I am delighted to welcome Terri Morgan on the Red Carpet today. Terri has written a novel Playing the Genetic Lottery which deals with schizophrenia.
RED CARPET DAY
PLAYING THE GENETIC LOTTERY
Caitlin Kane knows more about the impact of schizophrenia than most people could imagine. Both her parents were afflicted with the devastating mental illness, a disease that tends to run in families, and Caitlin and her brother grew up trying to navigate the chaos of living with two schizophrenics. Her tumultuous childhood left Caitlin determined to forge a peaceful and serene life for herself. Now 32, she is living her dream. Married to her best friend, she and her husband are raising two bright young children in the suburbs of Seattle. While her unusual upbringing has left Caitlin with emotional scars, she enjoys the love and support of her extended family and her challenging career as a pediatric nurse. But no matter how hard she tries, she can’t shake the obsessive fear that the family illness will strike again, robbing her of her mind or stealing away the sanity of one or both of her children.
Every morning when I first wake up I wonder and I worry. Before getting out of bed, before registering my full, aching bladder, before remembering what day it is and what responsibilities await — I assess myself for signs of the disease. I roll my eyes around the room, looking for phantoms that may have appeared while I was sleeping. For odd, moving sights, like my dresser transformed into a rolling automobile or roaring lion. To make sure that the clock radio on my nightstand or the framed photos on the bookshelves haven’t cloned themselves overnight and morphed into twins or even triplets.
Then I listen carefully. I hear Jason snoring lightly beside me. I hear the ticking of the living room clock. I hear the jangle of Rosco’s tags as he rolls over on his bed in the corner of our room. I hold my breath and listen for mysterious voices or alien noises. Then, once I’m sure I’m not hearing any unusual, strange sounds, I ask myself—silently so not to wake my sleeping husband—-a series of questions.
Who am I? What’s my address? Where do I work? How old are my children? What’s my husband’s name? Who’s the president? Only after the correct responses to the first five pop into my mind, and I chuckle to myself after answering “Calvin Coolidge” to the sixth question because I know good and well that Barack Obama currently resides in the White House, do I know I’m safe for another day. If I still have my sense of humor, and apparently my faculties, I’ve still escaped it.
Escaped the mental illness that afflicted and consumed my mother, my father and my brother. Escaped the schizophrenia that robbed them of their minds and me of a childhood.
I know that at 32 my chances of developing schizophrenia are miniscule and keep shrinking with every passing month. Despite that, I’m still obsessively terrified of developing the devastating mental illness that was an ever-present part of my formative years. It’s shaped who I’ve become, and I’ve worked for more than half my life to recover from its impact. My father, mother and brother all lost the genetic lottery, and their misfortune continues to ripple through my life even today.
My name, at least the name I go by now, is Caitlin. That’s the name I chose for myself 18 years ago when I fled my childhood home of horrors. I cast off the name on my birth certificate for the new one in hopes of casting off the madness that was my family.
INTERVIEW WITH TERRI MORGAN
Alberta: Terri you have written 8 non fiction books yet you chose to tackle this subject as a novel saying you immediately wanted to write the story as fiction. Since you have done so, do you believe that this form has any advantage in the way of message/information/ or instigating discussion/understanding than straight forward reporting?
Terri: In this case, definitely! Writing fiction allowed me to pick and choose what scenarios to include to move the story along and reveal information about mental illness and the impact it has on families. It also allowed me to create the characters that helped Caitlin learn, grow and cope, and to take the readers into her head and understand how she was feeling.
Alberta: You are a writer of great experience. Has this transition been more or less difficult than you originally thought?
Terri: The transition was surprisingly easy. I was expecting it to be a lot more challenging. I did have a little problem, at first, because I wanted to include quite a bit of factual information about schizophrenia before each chapter. Once I realized that it wasn’t wise to try to combine fact and fiction, I didn’t have any problem making the switch to fiction.
Alberta: You say that you had for your own interest researched mental health problems in the past and that you were able to talk to friends who had had experience of this condition. Did you find when you came to write the book that you had to research deeper and/or wider than you had already?
Terri: Yes I did. I actually did quite a bit of research on schizophrenia once I decided to write the novel. I had a vague idea of how I wanted to book to turn out when I started, but found as I began writing the story took on a life of its own. So with some of the chapters I had to do additional research, whether it was on anger management classes, sailing, or the requirements to get a Red Cross babysitting certificate, to make the story realistic.
Alberta: It reads so well as Caitlin’s autobiography that I suspect, whatever you say, many readers will think it is your life story! How easy was it to find Caitlins ‘voice’?
Terri: I can’t tell you how many people have asked me if the novel is autobiographical, but it isn’t in any way shape or form. I didn’t have much trouble finding Caitlin’s voice, because I have a very good memory of what it was like to be a kid, a teenager, and a young adult. I had a good idea from the start of what kind of personality Caitlin would have, and that also helped me shape her thoughts, reactions, and voice. For me, it was a lot of fun to change Caitlin’s voice as she aged and matured.
Alberta: Cailtin enjoys her moments of structured ‘normality’ i.e. school, hospital, grandfathers house. One’s instinctive reaction is to want her removed from the ‘bizarre and hazardous’, to place her in the ‘normal’. After your research how do you feel about the children’s position should the state intervene more?
Terri: That’s a very good question Alberta, and one I’ve been struggling with since I started writing the novel. A parent-child bond is tremendously strong, and Caitlin clearly loved and continues to love her parents, despite everything. And her parents not only loved their children, but resisted any suggestions that Caitlin and her brother would be better off with either of their grandparents. I just don’t know, so I’m going to take the easy way out and say each situation should be examined on a case-by-case basis.
Alberta: Now you have dipped a toe into fiction do you have plans to write more novels?
Terri: I’d love to, but unfortunately it’s really hard to make money writing novels. I’m going to have to concentrate on non-fiction for a while. But I do have a couple of ideas percolating through my brain.
Alberta: Finally, your readership. Who have you written this novel for? Do you have a main readership in mind?
Terri: I did have two specific audiences in mind when I wrote this book; people who have a family member or close friend with schizophrenia, and book club readers. In the case of the former, I wanted the novel to validate some of their experiences, and to educate people about how the disease affects families. I also had book club readers in mind because I think the novel brings up a number of questions that could generate great discussions.
Alberta: Thank you very much for joining us and sharing so much of your work. I am sure we all wish you all the best with Playing the Genetic Lottery.
Terri: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you for including me on the Red Carpet.
Terri Morgan is a freelance journalist who’s work has appeared in dozens of different magazines and newspapers. She is the author of four sports biographies for young adults, and the co-author of two others. She is the co-author of two books on photography: Photography, Take Your Best Shot, and Capturing Childhood Memories, The Complete Photography Guide for Parents. Playing the Genetic Lottery is her first novel. She lives in Soquel, California.
Terri will be a guest here again at the beginning of next week with another excerpt and a guest blog.