Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Conversation with Alice LaPlante

photo: Anne Knudsen
Alice LaPlante's debut novel, Turn of Mind, is one of those books that has entire bookstores murmuring about it months before it comes out. Those nebulous words, "literary thriller," were brandished and it began appearing on lists titled "most anticipated" or "summer's best."

Our own Nancy Salmon has this to say about it:

Have you ever said, "I think I'm losing my mind?" Retired orthopedic surgeon Jennifer White is doing just that. She is accused of murdering her best friend Amanda by surgically severing her fingers. Did she do it? She doesn't have a clue. As she descends into the abyss that is Alzheimer's Disease, we are taken along with her. We see her memory erode bit by bit. We watch as she struggles with the relationships she has with her son, her daughter and her trusted caretaker.

Alice LaPlante does a masterful job of getting into this character's head. While this could have been depressing and maudlin, it is neither. The author approaches it with intelligence and empathy. She teaches creative writing at Stanford and I say "Sign me up!"

Alice visited Kepler's on July 6th, so if you hurry over to the store, you may still be able to snag a signed copy!

Megan Kurashige: In Turn of Mind, Jennifer White, a once brilliant orthopedic surgeon who is succumbing to dementia, finds that she may be responsible for the murder of her closest friend. This is such a shocking and powerful premise... What made you decide to write this story?

Alice LaPlante: My mother has Alzheimer's. It's a topic that has occupied my mind over the last 10 years. I frequently go back to Chicago, where my parents still live in the house they raised eight children in, to visit and help out as much as I can (at this stage, there isn't much that can be done). I'd been writing extensively about my mother, and the disease, in my personal journals. Watching her go through the various stages of the disease in particular caused me to explore how it might feel from her perspective-how frightening, frustrating, and enraging an experience it must be to find yourself deteriorating and be powerless to do anything about it. 

I'd just come home from a particularly brutal trip to Chicago, and was watching an episode of the BBC's Sherlock Holmes with my partner. He asked, "do you think you could ever write a mystery?" I laughed and said, "of course not." Then, a moment later, I said, "But wouldn't it be funny"--using the word ironically, as we'd been discussing the horrors of Alzheimer's for hours--"if a detective had dementia and couldn't remember the clues?" David said, "go ahead! Write that!" I told him I couldn't--I wasn't smart enough to write from a detective's point of view. But then I said, "But I could write from the perspective of the suspect." That night, I sat down and wrote the opening to Turn of Mind. Those paragraphs made it into the final book virtually unchanged.

MK: You're an accomplished short fiction and non-fiction writer, as well as being a teacher of creative writing, but this is your first novel. How was the experience of writing long-form fiction different from your other work as a writer?

AL: Novel writing is fun. I find it so much easier, and so much more rewarding, than writing short fiction! I'm almost done with my second novel, and had a blast writing that as well. I think it's having a larger canvas--not worrying so much about having to wrap things up in 10 or 12 pages. You have more creative possibilities, and can let your imagination expand in whatever direction it chooses to go. I regret waiting so long to write longer fiction.

MK: Turn of Mind is told from the point of view of its central character, a woman whose memory is deteriorating and whose experience of reality is both confusing and unreliable. What was it like to write in her voice? Was it challenging to structure a narrative in which so much information and "truth" is obscured by the person who is experiencing it?

AL: I wish I had a good answer to this question, as everyone is asking it. Perhaps because I had been pondering what the experience of Alzheimer's was like for so many years, I didn't have any trouble putting myself in that space. That came very easily. It was technically very tricky to figure out how to communicate to readers what was happening in the "real" world of the story, as opposed to Jennifer's mind. I used a variety of devices to do this. For example, in the first part of the book, when Jennifer can still read and write, I had her keep a notebook where she wrote down facts from her day that she could refer back to later. That helped me slip in quite a few details to ground readers in reality. I also was very careful that the dialogue throughout was absolutely reliable. Jennifer wanders in her mind, even hallucinates visually, but when she hears someone say something, the reader can trust that it was actually said. I devoted a chapter to unreliable narrators in my creative writing textbook, The Making of a Story, published by Norton. I found myself going back to my own advice quite frequently while writing Turn of Mind.

MK: What was your most striking experience in working on this novel?

AL: I think the most striking aspect of writing Turn of Mind was, again, how easily it came. For whatever reason, I didn't have to do a lot of work at the conscious level... everything just seemed to naturally fall into place. In retrospect, this is astonishing, especially given it's a mystery, which by definition requires careful plotting. But I didn't even know myself who had done it until 50 pages from the end. Then when I went back, I saw that I had somehow prepared for the ending that now seemed inevitable.

MK: How can stories change the world?

We read fiction for many reasons. But right now, I think the most important thing that stories can do for us is give us experiences we otherwise wouldn't have. By "experiences" I mean everything from events, to thoughts, to emotions, that are outside our normal frame of reference. Experience can lead to understanding, which can lead to compassion for our fellow human beings. Not always, but often enough. And in difficult times, compassion is essential for helping as many people as possible survive until things get better all around. Not to sound too smarmy. But if people had more insight into their neighbors' hearts and minds, we could possible alleviate much unnecessary suffering. Stories have the power to do that. 

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