Q&A with Lisa Genova, Author Of Left Neglected
Published by Simon and Shuster
SheSaid sat down with Lisa Genova, author of Left Neglected. This is such an incredible book – your book club needs to read, then dissect this novel. I still catch my breath when I think of various parts of this book.
Can you please tell our readers what your story is about?
LEFT NEGLECTED is a novel about a busy, multi-tasking, working mother of three who is trying to be and do and have it all. One morning on the way to work, distracted by her cell phone, she crashes her car. She wakes up days later in a hospital with a traumatic brain injury and a bizarre condition called Left Neglect. This story is about her journey of recovery. It is about what we neglect in our selves, in our relationships, and in the world around us. It is about choosing to live a conscious life. It’s about healing and becoming whole.
What inspired you to write about ‘left neglect’? Does your background in Neuroscience lead you to write books around brain injury?
Over the years as a student and a neuroscientist, I’d every now and then come across a quick case study or mention of a patient with left neglect. The information was almost always limited to pen and paper test examples of the symptoms of this condition—copying a picture of a face or a clock, circling all the letter A’s on a page, or naming all the items shown in a picture. The patients always neglected to include the left eye, the numbers 7-11 on the clock, and the A’s and items on the left side of the page. And while I thought this was fascinating, what captured my attention and wonder even more was imagining how these patients LIVE with left neglect. What is life like outside the doctor’s office? How does someone with this get dressed, go to work, cook a meal, eat a meal, function in a relationship, navigate a whole world while only paying attention to half of it? Before I finished writing Still Alice, I knew I wanted to write about someone with left neglect next.
Relationships feature strongly in ‘Left Neglected’, mainly Sarah’s – between her mum, her husband and her children – how do these relationships change after her accident?
Everyone is changed by Sarah’s condition. Sarah’s mother comes to help take care of her, a situation that forces these two women to pay attention to each other, something they haven’t done in thirty years. It creates the opportunity for conflict, resistance, and ultimately forgiveness and healing. In learning to pay attention to what her mind wants her to ignore and in discovering a new, less-than-perfect normal, Sarah comes to relate and have empathy for her son Charlie, who struggles with ADHD. And in slowing down, Sarah and Bob discover a different choice for their life together, one that is simpler, less exhausting, and more meaningful to them.
Sarah’s husband Bob seems to delve into his job after she comes home from hospital – perhaps when she needs him most. Why does he do this – is it really just to keep his job or does he have trouble with seeing his formally competent, intelligent wife struggle to even walk or sit?
I don’t think Bob was in denial like John was in STILL ALICE. He knew Sarah was in good hands in the hospital and with her mother, and he needed to work to keep his job. Their financial worries were real before Sarah’s accident, but the pressure on Bob after the accident became enormous. He did hide at work for a bit when they were fighting about moving to Vermont, but I think overall Bob did a great job of continuing to stand by Sarah’s side, continuing to believe in her and her future recovery, unwavering in his encouragement.
What is the message that you want women to take away from this book – is it as simple as ‘don’t use your phone while you drive’ or does it run deeper?
If women take away that one message alone — ‘ignore your phone while you drive’—then the book is a success because it will save lives. But, of course, the book runs deeper. I hope it teaches readers a little bit about traumatic brain injury, attention deficit disorder, and left neglect. I hope it helps certain readers find New England Handicapped Sports Association or an organization like it, and I hope it changes their lives. And mostly, I hope it gives readers an opportunity to think about their own lives, to maybe slow down and pay more attention to what really matters to them.
You spent some time with real life patients of ‘left neglect’, did that help you humanise your main character, Sarah and did that help you make the decision to not completely heal her in the book?
Yes and yes! Similar to what I found when I was researching Alzheimer’s for STILL ALICE, reading what’s available in textbooks and the clinical literature can only take you so far. There’s a great quote by Oliver Sacks—“In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology. In examining the PERSON with disease, we learn about life.” It was when I met and talked with people who live with left neglect that I gained the wisdom that allowed me to imagine the character of Sarah come as a three dimensional human being.
I felt an enormous responsibility to portray left neglect as accurately as possible. My goal is always to tell the truth under the imaginary circumstances I’ve created. When people with left neglect take the time to talk with me, to share their own experiences, to let me inside their private lives, I have enormous respect for them and the information they’ve given to me. I know I need to use this knowledge with great care. The people I came to know with left neglect have not recovered fully. So, to reflect this truth, Sarah doesn’t fully recover either. Although Sarah’s neglect doesn’t completely heal, the experience serves as the vehicle that heals other parts of her and her relationships.
Would you change anything in the novel and what would it be?
I really love this book exactly as it is. Interestingly, I had the rare opportunity to do this with STILL ALICE. The ending of the self-published edition of STILL ALICE did not include the epilogue, which I love.
My favourite character is definitely Sarah because she is so high powered and capable, and prone to sitting at her desk for a good cry once in a while – then her world falls apart and she has to learn everything all over again. Who is your favourite character and why?
Sarah is my favorite as well. She and I are similar in lots of ways—in age (although I’m older now; so not fair!), we both have three kids (I had two when I wrote the book, but I’ve since caught up), and I worked as a consultant for a strategy consulting firm for a couple of years, so I know that high-powered, crazy-houred work world that she inhabited. I also certainly know the challenges around paying attention to what really matters most and finding and maintaining a healthy balance in life. So, I can identify most easily with Sarah. But I’d say I enjoy her the most for her humor. I laughed out loud so many times while writing something she’d say or think. I love her ability to see humor in even the darkest moments.
While Sarah is my favorite character, she was also the hardest to write. Telling the story from the point of view of a character who is only aware of the right half of everything presented interesting writing challenges. There were many times where I had to stop and think, “Now how do I communicate to the reader what Sarah isn’t aware of if she isn’t aware of it??”
Do you give your characters a piece of yourself or your family? Ie a shared pet name, shared coffee habit etc?
Here and there, yes. I don’t drink coffee. Ever. And I love to meditate. So Sarah and I don’t have anything in common there. But I do love to ski, so that’s a piece of me in Sarah. (Interestingly, readers always assume I’m a runner because Alice was a runner. I’m not. I only run if I’m being chased!). Charlie’s eyelashes are my son Ethan’s. Heidi is modelled after my friend, Heidi, who is a nurse. Sarah and I both love chocolate.
On your Facebook page, you have photos of your books on various shelves in bookshops around USA – do you get it that you are a successful author in numerous countries or do you still pinch yourself?
Oh, I definitely still pinch myself! This is probably embarrassing to admit, but if I see my book in an airport bookstore, I still tell the nearest person, “See that book? I wrote it!” I’m still tickled and excited and proud to see it anywhere in the world. It seems like only a minute ago that I was peddling self-published copies of STILL ALICE out of the trunk of my car. And now you can buy both of my books in Australia! Quick, somebody pinch me!
Where can we find out more about you, your next projects and your past novel, ‘Still Alice’?
Thank you Lisa for your time but mainly for the awareness you have created about two very different debilitating illnesses that are suffered by ordinary people.
Have you read Left Neglected? Share your thoughts here!