Write on Wednesday: Sharon Guskin talks about her smashing novel THE FORGETTING TIME, reincarnation, how novels are like magnets, crawling around the dark with a flashlight, eliminating 80 pages, and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

THE FORGETTING TIME is a jaw-dropping, intelligent novel about the power of love, reincarnation, and motherhood.

What if what you did mattered more because life happened again and again, the consequences unfolding against continents, decades, and race? What if you are a mother who will stop at nothing for her young son, the one who wants to go home, the only trouble is: he’s already there? Guskin_cover_final

Everything with Noah is hard. His mother, Janie will concur. He’s terrified of water, so getting him to bathe is a battle she chooses to ignore. He smells and says odd things to classmates at his preschool. What’s more, he has debilitating nightmares that often scares Janie, too. But no one knows how to help Noah. Until we meet Jerome Alexander, M.D. a man who has his share of worries, but is quite intrigued with the scientific aspects of reincarnation. In fact, he’s spent his life’s work on tracking down such cases, researching, and writing about it.

What Sharon Guskin has done for THE FORGETTING TIME will leave you breathless in an evocative, page-turning character-driven thriller with motherhood smack at the heart.

Today, I am honored to have Sharon with us today.

Leslie Lindsay: Sharon, I just finished THE FORGETTING TIME last night and I have to say…wow! I almost feel like I need a little time to digest. What inspired you to write this story?

Sharon Guskin: Thanks so much! I’ve always been interested in the question of what happens when we die — who isn’t, really? I wasn’t freaked out by death — I’m not sure why. When my kids were small, I started volunteering at a hospice; I thought it was something useful to do, and I was drawn to the work. Spending time with people who were facing imminent death, I started to “wake up” in a way. Part of it was realizing how precious life is, but I also had a sense of — there’s more. Isn’t there? I think there’s more. Why aren’t we talking more about that?

Around this time, a friend gave me this book, “Old Souls,” in which a Washington Post reporter follows Dr. Ian Stevenson around 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 150px-Ian_Stevensonyoung children who made numerous specific statements about having a previous lifetime, and he was able to match those statements with actual people who had died.  These cases are amazing, so compelling — there are almost 3,000 of them so far. One child said, for instance, that in a previous life she lived near the Kelaniya Temple (in a village far from where she lived at the time); that she was a man who sold Ambiga and Geta Pichcha incense, and she was hit by a truck riding her bicycle and died.  And they found someone in a village near that temple who fit all of those statements, and when they took the child to that village she was able to identify people and things there. So these cases blew my mind, and I started to wonder where my own children’s very different personalities, attractions and repulsions came from — how much were they really my children, after all? And this story started coming to me, of a skeptical single mom whose four year old son is longing for another mother, and the scientist who helps her.  And I started to write this book.

L.L.: There’s a lot going on in THE FORGETTING TIME, but it’s handled so well. There’s motherhood, reincarnation, missing children, redemption…and probably more! Was there one aspect of writing that you found more challenging? Easier?

Sharon Guskin: It’s funny to say, but the character of Janie, the Brooklyn mom, was the most difficult for me to get right. I’m a Brooklyn mom, so you’d think maybe she’d be easier to understand! Eventually I had to change her personality so that she was even less like me — I made her an architect, for instance, instead of an artist. Other characters, like Denise, just showed up, and seemed right away to me to be real people, and it was easy to write them.  There are also characters who have undergone deep loss in the book, and writing about that was a very emotional experience, so it was challenging in that way.

Reincarnation was an overwhelming topic — I kept reading and reading and still feeling as if I had so much more to learn. So eventually I had to let go of the research and just tell my story, and the story of these cases, the best way I could.

“Bold, captivating…Guskin amps up the suspense while raising provocative questions about the maternal bond and its limits…you’ll be mesmerized.”
People Magazine (Book of the Week)

L.L.: Was the character of Noah based on any particular child in your life? A composite of your own children, perhaps?

Sharon Guskin: Ha, guess I’m busted — yes, Noah’s sense of humor comes from my own children — they are funnier and sillier than I am and have a wonderful sense of wordplay. And they both love baseball. My younger son is also very exuberant and has blonde hair, so there’s that. I’ve stolen some lines from him.  Noah’s sadness, nightmares, and phobias are all his own, though.

L.L.: I’m curious what kind of research you embarked upon to complete THE FORGETTING TIME? Obviously, you have some wonderful excerpts and quotes from Dr. Jim Tucker and his book, LIFE BEFORE LIFE: Children’s Memories of Previous Lives, but was there more? Can you speak to that, please?

Sharon Guskin: Oh, I read so many things — The most useful were some of Dr. Ian Stevenson’s books,  Children who Remember Previous Lifetimes, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, and Reincarnation and Biology….both of Dr. Tucker’s books, Life before Life and Return to Life, Children’s Past Lives by Carol Bowman, Old Souls by Tom Schroder, Soul Survivor by the Bruce and Andrea LeiningerDeath and Personal Survival: The Evidence for Life after Death was a fascinating book by Philosophy Professor Robert Almeder.

L.L.: What kind of writer are you? Do you plot and plan, or do you let the pen do the work? Do you have any writing routines or rituals?

