13 May 2011

A visit with Terry Tracy: author of A Great Place for a Seizure

For reasons known only to the Blogger devils, my last two posts have evaporated. NOT cool!! So I am re-posting my discussion with author Terry Tracy about her amazing book "A Great Place for a Seizure". I hope you enjoy it.

As I read Mischa’s story, she became so real to me that I felt like I was reading non-fiction. In the author bio on the back of the book, you reveal that you also have epilepsy. How much of Mischa’s story is your story?

Admittedly, quite a lot of it is my story, but distilled for the sake of a good plot with pace. If I had to put a percentage on it, probably 60% of the novel is "my life."  In the process of writing I sent several drafts to professional readers to rip my manuscript apart. It sounds harsh, but their advice was constructive. I was very grateful for criticisms like  “this chapter was too boring," or "this event interrupted the flow of the story," or "that element of the story was too unrealistic." Those comments gave me license to diverge from my personal story and be more imaginative.  A Great Place for a Seizure is not a memoir, but it's true, there's a lot of me in the story. 

Both the title and cover art for the novel are compelling. How did you decide on them?

The title was inspired by a conversation in Guatemala, where I was working as a free-lance journalist.  At a party some journalists were inquiring about my seizures in a fascinated, unemotional, manner. They were just being journalists. Their tone was a refreshing change from the “walking on egg-shells” approach that most people take when discussing my epilepsy (which is completely understandable).  As I was regaling them with stories of seizures in the weirdest places (e.g. a sugar-cane field in Honduras, West Point Military Academy, a car on my way to a Homecoming dance) I said something like, “I've had seizures in some interesting places.”  Someone said, “That would be a great title for a book.” Nearly fifteen years later a variation of that phrase became my title.

As for the cover, thank you for compliment. I wasted quite a bit of money before I decided to do it myself.  In the beginning I hired professional graphic artists. The results were hilarious and frightening. Their proposals looked like the work of a precocious child tripping on LSD whilst playing at a computer.  I decided to take charge so I studied the designs of Penguin Books publications in the UK from the 1940's to 1970's. That was their golden age of design.  Some art galleries have hosted exhibitions on these covers--they were that innovative. After looking at a hundred or so Penguin Books publications from that period, I realized that simplicity was essential to a good cover. That's when I decided that two graphics and the title would be enough for my novel.  The black silhouette of a woman symbolizes Mischa in her “normal” state. The title words alongside it, “A Great Place for a” are also in black.  The final word “Seizure” is in red, alongside the same silhouette, but this time it's red, a color that symbolizes alarm and crisis. 

What inspired you to write A Great Place for a Seizure?

Oddly enough the idea came from reading The Idiot, by Dostoevsky.  Frankly, I do not like "the Russian novel." Those books have far too many pages and the writing is very heavy.  If I were stuck in a dacha, in a blizzard with a bottle of vodka, perhaps they would be more entertaining. But I'm not. Nevertheless, I was always curious about The Idiot because the title-character was epileptic as was Dostoevsky. The character's name is Prince Myshkin, who I think is best described as a carpet because he lets everyone walk all over him. As an epileptic, I found it irritating that the most famous portrayal of us is the pathetic and humorless Prince Myshkin. One day I wondered, “What if I wrote a novel and the main character was a sarcastic epileptic?”

So much of the novel is sensory: the music, colors, taste of things; I could feel the stickiness of the mangoes in Clarissa’s garden on my fingers as I read. Channeling my high school English teacher – is there symbolism here?

That's great that it came across.  High-lighting sensory perceptions in a Great Place for a Seizure was inspired by my epileptic auras as well as the auras that I've read about, in medical texts, memoirs, and fiction.  An aura is that strange feeling an epileptic sometimes gets before a seizure. It can be intensely sensory.  A person with epilepsy, before a seizure, has a brain that is about to catch fire.  Our senses, which are controlled by the brain, are going out of whack in milliseconds before a seizure.  Smells and sounds mix with physical sensations as does vision and touch. I tried to capture tiny details and give that 'aura microscope' to the reader, so they know what it would be like.  Sometimes I could make those sensory details consistent with the story.  One example of my symbolism is the first seizure, when Mischa sees and feels herself turning into a knot during the aura. That's symbolic of epilepsy as a problem that is going to tangle up her life as much as a problem that she'll have to solve.    

I had never heard of the band Joy Division. Did you come across them in your research or does the band have some meaning for you personally?

Last year, on a British Airways flight, I saw the movie “Control” directed by Anton Corbijn and released in 2007.    Apparently they were on the cusp of making it big in the 1980s. The day before they were to set off on their first US tour, the lead singer, who was epileptic, committed suicide.  I chose to make that band part of Mischa's musical taste to highlight one of their songs, “She's Lost Control.” The lead singer, Ian Curtis, wrote that song after seeing someone have a seizure.  Keeping control is very important to my main character, Mischa. Losing control is an inevitable experience in epilepsy.  How do you get it back? To each his own. But whether a person is epileptic or not there are times in our lives when we all lose control.  I like that concept and I identified with it, so I incorporated the song into the story. 

This month’s focus for my blog is chick lit. Would you categorize ‘A Great Place for a Seizure’ as chick lit?

I've wondered about that question before. Sure, why not?  It's about a chick and it's written by one.  It's interesting, chick lit generates a lot of controversy. Some people criticize it for being light and shallow, overly focused on boy-friend despair, friendship roller-coasters,  husband-hunting, and motherhood.   For me “chick lit” is a book with a female lead character and a focus on relationships along with a heaping dose of humor, sarcasm, and absurdity.  When people criticize chick lit, I've always wondered 'why isn't there a genre called “guy lit” and what is the standard criticism of that imaginary genre?'. Sometimes I think “chick lit” is a way to isolate fiction written by women.  People see the curly font on the cover with the pastel-colored design and presume that the book is frivolous “chick lit.”  Maybe it's just “lit” and women writers need Penguin Books graphic artists to introduce a new style of dust-jacket art.  Forgive me, that answer wandered into the navel-gazing world of literary criticism. 

You say the book is about “the choices we make that make us who we are”. Can you tell us about a choice in your life that has helped define you?

Having a child has helped define me and has continued to do so every day.  I came to terms with the fact that I had limitations. Believe it or not, there is a kind of freedom found inside limitations.  Ironically, it's the first step to pushing the boundaries of those limitations.  I called my epilepsy a disability for the first time in my life when I had my child.  When I recognized that I had a disability I had to build a framework to consider my daughter's safety.  That included adjusting to different work schedules, proactively searching for new medications that wouldn't affect her, and taking time-off to be a stay-at-home mom.  I also decided to work on advocacy issues for the disabled and write this novel.   

Where is a great place for a seizure?

The Assembly Hall of a 5-star hotel hosting an international diplomatic event with a thousand people present, as portrayed in Chapter 19, is one great place.  That actually happened to me.  I would say that the combined absurdity, contradictions, and the courage to stand up and go back to work is what makes it, for me, a great place to have a seizure.  Obviously, no one really expects it.  It throws people off-guard.  Then, when I return to the event there's a new level of humanity in my dealings with people . We're no longer just diplomats. They are people who helped me and witnessed me in my most vulnerable state. They also realize that I represent a nation, the United States, that allows an ethnic minority female with a disability to speak and negotiate on its behalf.  Not too many countries would let someone with that profile into their diplomatic corps.  I was very proud of my time at the State Department.  If I can bounce back after situations like that, it is what assures me that epilepsy has taught me quite a lot and I've allowed myself to learn.     

Thanks to Terry Tracy for a great interview and a great novel!

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