Jacqueline Sheehan about her inspiration for Lost & Found:
Lost & Found is a profound departure from my first book, Truth, a novel about Sojourner Truth, the courageous nineteenth century slave and abolitionist. It took five years to write Truth because of the enormous amount of research that I had to do and in order to present the true essence of her character. Because I admired Sojourner Truth so deeply, I felt like my feet were constantly held to the fi re. During this time period, I periodically took breaks from my historical novel to give voice to the wonderfully fl awed and irreverent Roxanne and the character for my next book was born. In the stories and snippets that I wrote about Roxanne, she was always drawn to bow hunting and she was always in love with her husband. At some point I asked the heartless question that authors often ask about their characters, which is, what if Roxanne lost the thing that was most important to her? And for Roxanne, that was her husband. Truth required that I dive into another culture, another time. I wanted Roxanne to come primarily from my own experiences and from our contemporary world. My world has been driven by psychology; it is a rich and satisfying world that gives me endless insight into the motivation of people and the resilience of the human spirit. Psychology was my training ground for fiction, and likewise, I often urge clients in counseling to use writing as a way to tap into a deeper and wiser side of themselves.
Is this autobiographical?
p(answer).No and yes. No, this is fictional, and yes, Roxanne is a psychologist and so am I. Yes, I was once a lifeguard, but only for one summer and I wasn’t a terribly good one. And, yes, I was called on to perform CPR and the victim did not survive. And yes, I have known and loved two of the most extraordinary dogs, both of whom would have stood in front of a racing train to save the ones they loved.
Do your life experiences with loss influence the tragedy in Roxanne’s life?
p(answer).Death is a major character in this book and death has been a major character in my life. When I was nine years old, my father died suddenly from a massive heart attack. People did not talk much about the impact of loss back then and I was simply expected to go back to school and continue on as if nothing had happened. He died in mid-June and I don’t recall the summer at all except that the sky was constantly gray. In the fall, I started fourth grade with a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Vivien Tarbox. She informed us that we would be studying science and the arts. I selected an unlikely author, Edgar Allan Poe, and spent the year reading everything he ever wrote. He was my maudlin grieving partner; he knew about parental loss and sadness and he and I were sad together. He understood losing someone to the thief of death and he took grief to the farthest, most macabre level in his writing. His mother died when he was two years old and his father before that. He brooded over the mystery of death and I brooded right along with him. It was not until years later when I was in graduate school studying about grief that I fully understood my year with Poe. As odd as it must have looked for a young child to cozy up to Poe, no one in my family even noticed because everyone was so shattered by my father’s death. But once the year was over, I put my friend aside. He had taken me through a year of grieving. Readers have said to me that they are startled and horrified at Roxanne’s behavior after her husband’s death, particularly when she disposes of his ashes in such a spectacular, yet gruesome manner. Yes, Roxanne is a bit over the top, but in dealing with grief there are infinite ways that people choose to make a statement to the dead. Her behavior tells us just how far off center she is blown. I have known people who wear their lover’s ashes in a vial hung around their neck. When my ex-husband was killed in a motorcycle accident while I was writing this book, I knew immediately what I had to do. I took a dear friend to a bar, ordered a shot of Jack Daniels and a cigar. I did not leave the bar until both the cigar and several more shots were consumed. These were potent symbols of my former spouse and I felt connected to him as I rolled the powerful smoke in my mouth and the Jack Daniels scorched my throat and belly. What we believe about death determines how we live. Billy Collins, the former poet laureate of the United States, often warns students as they enter his poetry classes, “Welcome to the school of death.” Poets so often write about death and loss, and fiction writers are not far behind.
Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is widely taught as a lifesaving technique. Why do you present a case where it doesn’t work?
p(answer).When I began to write about Roxanne, I knew she would have her world shattered by the death of her young husband, and that she would feel betrayed when her iron-clad belief in CPR is ripped away from her. She completely believed that she possessed a skill that would save her husband. My own experience with CPR made its way into the novel. I have known CPR since I was a lifeguard at age 23. I was never called on to perform CPR during my one summer as a lifeguard despite working with handicapped and medically fragile people. It was not until years later when I had just started a job at a college in Massachusetts that my old training was tragically needed. As I walked up a flight of stairs in the student center, a man flew down the stairs and said, “There’s a guy in the men’s room who’s not breathing.” I ran into the men’s room and there was a young man wedged between the urinal and the corner of the room; his skin was already blue, his lips an alarming shade of purple. As soon as a student and I got him on the floor, I knelt next to his head and began CPR. I never hesitated for a second and part of me assumed he would be revived; he would open his eyes at any moment because we were going to save him through CPR. Within moments the head of the athletic club arrived and took over compressions, then the campus police arrived and all of us took turns doing everything we could to convince his heart to start. We were undaunted; we continued until the EMTs arrived with defibrillators. I imagined that we were breathing for him and squeezing his heart into action until the medical professionals could make his heart start for real. I believed that much in CPR. The young man never revived. I was devastated and so were all the people who tried to save him. Less than a year later I was walking in a park with a friend and saw that a man had fallen on the asphalt and two women stood over him. Once again, the man was not breathing and the stubborn lifeguard in me responded. One of the women was a nurse and we immediately began CPR. I remember thinking; we’ve got this one. Once again the man did not survive; a massive heart attack had left his heart damaged beyond reach. CPR remains a lifesaving technique, and particularly for drowning accidents, the rate of success is very good. But like many people, I had placed an inordinate amount of faith into a technique that simply can’t compete with the assault of some cardiac disasters. I held on to the sense of despair for nine years before I transformed it by turning it into fiction.
Animals play a large role in this book. Did you know that a dog would become a major character?
p(answer).Although I had grown up with dogs and cats, it was not until I was 25 and living in Chicago, working with street kids, that I met my first extraordinary dog. He arrived with my future husband. The dog was a gorgeous golden retriever mix. He never wore a leash or a collar; he heeled so perfectly that people often imagined that he had a leash on. It wasn’t long before I realized that I could walk anywhere in Chicago, at any time of day or night, and feel perfectly safe if I had Poncho with me. His full name was Poncho Rafaelo Jesus Gonzales. He blissfully pranced the sidewalks with a tennis ball in his jaws, but if he didn’t like someone, he’d drop the ball and get between the person he had profiled and me. I once wandered into a deserted industrial area of the city and as we walked under a trestle, a man suddenly appeared out of the shadows and demanded to walk with me. He made the mistake of trying to shoo Poncho away by stomping his feet. Poncho lunged at him, growling and displaying every impressive fang. The man fled and Poncho covered his fangs once again with his golden retriever smile. Something changed for me in that moment. This dog would fight for me and protect me in a way that was immediate and non-negotiable. I had not trained him to do this. He had chosen me and I was his. My heart grew larger that day as dusk set and we emerged from the most desolate stretch of Chicago. He never bit anyone, but I knew that if he had to, he would. We moved from Chicago to Oregon and Poncho was my constant companion for hiking, running through Douglas fi r forests, and camping. My husband accompanied me for most camping adventures, but I felt perfectly secure camping only with Poncho. He taught me about loyalty, forgiveness, and the pure joy of reveling in the moment. There were times, as he and I followed animal trails in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, when I became more dog and he led and I followed. And there were times when he became more human, learning the human rules of an Easter egg hunt and following the traditions perfectly, eating the collected eggs only when I said so. I tried to learn his language: a raised eyebrow, a dropped tail, rear end up, a slight turn of the head, a two-wag instead of a threewag greeting. And he made every effort to learn my language. He forgave me when I came home cranky and unloving and I forgave him for eating a freshly baked peach pie. We were both contrite, ashamed of our bad behavior. He mended and expanded a part of me. I threw a lot of balls and sticks for him. The second exceptional dog was a great barrel-chested black lab named Spud that belonged to my sister and brother-in-law. He played soccer amazingly well with my three nephews, visited (on his own initiative) a home day care center