How, and why, does a Harvard Ph.D. neuroscientist segue from doing brain research in a laboratory to writing, self-publishing, and selling a best-selling novel out of the trunk of her car? Lisa Genova’s novels, Still Alice and Left Neglected, have both been on The New York Time’s Best Sellers list, and attract a hugely diverse audience—ranging from people who have loved ones suffering from tragic neurological diseases, to reading groups, or anyone who just loves a good story told well. Forest & Bluff talked with Lisa, one of Ragdale’s guest authors for this fall’s Novel Affair event.
Forest & Bluff: You were working as a strategy consultant for the biotech industry, and then decided to write Still Alice, a novel about a highly successful 50-year-old woman’s sudden descent into early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. How did that happen?
Lisa Genova: As a neuroscientist, I spent my days with rats, studying molecules and gene expression. I was interested in how neurons are affected on a molecular level. But my contributions were limited to the scientific community. Then my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 85, and I was devastated.
I thought it must be profound to think, “If I can’t remember who I am, then am I still me? Who am I now and how can I matter?” I wanted to understand it from her perspective, what it felt like from the earliest symptoms of the disease. I wondered, if she can’t live in her head, then maybe she can live in her heart.
At the same time, I was blown apart by divorce—it was outside the rules. I took time off from my job and studied acting in Boston for 1½ years—something I had always wanted to do. That training allowed me to express spontaneous emotion on the page and not worry about what other people would think. And so I decided not to go back to research, but to write the novel.
F&B: You finished Still Alice, but were turned down or ignored by 100 literary agents. Then what?
LG: I self-published the book with iUniverse and sold copies out of the trunk of my car—to independent bookstores and anyone else who’d buy one. After 10 months, I found an agent who sold Still Alice to Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. In its first week, it debuted at #5 on The New York Times Trade Paperback Fiction Best Sellers list.
F&B: Why do you think such a large and diverse audience is interested in a book about Alzheimer’s and in the topic of your second novel, Left Neglected, about a traumatic brain injury?
LG: Still Alice is not only a book about Alzheimer’s. It is the story of a highly educated successful woman who has placed her worth and identity in her cerebral life as a Harvard professor, where she’s been valued and respected. But as her cognitive capabilities diminish and her symptoms worsen, she embarks on a desperate search for meaning and intimacy beyond career success—in her relationships with her husband and children that were previously neglected or on autopilot. We get to see her grow.
Left Neglected is about a similar type-A, high-powered working mother who suffers a bizarre traumatic brain injury, called Left Neglect, which completely erases the left side of her world. I only knew about the condition from a clinical perspective, but it sparked my curiosity. I wanted to explore more about the condition and what it is like to have it. These are stories about living simpler and deeper, about paying attention to and nourishing what matters, about healing and becoming whole.
F&B: How has your life changed since you’ve become a best-selling author?
LG: The best part for me is the emails I get from readers every day about one of the books. They thank me for helping them understand the disease that their loved one suffers from. One woman wrote that the book reminded her that her father was still “in there.” It helped her to continue visiting him even though he no longer knows who she is. I get to write about the scientific issues I am still passionate about, but I’m writing about them on a human level, and I try and sneak in some education about the brain. Since Still Alice was released, I remarried, had two more children, and moved to Cape Cod.
F&B: Tell us about your forthcoming novel.
LG: Love Anthony is a story about a boy with autism that raises the question, “Can I love someone unconditionally?”
For more information, visit lisagenova.com.
—Elaine Doremus Slayton