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Barbara Graham On The Joy Of “Not Knowing” In Crafting Her Compassionate and Suspenseful Debut Novel

by Brendan Dowling on September 13, 2022

When musician Henry Bird disappears shortly before the birth of his daughter, local police initially chalk it up to a fear of impending fatherhood. Yet his mother, Helen, instinctively fears the worst and sets out to uncover what happened. As Helen pursues her investigation, Lucie and Matt Pressman, two young Manhattanites who frequently vacation in Henry’s hometown of Aurora Falls, New York, welcome the arrival of their son, Jonah. When the Pressmans return to Aurora Falls the summer their son Jonah is seven, Helen and Lucie find their lives inexplicably connected. Jonah, who has long referenced his “other mom and dog,” rattles off memories that only could have been known by Henry, who remains missing. The two mothers, unnerved by this improbability, form a cautious friendship as they seek to understand the link between their sons and uncover what happened to Henry all those years before. Barbara Graham’s What Jonah Knew is a compassionate examination of grief, a celebration of friendships and unexpected communities, and a deeply gripping mystical thriller. Graham spoke to us about her extensive research, unlocking the different voices of her characters, and the joy of “not knowing” in writing. 

Graham will be in conversation with Steve Winn on Zoom, Monday, October 24th, 7 PM PT. Sponsored by the Marin County Free Library.

The book centers around two mothers, Helen and Lucie, who both find themselves at extremely challenging points in their lives. Was there a particular character or relationship that was your entry point for the novel?

It was really Jonah. I was working as a freelance journalist—writing plays, living in New York—and I was assigned to do an article on past life regression therapy for Self Magazine. As part of my research, I did a session with a Jungian psychologist. I went in thinking, “Nothing’s going to happen. I’m not hypnotize-able, forget it.” I ended up with a profound experience that seemed like a memory but wasn’t—but who knew really?—of being killed during the Holocaust. It was a pretty shattering experience. I didn’t know what to make of it. I was a journalist, what did I know? 

A short time after that, a psychiatrist friend of mine handed me a book by Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia medical school who for decades had been studying young children with spontaneous recall of a previous life. I became captivated by these stories of kids who out of the blue began spouting details, which Stevenson and his team were able to confirm, about their lives and deaths. I also knew that I wanted to tell the story through the voices of the two mothers who start out as strangers and whose lives become inextricably intertwined in ways that neither of them could ever have imagined. In a sense, it wasn’t really one character or the other, it was the stories of these kids that just gripped me.

All of the characters have very established-and diversefaith practices. What was it like exploring the topic of reincarnation through multiple spiritual viewpoints?

Around the same time that I had discovered Ian Stevenson’s work, I was in New York and I heard the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhist teachers talk about past and future lives as you and I might talk about last Thanksgiving or next Christmas. It was just part of their understanding of the world. I had my own experience, I had Stevenson’s research, and then I was listening to all these people talk, so it all kind of blended together in my mind. It was really interesting to come at the subject of reincarnation from multiple points of view. The main characters—Helen, Lucie, Matt—their view of the world does not include any ideas of consciousness that exists beyond the life of the body. That was very deliberate. I wanted to invite the reader to explore the subject with the main characters. 

I was raised in Reform Judaism and there’s never any talk of reincarnation or rebirth whatsoever. However, there is in the Kabbalah. In the mystical traditions of Judaism, reincarnation and rebirth is a given. Even in the different traditions within Buddhism, where you assume that every practitioner of Buddhism believes in reincarnation, [beliefs differ]. In Zen, they don’t pay any attention to it. The present moment is all that we have and that’s where their attention lies. It doesn’t matter what happened before or what will happen next, what matters is this moment. Then there’s Tibetan Buddhism, where it really matters (laughs). What intrigues me about it is it’s really about how we live now. If you take the long view—that there is a possibility that consciousness extends beyond the life of the physical body—then how you treat the people you love, the people you meet on the street, strangers, and the planet really matters.

I found the topic so fascinating, and loved how it’s treated so matter-of-factly by different characters.

I didn’t want to write a horror book. There’s a creepy character in the book, of course, but I really wanted to write a book that was plausible, that given the research on these kids, might have happened.

A few of the chapters are narrated by other characters, including Jonah. I really loved Jonah’s voicehe’s bright and funny, but he still comes across as a real seven-year-old. Can you talk about how you went about approaching those characters?

