By Leslie Lindsay
A fascinating and wholly unique twist on ‘bookclub’ fiction featuring strong protagonists, an intelligent and emotional read about two grieving women, their spouses, and what happens when the answer’s to life’s impossible mysteries are…intangible.
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS~
Always with a Book
Leslie Lindsay in Conversation with C.J. Washington
C.J. Washington is a data scientist by day, a writer by night. THE INTANGIBLES is his debut–and it’s astonishing.
I was immediately intrigued with THE INTANGIBLE (Little A, January 1 2022), a debut from C.J. Washington. It has all the elements I crave in a good story: something a little psychological/medical, motherhood, grief, research, but is firmly fiction.
ABOUT THE INTANGIBLE:
Amanda Jackson has longed to be a mother. The early weeks of her first pregnancy is a mixture of joy, anticipation, and uncertainty. But then, a devastating loss. Amanda is heartbroken, and although the doctors tell her otherwise, she is no longer pregnant. The mind is a marvel–good or bad–and Amanda has developed a rare and mysterious condition: pseudocyesis, a false pregnancy, complete with all of the outward signs and symptoms of pregnancy. Amanda turns to neuroscientist Patrick Davis for answers.
Patrick is not immune to grief, the strange twists and turns of the human mind, but he’s struggling, too. So is his marriage to his mathematician wife, Marissa, who is working at a theory to connect with the dead. These two couples work to confront this precarious intersection of math, science, death, emotion, and more.
THE INTANGIBLE (Little A, January 1 2022) is a heady book with pockets of inspiration, research, and interpersonal relationships, full of complex and debilitating twists. I found the characters likable, but also a tiny bit enmeshed; they bounce and collide, making irreparable choices, yet ultimately culminating in a satisfying conclusion.
I am very impressed with this debut from C.J. Washington and will be interested to see what he writes next.
Please join me in welcoming him to the author interview series:
C.J., welcome! What a head-rush, mind-bending read. I’m always intrigued with beginnings and inspirations. I understand the seed for THE INTANGIBLE was planted years ago when your father was a resident physician and spoke of a patient with a ‘false pregnancy.’ Can you share a little more?
The inspiration for THE INTANGIBLE came from multiple events experienced over several years.
The first was a conversation with my father. He told me about a case he’d witnessed during his OBGYN residency. The patient presented with all the outward signs of pregnancy, and she believed herself to be pregnant, but an ultrasound revealed no fetus. When placed under general anesthesia, her belly flattened, and as she recovered from the anesthetic, her belly distended again. It sounded incredible, and if I didn’t know my father, I wouldn’t have believed him. He couldn’t tell me what caused it or how it worked or even what happened to the patient (she was referred to psychiatry, and he never saw her again), but Amanda, my character, was born on that day.
My imagination had been set afire, and I proceeded to learn everything I could about pseudocyesis.
The next seed came years later when I attended a young boy’s funeral. As I offered condolences to his parents, I wondered how they could accept the reality of their son’s death. Not only how could they deal with it, but how could they bring themselves to believe he was gone. Marissa—a character who wouldn’t or couldn’t accept the harsh nature of reality—materialized beside me at that service.
Still more years later, Marissa’s sister Jenn came to life after my family, like so many others, was touched by the ravages of drug addiction.
These experiences left me with wounds that defied resolution and questions I couldn’t answer. In part, THE INTANGIBLE was my exploration of these events.
As with all debuts, they go through multiple iterations. Can you talk about the journey of publication? Because, that’s huge.
My journey to publication moved dreadfully slowly and then astonishingly fast. A version of THE INTANGIBLE entitled PHANTOM PREGNANCY was the first manuscript I ever completed. I couldn’t find an agent to represent it, so I put it away to work on other projects. Several years and a few manuscripts later, I sat down with my initial inspiration for PHANTOM PREGNANCY and wrote a very different novel.
Shortly after finishing THE INTANGIBLE, I was browsing in a bookstore and came across THE EAST END, a debut novel by Jason Allen. I was so impressed by his writing that I sent a query letter to his agent Sarah Bedingfield. I now consider THE EAST END to be the most serendipitous reading discovery of my life. Sarah replied to my query the following day and requested the full manuscript. Exactly three weeks later, I signed with her and became the recipient of her extraordinary talents.
She provided editorial suggestions, I did revisions, and four months later, we accepted an offer from Little A. Working with the team at Little A was awesome and things continued to move quickly. The novel was scheduled to be published in a year, and thanks to the hard work of many people, we managed to stick to that timeline.
All of your characters were so fully drawn. I’m curious if there was one you personally identified with more than the other? Maybe one you liked least when you first started writing, but sort of ‘grew’ on you as you understood them more?
When I first started the novel, it was a first-person narrative told from Patrick’s point of view. I was probably 50 or so pages in before I realized that Amanda and Marissa needed voices to tell their own stories. From there, they blossomed, and it didn’t take long for me to see Amanda and Marissa as the stars of the novel.
As I wrote, I grew to feel most connected to Marissa. I think we see the best and worst of her and all she could have been had things happened differently. While she’s profoundly impacted by events she can’t control, she, I think, possesses the strongest agency of any of the characters. For better and worse, she makes things happen.
My special connection with Marissa became especially apparent during the revision process. Sarah would recommend changes, and I always knew intuitively how Marissa would respond, act, and think in new circumstances. Writing her felt so natural.
“Washington’s first novel is a brilliant portrait of human behavior, specifically how the mind evolves and devolves through time. This performance cements Washington as a powerful new force in fiction.”
