Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Do our memories survive us? Sharon Guskin lights up literary fireworks in her already-buzzing debut, The Forgetting Time

First the reviews;
An Indie Next Pick
An Amazon Best Book of February
A Barnes & Noble February Top Pick in Fiction

“Bold, captivating…Guskin amps up the suspense while raising provocative questions about the maternal bond and its limits…you’ll be mesmerized.”—People Magazine (Book of the Week)

“Readers will be galvanized by Guskin’s sharply realized and sympathetic characters with all their complications, contradictions, failures, sorrows, and hope. Deftly braiding together suspense, family drama, and keen insights into the workings of the brain, Guskin poses key and unsettling questions about love and memory, life and death, belief and fact….The Forgetting Time offers a vast spectrum of significant and nuanced topics that will catalyze probing discussions.”—Booklist (Starred Review)

Got you already, right? Sharon Guskin’s debut The Forgetting Time is both beautifully written and extraordinarily provocative. As someone whose father gave her Edgar Cayce books to teeth on, I was fascinated by the story of interlocking lives: a single mother desperate to help her child who keeps remembering another life; a researcher at the end of his own life who wants to make a difference; and a grieving mother who never knew what happened to her own little boy. Guskin's alchemy is to make you deeply know and care about these people, and to wonder about the world. And what is better than that?

In addition to writing fiction, Sharon has worked as a writer and producer of award-winning documentary films, including STOLEN and ON MEDITATION. She began exploring the ideas examined in THE FORGETTING TIME when she worked at a refugee camp in Thailand as a young woman and, later, served as a hospice volunteer soon after the birth of her first child. She’s been a fellow at Yaddo, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Blue Mountain Center, and Ragdale, and has degrees from Yale University and the Columbia University School of the Arts. I’m so jazzed to have her here. Thank you so much, Sharon!

The premise of your novel absolutely haunts me.  I’ve been reading about transferred memories for a while now (some quantum physicists think these are cellular memories, handed down like genes) and I actually even convinced a hypnotist friend to regress me to a past life (that’s a whole other story.) What was it that haunted you so that you absolutely had to write this novel? And do you believe in past lives?

 I've always been drawn to the question of what comes next. I was a hospice volunteer for a while; death didn't seem to freak me out, so it seemed like something useful to do. And being around people who were facing imminent death woke me up. It wasn't that I suddenly felt more appreciative of life, though that's part of it. It was more a sense of: wait, there's more. Isn't there? More to life than what we're perceiving, and how we're going about our days. Why aren't we talking more about that? I started to read, as you did...And one of the things I read was a book called Old Souls about Dr. Ian Stevenson and his research with very young children who seemed to remember previous lifetimes. I was struck by these amazing cases -- there are almost 3,000 of them; quite frankly they are mind-blowing. Children who give numerous concrete details about other people they seem to remember being -- actual verifiable people who lived and who died (often) just a year or two before they were born.  I started to think, what if this is true? What if this happens when we die? What does that mean for us, for how we live our lives? The novel came out of that question.

That question has taken me down my own spiritual path, but I think my job as a novelist isn't to tell people what I believe happens when we die, but to suggest that we might want to ask ourselves: What if it's true? What does that mean for me, personally? But you don't have to believe in any of this, I hope, to enjoy the book! It's just a story, in the end.

This is your debut, but it’s already a Buzz Book and getting fantastic reviews. Does this make it easier or harder for you to write your second book?

 I'm still absorbing. And everything is changing so quickly these days that I'm not sure actually what IS happening with the book. But I've been writing for about twenty five years -- I've written two other novels that didn't get published before this one -- so if I can keep plugging away despite (apparent) failure, I can probably keep plugging away despite (apparent) success. At least I hope so. But I'm only at the very beginning of the next book. I'm looking forward to diving in...

What impressed me so much about your debut were the deep questions about relationships, about love and how we handle loss and guilt, and how we struggle to know things for sure. Because of an extraordinary event in the novel, your characters are deeply and irrevocably changed in ways we don’t expect, and it’s deeply moving. It doesn’t rally matter if the reader believes or disbelieves in reincarnation—the novel still resonates on many levels, particularly in its portrayal of all the linked characters. How did you craft your characters, and did any of them give you pause?

