Sunday, November 29, 2009
When a Favorite Book Gets a New Life by Diane Chamberlain
People often ask me "Which of your books is your favorite?" That's a little like asking a parent "Which of your children do you love best?" It's impossible to answer, at least not without a good deal of explanation.
Each of my nineteen novels is my baby and each contains some of my heart and soul. I can't deny it, though: I do have favorites and my latest novel, the reissued Breaking the Silence, is one of them. I write complex stories, and this is one of my most complex. One reviewer wrote that "it has something for everyone," and that may be one reason why I love it.
It's the story of:
• a mysterious deathbed request
• an elderly woman with Alzheimer's
• a mute little girl
• the CIA mind control experiments that took place in the 1950s
• a hot air balloon pilot
• a journalist who does something really crazy!
• and the female astronomer who pulls all those threads together
Whew! I'm exhausted just thinking about it.
And here's a bonus: In spite of all the rough stuff I put my characters through, the story has a happy ending--or at least, a satisfying one. That's a promise I always make to my reader and to myself. Happiness is much sweeter when we have to struggle to get there. I don't mind finishing a book with a tear in my eye as long as I'm also wearing a smile on my face, however poignant that smile may be.
The idea for Breaking the Silence came to me in the stacks of the library. I love walking through the nonfiction stacks, skimming the spines of books to see what jumps out at me. One day, I spotted a book called Journey into Madness by Gordon Thomas. The former psychotherapist in me had to pull the book down from the shelf, which is when I saw the subheading: The True Story of Secret CIA Mind Control and Medical Abuse. I was living in the Washington, DC area at the time, and some of my closest friends (and, okay, my then-husband as well) worked for the CIA, so how could I resist? I found a comfortable chair in the corner of the library and lost myself in the horrific account of government sanctioned experimentation on unwitting psychiatric patients during the cold war years. I knew I had to write about this experimentation in a novel. However, my audience primarily reads women's fiction, so I needed to find a way to write about something as gritty as mind control experiments in a way that would appeal to my readership. I also was intensely fascinated by the way the staff at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal, Canada (the psychiatric hospital where much of the program took place and which I fictionalized in Breaking the Silence) went along with the outrageous practices.
To meet these challenges, I created a dual storyline. Laura Brandon is an acclaimed astronomer. On her father's deathbed, he asks her to take care of an elderly woman named Sarah Tolley, someone Laura has never heard him mention before. She visits Sarah, only to learn that the elderly woman has Alzheimer's and has no memory of Laura's father. She does, however, remember a great deal about her distant past, which she gradually reveals to Laura. I decided to make Sarah a nurse involved in the mind control experiments rather than a patient, so that I could explore how someone might come to believe that the maltreatment of patients was good and necessary.
Meanwhile, Laura's husband kills himself, her little daughter stops talking, and she falls in love with a hot air balloon pilot. It all ties together eventually. Honest! Here I am during the cut-and-paste outlining phase of one of my books. Writing a book as complicated as Breaking the Silence truly does require an outline . . . even if I end up throwing it away once the characters take over.
In the summer of 2008, my novel The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes was selected by Target as their BookClub pick. This was a huge honor and enabled me to reach tens of thousands of new readers. I've heard from so many of them who are hungry to find my backlist, so I was thrilled when my publisher told me they planned to reissue some of my earlier books, spiffed up with great new covers and all in trade paperback format. I love that Breaking the Silence is one of those books and will now be available to my readers. I'll be posting more about the challenges of writing and researching this book on my own blog during December (you don't want to miss the story of my harrowing hot air balloon ride!), and you can read an excerpt and find discussion questions for reading groups at my website.
Would you like to win a copy of Breaking the Silence? On December 10th, I'll randomly select one of the commenters to this post and I'll mail a personalized copy of the book to the winner in time for him or her to give it (or keep it) as a holiday gift.
Thank you, Kaye, for your entertaining blog and for giving so many writers the opportunity to share their writing journeys with your blog readers. Happy Holidays to everyone, from my two writing companions, Jet and Keeper, and me.