I just finished reading your book, The History of My Body, and I just loved it! (Readers, you can read my review of the book here.) The book’s protagonist is a young girl, Fleur, who may or may not have Asperger’s Syndrome. I have a family member with AS, and I cannot imagine writing from his perspective. Yet, you did so flawlessly in your portrayal of Fleur. How did you do that?
Thank you, Smoky. Fiction writing is such a mystery, isn’t it, with its weave of personal experience and imaginal play? Actually, I didn’t set out to create a character with Asperger’s. Since my previous three novels had been written in the third person, I had a hankering to try my hand at a first-person narrative. As soon as I set that intention, this young girl skipped into my awareness, trailing images of a baby bird, a bored God, and her grandfather’s balls! I’ve come to identify a pattern in my fiction, where I’m “given” the first few sentences of a novel and what comes at the very end, with my task being to figure out how to get my characters from A to Z. It was slightly different with The History of My Body in that Fleur kept skipping ahead of me, showing me the way, and I had to run to keep up with her. As for her Asperger’s traits, what I can’t express rationally often finds its way into my fiction. Something inchoate had been stirred in me by the work of Temple Grandin and Donna Williams and by seeing a fair number of parents of quite wonderful Asperger’s kids in my analytic practice. Plus, I’ve got this pet theory that, in our age of brilliant algorithms and addiction to iEverythings, autism and Asperger’s serve as apt metaphors for what researchers are discovering about kids in our new century: that they may be far more clever than their elders in so many ways, but are losing the capacity to read facial expressions and social cues.
Fleur is so innocent to the ways of the world, as illustrated by her clumsy introduction to her own sexuality, yet to describe her as brilliant seems an understatement. Her fascination with “the void” and inherent understanding of physics are eventually what lead her away from her life with her alcoholic mother and distant, detached father. How much of a physicist are you? Did you have to consult a physicist, or read a lot of books, in order to understand this part of Fleur?
Well, here’s the joke: despite having a Master’s in Psychology, the farthest I got in the hard sciences was high school physiology, in which I earned a grade of C, or maybe even a D. In the novel’s terms, I am more of a Sammie than a Fleur. But Fleur’s obsession with the void led me inexorably to the topic of black holes, and before I knew it I was hooked and reading everything I could about quantum physics that was geared for the layperson. As a writer yourself, I’m sure you know how it is: one thing leads to another and you find yourself straying onto turf you wouldn’t normally dare set foot, all in service of the story.
Do I ever! I had that problem when I was in college—I joke that I took 17 years to get my Bachelor’s degree because I majored in everything except physics! Now I wish I had studied physics, although I’m not sure I’d understand quantum physics.
Since quantum physics is fueled by brilliance and intuition, my intuition gave me the chutzpah to play with the concepts, if not the math. A generous physicist from JPL, Ara Chutjian, read over the manuscript to make sure I didn’t totally bungle the science. Of course, Fleur’s discoveries were my own invention, though I recently read about some research coming out of Case Western that might actually substantiate some version of C-Voids. If that’s the case, I want a share of any Nobel Prizes awarded to those guys!
You should send them your book! But moving on: you’re a Jungian analyst. The writings of Carl Jung always fascinated me, by the way, especially as they relate to the phenomenon of synchronicity and his theory of archetypes. Do you think you would have been able to write this same book if you didn’t have your Jungian training? Is there one particular scene in the book where you found yourself especially turning to Jung?
Jung is at the very foundation of the book, since reading him, undergoing my own analysis, and years of private practice have given me the wherewithal to dive deeply enough into my own psyche and the archetype of the Divine Child to find Fleur. We Jungian Analysts have a lot in common with Fleur in that we have the folly, courage, and instinct to get on all fours and sniff into dark corners, occasionally unearthing a precious gem or two.
In a recent article you wrote for The Huffington Post, you wrote that child protagonists in novels offer adults “a chance to revisit our early years with imagination and wisdom and see the world and own lives with new eyes.” Can you expand on that for us?
I think Jung pretty much nailed it when he wrote: “In every adult there is a child—an eternal child, something is always becoming, is never completed, and calls for unceasing care, attention, and education. That is the part of the human personality which wants to develop and become whole.” But there’s also the child’s ability to see through the B.S., to name the naked truths, and to see life through the sweetening lens of awe and wonder where the adult perspective has become jaded and gone stale.
You write with such delightful humor. Nowhere is this more evident than with the character of Sister Flatulencia. Can you talk a little about her character? How did you come up with her? Was there a Sister Flatulencia in your own upbringing?
I guess I have only myself to blame for writing such a character! I come from a long line of Jewish Sister and Brother Flatulencias, which was a source of serious mortification to me as a girl, especially when I hosted pajama parties in my pre-teens. There we’d all be, a gaggle of girls in shortie PJs and giant curlers, just starting to nod off after hours of pigging out on potato chips and gossip, and Toot Central would pipe up from my parents’ adjacent bedroom. As to whether I’ve managed to live up (or down) to my lineage, well, sometimes least said is best!
Speaking of upbringing, how much of you is in Fleur, and how much Fleur is in you?
I think I’m just beginning to get that there might be a little bit of Fleur in everyone! Certainly, since she comes out of my own creative imagination, there are bits of her that are sourced in my own inner life and early years: feeling lost and unseen in the midst of a noisy extended family; reading anything I could get my hands on, from cereal boxes to Anna Karenina; a soft spot for cats; sitting for hours on end with a beloved grandfather, watching “our” tree; a panicky attempt to save a baby bird. The introspection and preoccupation with God and the void? Me. The brilliance. Not me. Which made this my most difficult novel yet to write. I’d say Fleur feels more like my creative child than a replication of me.
What’s next for you as far as writing is concerned? Will there be a follow up to The History of My Body, or is this the last we’ll hear about Fleur?
Good guess! I’m working on a sequel that begins with Fleur turning 21 and facing an even more complex set of personal challenges and scientific conundrums.
That sounds wonderful! I was hoping we’d hear more from Fleur!
And just so my Muse doesn’t lose her rep for setting me impossible tasks—forget about the old saw, “Write what you know” —part of it takes place in Ethiopia.
Tell us a little about yourself. What do you like to do when you aren’t writing or working at your day job?
I’m a doting mama of adult kids and three—yes, count ‘em, three!—cats. I love my Jungian private practice and teaching. I’m crazy about film, music, yoga, British murder mysteries when I’m actively working on a novel and all sorts of fiction when I’m not. I’m pretty passionately engaged with the body politic, and I find nothing more healing than walking in my neighborhood, with its sycamores and squirrels, mockingbirds and crows. I’ll dance, ecstatically, any chance I get. I’m not alone: if you get a bunch of Jungians on a dance floor, we really get down!
Where can readers purchase your book, and where can they find you on the Internet?
The History of My Body is available from selected bookstores, in paperback and Kindle editions on amazon.com, in paperback and Nook editions on barnesandnoble.com, on iPad from iBook, and in everything from Kobo and Mobi to Sony and PDF from my publisher Fisher King Press. I blog regularly at http://www.sharonheath.com/ and occasionally on TerraSpheres.com. My Facebook page is The History of My Body and my Twitter moniker is @HistoryofMyBody.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us before we close?
Yes—you ask such juicy questions, Smoky!
Thank you, Sharon. This has been a delight!
And a total pleasure for me. Thank YOU!