“I was born on a Tuesday morning. It was a difficult birth, because I was thirty-four years old.”

Wry, self-aware, and intelligent, this is the voice of stroke-victim Jonathan Hooper, narrator of Keith Cronin’s debut novel, Me Again, out in hardcover though Five Star.

Here’s the blurb for the book:

Miracles can be damned inconvenient. That’s what thirty-four-year-old stroke victim Jonathan Hooper learns when he emerges from a six-year coma. Now his memory’s gone, his body withered, and he’s reduced to the role of awkward intruder in the lives of his friends and family. In short, Jonathan’s not the man he used to be – whoever that was – and nobody’s happy about the change.

The only bright spot for Jonathan is Rebecca Chase, a young woman he meets in the hospital’s long-term recovery unit. A stroke has drastically changed her personality, making her a stranger to her husband. Gone is the vivacious trophy wife, replaced by a shy, awkward woman with a knack for saying exactly the wrong thing.

Jonathan and Rebecca discover they have much in common. They don’t fit in. And they’ll never be the same. But now they’ve got to decide what matters most: who they were, or who they can become?

~~~

Keith is a monthly contributor to Writer Unboxed and made a splash in his first post with his strong anti-verdant position. (Read: his objection to writerly words.) He’s a professional speechwriter, a drummer with extensive discography, and he answers to “Title Guy” – this last point because he named Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Susan Henderson’s Up from the Blue.

Apparently Ms. Gruen was sufficiently pleased to continue their relationship. She blurbed Me Again, calling it “A beautifully wrought tale of courage, hope, and awakenings of all kinds.”

Ms. Henderson likewise said, “Heart and humor are inseparable in Keith Cronin’s engaging debut.”

And book bloggers share their opinions as per this small sample:

“Cronin has a gentle sense of humor that seems effortless.” ~ Book Club Classics

“A funny, sad, sweet, poignant and heartfelt novel that I can’t recommend highly enough.” ~ Stephanie’s Written Word

Jan: Keith, welcome to WU in the role of interviewee. You may ignore the evil chuckle. ;)

In your dedication, you note that you lost your mother to heart disease and are directing a portion of the novel’s proceeds toward the American Stroke Association. Even without that knowledge, ME AGAIN felt like a personal book. What prompted it? Can you say more?

Keith: It didn’t start out personal, but that soon changed. Initially it was just an intriguing “what if?” scenario to explore. My main female character Rebecca’s problem was inspired by the younger sister of an old friend: she had a stroke while in her twenties, and emerged with a very different personality, leaving her husband puzzled and conflicted. While I considered that a heartbreaking situation, I had never met the woman, and being a typical self-absorbed 20-something guy at the time, I mostly sympathized with the husband. What a drag to be young and newly married to a woman who had just completely changed – that’s how deep my thoughts were.

But as I developed Rebecca, I began to see her side of the equation. What the hell do you do when you’re painfully aware that your spouse wishes you were somebody else – somebody you don’t think you can ever be? The book forced me to examine my own beliefs, and took me places I did not expect to go. And although there is a lot of humor in Me Again, it’s also a more serious story than I initially expected to write. I’ve been writing fiction for ten years, but this was one of the first times I made major emotional discoveries through my own storytelling. I’m hoping that increased level of “emotional excavation” will resonate with others.

When I started Me Again, nobody in my immediate circle had been directly affected by stroke. I sometimes felt like a guilty voyeur, fascinated by the challenges stroke victims and their caregivers face, but keenly aware of never having faced such problems myself. My mother’s death exacerbated those feelings, making me increasingly uncomfortable using such a tragic and serious topic for a story intended merely to entertain. I made the decision to donate a portion of my earnings two years ago, but just prior to the book’s release, I lost my friend and long-time bandleader Clarence Clemons to stroke. Now I have an even more personal stake in the fight against this awful affliction.

Stroke is the third leading cause of death, and the leading cause of adult disability. I would love it if my little “what if?” story can do something to help change that.

Let’s talk about craft and the writing challenges posed by your main character’s disabilities. Jonathan is immobile. He’s confined to the hospital for a good portion of the book, meaning you can’t rely upon the author’s version of a chase scene to maintain dramatic tension and pacing. Any advice you can share about keeping readers engaged through a physically quieter story?

I knew Me Again wouldn’t be an action-packed story, so the challenge was to continuously increase emotional conflict. In some ways Jonathan’s health issues facilitated this, because they made him extremely vulnerable and forced him to rely on others. His initial inability to speak created opportunities for inner monologue as he assessed his situation. At the same time, he was developing an emotional sensitivity that caused every discovery about his old life to be even more troubling.

I made it a point to increase the speed at which new problems would arise for my characters, so that not only were things getting worse; they were getting worse faster. I learned this technique from Jon Clinch. He referred to the conflict-intensifying approach used in his debut novel, Finn, as “a funnel” – a metaphor that stuck in my mind.

