Today we are welcoming Sarah Kernochan to Flight of the Dragon. Sarah has won two Academy Awards for her documentaries Marjoe and Thoth. As a screenwriter, she has written many films, among them Nine and ½ Weeks, Impromptu, and What Lies Beneath; she both wrote and directed the film All I Wanna Do as well. Jane Was Here is her second novel after 1977’s Dry Hustle. At present she is writing a memoir of her encounters with ghosts in serial form on her blog. She lives in New York with her husband, playwright James Lapine; daughter Phoebe Lapine is a food writer.

Well, that officially makes you the only person I know to have ever won an Academy Award for anything. You’re also the only person I know to have written a film that actually screened in a mainstream cinema. And you’ve done both! I am officially impressed. I am not easily impressed. Uh, so, on that note, welcome and thanks for joining us today! But we’re not here to talk about your screenwriting prowess, which is evidently considerable, but to talk about your latest book, Jane Was Here. Can you tell us what genre is your book?

I tend to read “literature” and not popular fiction. Incredibly, I had no awareness of subgenres like paranormal romance while I was writing Jane Was Here. I’m a believer in reincarnation, which I used as both a message and literary device in the story: someone committed a crime in 1853. Both the victim and the suspects have been reincarnated to the present day, with no memory of their connection, until the victim starts to remember… When it was due to be published, I had to figure out what family my child belonged to. It seemed she had multiple parentage and I would have to use a lot of hyphens. Finally, to simplify things, I decided Jane was a paranormal-suspense-horror-fantasy-thriller. You can see how good I am at this.

Not bad, just a typical creative type. They don’t like black and white answers. Unlike little lawyer me! Do you have a specific writing style?

Style was the first thing I developed before anything else, when I had just started writing in my teens. I was influenced by iconoclasts like Donald Barthelme, and by Faulkner’s rhapsodic sentences without punctuation. Consequently my early work was pretty pretentious. However, my approach has always remained the same: to maintain a musical flow of language. For example, if the moment is slow and deeply felt, I will bring in poetic language. If it’s frantic action, I’ll design a rush of words or staccato bursts. Through it all, a reader should be able to ride along without being aware of the current. Then look up and realize they’ve reached the open sea.

We are all a bit pretentious and pompous when we start out. It comes from trying too hard, I think, or our perceptions of what a writer should sound like – in those early days, before we start learning about things like ‘voice’. What was the hardest part of writing your book?

Writing is kind of easy for me, I hate to say it. Maybe because I’ve been doing it so long. It only gets hard when I’m unwittingly headed down the wrong path and I haven’t faced it yet – my bad choices gum up the works until the car breaks down entirely.

Writing is easy. Editing is hard! Well, at least, it is for me. Did you learn anything from writing your book and, if so, what was it?

I learned from readers’ feedback that a lot of people can’t go forward without a strongly sympathetic character. I tend to create edgier characters with their dark parts hanging out. In the future I think I’ll make more of a conscious attempt to giving them someone to love. I do want them to continue reading, after all.

Absolutely, if the reader can’t empathise with a character, you’re more likely to lose them. My protagonist is an assassin, so I sympathise – but I’ve tried very hard to make her likeable, up to and including a recent workshop on ‘dark heroes’. Or heroines in this case. Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

I took up the big question “Why me?” that humans so often ask when suffering. Why did that have to happen? What did I ever do to deserve this? I designed a karmic puzzle in Jane Was Here that showed heaven’s design as perfect: you do deserve what happens to you because of what you did in another lifetime. You don’t understand your fate because you were born without any memory of your prior deeds. You aren’t meant to understand or to remember. Those studies take place in the realm between lives.  

Wow, way deeper than me. I’d just shrug and say ‘there is no why’. Yeah, don’t come to me if you want counselling! Hey, at least I’m honest… If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

My first and only mentor was Grace Paley. She was my first writing teacher (at Columbia General Studies in New York) and I was one of her first students. She taught me how to pay attention to people around me, listen, even pursue. Grace focused most of her stories on a specific neighborhood, which she rendered to the tiniest detail. My neighborhood wasn’t very interesting (Connecticut suburb – Cheever had already been there anyway) so I went further afield, scarfing up people’s stories and sometimes going along for the ride. I collected experiences instead of hiding indoors. Grace taught me that.

Hmmm…. So many writers are people watchers. It worries me sometimes, because I’m not. Maybe that’s OK, because I’m dragon-watching instead! Are you reading something now?

My great aunt Anna De Koven, who was a journalist, published a book called A Cloud of Witnesses in 1920. You can find it in Google books. She reports her conversations with her dead sister through a medium over the course of a year. The beginning’s pretty starchy but once the dialogue gets rolling between the two sisters it’s really fascinating. You learn a lot about the education and evolution of souls in the afterlife. And it matches so many other accounts related by people under hypnosis who remember that ethereal phase before they were reborn.

That must be very personal for you. And speaking of which, on to some more personal questions. In addition to writing, do you have a day job as well?

I’ve been a screenwriter since the early 80’s.

Well, that’s kind of still writing. Lucky you! If you were an animal what kind would you be?

Can I have three? Because I have three animal spirit guides: rabbit, snake, and crane. That about sums me up.

You can have as many as you like. I’ll settle for one big dragon. What is the last book you read?

Carry The One by Carol Anshaw.

I wasn’t familiar with that one, so I looked it up – the story of a group of friends after they hit and kill a girl on the way home from a wedding. It sounds intense!

Thanks so much for joining us today, Sarah, it’s been a pleasure. 

For anyone interested in Jane Was Here, here’s a bit about the book:

A mysterious young woman called Jane appears in a small New England town. She claims a fragmentary memory of growing up in this place, yet she has never been here before in her life. Searching for an explanation, she arrives at the unthinkable: that she is somehow connected to a beautiful girl who disappeared from the town in 1853. Is she recalling a past life? Jane becomes convinced of it. As she presses onward to find out what happened in this town over 150 years ago, strange and alarming things begin happening to some of the town’s inhabitants. A thunderhead of karmic justice gathers over the village as Jane’s memories reawaken piece by piece. They carry her back in time to a long-buried secret, while the townspeople hurtle forward to a horrific event when past and present fatally collide.

If you’d like to know more about Sarah or would like to buy Jane Was Hereyou can find them in a multitude of places:

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