BookBrowse Members ask Alice LaPlante Questions about Her First Book, Turn of Mind
In June 2012, BookBrowse discussed Turn of Mind. Late in the discussion the author, Alice LaPlante, joined the conversation. Below is slightly edited version of the original Q&A.
Why did you tackle this difficult subject matter in your first book. Is there someone close to you who suffers from dementia?
My mother suffered from Alzheimer's. That's actually the first time I've used that sentence in past tense, as my mother died just last week. She'd been suffering from it for more than a decade. Although there's nothing autobiographical about the book (except my maternal grandparents have a brief cameo role), I learned a lot about the disease, both by researching it as much as I could when my mother was first diagnosed, and then by observation. It's truly a terrible disease.
When I was on book tour last summer, one member of the audience stood up and said, "it's the only disease in which your loved one dies twice." While it might not be the only disease with this horrible result, I've found the saying to be otherwise true, as I thought I had reconciled myself to losing my mother years ago when she stopped recognizing us and underwent radical personality shifts. Yet her death has been very traumatic regardless.
I'd tried to write about the complexity of my thoughts and emotions from a variety of angles, but it wasn't until I had the idea for telling a story from the point of view of an actual Alzheimer's patient that I could "get at" the deep material I wanted to peruse. You could probably say that the entire book is my attempt to understand what my mother was experiencing (not that there was anything autobiographical about the novel--I wanted to explore the effect of disease on characters and relationships).
I like the way you constructed the novel and the dialogue. Did you ever get confused during the writing process? How did you keep it all straight?
No, I never did get confused....I wrote the book sequentially, as it currently is. I knew early on that it would have four main sections, each of them taking place in a different venue. Other than that, I knew nothing, nor did I plot anything out ahead of time. I just wrote the scenes as they came to me.
How difficult was it to keep the timeline straight in the novel, writing in the present and flashbacks? Did writing about a character suffering from dementia make this framework more or less difficult?
I think the fact that Jennifer had dementia made it easier to write going back and forth in time. One of my favorite writers, Alice Munro, does quite a bit of "time traveling" in her work, only using third party narrators, and I've found that very difficult to pull out. But because that's the way Jennifer mind works, it just came naturally as I wrote.
Did you have an ending in mind before you started? Was an element of dementia present at the beginning of your work? If so, why? Please address this novels' plot construction, as I am sure your readers would love to know how this novel came to be.
I tend to be a very intuitive writer. I don't plot things out ahead of time, I don't use outlines (except when a piece is done, to make sure it's structurally sound), and I don't overthink characters or events. I let my imagination lead me forward. So once I decided I was going to write about Alzheimer's from the point of view of the patient, and once I decided it would be a murder mystery, I wrote the first section which pretty much committed me to following through with a limited set of characters and a very specific crime.
As I wrote, I kept on opening "cans of worms"--potential areas of tension or conflict that might bear fruition in the mystery. I wanted to see where the mystery would go organically as the characterizations began firming up. As it was, I didn't know who had done it until 50 pages from the end! Then I went back and, surprisingly, found that almost everything was there to make it cohere.
Yes, dementia was essential to the book, as that was my main idea: to explore what the world was like through the eyes of someone inflicted with Alzheimer's. The mystery, in my opinion, was really just a secondary framework that would allow me to explore what I wanted to explore about these characters and relationships.
I felt like Mark was almost a forgotten character in the end. Was he a gambler, an alcoholic or just a spendthrift? Why did he keep borrowing money from his mother and did Fiona acknowledge her mother's note as if she really knew what she was doing and give Mark more money?
Good question. Yes SPOILER ALERT!!! in terms of the mystery, Mark didn't have any role to play in the resolution, so I just had Fiona give a summary that he's "doing better." Mark's problem was that he was a drug addict--that's why he needed money so badly that he would steal from his mother. But by the end of the book he's cleaned up his act somewhat and is acting more responsible--more responsible than Fiona, I might say!
It had been at least 3 months after the death of Amanda, yet there was blood on the medalstill? There may have been little nooks and crannies in the surface of the metal, but by the end of 3 months just in wearing, handling, and bathing that blood would have been gone. Or is there something I missed?
Yes, even though the medal has been worn, washed, touched, etc., there are now quite sophisticated blood tests that show even the faintest bit of blood. Unless someone really knows what they are doing, it's very difficult to get rid of all traces of blood, even after a significant amount of time has passed.
Many have called Amanda's death a murder. I contend it was a tragic accident, that Fiona was distraught but did not mean to kill her. What were your thoughts when writing the incident?
I suppose it is more a tragic accident than a murder, and, like so many things, the coverup was probably more of the crime than the death itself.
Some have mentioned that Jennifer is not a very likable character, and Amanda even less so. Did you like your characters? How did you feel about them?
I realize that either (or both) characters might not to be to everyone's taste. But my goal wasn't to write about sympathetic characters. My goal was to explore the effects of the terrible disease of Alzheimer's on complex individuals. This talk about whether characters need to be "sympathetic" comes up in writing classes all the time. I have always contended that characters need to be interesting, but not necessarily likeable, for fiction to succeed.