Books-A-Million Interviews: Sharon Guskin on Publishing, Storytelling, and Reincarnation
With the abundance of famous authors and the major studio culture of movie adaptations, it’s easy to get lost in the big names: Patterson, King, and Rowling are great examples. However, as readers we do ourselves a great disservice by only paying attention to the biggest personalities.
In fact, some of the best storytelling comes from debut authors. The Forgetting Time is a perfect example of a mesmerizing novel from debut author Sharon Guskin. Telling the story of a child born with the memories of his previous life, Guskin explores the idea of reincarnation and a mother’s love.
The Forgetting Time is a novel every fiction reader should pick up. And we were able to catch up with Guskin to ask her a few questions about the process of publishing as a debut author, her writing, and the idea of reincarnation.
BAM: Often we interview veteran authors, and we tend to gloss over the process of writing a novel and getting it published. But The Forgetting Time is your debut. Can you tell me a bit about what the writing and publishing process is for a new writer? Did you have friends, family, or contacts who helped you through the process?
Sometimes I refer to The Forgetting Time as my third first novel; I wrote two others that didn’t get published. So with this one, I really wanted to get the process right. A lot of that, for me, had to do with patience and intention.I gave myself time with this one, and didn’t try to push it out into the world too early; in the end, I wrote four full drafts over six years. And even more powerfully, I knew why I wanted to bring this book into the world: I thought the theme of how we are all connected and the research the story was based on might be interesting for people to ponder. My unpublished books were driven more by the desire to get published, or to impress people, and that never works.
My family and friends and my agent have been incredibly supportive throughout this process. For one thing, they didn’t make me feel crazy for continuing to do this thing — their belief in me was very solid, and you can’t underestimate the power of that. As readers, their honest advice saved me many times by forcing me to cut parts of the story that bogged down the book.
And my editor really pushed me until we finally came up with a draft that had the pace and the emotional impact we wanted. And my meditation center kept me calm (ish) through a sometimes rocky process.
In fact, I’ve often thought this book isn’t mine at all, but came into being from all these different people and their support and influence over a number of years.
BAM: The Forgetting Time has been wildly successful. D.R. Meredith at the New York Journal of Books called it the “most enthralling debut novel of the year.” You’ve also won awards. Did you expect it to be so successful?
Not at all! The great thing about writing this book was that I felt a lot of freedom from worrying what would happen to it — in part because I’d already made my peace with failing to publish the previous books, and had come to the conclusion that my sense of worth as a human being wasn’t based on markers of external success. But I did feel that I might be onto something, because whenever I told anyone about the book, they seemed intrigued by the real research it was based on, these children who had concrete memories of previous lifetimes. Many people told me stories of things their children had said, or things they had heard from friends or relatives. There are a lot of stories out there. When the book sold to 17 countries, I was pretty shocked, but it also made sense to me. I think people are eager to crack the door open a bit and explore these possibilities, and I’m really grateful that the book seems to serve that function for some people. And, of course, I’m thrilled that many seem to enjoy the experience.
BAM: You’ve spent time as a documentary writer and producer. Documentaries are based in reality, and they often use a unique storytelling style. Did those experiences influence your writing style?
Certainly spending time helping director Rebecca Dreyfus figure out the various documentaries’ structures changed my sense of narrative. She showed me how the same scenes, the same story, can change from flat to riveting, depending on how the tale unfolds. So much work goes into making something seem seamless. And editor Elizabeth Ludden taught me a great deal about the musicality of storytelling, how you simply long for a certain pace or feeling at a certain time, and how that changes moment by moment.
And I am always intrigued by the mixing of fact and fiction; in the novel I’ve included real cases of children from a nonfiction book, Life Before Life — kids who have given documented and verified statements about what seem to be their past lives.
BAM: In other places, you’ve mentioned that your experience working in a Thai refugee camp played a role in the development of The Forgetting Time. Can you elaborate on that?
I was only twenty when I worked in the refugee camp in Thailand, teaching children who were going to be resettled in American high schools. It was a formative experience in many ways, leading me to question many preconceived notions, including the idea that “we only live once.” The children and young adults I was teaching had a deep belief in past and future lives, and that made an impression on me that lingered; so many of them were also resilient and kind, and I wondered where these qualities came from, whether they arose from the difficult situations they had been in or even from their beliefs. When we said goodbye, they called out, “See you next life, and it was kind of a joke, a thing to say, and also something that they meant.
BAM: What level of research did you put into the concept of reincarnation?
While I’ve read a number of different accounts of reincarnation from various perspectives, my research focused primarily on the work of Dr. Ian Stevenson and Dr. Jim Tucker at the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia. They have investigated approximately 3,000 cases of very young children who gave specific statements about a previous lifetime that later seemed to fit an actual person (unknown to the child’s family, in most cases) who had lived and died. These children also seemed to have strong attachments to people they recalled from the previous life. I met with Dr. Tucker numerous times (Dr. Stevenson has passed away), spent time in the library at the Division, read Stevenson and Tucker’s books (as well as many others), and studied their cases. I’ve been so impressed by their diligence and objectivity in pursuing this work. The cases are really mind blowing, not at all easily dismissible, and I have been grateful to be able to share them in some fashion with more people.
BAM: The Forgetting Time is a fascinating read, but it could also be considered a parent’s worst nightmare. Your book is both tender and terrifying. You’re a parent to two sons if I’m not mistaken. Was it easy for you to write from the perspective of Janie? Was there anything that was emotionally difficult to write about?
It’s funny, because Janie is a Brooklyn mom and so am I — I do have two sons, now 12 and 14. But I found her character the hardest to crack in many ways, perhaps because she was too close to me. Her fear, though, was easy to tap into — as you suggest, I think every parent has that sort of deep anxiety at some level — what if something went wrong with my child and I couldn’t fix it? The most wrenching part by far, though, was writing the character of another mother in the novel, who suffers greatly due to something that happens to her son. In order to capture her character, I had to enter into that state of anguish myself, or in any case I tried to do so. It was difficult, especially as a mother, but the experience also caused my own empathy to grow, which is always a good thing.
BAM: Can you give us some insight into your next project? Will you be working on another novel soon?
Thanks for asking! I’m working away at a new novel, though it’s probably a couple years away from publication. It has some similarities to The Forgetting Time in that it deals with families and the way the extraordinary can enter and open up our ordinary lives. The more I talk to people, the more I realize how common this is — maybe we’ll have a dream that indicates something that actually happens later on, or we’ll think of a very old friend we haven’t seen in years a few moments before she emails us, or we’ll meet someone who seems deeply familiar to us. Little glimpses that indicate to us that reality might be completely different from what we assumed — and far more amazing.