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Reading Synesthesia

ReadingSyn [1]Last month I caught what can only be titled The Stomach Virus from the Damnable Pit of Hades. Yes, it earned the superfluous moniker. But don’t worry—this isn’t a post about my gastrointestinal woes. I’ll spare you those details. I mention it because it was the first time I’d ever experienced synesthesia of the body and more significantly, of books.

I’d read about this phenomenon in my Writer Unboxed sister Therese Walsh [2]’s novel The Moon Sisters. So I felt I had known it in my imagination, through her character Olivia, who lives with the neurological muddling. To help you understand, in case you have yet to pick up Therese’s book (which I highly recommend you do at once, especially if you are a WU aficionado!), here is what I experienced physically:

Toothpaste tasted and felt like baking soda on my tongue; mouthwash, like too-sweet honey. Black tea brewing clear across the room smelled like burnt hair. All soda pop smacked of cough syrup and bubbled down like cat nails in my throat. Cubes of cheese were salty sea sponges. A whirling fan was like being slapped in the chin with each blade. The sound and feel of closing a desk drawer, the cupboard, or a door ran like a tuning fork through my body in bursts of orange that made me have to lie down. The ping of my Twitter Tweetdeck induced nausea. Okay… so that last one may affect others similarly.

Point being, it was the strangest thing I’d ever encountered. Nothing was right. The world was topsy-turvy and all I wanted was everything to go back to being what my memory-senses said they should. For the familiar to be the familiar again.

All of this I could blame on illness and medications. They were messing with my senses, I consoled myself. As soon as I was over this thing, I’d get my regular appetite, hearing, smells, sight and feeling back. But what scared me most was that my imagination seemed to have been impacted too.

Like most writers, I’m a reader, first and foremost. So when diseased by the Netherworld, I reach for a comforting book and panicked. The novels I’d purchased mere weeks before in giddy excitement, I couldn’t focus on past the first sentences. I had one bewildered, tearful moment where I lined my TBR pile up on my sickbed, cover to cover, picking up one and trying to get “into” the story dream. Failing. Then picking up another and doing the same. It was miserable—and I presumed I was a very, very sick woman. Obviously.

So I decided to try something outside my normal, literally and literary. I went online and ordered three books that were not my typical reading fodder but were written by good friends in whom I trust for prose prowess and storytelling. A cinematic summer thriller. An apocalyptic dystopian novel. A sci-fi romance adventure.

1) Bittersweet [3] by Miranda Beverley-Whittemore.

The story of ugly duckling Mabel Dagmar’s summer spent at her college roommate’s wealthy family estate, Winlock. Secrets and lies, twisted desires and ambition all coalesce and had my fingers flipping pages— on fire with the colors and sounds of a creepy-fun camp thriller. Reading this book was like sitting beside a bonfire, smelling of camphor and sweet burning oak, listening to Miranda tell the tale and gasping, “No, no she didn’t!” This is a contemporary ‘Once upon a time in a cabin in the woods’ story spiked with vodka tonics.

2) California [4] by Edan Lepucki.

Novels set in the ‘after the fall’ usually leave me yawning at the oh-no-it’s-the-end-of-the-world barren landscapes and equally barren-souled protagonists. But Edan has done a masterful job of not allowing this book to use either of those tropes. California is vibrantly lush, saturated with wild emotions and gripping speculation. I found myself asking, “What would you do?” And then a page later in heightened hysterics, “WHAT WOULD YOU DO, Sarah?” Which produced a breathless, engaging read. Just the thing a recovering woman needed to get her blood pumping! Oh—did I mention, this is Edan’s debut novel? Stay tuned, folks, she’s a supernova and her ripples through the universe are just beginning.

3) Outlander [5] by Diana Gabaldon.

I was first introduced to this novel and Diana Gabaldon by another Writer Unboxed friend, Erika Robuck [6], at a writers’ retreat in Oregon. “You must—oh you must read!” she crowed in the middle of our wine, pajama-rama fest and her exuberance stuck. Months later, I had the amazing privilege of doing a Skype event for a contest-winning book club with Diana and heard her chat about her Outlander series. “The best thing about a man in a kilt is he can have you up against a wall in under a minute,” she told the book club—meeting in a church sanctuary, might I add. My husband was in the hotel room. This line was forever added to his list of catchphrases. My interest was piqued but book touring and writing kept me away from indulging until now. Erika did not exaggerate.

An addictive, fantastical story of Claire Randall who time travels between her husband in 1945 England and her Scottish lover in 1743. A woman torn between the is and the was, the present and the past, and all the power of passion between. That kind of contemporary-historical tick-tock was just the medicine I needed to vault my mojo back to good.

I came away from my synesthesia with a newfound appreciation for experiencing the corporal and imaginary in whole new ways. Most of the side effects disappeared: my toothpaste tastes minty fresh again; cheese is smooth and creamy as a good queso ought to be. I gained some new tastes too. I’d never been a coffee drinker, but with my standard tea smelling like burnt hair, I gave it a try and found that I quite enjoy a good, dark java. Comparably, by sampling the fiction fruits of genres I don’t typically write or read, I discovered new story realms teaming with deftly written plot structures and characters that made me gasp, sob, sigh and ultimately, feel vastly different worlds from my own.

A GI virus spawned by Beelzebub? Perhaps. A blessing in disguise? Perhaps that too. Not only am I reading more diversely, but now my writing has taken on a conscious kind of synesthesia. Unboxed, if I dare pun.

Postscript: Diana’s Outlander has been adapted into an STARZ series [7], which premiered this month. Yes, I am watching… possibly in tartan pajamas. Aye!

About Sarah McCoy [8]

SARAH McCOY is the New York TimesUSA Today, and international bestselling author of The Mapmaker’s Children [9]; The Baker’s Daughter [10], a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee; the novella “The Branch of Hazel” in Grand Central [11]; and The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico [12]. Her work has been featured in Real Simple, The Millions, Your Health Monthly, Huffington Post [13] and other publications. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband, an orthopedic sports doctor, and their dog, Gilly, in Chicago, Illinois. Connect with Sarah on Twitter [14] at @SarahMMcCoy, on her Facebook Fan Page [15], Goodreads [16], or via her website, www.sarahmccoy.com [17].