Book Talk: Lisa Genova’s “Love Anthony”

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

As a writer, I’m always up for chatting about books. Talking to another writer, specifically about her own novel is big bonus. So when I got the chance to do a Q&A with neuroscientist-turned-New York Times Bestselling author Lisa Genova about her new book, all I needed was a cup of tea and piece of perfectly-buttered toast to make it completely golden.

Love Anthony, Genova’s third book, is about autism and — more important — acceptance. Genova, also a mother, hopes that the book “breaks through some of the stigma and barriers surrounding autism” to remind us that “we are all worthy of unconditional love.”

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 Q: From neuroscientist to novelist, how does that happen?

Lisa Genova: It’s a long, strange road. My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 85 in 1998.  As the neuroscientist in my large extended Italian family, I tried to read everything I could about Alzheimer’s in order to pass that education along to my aunts who were her caregivers. I learned a lot of helpful information, but everything I read was written by a clinician or a scientist or a caregiver.  They were all views from the outside looking in. What about my grandmother’s perspective? What does it feel like to have Alzheimer’s? Unfortunately, my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s was too far along, and she wasn’t able to communicate her answer. But the seed was planted. I thought I’d try to write a novel someday about a woman with Alzheimer’s and tell the story from her point of view. But I wasn’t a writer, so I thought this “someday” would be in some far-off future, when I was retired and there would be little risk.

Someday came much sooner. I left my job as a biotechnology/pharmaceutical company strategy consultant in 2000 when my oldest daughter was born. I planned to return to work when she turned one, but my marriage had begun unraveling, and I didn’t go back. In 2004 I was divorced and needed to go back to work. But I hesitated. What do I want my life to look like now that everything has changed?  Why do I have to go back to science or strategy consulting? If I could do anything I wanted, what would that be? My answer — write the book.  So instead of doing the responsible and sane thing, I dropped my four-year-old daughter at preschool, drove to Starbucks, and began writing Still Alice.

Q: Your novel deals with some heavy, sad subjects — autism, love, loss, death — did you talk to real women, other mothers, going through some of these profound issues in order to tell this story? 

LG: I did. When I think about the conversations I had with these mothers, I’m still overwhelmed with gratitude. These women were so open, so willing to share the most uncertain and vulnerable parts of their lives and their children with me, not knowing how I might use that information. They gave me an enormous amount of trust. I never took this lightly. In addition to teaching me about autism, they taught me lessons in compassion, acceptance, resilience, and unconditional love.

Q: How much did you rely on your neuroscience and research background to write this book, and help guide the reader through the complexities and mysteries of the human brain?

LGAs of today in 2012, we know frustratingly, embarrassingly little about the neuroscience of autism.  When I began the research for this book, I looked through The Principles of Neuroscience, the core textbook, the neurological Bible of my graduate school days at Harvard in the 90s, and there’s no mention of autism. Not a single word. It’s not referenced, in fact, in any of my Harvard texts. The current research on gene expression, neurochemistry, neurophysiology, and circuitry is too early, not definitive, unknown.

Autism today is still very much in the hands of psychiatry and psychology, in nomenclature and behavior.  How do we organize the symptoms? What should we call them? How do we manage them through behavior modification?  Psychiatrists prescribe inadequate medications. Psychologists administer Applied Behavioral Analysis.

Our understanding of autism is mostly limited to a discussion of restricted, repetitive behaviors and deficits in social communication. But what are the altered neural connections and molecules responsible for these symptoms? Neuroscience doesn’t yet know. So I couldn’t rely on my neuroscience background to write this story, and in that sense, it was a scary book for me to write.

Q: What was the most difficult part of writing Love Anthony, as opposed to your two previous novels, which also dealt with brain conditions? (Still Alice focused on a woman with Alzheimer’s, and Left Neglected, about the rare and extreme neuropsychological condition called Left Neglect.)

LG: When I was writing Still Alice and Left Neglected, I always felt like I could lean on my neuroscience background when I needed it. I could go to the textbooks and the medical community for scientific information about Alzheimer’s or Neglect and traumatic brain injury, and, as a neuroscientist, I found this comforting. And inspiration often began with the neuroscience. For example, the very first paragraph of Still Alice is essentially a description of apoptosis.

With Love Anthony, I was very much aware that I was writing without this safety net. There is no neuroscience textbook on autism. So I really had to leave my comfort zone. And the structure of this story is far more complex than my previous two books. With Still Alice and Left Neglected, I was a neuroscientist writing a novel. With Love Anthony, I became a novelist.

Q: What do you hope parents of children with autism might come away with after reading your novel? Is there a hopeful message?

LG: I hope that parents of children with autism feel that I got it right, that while every person with autism is different, that I captured some of what they experience in this book. And maybe that helps them feel acknowledged and less alone.

For readers who don’t know autism, I hope they gain a better understanding of it. When we hear the statistics (one in 88) or when we learn about the DSM reclassification or the scientific research, the information tends to stay in our heads. It’s important and necessary knowledge, but there is more to understand.  Through Love Anthony, readers get to learn about HUMAN BEINGS living with autism, and what we learn then also lives in our hearts. Then we have more than knowledge. We have empathy and maybe the motivation to get involved, the inspiration to make a positive difference.

I hope Love Anthony breaks through some of the stigma and barriers surrounding autism by creating an opportunity, through fiction, for people to see and feel the ways in which we are all connected and worthy of unconditional love.

Q: Have you already started on another book?
LG: Yes. My next novel will be about a genetic neurodegenerative disease called Huntington’s and fate.

Thanks for your time, Lisa, and congratulations on Love Anthony.
Thank you!

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It’s giveaway time! One lucky Ms. Mary Mack ready will win a copy of Love Anthony. All you need to do is leave a comment below and a winner will be randomly selected next week. Good luck! 

1 Comment
  • 1
    MaryJude Schmitz says:

    I got this as an eBook and loved it. I would love to have a hard copy to re-read and share.