—Booklist (starred review)
I think THE INTANGIBLE is mostly about human emotion, even though the narrative is sort of ‘backed’ by science and math. So many of our human yearnings, hopes, are…well, intangible. We can’t always manipulate variables, like in math or science, to get what we so desperately seek. Can you expand on that a bit, please? And tell me if I’m wrong here, too!
I agree, THE INTANGIBLE is about human emotion.
Science and math are important insofar as they illuminate the characters’ strivings and desires, and more often they serve as a foil rather than an answer.
Patrick became a neuroscientist because he wanted to help people, but when he needs most to apply his knowledge, he’s forced to grapple with its limitations. Marissa understands reality through mathematics, and when she can’t accept her circumstances, she turns to math for salvation. Amanda’s condition is as much biological as it is psychological and she finds herself stranded between her inner reality, a belief that she’s pregnant supported by her physical symptoms, and the external “true” reality—an ultrasound that shows no fetus.
These characters often turn to science to make sense of their circumstances, but ultimately, they’re dealing with emotion, a realm science can’t currently reach.
I chose “intangible” for the title in part because each of these characters’ deepest yearnings is beyond their understanding.
Simple solutions elude them, so they reach for complex ones with the hope that it will save them.
What do you find the most satisfying about writing? What challenges you?
I love to immerse myself in fictional worlds, getting to know characters and accompanying them on journeys. I especially enjoy reading long novels and watching protracted television series. Their depth and breadth enhance the immersive experience. Writing my own fiction puts that experience on steroids. That’s what I find most satisfying, getting to spend months thinking about the characters and their world and journeys. It’s a very pleasant way to spend time.
While I enjoy, above all, the storytelling aspects of fiction, I also look to it to explore the big questions of our existence. That’s what I find most challenging.
Writing, for me, is a great tool for asking questions, but it doesn’t necessarily give us the answers, and we all want answers.
How can I, as a writer, chip away at some of those big questions?
What’s next for you, writing-wise? And what’s on your nightstand this winter?
I’m working on Book 2, a novel that revolves around a murder. A chain of events is triggered when a killer-for-hire with terminal cancer decides to confess his crimes to authorities. The story is about him and two women whose lives are altered by his revelations.
The New Year puts me in a reflective mood. As such, I tend to revisit books that are important to me. With Anne Rice’s passing last month, I’m wanting to re-read some of her work. I love big, meandering stories, and Rice always delivered on those. I recently pulled out my copy of THE WITCHING HOUR, and I think I’ll start with that, though, I also miss Lestat. There’s plenty there to keep me busy for a while. I also want to re-read THE CLASS and DOCTORS by Erich Segal. I haven’t read those in decades, but they remain amongst my favorites.
A friend gave me BEHAVE: THE BIOLOGY OF HUMANS AT OUR BEST AND WORST by Robert M. Sapolsky. I admire his academic work and look forward to the book.
I’m curious about Andromeda Romano-Lax’s ANNIE AND THE WOLVES, so that is on my list. Thank you for that, Leslie!
C.J., this has been so illuminating. Thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have, or maybe something you’d like to ask me?
I love your blog and admire your voracious reading habit. Before you asked, I’ve never had to articulate what I find satisfying about writing. But once I considered it, it was obvious that writing for me is just another form of reading—it’s all about existing momentarily in a fictional world. They fuel each other: reading makes me want to write which makes me want to read.
In your case, you’re not only a reader but also a book reviewer and a writer. How distinct are these three pursuits for you? What is their relationship to each other?
Oh my gosh! Yes–all of these things are intrinsically linked. Like you, reading makes me want to write, makes me want to read; it’s a (vicious cycle). It’s a good cycle. It’s like strength training and cardio. Peanut butter and jelly. They just go together, you know? We can’t do anything well in a vacuum. I need books like I need water. It helps my writing life. And reviewing…when I get into the nitty-gritty of what’s working in a book (for me) and what’s not, I am more cognizant of that in my own writing. I try to avoid those things and emulate the stuff I love. This ‘trifecta’ has improved my reading and writing life immensely. But here’s how it can be a problem: sometimes reading and reviewing become a form of procrastination when I should be writing. Sigh.
C.J., I loved this interview. Thank you, thank you for taking the time.
Thank you so much for the interview! I greatly enjoyed it.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, TO CONNECT WITH C.J. WASHINGTON, OR TO PURCHASE A COPY OF THE INTANGIBLE, PLEASE VISIT:
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A PERFECT PAIRING:
Readers might find some intersection in the storytelling style of Jodi Piccoult meets Andromeda Romano-Lax (particularly ANNIE AND THE WOLVES) with a touch of domestic thriller.
I’ll be re-circulating my 2021 interview with Ashley Audrain, author of THE PUSH on Fiction Friday (1.14.21), about the darker challenges of motherhood, deep familial connections–releasing in paperback, Diane Chamberlain’s novel traversing time periods, a ghostly aspect, social issues, more, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE STREET, and at the end of the month, Heather Gudenkauf’s stunning new rural thriller, THE OVERNIGHT GUEST.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
C.J. Washington is a data scientist and writer. He has a master’s degree in computer science from the Georgia Institute of Technology and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife and daughter. The Intangible is his first novel.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series, “Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Shari Lapena to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online, including Psychology Today, Mud Season Review, A Door = Jar, Mutha, Literary Mama, The Manifest-Station, among others. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, an audiobook narrated by Leslie from Penguin Random House. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.