As a stroke victim, Jonathan is effectively mute at the story’s beginning. Did you find it difficult to write without using dialogue? What challenges did you face in maturing his voice as his physical health improved?

I did a lot of research on strokes and found that aphasia – impairment of language abilities – impacts its victims in a wide variety of ways. This could include the lack of the ability to understand language at all, the ability to understand individual words but not syntax, and a myriad of other equally unpleasant combinations.

In Jonathan’s case, he was able to understand people speaking to him, and able to form clear and sometimes clever thoughts, but unable to get those messages from his brain to his mouth. So my early scenes focused on the frustration of knowing what he wanted to say, but not being able to say it. The brain can sometimes be resilient, so while initially he communicated through grunts, I had Jonathan’s abilities increase as the story moved forward, to the point where he spoke fairly well, albeit slowly. (Unfortunately this is not always the case for aphasia victims, some of whom never recover.)

A basic approach I took was to visually check the dialog. In early scenes, if I found lengthy passages of Jonathan speaking, I would pare them down, or break them up, or relegate them to internal monologue. As the story progressed, I allowed him proportionately longer passages of dialog, sometimes having him mentally comment on how hard it was to express lengthier thoughts aloud. I’d also show the continued disconnect between his thoughts and his speech. In one scene, when asked a philosophical question, Jonathan muses in a rather witty manner on the subject for a paragraph or two – but that’s just in his mind. Aloud, his answer is a resigned and clipped “I don’t know.”

The use of numbers was a particular challenge. Can you explain?

A surprisingly hard thing to do was eliminating mathematical references from Jonathan’s dialog and thoughts – necessary because the stroke took away his ability to understand numbers. As Jonathan himself puts it:

“I read a story about a primitive tribe somewhere that has only a few words to express numeric quantities: one, two, and many. I would fit right in with that tribe, were it not for their affinity for rather drastic body piercing.”

When giving Jonathan this problem, I had no idea how many numerical references we make in everyday conversation, both directly and indirectly. For example, in the previous sentence, I used the word “both” – a reference to the number two. After a lot of thought and experimentation, I came up with a rough schema for what Jonathan could say and think, allowing him words like both, neither, couple, first, second, and some others. But I had to constantly re-screen the manuscript for places where numbers crept in. It also made me aware of challenges Jonathan would face, like navigating street addresses, hospital floors, etc., all of which had to be explained within the story. Ultimately, watching for numbers turned into far more work than matching Jonathan’s dialog to his current level of speaking ability.

Were there any advantages to having a character who couldn’t speak?

A benefit of Jonathan’s early aphasia was that it tended to make other characters uncomfortable. Often their reaction was to speak more than normal, just to fill the silence. This in turn revealed more about those characters to Jonathan –and to the reader – and helped foreshadow the secrets many characters were harboring.

At the heart of your book are questions about identity – in particular, how challenging and rewarding it can be to carve out a healthy-self concept when ill. As you can no doubt tell, this is a subject close to my heart, so a few questions around that theme:

Did writing this book change you in terms of how you’d approach a person with a hidden disability?

Definitely. Writing this book was an emotional and educational journey. While I considered myself an empathetic person, the process of developing characters for this novel made me see their problems from a variety of perspectives – some of them completely new to me. For example, Jonathan feels pressured by everyone’s incessant and rather forced words of encouragement. He reflects that people perceive and react to obvious physical problems – such as the loss of a limb – much differently than problems that are mental or less outwardly obvious:

“Nobody’s going to tell you to cheer up, think positive, and just stay focused on growing that leg back.”

Yet Jonathan and Rebecca are surrounded by people who try to encourage them with the mantra that they’ll be “as good as new,” blindly hoping that reminding them how they used to be will somehow aid in their recovery. I hasten to add, this is not a black-and-white issue. You can’t blame their caregivers or family members for wanting to encourage them.

A key issue the book explores is when to look at yourself as “damaged” and when to simply view yourself as “changed.” Obviously, there are no easy answers to that question.

And that last paragraph, ladies and gentleman, is a good part of the magic of this book and why I was compelled to do this interview.

We’ll close out Part I with a book trailer produced for Keith by his partner, vocalist and songwriter Luna Jade. It’s pretty darn special. (Incidentally, Luna Jade is also a photographer. She and Keith are largely responsible for his cover art, so if you’re frustrated with your own, you might enjoy this article.)

In Part II: Does humility have a place in authordom? And since the concept of identity is so crucial to Me Again, how did the writing of this book change Keith and/or his musical self?

For more on Keith Cronin, please check out his Facebook and Twitter profiles, website, or his posts on Writer Unboxed.

 

About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.