I’m the mother of a son, of a very grown-up son, and I’m also a grandmother. Having lived with a young boy, the voices mercifully came to me. Jonah’s voice was really fun to write. I loved writing [Helen’s granddaughter] Lola. It was really fun to write a feisty, scrappy girl. Henry came from somewhere else that I can’t even say. I loved writing him. Jonah very much came out of my own experience as a mother of a young boy.

How did your experience as a playwright affect how you approached writing this novel?

Dialogue is pretty easy for me to write, having written many plays. I think that was an advantage, that I had a pretty good grasp of how to write dialogue. Dialogue’s funny. You can’t say too much, but you also can’t say too little. It’s finding the balance in it. One thing I learned very early as a playwright–Thornton Wilder had a line, “Constant, forward motion.” Everything, even when you’re revealing the interior life of a character, in some way or another needs to help advance the story. 

In terms of writing dialogue and writing to advance the story, those were things I’d internalized from writing plays. But the difference–and the difference that I love about writing a novel–is when you write a play, it’s almost similar to writing music. You’re scoring for actors. You get to write dialogue and stage directions, but then the actors inhabit the characters and reveal the inner life of the characters through their own movements, voices, and bodies. When you’re writing fiction, you get to write what’s going on inside the minds of characters. For me, that was a joy. I had to edit some scenes out. It’s finding that balance again between revealing the character and moving the story forward. It’s a dance.

Can you give an example of a scene that you cut out?

I had a whole chapter of Lucie going up to Aurora Falls and having a long conversation with Helen in the café while Jonah was off with Matt at spring training or something. It was completely superfluous. There were other scenes like that, where it was helpful to me as a writer in terms of character development and deepening character, but it really did not serve the story. Writing is rewriting. Revision is where the book comes to life. Chipping away at the stone to bring out the sculpture.

The book deals with really heavy topics like grief and trauma, yet it’s also very warmhearted in the relationships among the characters and funny in parts. How did you approach crafting the tone of the novel?

I think Joan Didion said, “We tell stories in order to live,” and my addendum to that would be, “We laugh in order to live.” If you’ve ever gone to a wake, there are a lot of jokes being told. I wanted to be able to try to be truthful in both the exploration of loss and grief and the life that accompanies it, through which it moves, which hopefully involves some lightness and humor. It’s inevitable and unavoidable and essential. Otherwise it would be so dreary to read (laughs)

Helen’s situation is so grim, whenever anything remotely good happened to her, I was elated.

That’s why I gave her [her love interest] Randy. There had to be something for her in life. It took quite a while for her to get there. Writing is sitting down—or standing up, if you have a stand-up desk—and opening up the channel and letting stuff happen. As much as I would outline this book, the outlines went out the door. So much of what’s in it just evolved and came through somehow or other, like magic. I never planned the role of the dog, Charlie, he’s so huge. There was so much I didn’t know. 

I did a lot of improv in my theater days, it’s more fun than anything. In a sense, I think writing is a great parallel to that, if you’re open to it. You’re sort of improvising with yourself and your characters. It’s not that different from being on stage with somebody, they say something completely unexpected, and you do the next thing and adjust. For me, that’s the great joy in writing, the playfulness of it and not knowing what’s going to happen. I think outlines can be very helpful, but then trying to follow them [can be constricting]. I want to write another novel, but I’m never going to be the kind of person who will storyboard and follow [the plan]. To me that would seem like painting by numbers.

It seems like you created that world so completely that you were able to make those organic discoveries.

Once you have the ground beneath you and you sense what your world is, anything can happen. Some stuff, as I said, goes and doesn’t belong, but that’s the fun of it. The not knowing is the great joy of it.

And finally, what role have libraries played in your life?

Huge. Public libraries are sacred institutions that are essential to the health of free, open, and democratic societies. I’m a real user of libraries and donate books to libraries a lot, including my own book. I think libraries are essential. My son lives in Italy with my granddaughter. He’s coming back to California, where she’ll go to high school. Right before you called, she popped into the room where I’m sitting and said, “I’m going to be able to get a library card!” They don’t have libraries like [the ones in the States] in Italy. I’m eager to reach out to libraries and library book clubs. I would happily drop in on Zoom or whatever if that were an option. 

I saw on your website you’re available for book clubs.

I love talking about this book. So far, I’ve only done a couple of them. Fortunately, they all loved the book. I heard of some writer—I forget who it was—who has something on his website, “I’d be happy to come to your book club if you really liked my book. But if you hated it, please don’t invite me.” Who wants that? (laughs)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.