Sensorium

A Quest to Understand Extraordinary Experiences of Sense

Synesthesia and Will-O'-The-Wisps

Therese Walsh's The Moon Sisters and its near-magical realism

The Moon Sisters
The Moon Sisters
Courtesy Therese Walsh
Synesthesia can be spellbinding -- with its moving, colored forms visible to only a small percentage among us, its strange properties have not been reduced, even in this age of unprecedented scientific inquiry into the trait. Perhaps its wonder has never been more beautifully captured than in Therese Walsh's The Moon Sisters, a coming of age novel that is also a powerful family story and filled with magical realism that suits the trait so well.

From the publisher:

After their mother's unsettling and unresolved death, sisters Olivia and Jazz take steps to move on with their lives. Jazz, logical and forward-thinking, decides to get a new job, but spirited, strong-willed Olivia—who can see sounds, taste words, and smell sights—is determined to travel to the remote setting of their mother's unfinished novel to lay her spirit properly to rest.

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Already resentful of Olivia’s foolish quest and her family’s insistence upon her involvement, Jazz is further aggravated when they run into trouble along the way and Olivia latches to a worldly train-hopper who warns he shouldn’t be trusted. As Jazz and Olivia make their way toward their destination, each hiding something from the other, their journey toward acceptance of their mother’s death becomes as important as their journey to understand each other and themselves.

 

In The Moon Sisters and your The Last Will of Moira Leahy, you explore sister relationships. Do you have interesting sisters yourself? 

TW: Yes, I have two sisters. I often speak of the push-pull, love-hate blood bond that is sisterhood, and in our family that’s the real deal. We are very different people, often with differing perspectives on things, and so I’ve naturally gravitated toward sister tales in my writing. The rule is “Write what you know.” This is what I know. 

What made you decide to give Olivia Moon synesthesia? Have you experienced it yourself? Did you talk with synesthetes about it? 

TW: I learned about synesthesia many years ago, and the concept immediately went into a story ideas folder. (I can’t imagine an author not learning about this condition and *not* wanting to pursue it in some form. It’s fascinating.) 

Therese Walsh
Author Therese Walsh.
Courtesy Therese Walsh
I don’t have synesthesia, but I wish I did. I’ve heard that synesthetes have better memory systems than non-synesthetes, and I have a poor memory. 

TW: To learn about the condition, I read several books on synesthesia, interviewed an expert in the field, and joined a listserv populated with creative synesthetes eager to share their perceptions. 

What is the origin of the will-o'-the-wisp in your life? Did you ever see one or are you fascinated by them? (I am!) 

TW: I’ve never seen a will-o’-the-wisp light, but I join you in being fascinated by them. I believe I first learned about them through a word-of-the-day email, if you can believe it. Similar to what happened when I learned about synesthesia, I was immediately intrigued by the idea of wisp lights—ghost lights—and their mythology; the email immediately engaged my imagination and went into a story ideas folder.

For anyone who doesn’t know what will-o’-the-wisps are, they’re lights that are purportedly seen over bogs and swamplands. Myth has it that they’re sprites (or the souls of dead Indians or miners or…any number of other things!), who will lead you to treasure if you follow them. Unless they’re in a bad mood, in which case you may be led over the edge of a cliff and to your death. Because of that, the lights (which scientists haven’t been able to explain entirely) are also called “foolish fires.” It’s foolish to follow them. In The Moon Sisters, I lean on different interpretations for foolish fires; some characters are, indeed, led astray. 

What was the origin of the book for you? How do you receive inspiration? 

TW: There were four bits of inspiration that came together to create the idea for The Moon Sisters. (1) The first was a scene that I’d written years back, that involved a blind girl on a will-o’-the-wisp-rich bog in West Virginia, following a kidnapping. I abandoned the story, but elements of that one scene stuck with me. (2) The second was a desire to write about synesthesia—that gem in my ideas folder. (3) The third was the death of my father at the age of fifty-six, and the ways my sisters and I responded to that loss. As I mentioned, we are very different. (4) Which is why I had to talk about sisterhood, again, and how difficult it is to sometimes imagine another person’s perceptions, but how important it is too. Especially when that person is family. Especially when you’re all hurting and need to be there for one another. Especially if you’re driving one another mad. 

Perception became a core theme in the book, supported by all of these elements: a blind girl (blind v. not blind), synesthesia (those who have it v. those who do not), and the different perceptions of reality following loss by two very different sisters. 

What is next for you? (We want more!) 

TW: Thanks for asking! I have two story ideas courting me at the moment, but I have remained noncommittal. I want to be wooed a while longer.

 

Website: http://ThereseWalsh.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ThereseWalsh.author

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ThereseWalsh

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18050053-the-moon-sisters

Mailing list: http://mad.ly/signups/96297/join

 

 

 

Maureen Seaberg is an author and synesthete dedicated to advancing understanding of synesthesia.

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