Sharon Guskin: My first writing teacher, Peter Matthiessen used to talk about a “magnet” that pulls one through a book, and that’s what I focus on when I write: a sense of what the end of the book might feel like, and in a general way who the characters are, what their struggles might be, where I want them to end up, emotionally, thematically. But it’s vague, more intuitive and musical than concrete. I can’t plot too specifically, or it all dies on the page.  So most of the time I’m crawling through the darkness with a tiny flashlight, trying to figure out where I am and where I’m going.

I drink lots of coffee — does that count as a ritual? And I go to a writer’s room, or a cafe, to get out of my house. I sometimes use an app called Freedom in order to shut down the Internet when I write, because I find myself drawn to that quicksand on a regular basis. And I go to colonies whenever possible, so I can be among a community of writers and dream about my characters, and start writing in the morning immediately without having to get up and get the kids off to school.

L.L.: Can you talk a bit about your revision process?

Sharon Guskin: THE FORGETTING TIME is not the same book it was a few years ago. It has been substantially revised and improved. I rewrote it a couple of times before I sold it, and then three times afterwards, for my editor. I added a number of pages and then ended up taking out almost 80 pages in the last go-round, which was a bit painful; in fact, when my editor asked me to remove the pages, I felt resistant initially and gave the book to a number of friends to read.  A month later, I checked in with them and they all said lovely things about the book, but none of them had finished it. Where’d you stop reading? I asked — and all of them had stopped right before my eighty page flashback. So I realized I had a speed bump.  I loved those pages, but most of them had to go — I moved some of the material later in the book and took out the rest, and since then people don’t seem to have a problem finishing this book.

“For fans of Cloud Atlas and The Lovely Bones, this psychological mystery will have you hooked until the case is closed…Or is it?”
Cosmopolitan 

L.L.: What is obsessing you now and why?

Sharon Guskin: I’m obsessed with imagining and writing about exalted spiritual inner states; for instance, what might enlightenment feel like? I can’t know, at present, but it’s fun to try to imagine. I’m reading Peter Matthiessen’s NINE HEADED DRAGON RIVER, his journals about his Buddhist practice, and an interesting book called “An Experience of Enlightenment” about a young woman without a religious context who started to ask herself, “What is ultimate reality?”

I’m also beginning the next book, which has a character just out from prison and another who is an undocumented immigrant, so I’m diving into those worlds.

L.L.: What books—fiction and non-fiction—would recommend for someone interested in learning more about reincarnation?

Sharon Guskin: Nonfiction:“Life Before Life” and “Return to Life,” two books by Dr. Jim Tucker, give a very clear and engaging presentation of this work and of his methodology.

51nfXLXuklL._AA160_(“Return to Life” is focused on American cases.)

“Old Souls” by Tom Shroder (a former Washington Post reporter) provides a wonderful portrait of Dr. Stevenson and his work.41VQt4oJDHL._AA160_

Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation” and “Children Who Remember Previous Lives,” are slightly more academic books by Dr. Ian Stevenson about this phenomenon.

Children’s Past Lives” by Carol Bowman gives a different, more therapeutically- oriented approach to this topic; she does past-life regression therapy as well. “Soul Survivor” by Bruce and Andrea Leininger tells the gripping story of their young son, who remembered a life as a World War II fighter pilot.

Fiction: Often reincarnation books fall into a fantasy genre, or the theme is used more as a metaphor or a stylistic device. (Mine is neither, really.) That said, “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell is beautifully done; “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki is not about reincarnation but its themes are both Buddhist and Quantum Physics related, and I found the book really captivating intellectually and emotionally. “The Incarnations” by Susan 61sEWVN+uPL._AA160_Barker just came out recently, and I haven’t read it yet, but it seems wonderful.

L.L.: Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Sharon Guskin: On book tour, people ask me, what do you believe now?

When I started the novel, I was merely curious about these cases; I wanted to know more, and I thought people might be interested in them.

But after spending so long studying them, and getting to know the very conscientious and rational Dr. Tucker, I started to think:  Maybe these cases are real, and it’s true. What if it’s true?

What if we were born before, and will be born again? What does that mean for how we live our lives?

I’m not in the business of giving answers; novelists ask questions above all. Everyone has to ask their own questions and find their own path. And you don’t need to believe in reincarnation to enjoy this book — it’s just a story, after all!  But I think it’s an interesting question for all of us to ponder.

L.L.: Sharon, thank you so much for being with us today. It was such a pleasure!

Sharon Guskin:  Thanks so much! Thrilled to be here.

For more information, or to follow Sharon on Social Media, please see:

Twitter: @SGuskin


Author bio:SHARON GUSKIN
is the author of the debut novel, THE FORGETTING TIME. In addition to writing fiction, she has worked as a writer and producer of award-winning documentary films, including STOLEN and ON MEDITATION. She began exploring the ideas examined in THE FORGETTING TIME when she worked at a refugee camp in Thailand as a young woman and, later, served as a hospice volunteer soon after the birth of her first child. She’s been a fellow at Yaddo, 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. 

[Special thanks to Flatiron books. Author and cover image courtesy of S. Guskin. Author photo credit: David Jacobs.Images of books about reincarnation retrieved from Amazon on 4.3.16. Dr. Ian Stevenson image retrieved from Wikipedia on 4.3.16]

 

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