That said, I confess that, as soon as I become aware of some connection in my writing to someone I actually know, I do hold onto this awareness, and I proceed as carefully as I can. I began to realize, for instance, halfway through writing this novel, that my character Hannah resembled in certain ways someone I love very much. This kind of situation is natural. All I could do was to increase my efforts to listen to my story and my characters, to be true to them first and foremost, and to hope that whatever resemblances remained would be on the level of inspiration and not portraiture!
Q: I lost my father to a massive stroke last October. Reading this excerpt brought back so many memories, both painful and happy. My dad often looked so confused when we were talking to him at the nursing home, and later, in the hospital. It was always such a thrill when he would recognize me! I'm sure my father felt a lot like your Hannah. How did you come to write this book? Were you close to someone in a nursing home? You seem to have so much insight! --Linda
A: Dear Linda -- Thank you for writing about this experience of your father's days in a nursing home and hospital. I'm especially happy to hear of your thrill in those happy moments when he could recognize you.
I hope my novel does show insight. You're right that someone I knew originally inspired the character of Hannah. My grandmother Dorothy, who lived in Peoria, Illinois, was a generous and intelligent woman who taught high school English for years, and who loved poetry. Late in her life, she began to "wander," as the staff of her retirement home called it, and she had to be moved to assisted living.
She missed her apartment, with all her books and pictures. The last time I saw her, she didn't recognize me, and I'm not even sure she recognized her stepson, my father. This sensation, of being with someone you love, who can't recognize you, definitely found its way into this book. Hannah is not my grandmother, yet I tried to articulate the confusion and anxiety I perceived on my grandmother's face when we took her out to a restaurant in Peoria one hot August day.
Q: Dear Harriet -- I thoroughly enjoyed your new book! As always, the characters are so tenderly portrayed, leaving me wanting to know them even more. I am curious about your research to write Hannah.
I was fascinated by her voice; especially when searching for words, names and ways to describe her thoughts. Is there a personal connection to Alzheimer's that offered you the insight to write her in this way? --MaryLou
A: Hello, MaryLou! Thank you for your question. I have in recent years become fascinated by, and worried about Alzheimer's. My own memory often seems all too uncertain, and I have to say it's because of this that I found it awfully easy to imagine Hannah's searches for words. At the same time, it took a lot out of me to write these passages, where she's unsure of so much. I love language, and I know that my identity and everyone's identity is immensely tied to language and to memory. How do we know who we are? We know through our names, our stories, the stories of those near to us. To lose this, well, it's to lose a whole world.