With her debut novel, THE SOMEBODY WHO (Channel Press, 2008 and 2011), Katie Gates creates a beautifully tender story about how this disease changes not only the person suffering from dementia but the lives of that person's caregivers and family members.
Katie, how did the idea for THE SOMEBODY WHO first come to you?
Well, it's kind of a long story, but I'll try to tell it quickly. (Readers, take note; after this little tale, the answers get much, much shorter!)
In the early '90s, when I was the Development Writer at Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, I had the great pleasure of meeting Mort and Sue Frishberg. At the time, they were with Executive Service Corps, a collective of retired management professionals who volunteer to assist nonprofits. MALDEF had a contract with ESC, so Mort and Sue were assigned to trail the development department. During those six or so months, Sue, Mort and I bonded. Among other things, we had eccentricity in common. And Sue and I each had a rather demonstrative collection of earrings.
Because of that bonding, we stayed in touch, mostly through holiday cards. A few years later, Sue wrote a note on the holiday card she sent, indicating she'd like to get together for lunch. I was happy to oblige.
When I met Sue, I was surprised not to see Mort with her. After all, they were "MortnSue." Always a pair. Always joined at the hip.
At that lunch, Sue shared with me that Mort had begun behaving oddly. She also told me that she'd not shared this information with anyone else. (She would tell me later—years later—that when she returned to her car that day, she was stymied by the question: Why did I just tell Katie all of that?)
A few years after that get-together, we hooked up again. Sue wanted to realize a dream, to write a book about her unique collection of male/female earrings. I was up for the challenge.
We wrote the book, My Ears Are Ringing, over the course of two years. And during that time, our friendship deepened. But during those same years, Mort delved further into dementia. Because of how that was changing her life, Sue appreciated having someone in the age range of her grown children to talk to—to share things she might not share with her kids.
By the time we finished the book in late 2002, Sue's "gal Friday" was about to leave to have a baby. This gave Sue an opportunity to deepen our bond. She said, "I know this is below your pay scale, but would you consider ..."
I named my "gal Friday" price, and we've been working together once a week ever since. I remember, early on, making a silent and primary observation about their household and the impact of dementia: It changes every relationship. But beyond that broad conclusion, I had no idea how much I was taking in.
I immediately grabbed my Day Runner and made a note: "Alzheimer's wife begins dating." I didn't know what I would do with that note, but I recognized the potential for a story.
A few months later, during "team building," Mort went to the kitchen to replenish his drink. At the time, Sue was still allowing him to have a cocktail, as he was always quite docile and he was certainly safe in the condo. As it happened, that night's dinner was going to be spaghetti and meat sauce, and the sauce was simmering on the stove. When Mort returned from the kitchen, ostensibly having refilled his scotch on the rocks, he was carrying a tumbler of meat sauce on the rocks.
Sue didn't notice, but I did. I watched as Mort, having taken his usual chair at the table, held it the way you would a drink and sipped it the way you would a drink. I caught Sue's eye, and I did one of those dancing eyebrows "look over there" gestures. She turned, she looked and then she turned back to me. "Uh huh," she said.
The look on her face and the resignation in her tone were profound. As I was driving home that night, the novel began to write itself. I pulled out the keyboard probably 10 minutes within walking in the door and began creating Evelyn, who is not at all like Sue but who shares with her the tragic bond of having a husband with dementia.
That look on Sue's face—and that tone when she said "Uh huh"—definitely formed a line in the novel's first chapter: And she feels, as she has come to feel a million times daily, the type of exasperation that churns in the soul when one is no longer shocked by nonsequitur.
What was the hardest part about writing THE SOMEBODY WHO?
Once I got going, it was a wonderful ride. I cannot recall a "hard part." Besides, I was doing it for me, you know? It didn't need to be great or perfect. It just needed to be something worth doing. A process that gave me joy. If, in the end, it sucked, then no one needed to know about it!
I will say, though, that "getting going" was crucial. I wrote the first several chapters in late spring 2005. Then I got sidetracked by life and a lot of personal stuff, and I didn't look at the novel again until June 2006. At that point, I realized if I didn't put me on my list of weekly tasks, then I wouldn't finish the novel. So I set a goal of 15 pages by week's end. Once I got into it, I exceeded the goal consistently. I finished the first draft in about nine weeks.
Do you have a favorite section or character?
Although I didn't know it at the time, I wrote THE SOMEBODY WHO in the third-person limited-omniscient narrative style, which means that Evelyn, the protagonist, is present for absolutely every scene. I grew to love her so much, felt incredibly protective of her. In fact, the novel's twist came out of that sense of protection. I should also share that I cast novels—both when I read them and when I write them—and I envisioned Meryl Streep (10 years from now) as Evelyn. (I have a major, hetero-, just want her to be my BFF crush on Meryl Streep.)
I also felt very close to Joy, one of Evelyn's two daughters (Note, Evelyn also has two sons.), and because Streep and Claire Danes had such a beautiful mother/daughter scene in The Hours, I envisioned Danes in the role of Joy. It's interesting, too, at a certain point, I felt guilty about showing favoritism to Joy, but then Evelyn said something at the end of a chapter that made it OK. She identified the fact that Joy is so much like Davy, Evelyn's husband and Joy's father. I also realized that, for parents, different children come to the fore at different times. Six years earlier in Evelyn's life, one of her other children might have received more favored billing.
What message in your book do you hope will most resonate with your readers?
Pain—physical or psychic—is temporary. We are eminently capable of adapting to change and to challenge. We are survivors, and our innate desire to be happy will win in the end.
