects of the self she identified with for three months.

While my novel is pure fiction, real cases have existed and been documented. In all of them, the person who develops amnesia, suddenly becomes someone else. After a period of time, they just as quickly come back to their original identity, with NO knowledge of the past days, months, or even years, while living as someone else.

How is that possible? Is it mental illness? Is it past-life transgression? Is it some sort of worm hole in time that a person slips into? (Can you tell my son is obsessed with Dr. Who?!) Those who study physics will say time is an illusion anyway. Is it possible, then, that someone could literally slip into another period on their soul journey—either past or future—by mental slip, or accident? Or is it just pure unfathomable stress that triggers a brain-chemical reaction spurring this lost identity?

Take Agatha Christie’s case. The famous author developed temporary amnesia and went missing for eleven days. Already quite famous in her mid-30s, a massive manhunt ensued to find Ms. Christie, even recruiting other famous contemporary authors, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Dorothy L Sayers. author of the Lord Peter Wimsey series. I’ve read a few accounts of her mysterious missing days, as nearly every paper covered it, including The New York Times. Theories vary as to why she ‘lost her self,’ but unequivocally, she did. Friday, Dec. 3, 1926 at 9:30 p.m., after putting her daughter to bed, Ms. Christie got into her car and drove away. The car, later discovered abandoned, but in good condition, showed no signs of accident. Apparently, Ms. Christie then walked to Harrington Yorkshire and began staying at The Swan Hydro Inn, under the name of Theresa Neele, one of her husband’s mistresses. According to all reports, she referred to herself as Ms. Neele the entire time. Eleven days later, someone recognized her at the hotel, yet she didn’t recognize her name or her pictures in the newspaper. After her husband picked her up, she had no memory of the past eleven days, nor did she know exactly who she was or who he was. Perhaps Ms. Christie snapped due to the stress of her husband’s infidelities, as well as her pressure to write more best-selling novels, while also taking care of her daughter? We’ll never know. The author never spoke about her disappearance.

Temporary amnesia, however, doesn’t always occur due to extreme stress. While doing more research, a friend sent me this New Yorker article about a woman who continued to experience temporary amnesia throughout her life. Hannah Upp disappeared for weeks at a time. In one instance, she left her Manhattan apartment to go for a jog. Wearing a jogging bra, shorts and running shoes, Ms Upp shifted mentally during the run. That’s all she reported. She went missing for weeks—her friends and family thinking she had been abducted. Tapes within an Apple store show the young woman looking at computers, still wearing her jogging gear, but looking a little raged. The school teacher had no keys, no wallet, no phone, no identification and must have wandered around New York City aimlessly. She was found floating in the East River, remarkably still alive, but not knowing who she was until she came through while receiving treatment in a hospital. Ms. Upp’s story is intriguing because in two of her cases, only mild stress could have triggered her lapse of identity. The beginning of the school year is hardly a major life stressor. Yet that was when these situations occurred. Both parents reported that she had no abuse or trauma in childhood. Her father, however, was an evangelical minister, perhaps she had a conflict within her faith? We’ll never know. Her last jaunt into the unknown, tragically is still happening, as she is currently missing and considered dead. Just before she ‘left’ Ms. Upp had said goodbye to her boyfriend and was helping the principal of the school where she taught in St. Thomas, prepare for another storm. The principal reported that Ms. Upp was responding to her in a monotone tone of voice while providing one sentence responses—something not usual for the friendly, chatty woman. Some speculate that Ms. Upp slipped into a state of dissociation before completely transitioning into amnesia.

Another bizarre case is that of Ansel Bourne (the inspiration for the character Jason Bourne). Ansel Bourne was an evangelical preacher from Greene, Rhode Island, who took a trip to visit his sister in Providence on January 17, 1887. However, for unexplained reasons, he ended up withdrawing his savings instead and traveling to Norristown, Pennsylvania, where he opened up a variety store and started a new life as Albert J Brown.

When Bourne woke up on the morning of March 15, he had no idea where he was. In his mind, it was still January 17 and he had no memory of being Albert J Brown or owning a variety store. Ansel found his way back home and back to his family, resuming his life without any recurrences of Albert J. Brown. It was documented that he had suffered from a psychiatric disorder described as a ‘fugue state.”

What do you think? Is it possible to just suddenly forget who you are? Can a person slip into another identity and over time come back to their original one without any memory of the lapse? And if so, how do they pick that identity? It’s a mystery. And one I’m exploring. I hope you’re becoming as intrigued, as I am!

Laura