“In spite of all Jack’s intelligence, he was a slow learner emotionally. Now that he’s dead, he understands more. One message of the book: don’t wait until you’re dead to understand everything.” – Diane Wald
Diane Wald’s new novel, My Famous Brain, is a first-person narrative told by Jack MacLeod, a university psychologist, after his life is cut short in 1974. It’s a tale of love, betrayal, forgiveness demonstrating that much of what gives our lives meaning surpasses rational thought. It’s recommended for anyone who enjoyed The Lovely Bones or The Five People You Meet in Heaven.
Twenty years ago, Diane Wald met a supremely intelligent man who memorized entire books. Insanely fascinating, he’d been early labelled a genius and raised with great expectations. But he lived in the real world, and—just like the rest of us—struggled with accepting who he was relative to others’ ambitions for him. He was stricken with disease. And his intellect could never secure him the love he craved. My Famous Brain fictionalizes those experiences and adds beyond-the-grave wisdom to remind us how precious are love and life.
Your novel wrestles with how intellect both helps and hinders us. It’s hard to even imagine people like Jack, who are so brilliant.
It’s insanely fascinating. At the same time, he’s a human being in a human body, with human parents, who goes through everything we all do. All these ingredients went into the boiling pot of his existence. After he died, he could remember the events of his life with greater perspective.
Tell us about perspective.
Perspective is a big deal in the book. It starts right out by saying that remembering is like looking at pretty blue boats in the harbor. You see them and think, That’s fantastic. But if you go around the corner and eye them from a different angle, you realize they are next to warships. Jack, when he’s dead, sees from all different perspectives.
Let’s discuss your narrator’s unconventional point of view—first person, dead man speaking from beyond the grave! Also, his perspective is not fixed in time—sometimes he’s fully in the present, sometimes he’s looking back—what??? How’d you come up with that?
I don’t know! I’m so glad you stuck with it. In early drafts, my trusted readers had trouble following. I revised the story to make it completely non-sequential. Jack says right at the beginning, “Stick with me; I’m going to skip around a lot.” By establishing a few main characters and situations early, I could play around so readers can follow without getting seasick. I wanted not just an omniscient narrator, but one who was almost omnipotent. Jack’s whole life is spread before him. He can pick and choose where to go and what to tell you. You decide whether to believe him.
You also include heart-warming vignettes of Jack with animals when he feeds the swans and Cybèle the fox. Are you an animal rights advocate?
Totally! After my academic career, I wrote for the MSPCA in Jamaica Plain, Boston. It was the most fun job in the world. I saw animals every day and wrote every day.
Let’s talk about love. I strive in my writing to portray the full spectrum of human emotion. My Famous Brain evinced many forms of love. The Greeks had at least nine words for love. You took us through more than half, including éros—erotic love; philia—deep friendship; storge—familial love; philautia—acceptance of self; agápe—selfless love of others. How can writers lean into love in our own stories?
If you write a character-driven story, you must delve into their relationships and consider the kinds of love they have (and the opposite). That’s what interests readers. There’s tremendous emphasis on romantic love, but that’s not all there is. The older you get, the more you realize there are almost endless variations of love. If you concentrate on characters, there’s no way to avoid discussing what they love, why they love, how they love, and who they love.
That’s beautiful; I’m verklempt (pause). I think you even defined a tenth form of love: Supernatural Soulmates. Do you believe there’s a soulmate somewhere out there for everyone?
At least one. My first novel, Gillyflower, also delves into supernatural soulmates. Two strangers find themselves drawn to examine a connection they have. Everyone has had that experience. It happens all the time; I just think it isn’t commonly accepted.
And yet, true love can be cruel. At one point Jack says of his love, “…she must have known she had to be the one to leave. She did not want to, of that I am certain, but her healthy instincts were true, and therefore cruel. Life is that way. Who is lucky enough never to have had to make a choice for the best that tore one apart, that hurt someone else grievously, that made ‘the best’ seem a lame thing indeed?”
Again, there are a million books about romantic love and rejection, but writers rarely explore what happens after rejection unless driving towards a happy ending. I’m not looking for a happy ending. I want an interesting ending. I used to tell my classes only trouble is interesting. My Famous Brain is full of open-ended questions, just like life.
Before writing novels, you published hundreds of poems. How has poetry informed your writing?
Poetry helped me strengthen my imagery and the musicality of the prose. In addition, Robert Frost said a good poem “ends in a clarification of life…a momentary stay against confusion.” I wanted that in my writing.
You were also a creative writing professor and university dean. Any advice for aspiring novelists?
At this point in my life, I’m a bit of a hardened old crank. People may not like this, but I tell students soak up everything you’re taught, everything you read, everything you see, and every comment people make about your writing. But reject what doesn’t feel true. Too many times, really good writing students put their work out there and the other students say, Make the bartender a priest! or Change all the adjectives to adverbs!, and they’d say, Okay, I’ll do that right now. Don’t make changes just because someone else said. Develop a sense of self.
Diane Wald’s novel Gillyflower was published in April 2019 by She Writes Press, winning first place in the novella category from both the Next Generation Indie Book Awards and American Book Fest, first place in Fiction: Novella from International Book Awards, and a bronze medal from Reader’s Favorite. Diane has published more than 250 poems in literary magazines, winning The Grolier Poetry Prize, The Denny Award, The Open Voice Award, and the Anne Halley Award. Some of her poetry collections include The Warhol Pillows, Wonderbender, The Yellow Hotel, Lucid Suitcase, four print chapbooks, and one electronic chapbook. Find out more at www.myfamousbrain.com and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.