Sharon Guskin Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Sharon Guskin
Photo: David Jacobs

Sharon Guskin

An interview with Sharon Guskin

Sharon Guskin discusses the real-life research into reincarnation that inspired her first novel, the Forgetting Time

Sharon Guskin's debut novel is The Forgetting Time (Flatiron Books). In addition to writing fiction, she has worked as a writer and producer of documentary films, including Stolen and On Meditation. She's been a fellow at Yaddo, the 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. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.


How did you get interested in the subject of past lives? Are you a believer?

I became very curious about past and future lives when I worked at a refugee camp in Thailand as a young woman. For many of my Lao and Cambodian students, this wasn't just a concept; it was reality. When we said our goodbyes, they called out, "See you next life," and I remember that phrase really stuck with me at that poignant moment: they weren't (entirely) joking.

Years later, when my children were very young, I was working as a hospice volunteer; the question of what happens when you die was especially pressing to these patients, of course. Around this time I stumbled across a book called Old Souls, which was about Dr. Ian Stevenson and the many mind-boggling cases he researched in which young children made specific, verified statements about being an actual person in a previous lifetime. And I started to wonder: What made my sons the way they are, with their very particular, very different personalities, attractions and fears? The children Stevenson researched seemed to have deep attachments to people from that other life, and I imagined how difficult it would be for me if one of my sons longed for another mother. And this story began to percolate in my mind.

When I began writing the book, I was merely interested in Stevenson's work; I thought it would make a good story about how we are all connected to each other. By the end of the process, after spending so much time absorbing the work of Dr. Stevenson and Dr. Jim Tucker, seeing the exhaustive way they went about verifying their cases, and getting to know Jim a bit, it was hard to imagine a more plausible explanation for these cases. These are very cautious, serious men. As the self-described skeptic Jesse Bering pointed out on scientificamerican.com, "I must say, when you actually read [these cases] firsthand, many are exceedingly difficult to explain away by rational, non-paranormal means." And, from a personal standpoint, so many people have told me their own stories during the years I've been working on this book--about a quarter of the people I've talked to have some kind of amazing personal tale to tell. So, yes, I'd say the questions I've been pondering have led me to make some of my own conclusions. But finally, I'm just asking questions: Is this what happens? What does it mean for the way we live our lives, if it's true?


While The Forgetting Time doesn't fall into the genre of speculative fiction, some potential readers may view it that way because of the subject matter.

So many stories have transcendental or "out there" elements, from the Greek gods to Shakespeare's weird sisters and ghosts to more contemporary stories like Beloved, The Lovely Bones, The Time Traveler's Wife, Life Before Life and Cloud Atlas. I think many people can relate to the themes of The Forgetting Time--ultimately this is a story about a mother and a child, and how far we'd go to help those we love. So in that sense, I think it's as grounded in "reality" as any novel. You can even read the story as an unusual metaphor for how connected we all are.

I'm just a storyteller. But the real cases that inspired me are so wild and compelling that I did think people might be interested in them, so I included some of them from Dr. Tucker's book.


How much do your parenting experiences inform Denise and Janie's experiences in the novel?

I never had to go through the kind of difficulties that Janie faced, or anything like Denise's trauma, but there's no doubt that my experience as a mother is in the DNA of this book. It has changed me, both from the little things, like getting peed in the face the first time you change a diaper (I have boys, obviously!) and the big things, the way you realize pretty much immediately that you'd do anything for this other being, that what you thought were your limits or comfort zones aren't relevant anymore. And my kids can be pretty funny, so I confess I stole a few of their lines.


I imagine you had to do quite a bit of research for the novel.

The research into past-life memories was fun, actually, and sometimes mind-blowing. Dr. Tucker was hugely helpful, discussing his process with me and answering all my questions. I've listened to some extraordinary cases and have talked with mothers of children who spoke of past lives, and have read fascinating books that ranged from more academic texts like Dr. Stevenson's Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects and Death and Personal Survival by philosopher Robert Almeder to personal stories like Soul Survivor.

Aphasia was both easier and more painful to research, as we have a family member with semantic aphasia, so I have seen how it progresses and how frustrating it can be. But he's also inspiring to me, as his peace of mind and vibrant presence remains intact, even when his language is severely compromised. He joked that he should get a consulting fee.


What's next for your writing career?

I'm working on a new novel and some shorter nonfiction pieces. And I'm continuing to collect the stories people tell me; even before the book has come out, people have started reaching out to share their own experiences or things their children have said, so I'm creating a space for readers to post them. There are a lot of amazing stories out there.

I'm an older debut author; I've been writing for over 20 years, and I'm really thrilled to have this book out there now for people to read. I'd like people to know that story, too, as it might be encouraging for some other mature and dedicated writers: keep going!


Interview by Jaclyn Fulwood. Originally published in, and reprinted with the permission of, Shelf Awareness.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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