Questions for Sharon Guskin

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1. The Forgetting Time is your first novel, and we understand that previously your career has been in the film world. Have you always wanted to write?

Pretty much. I first started writing stories when I was in fifth grade. I was deeply engrossed in The Island of the Blue Dolphins, a novel by Scott O’Dell, and I didn’t want to leave that world when the book was over. So I just kept writing it, adding another chapter of my own, and then another one after that. By the time I was in 8th grade, I used to pray to be a writer every night — it seems funny now, as there are certainly better things to pray for! But I was fervent. And I guess my prayers have been answered.

2. What had you written before The Forgetting Time? Any earlier, unpublished attempts?

Ah, yes, sometimes I call The Forgetting Time my “third first novel” — there were two other finished novels. They weren’t terrible; I had agents for them and a bit of publisher interest, but in the end they didn’t get published and I put them away, which is not an easy thing to do, but healthier for me than rewriting them forever. It felt pretty foolish to keep writing at that point, after being so disappointed with the first two. But I’m glad I did. All that failure forced me to give up any idea that my value as a person was related to my success as a writer, so I was much freer to write the way I wanted to write. When I began this one, my intentions were much simpler and purer: I wasn’t trying to impress anybody. I just wanted to tell a story about something that I thought might interest people.

3. The most important theme in the book is reincarnation, and the ability of small children to recall past lives. How did you become interested in this?

I’ve always been fascinated by the question of what happens when we die — who isn’t, really? When my kids were small, I started volunteering at a hospice; I wasn’t freaked out by death, and I thought it was something useful to do. Spending time with people who were facing imminent death, though, I started to feel myself changing. Part of it was an understanding of the preciousness of life, of course, but I also had this sense that there must be something else — that there was more to life than this body, there was something that would continue. I had to know more. So I started to read all sorts of things.

Around this time, a relative handed me a book, Old Souls, in which a Washington Post reporter follows Dr. Ian Stevenson around the world as he investigates his cases. Dr. Stevenson was a professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia who spent decades of his life researching very young children who made numerous specific statements about having previous lifetimes, and he was able to verify those statements in an extraordinary way. One child said, for instance, that in a previous life she lived near the Kelaniya Temple in a faraway village, that she was a man who sold Ambiga and Geta Pichcha incense, and that she was hit by a truck riding her bicycle and died. And the investigators did their research and found someone in a village near that temple who fit all of those statements exactly, and other statements as well, and then they took this child to that village and she was able to identify the parents of this man who had died, and many other things there. So these cases are quite compelling, and not easily dismissed. They really blew my mind — there are almost 3,000 of them so far.

(Skeptics might want to read this article at Scientific American, by the way.)

Eventually, I started to wonder where my own children’s different personalities came from — how much were they really my children, after all? And this story started percolating about a skeptical single mom whose four year old son is longing for another mother, and the scientist who helps her.

4. In the novel you include extracts from an academic book citing real-life cases of such memories. Why did you decide to do this?

Having an understanding that this phenomenon (whatever you think of it) is something that really happens can change the experience of reading the novel for some people, I think. The intention was to ground the story so that it felt as real as possible. It widens the perspective of the book, in the end, because whether you believe in reincarnation or not, part of the story is the question: What if it’s true? What does that mean for you, if it is? So it’s a story, a page-turner, hopefully an enjoyable one, and it also has this other level, because it’s very personal and very universal: we are all going to die, and something is going to happen to us at that point (or nothing) and what if this is what happens? And so I think it adds a bit of an electric charge to the whole story.

5. Another important theme in the novel is the condition known as semantic aphasia (the forgetting of everyday words), which is suffered by the Professor. Why did you choose to include this?

I’ve been very interested in memory — what does it mean to remember, what does it mean to forget? In this instance, how does it change your life experience and sense of the world to forget words, language itself?

So Dr. Anderson is trying to catch these children’s memories of a previous lifetime before they forget them (which they mostly do by age 5 or 6) and meanwhile he’s losing his own ability to remember the names for things.

I also have a relative who suffers from this disease, so it’s a very personal calamity for me. It’s a tough thing to see someone go through, and yet he is very present and even joyful, even though he can’t be understood by most people.

6. How much research did you have to do for the novel?

I read a great deal, and I interviewed Dr. Tucker a number of times, and familiarized myself with the cases. The most useful books were some of Dr. Ian Stevenson’s works, Children who Remember Previous LifetimesTwenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, and Reincarnation and Biology, both of Dr. Tucker’s books, Life before Life and Return to Life, as well as Children’s Past Lives by Carol Bowman, Old Souls by Tom Schroder, Soul Survivor by Bruce and Andrea Leininger, Death and Personal Survival: The Evidence for Life after Death by philosophy professor Robert Almeder. There were many more, and I still felt I could have spent many more years educating myself on this topic.

I also talked to people who had stories to tell me about things their children said and did that might indicate some kind of past-life memories. There are a lot of stories out there. I love hearing all of them.

7. I thought that, whether or not a reader might go along with the central premise, they’d be bound to be won over by your depictions of the two mothers in the novel, which seemed to me to be wholly authentic. How much did your own experience of motherhood feed into this?

It’s the only way I could write this book — by connecting to my own experience as a mother. It’s the soul of the book, really, the experience of these two mothers, these regular moms in extraordinary circumstances. Ultimately, you can read the whole book as a kind of metaphor for that relationship, for connection itself: we are so deeply attached to our kids, we would do anything for them, but they don’t belong to us, and at some level we don’t even know them fully, or why they are the way they are. And we are always losing them a little bit, every day. My oldest child is 13 right now, so it’s very vivid to me, that sense of time slipping away before he’s grown and moves on. And the fear, of course, of what might happen to one’s child, whether it is an illness or something worse: every parent lives with that fear.

8. Given the somewhat unusual nature of the subject matter, how easy was it to find a publisher?

I was lucky. My editor, Amy Einhorn, understood what the book was early on — a gripping, emotional story about a mother and child, with this other dimension to it — and took a chance. You don’t need to believe in reincarnation to enjoy this book, and Amy saw that. There are people, of course, who are resistant to the subject matter, though many of them are surprised by how engaged they get by the story. I get a certain amount of reviews that say, basically, “even if you think reincarnation is total bunk, you’ll like this book.”

9. What authors do you admire, and who do you suggest people should read?

I admire so many authors — if I had to pick a top ten, I guess I’d choose Henry James, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Shirley Hazzard, Isaac Babel, Leo Tolstoy, Charlotte Bronte, Toni Morrison, Jean Rhys, and Virginia Woolf.

Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree is a breathtakingly empathic nonfiction account of parents and their very different children, and how far they’d go to help them. It’s a book that will change you.

I loved Brooklyn and find all of Colm Toibin’s work very moving and compassionate.

Vaddey Ratner’s novel In the Shadow of the Banyan was a revelation to me – very dark and radiant at the same time. It was based on her own experiences growing up in Cambodia — she was a princess who lost almost everyone and everything to the Khmer Rouge. I’ve been very inspired by how she created meaning from such tragedy.

10. And what’s next? Are you writing another novel?

Yes! A new book – it has one character from The Forgetting Time in it, and it isn’t about reincarnation. That’s all I’ll say for now, though!

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Questions by Harriet who is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Read Harriet’s review of Sharon’s novel in our Fiction section – here.

Sharon Guskin, The Forgetting Time (Mantle, 2016). 978-1509806799, 368pp., hardback.

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