to the delight of the children, and as he matured, exhibited what I could only call a heroic personality. Spud weighed over 90 pounds and was clearly a powerful animal, yet he never fought with other dogs, instead he calmed them. He once escorted two ferocious Rottweilers from my sister’s yard by simply herding them in the most congenial manner. He looked like a good-humored bouncer guiding the drunks out to the sidewalk. He continually stayed between my sister and any unknown visitor. He also knew how to be careful around our fragile mother in her later years. Our mother regarded him as the ultimate hero after he deflected the above-mentioned Rottweilers when she was out walking an antagonistic ankle biter sort of dog. In my stories, and in this novel, animals are a presence and a personality. They are a part of the plot. They may be hero, martyr, or rascal, and in the case of the dog that Roxanne finds and saves, they often have their own say. It is understandably risky to give a dog a point of view in fiction. It could potentially go so badly. We hear several chapters from the point of view of this dog, and we get a taste of his inner world and the depth of his emotional sensations. Early readers told me that I simply should not, could not do this. But I could no more deny this dog a point of view that I could refuse the invitation to hurl myself along animal trails with my old dog Poncho. The viewpoint was there all along. But did I imagine that the dog would take such a front and center role? Absolutely not. Much as dogs do in real life, this dog brazenly walked into this novel and persistently revealed his personality until I paid attention. Jacqueline Sheehan I grew up in Connecticut and live in Massachusetts today, where I divide my time between writing, teaching writing workshops and yoga, and running a small psychotherapy practice. But I spent twenty years living in western states: California, Oregon, and New Mexico. For most of my childhood, I lived in a single parent home, after the early death of my father left my mother with fi ve kids. My siblings were 8 to 13 years older than I was at the time, so they really had a different childhood, complete with two parents. My mother was a nurse by day, but she had the spirit of an artist. My fi rst memory of her was watching her paint at her easel on her day off. She was one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met and even as a child, I was aware of my good fortune to have landed in her nest. Which is not to say that childhood or my teen years were easy. They were not. I was impulsive and wild, slipping out of my bedroom window at night to meet friends, smoke Newport cigarettes, and drive with boys in fast cars. After unsuccessfully attempting to rein me in, she wisely took another approach and gave me a very long leash, which was what I needed. At the end of my second year of college, a girlfriend and I hitchhiked across the country and to her amazing credit, my mother actually drove us to our first highway entrance and dropped us off. At college in Colorado, I studied anthropology and art, preparing me for few jobs. During the summer I worked at an institution in Connecticut for people with mental retardation. This was truly the Dark Ages in how we regarded people with developmental delays and we clumped them all together under the umbrella of mental retardation. People of all ages were warehoused in large buildings in awful conditions. College students who worked there in the summer were acutely aware of the injustices done to residents and we plotted many small and not so small rebellions on behalf of the residents. My career path after college did not lead straight to writing, but instead took a sometimes dizzying route. Among my more illustrious job choices were: director of a traveling puppet troupe, roofer, waitress, recreation worker and lifeguard for handicapped kids, health-food clerk, freelance photographer (the low point was taking pictures of kids with Santa, the high point was photographing births), substance-abuse counselor with street kids in Chicago, freelance newspaper writer, and something about baiting sewers for rats in Oregon, but that one is always too hard to explain. After the birth of my daughter, I returned to graduate school to study psychology, eventually earning my Ph.D. and working at university counseling centers. As soon as I settled in with psychology, I began to write fiction. Short stories, long stories, novellas, novels, essays. I woke at five A.M. to write before I left for work, spent part of every weekend writing, most holidays, and parts of every vacation that I could squeeze out of my very full life. I have now switched the balance; writing is my primary occupation and private practice is my part-time job. When people ask me how I find time to write, I am always puzzled, because finding time is not a huge problem. Pat Schneider, a wise writing teacher, once said, “You would find time for a lover, wouldn’t you? That is how you find time for writing.” And possibly the image of my mother, happily painting at her easel on her day off made an imprint on me that said, here is what you do with your life, do those things you love. I have a backlog of stories and novels that are yammering to come out and I am doing my best to keep them in an orderly line. I am currently working on a novel that came to me in nearly complete form while I sat daydreaming on a ferry from the Isle of Skye to the mainland of Scotland.
Read an extract of Lost and Found here
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