Giving Voice to Grief in a Novel Way
When the worst happens, turn your despair into fiction.
Posted Oct 09, 2016
Years after David Daniel's son died, at the age of almost eight, in an ATV accident—the same accident that grievously injured the psychiatrist's wife Lisa—Dr. Daniel gave his son David the only kind of second chance he could by imagining him being cloned.
His debut novel, A Life Twice Given, just out from Berwick Court Publishing, combines aspects of science fiction, family drama, and psychological thriller, with a twist of Judaism and mysticism.
I wanted to read this novel not only because I'm a science fiction fan, but because my own first novel has a similar theme, that of a parent coping with the worst tragedy possible.
Dr. Daniel kindly responded to my questions here:
Q: Dr. Daniel, how long after the terrible accident did you begin to think about writing a novel such as this?
In the immediate aftermath of the accident, after Lisa was stabilized, I wrote down snippets of David’s last day and over the ensuing weeks memories of special times like vacations and subsequently just about everything I could remember that he had said.
A few weeks after the accident I had a dialogue with a scientist who claimed to have cloned humans to very early stages. Lisa and I readily determined that attempting to clone David would not be in his interest. However, those conversations inspired the novel. I didn’t begin to systematically write the book until much later.
Q: Did writing the novel make a difference in your ability to cope with what I assume was your ongoing grief?
You never get over the loss of a loved one, especially a child, so I guess the grief never ends, although over time the memories come less frequently and the feelings are less intense.
The grief our family experienced was of two main kinds: for our loss of David and for David’s loss of his future. The novel gave our family a way to keep David with us in fantasy and to imagine a future of laughter, banter, and love as we went through our lives together.
I greatly enjoyed writing the happier sections of the book, especially David as a young doctor in training, his romance with Madeleine and his repartee with his siblings as an adult. I honestly can’t say that the book was cathartic or healing, per se. However, I find great comfort in that the book will be published and David will live in the minds of the readers and that I can continue to create new adventures for him in future novels.
SCIENCE VS. SUPERSTITION
Q: Your son was named after you, as the son in the story was named after his father. By Jewish custom, that isn't usually done. Throughout the father's part of the novel, I got the sense that you might be a teensy bit superstitious yourself, or was that something you added because so many potential readers might relate to that ambivalence?
You are right on target. As a physician and scientist I can’t be superstitious, but as a novelist, I can. There was no ambivalence from my grandparents, who grew up in the shtetl, when they discussed such matters as the Angel of Death, despite the fact they had adapted to America and become brilliantly successful business people. The scene where my grandmother, Fanny, warned of the danger of naming after the living was biographical.
In the novel, the superstition about the Angel of Death taking the child named after the father by mistake is a vehicle for expressing a father’s irrational guilt. The superstition about the father making a deal with God to sacrifice himself for his son is a fantasy of having control of a lethal situation and being able to turn back the clock and fix the unfixable. I suspect fantasies of both guilt and undoing the tragedy are common experiences after losing a loved one.
In addition, the Angel of Death superstition supplies a fantasy explanation for “why” a tragedy occurred that was so illogical, unexplainable and beyond comprehension. After the accident the ATV was scrutinized by experts, ad nauseum, and they never could fully explain the lunge that seemed to come out of nowhere and cause the accident. The Angel of Death fantasy comes up again at the end of the novel to explain the nuclear holocaust.
Q: The first half of the novel felt especially real. And I noticed your actual medical interest in Kawasaki disease, with which the boy in the story had to deal early on. How biographical is all that?
The Kawasaki’s disease and accident chapters unfolded in real life much as written. The fever and rash in the Kawasaki incident seemed to come out of nowhere. One minute David seemed fine and the next thing we knew he was given a fifty percent chance of survival. There are no words to describe how scary and devastating that felt. The emotional prayer scene before the echocardiogram that showed David’s recovery was real. However, Lisa and I attribute the recovery to aggressive, smart, creative doctors.
We still don’t know what caused the ATV to take off by itself and plunge over the embankment. The scene where I came upon my wife and son in the immediate aftermath was a life changer for me. I will never be the same.
Immediately after the accident Lisa was paralyzed with only a flicker of movement below the shoulders. She maintained almost superhuman optimism and determination to recover during that time. I can still remember her comforting herself by saying “I still have my mind.” Through incredibly hard work in rehab and because she received intravenous steroids early she is now able to walk with a brace, drive and physically pretty much do anything she wants. Our other children were amazingly resilient through the whole ordeal despite witnessing the trauma close up. It is a testimony to their characters that we really did manage to restore the “joie de vivre” in our home very quickly.
Some of the subsequent parts such as the hunting debacle in Central America are also derived from real events. On a family hunting trip my brother, cousins, friend and I had to survive overnight in torrential flooding in a Central American swamp after all three of the outfitter’s airboats failed. Although the content of the chapters in Prague and Ethiopia were fictional, I have spent time in both places.
WHEN DID IT FLOW?
Q: When did the writing of the novel flow most freely for you? When you were disguising real events, or later, when you were imagining the spy drama part of the story? Or perhaps when you were showing us various psychiatric sessions?
The writing of the imagined psychiatric sessions and spy drama was especially fun and flowed most freely, I think, because in contrast to the earlier sections of the book they were pure fiction.
In contrast, the early sections dealt with real disasters and the painful memories and complex emotions that went with them. Converting that kind of reality into fiction while remaining sensitive and true to my family’s feelings and recollections was challenging. My friends have pointed out that publishing a book based on something that happened to my family is a marked departure from my very private and circumspect style. I agree, but it is an appropriate compromise in order to try to give David a fictional life in the minds of the readers.
Q: Was the road to publication a big challenge? Do you think you'll write another novel after this experience?
As a debut novelist it was no easy matter to get the attention of a publisher. I was very fortunate to be introduced to a publisher whose interests were a good match for the novel.
I anticipate continuing David’s life through fiction in future novels. I have begun to draft the first and two more are on the drawing board. One, which features an elderly woman with "locked-in syndrome," has David, a medical intern, attempting to unravel the mysterious circumstances leading to her accident. Another involves a young Jewish man in a small southern town being given a lobotomy after he seeks to marry outside the faith (based on true events), and the third is about a young scientist who is framed by big business for a disaster not of his making.
Q: Has starting a foundation in the name of your son [the David Gordon Louis Daniel Foundation] been a positive experience?
The Foundation was created to embody qualities that we thought were outstanding in David, namely his prolific love of learning, empathy and an unusually strong drive to help other people. In a sense the Foundation is doing the type of work in David’s name that we believe he would have done and it raises consciousness of his memory. This continues to be a deeply satisfying experience for our family. All the author’s proceeds from the book will be donated to the Foundation.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Susan K. Perry, author of Writing in Flow and Kylie's Heel