Have you known a close friend or relative who has had Alzheimer’s?
Yes, I have, although I wish to emphasize that Hannah Pearl, in this novel, is a fictional character. I chose strands from my own life, as one does in fiction, and sometimes the strands chose me, yet Hannah became inimitable. Her life is her own.
The first person I knew to have serious memory loss was my grandmother, Dorothy Chessman. The last time I saw her, in a visit to her assisted living facility in Peoria, Illinois, in 1992, my parents and I took her out to lunch, and this odd, poignant experience did become the inspiration, ten years later, for SOMEONE NOT REALLY HER MOTHER; in fact, it became the stirring and sobering inspiration for my first hesitant forays into fiction. Dorothy had been wandering outside her facility, and in fact had been moved out of her pretty apartment to the nursing home section. What I most remember is how brave she was, coming outside with us and going to a restaurant in Peoria. I was pretty sure she had no idea who any of us were, including her stepson, my father. She had been a wonderful woman, very bright and funny, an English teacher who loved poetry.
So, although I saw my grandmother only rarely, it’s astonishing how powerful a day in one’s life can be – even an hour spent at a restaurant with a bewildered woman who had become “someone not really my grandmother.” I wrote a short memory piece about Dorothy for a Yale literary magazine, in 2000, when I’d gone back to teach there for a year, and about a year later I wrote a very short story called “Once, Something,” which sprang from this nonfiction piece. The leap to fiction, of course, changed the subject and opened it up. My character in this story was Hannah Pearl, a figure like my grandmother yet also unknown to me. I started wishing to know more about this figure, to find out what her life had been like, before she’d lost her memory, and this is how I started to develop this one story into a novel.
A poignant footnote: About halfway through the writing of this novel, my mother-in-law Libby Wolf was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s. She lived in Seattle, and I lived in Connecticut and then in the Bay Area, yet I saw her on many family visits, and it was moving and sad to watch how disoriented and confused she slowly became.
Yet – and this is important for my characterization of Hannah Pearl – Libby remained her immensely generous and sweet self, no matter how bewildered she was. She was a model for me of a woman who had lived her life fully, with curiosity and intelligence and courage and love. Even Alzheimer’s couldn’t take that away from her, or from us.
How did you decide to tell this story from four points of view?
I thought about holding to Hannah’s point of view, yet it quickly became clear that Hannah couldn’t tell her whole story; she couldn’t figure out the second half of her life. It interested me, creating other characters’ windows onto Hannah’s life. I thought of each one of the seven stories as a window, in fact; each occurs in just one or two hours of present time, with glimpses of the past coming in like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Ultimately, it is the reader who listens to the various points of view (Hannah’s, her daughter Miranda’s, her granddaughters’), and is able to construct the story of Hannah’s life, and of her importance in the lives of her family members.
Do you think this novel is hopeful about Alzheimers? How did you create the chance for hopefulness?
Yes, I do find hope in this story. Hannah has been through so much, and yet she is able to find humor in small things; she’s hugely curious about the world; she feels affection for those around her; she embraces children and sky and cake, all the brightness and goodness in her surroundings. She confronts the difficulties and sorrows of her life, and yet also lets them go; this is the odd gift of Alzheimer’s, in fact, that one moment a sorrow is fresh, and another it has been whisked away.
Also, in a larger sense, this is a book about love. The women of three generations in this family love each other, and it is this bond that holds.
In Fiona’s chapter, how does the woman in the wheelchair connect with Fiona’s grandmother?
I have gathered, from many readers, that this chapter, deliberately the middle one out of seven, is the most challenging. I think this is partly because Fiona, Hannah’s older granddaughter, is the only character who tries hardnot to think about the tragedies of Hannah’s life, so that Hannah is more marginal to her thoughts. Yet Fiona’s effort to live a safe, happy life, self-contained and insular, can’t succeed in any simple way. The thought of Hannah accompanies her as a shadow, in the same way that Hannah’s sister Emma, who perished at the camp of Drancy in 1943, comes to Fiona in the form of a small ghost at her elbow.
Even when Fiona is attempting simply to find a babysitter for her baby Seamus, she bumps into such shadows in the form of Zoe, a woman who longs for something she can’t have, at least not in the form she wishes: a baby to love and nurture each day, whether she’s in a wheelchair or not. Zoe’s yearning confronts Fiona with her own buried fears and her knowledge that life isn’t something you can keep utterly safe.
How long did it take you to write this novel? What was most difficult about it? What was the most fun?
This book took about two and a half years to write, although I moved from Connecticut to California right in the middle, and had to put the writing on hold for a year, so I guess I should say it took one and a half years.
I found Hannah’s sections to be both the most difficult and the most satisfying – both in a formal and an emotional way. For five months, in the middle of Hannah’s chapter “Rescue,” I couldn’t continue. I was immobilized, with Hannah, as she stood in the drug store looking at the Valentine’s Day cards, because I sensed all that was welling up in her, involving her mother, her father, her sister, her aunts – all those she loved, who had perished. I had to take time off and read more deeply about the Holocaust; I had to feel my way into Hannah’s heart.
I found the creation of a puzzle quite fun, though. I loved discovering what Hannah’s story had been. Often I felt as if I were reading my novel instead of writing it, and quite a few pieces came as a surprise to me. This is what I always love about writing – the surprise of it.