A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed A Drop in the Ocean, by Jenni Ogden. This novel deals with many things: love, family, medical ethics, and dealing with neurological conditions. It is emotional and moving, gripping and yet freeing at the same time. Today I have an interview with the author.
1) What was the catalyst for you to start writing fiction? (Even with the subject matter of A Drop in the Ocean, that seems like such a large step from neuropsychology.)
I loved my career as a university teacher, researcher, and supervisor of clinical psychology students, and a big part of this was always writing. Of course, it was nonfiction writing, from research articles to writing case studies of dysfunctional families for my clinical students to use as practice scenarios. My specialist area, clinical neuropsychology, gave me the excuse to delve into the lives of patients with various brain disorders (similar to those Oliver Sacks wrote about), and I wrote two books of case studies, a textbook, Fractured Minds and a book for the general reader, Trouble In Mind: Stories from a Neuropsychologist’s Casebook. These are not fiction of course but they did allow me to practice writing in a way that would draw the reader into the lives of my “patients.” When readers say some of the stories in my textbook made them cry, I feel happy! But I had to leave the university and go and live on a remote island before I could truly concentrate on the dream I’d harbored for years, writing fiction.
2) Who is your favorite author and why? (Do you love being scared by Stephen King, inspired by Maya Angelou, loved by Nicholas Sparks, entertained by Jane Austen?)
I have so many authors whose writing I love, but I don’t often re-read books as there are too many new books to read. I think I will read many again as I get older and can’t afford to buy more books! But authors I really love are Sebastian Faulks, Rumer Godden, Anna Quindlen, Chris Cleave, Ann Hood. Richard North Patterson is by far my favourite thriller writer.
3) What is your absolute favorite, read over-and-over again, book? (Mine is “Gone with Wind,” which I’ve read about 25 times, because the story and the characters are so real to me.)
One book I have read a few times is Wuthering Heights. I first read this in school and it hasn’t lost its pull on me. I know the ‘Bronte’ area reasonably well as my husband’s family come from around there (there are over a hundred of them who were “buried” by Patrick Bronte and lie in the Haworth Church graveyard!) But my favorite novel is Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. I often read bits of this again, just to get the feel of his words. Also China Court and In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden are two of the most beautiful novels I have ever read, and these too I often browse for inspiration.
4) Where is your dream place to write? (Personally, I have visions of white sand and waves, although I live nowhere near the ocean. That seems like it might be much more within reach for you.)
I do most of my writing in my study five minutes walk from one of the most beautiful beaches on earth. White sand, clear blue sea and usually only me on it when I take a break and go for a walk or run or swim! Much of my reading is done lying under my big tree on the beach, or sitting on “Jenni’s Lookout” looking over the sea. My study has big windows that look over a rural scene with no buildings in view. In the NZ winter I write from our small apartment there in the Far North Queensland tropics, with a lagoon pool two meters from me and a beach 10 minutes walk away.
5) What is your absolute favorite part about writing fiction? (The imaginary people is definitely mine.)
As a psychologist, discovering the deep parts of my characters’ personalities are probably my favorite part, but I also love writing about settings, partly because they are often places I know well or at least have been to, and have loved. I also enjoy the research that goes into getting facts right and giving the story authenticity. And I really do like revision, and having the time to mess about with word choice, knowing I have the bones in place.
6) Do you have any advice for someone faced with the prospect of living with a brain disorder? (I have a strong family history of Alzheimer’s, and I had a stroke three years ago due to a dissection in the vertebral artery. You might say this is a topic close to my heart.)
That is a hard thing to deal with. Coping is a little different for everyone, but often finding out all you can about the disorder and the likely prognosis helps, gives back some control, and stops those anxieties that come with “guessing.” For almost everyone, having a close support team of friends, family and health professionals who you feel comfortable with is very important. Often getting involved with research if that is a possibility can be rewarding, and gives the individual something ‘bigger’ to think about, and often comes with better treatment of the condition as well. Keeping on with or gradually returning to activities one enjoys and keeping social contacts alive is very important for resilience and happiness, and for making the very best of the future, however long or short that may be.
7) Tell me a little bit about A Drop in the Ocean. (What was your inspiration for writing it, and what is the message you wanted to convey with it?)
The story opens as Boston neuroscientist and dedicated introvert, 49 year old Anna Fergusson, discovers the funding for her long-time research lab has been terminated. Fran, her only friend, sees an advert offering a cabin for rent on a tiny tropical island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and Anna decides to take it up. It will give her breathing space and she can pen a memoir about running a lab while she decides what to do with the rest of her life. But Turtle Island, alive with sea birds and nesting Green turtles, is not the retreat she expected. Here she finds love: for the eccentric islanders who become her family; for Tom, the younger laid-back turtle whisperer; and for the four women on the island. Then she joins the turtle research team and falls in love with the turtles whose ancient mothering instincts move her to tears. But Tom has a secret, and Anna’s estranged mother in far away Shetland needs her, and as Anna’s life-changing year draws to a close her dream for a new life is threatened by a darkness that challenges everything she has come to believe about the power of love.
It is a quiet story but with deep themes about marine turtle conservation, Huntington’s disease and medical ethics, belonging—and the ripples that can flow from the family we choose to the family that chooses us, and the hardest lesson of all, that love is about letting go.
My inspiration for the story was my love of this environment. I was a turtle tagger myself on an island rather like Turtle Island when our children were young, and coral cays are magical places. Many of the things that happen in the novel around the turtles and birds come from my own experiences, but Anna, who is a neuroscientist, as was I, is totally different from me! No-one would call me a dedicated introvert, and I have 4 children and 5 grandchildren, unlike Anna who was single and lonely for the first 49 years of her life.
Visit Jenni’s website and see pictures of her island and beach at http://www.jenniogden.com
Please do subscribe to her monthly e-newsletter! http://www.jenniogden.com/newsletter.htm
Her Psychology Today blog: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/trouble-in-mind-0
Twitter handle: @jenni_ogden
Thank you, Ms. Ogden for taking the time out of your schedule to answer a few questions. (I’m a bit jealous of your description of your study and its proximity to the beach.) Check out the novel A Drop in the Ocean for a great read!