Ah, thanks so much for saying that!  It's funny about characters -- some just seem to appear, don't they? Like Athena springing full-grown from the head of Zeus. Denise was like that; she showed up and felt real to me, and I was grateful for that (though empathizing with her situation was very emotional for me). Anderson grew out of a kind of composite -- what I knew about Dr. Stevenson, mixed with the spiritual bearing of a former writing teacher of mine, and the situation of a relative who suffers the same form of aphasia. But somehow the ingredients came together into something new and he felt real to me, too.

Janie was the most difficult character to create, by far, perhaps because she bears the most similarity to me, at least on paper. Brooklyn mom, creative professional, etc. At first she was in her head all the time (as this writer can often be) and a bit difficult to relate to, so I worked hard to make her a very different sort of person. It took a few drafts to get that right.

 I have sort of a provocative question for you. “There’s more to life than memory,” Janie says. Memory can be a curse if you know that your loved ones still lived, but you couldn’t have them in the way you did before.  What then, do you think the purpose of knowing this information really is? And from your research, why do only some people announce themselves to people from their past lives? Or does everyone but we just don't see it?

Your question about purpose is interesting: is there any good that can come of these memories?
I think perhaps the people who can benefit the most are not the children themselves, but all of us. There's so much nihilism in the world right now, so much darkness, and I think these cases crack open the door a little bit and make us wonder. And so perhaps these memories are beneficial in that way.

I'm not sure why only some children seem to remember; seventy-five percent of the kids in these cases had some kind of extreme trauma that they are apparently recalling, so Dr. Stevenson and Dr. Tucker have speculated that perhaps the trauma has imprinted itself on their consciousness in some way and moves with them into their next lives. But there are also cases of others who seem to remember past lives without trauma, particularly in the Buddhist world.  I've heard some amazing stories, including someone who apparently spontaneously remembered the Tibetan language.

I've been overwhelmed, in general, by how many stories are out there. Since I started writing and talking about this novel, about a fourth of those I've met have told me extraordinary things their young children have said. Things like: "Remember when I was your grandpa?" Or " Remember when we lived in China and we took care of the babies?" Or repeated descriptions of dying in a fire. So I think this phenomenon is far more common than we realize; in our culture, we discount it when children say these sorts of things, but in cultures in which a belief in reincarnation is the norm, it is taken more seriously.

Drs. Stevenson and Tucker have worked very hard to track down "previous personalities" -- the people these children have remembered being; it's not an easy thing to do.  So perhaps that's why children don't show up more often on the doorsteps of their previous families. It's probably a good thing that they don't. Can you imagine?

Many quantum physicists believe that we carry the memories and emotions of our ancestors inside of us, much like genes, which might account for psychics being able to tell us about our dead—they’re just tapping into what is available and are able to read it. But this is different than what your novel is talking about—the ability of a person to reincarnate into another. Can you comment?

There's something Anderson says in the novel: "How a consciousness migrates is not a question I’ve been able to answer. I’ve been stuck on establishing its existence." I'm fascinated by these ideas, but I really can't comment on how it all fits together. I'm just a novelist, after all!

I don't think Stevenson and Tucker's research is in any way inconsistent with what some quantum physicists have said about consciousness, though; as Max Planke wrote, "I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness."

If that's true, if we really believe that, then it seems to me that life is very different from the way we usually perceive it, and anything is possible.

|What kind of writer are you?  Do you map things out or follow your muse (the muse is never around when you want Her, is she?), so you have rituals?

I plug away and plug away and despair a little bit and read good books and drink lots of coffee and then every now and then the muse shows up and the whole world changes. Philip Roth wrote something in The Human Stain that seems true to me (and also wonderfully strange): "This is what happens when you write books. There's not just something that drives you to find out everything -- something begins putting everything in your path. There is suddenly no such thing as a back road that doesn't lead headlong into your obsession."

There's always a magnet when I write -- something pulling me through. But I often don't know where I'm going or if I'm going to make it there.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I'm a little obsessed with the Buddhist notion of enlightenment: what it might feel like and how one might write about exalted spiritual states -- which I haven't experienced yet, but hope to!  Peter Matthiessen was my first writing teacher, and I'm reading his Zen journals, Nine Headed Dragon River, to see how he did it.  As for why: is there anything better to be obsessed by?

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I think your questions were wonderful and deep. I'm not sure I have any answers left!

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