At the time of observing what Sue was going through, I also was keeping tabs on my Mom's challenges from 3,000 miles away. Although my dad did not have dementia, he was incredibly frail, and my mother, as his primary caregiver, was having to deal with a lot. I wanted to give both of them—Sue and my mom—a sense of hope.
Ironically, my dad and Mort both died in 2008. My mom and Sue—both still alive and doing fairly well—are the same age, 84.
What has been your best marketing tool?
Marketing THE SOMEBODY WHO has been a fascinating process. Initially, I thought that with a novel about dementia and with so many people dealing with it in their lives, my audience was potentially huge and hungry. But people who have dealt with it don't want to read about it. Their experiences have been understandably depressing, and they don't want to feed that emotion. They also aren't going to believe—although it's true—that it's possible to write/read an uplifting story about dementia. After the book first came out, I tried to schedule talks/presentations to caregiver groups. A few of those worked well. Otherwise, I guess I've had my best luck in the blogosphere.
What do you like best about your publisher, Channel Press? How did you select/come to be represented by them?
I "came to" Channel Press after receiving declines from more than 70 agents. Which is to say, Channel Press is me. I produced the novel through Lightning Source, which is a terrific print-on-demand outfit, and I chose the name Channel Press because I feel like I'm channeling when I write. My friend and former neighbor, Debbi Andrews, came up with the logo.
I don't know if I'll stick with Channel Press. I have a second novel that I really love, and the folks who have read both—and who loved THE SOMEBODY WHO—praised the second novel even more. Still, it's already been no-thank-you'd by 60+ agents. I don't know. I don't know what it is between me and the traditional paths. We'll see. If I can't get an agent/traditional publisher for my second novel, then Channel Press might just get another title under its belt!
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
I've been so blessed with great reviews of THE SOMEBODY WHO, but I guess the toughest criticism is that I was unable to get an agent. Still, I never saw that as a rejection of my novel. Rather, it was a rejection of my query letter.
As for the best compliment, I need to set up some context: When I was a kid, my sister's godmother, Aunt Charlotte, kind of scared me. She is a woman with a powerful energy. She does no one any favors, and she calls it as she sees it. (Needless to say, as an adult, I think she rocks, and I realize she was the first strong woman I ever met.) In September 2008, I received an e-mail from Charlotte. Not only did she tell me how much she loved the novel, but she shared with me that she and her husband, who had just read it that day, wanted to nominate me for a Library of Virginia Literary Award. I cried when I read that e-mail, and when I read it to my mom, over the phone, we cried together.
I didn't get the award, but it was nice to see my name on the nominee list. Particularly given the alphabet. There I was, and after me: John Grisham. (He didn't get the award, either.)
Can you share a little about your current work with us?
I love my second novel so much! It began with the following notes: Regaining hope; the shit hits the fan; see what happens. I wanted to work with a male protagonist this time, so I assigned the role of Martin to Greg Kinnear. (I am so in awe of his acting. He makes it look so damned easy!) I then placed him in my Los Feliz neighborhood, and I gave him some midlife dilemmas and a wild assortment of new friends who help him get from Point A to Point B. As with THE SOMEBODY WHO, it's a story of surviving a chapter in one's life.
As for my next novel, I started one a while ago, and maybe that's what I'll pick up in the new year. (I wrote THE SOMEBODY in 2006 and Martin in 2009, so I figure I need to write another novel in 2012.) Regardless, I don't want to talk about that one at the moment. Until it's done, it isn't done.
What do you do when you aren't writing?
If procrastination were lucrative, I'd be doing it on some private island with lots of houseboys ...
My day job is as a nonprofit consultant. Mostly, I write grant proposals, but I also do the research to find funders and I help develop programs. I am very blessed to have developed a strong reputation (I consider myself the Kevin Bacon of the Los Angeles nonprofit sector.) and so to have consistent opportunities to work with nonprofits, help good causes and earn the money I need to pay the bills.
I also am a fine artist, though I don't use the word "fine" here as an adjective—just as my niece having had a baby does not make me a "great" aunt. I work with beads, making jewelry mostly and also mobiles, and I design cards. I also sometimes play with watercolors, painting to music.
And I serve my two cats, of course. I am their staff, and so I am always on call.
What is something about you or your writing that might surprise your readers?
Interesting question. I don't know that I leave a lot behind, though. Which is to say—and close friends have told me this—my voice is clear in my writing. Whether it's a blog post or THE SOMEBODY WHO or the second novel, I'm there. No smoke and mirrors. No surprises. I'm there.
There's a wonderful passage in Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. When I first read it in my 20s, it resonated like nobody's business:
Staring impotently across a courtyard, at a loss for what to do; hearing the pertinacious rumbling of one's own stomach during a moment of love; betraying, yet lacking the will to abandon the glamorous path of betrayal; raising one's fist with the crowds in the Grand March; displaying one's wit before hidden microphones-I have known all these situations, I have experienced them myself, yet none of them has given rise to the person my curriculum vitae and I represent. The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own "I" ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author's confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.
OK, so that's really heavy writing, I realize. And while I don't go to the heavy so much with my writing, I get what Kundera is saying. And I feel it when I write. Through my own experiences—through the possibilities of my personality—I can inform quite a few characters. I show up in a lot of them, and distributing myself in that way is a wonderful exercise.
WHERE TO FIND KATIE AND HER BOOK
Katie blogs at http://katiegateswrites.blogspot.com/, while THE SOMEBODY WHO is available in both paperback and Kindle formats.
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