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SunLit interview: A nightmare and quantum physics set Catherine Wallace Hope on a novel course

The author wanted to get the plot of her science fiction/fantasy tale just right -- but in order to do that, she paid particular attention to the science

Catherine Wallace Hope grew up in Colorado, the setting for her thriller, ”Once Again.” She earned her degree in creative writing at the University of Colorado and also delved into dance in New York and art and psychology in California. When she returned to Colorado, she became an instructor at the renowned Lighthouse Writers Workshop, offering creativity workshops for writers. Currently, she and her family are living on an island in the Pacific Northwest, where they serve at the pleasure of two astonishingly spoiled dogs. You can find more at catherinewallacehope.com.

Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate? 

“Once Again” really began back when I had a nightmare that my husband and I had once had a daughter but she’d been kidnapped. In the dream, I suddenly recognized that the kidnapping was happening all over again and that if I could just figure out what to do differently, I could stop it. There was a period of chaos when trucks were crashing into each other, and then I was frantically trying to get someone to help in a police station. No one could understand what I was saying. 

I woke from that nightmare in a panic. It had seemed so real. Those of you who are parents know what that’s like. It takes a few moments to extricate yourself from the darkness. It’s just the worst. So for the rest of that day, I mulled over the events of the nightmare, and two other things occurred to me: The dream had similarities to the Greek myth of the abduction of Persephone, which I had read about during one of the numerous times I went to college (another story for another day); and it also had fascinating science-y elements of time distortion that reminded me about the atomic clock in Boulder and how crucial it is for time measurement in the U.S. 

At that point, there was enormous excitement that astrophysicists had accomplished the great feat of measuring gravitational waves. It was a really big breakthrough in terms of our understanding of the universe. I decided that I wanted to pursue the idea and develop the narrative, so I started working on it, and I dove into the research because I wanted extreme verisimilitude. 

Every single element of physics that I wove into the fiction is based on true science, on the true wonders of the quantum realm. Time crystals are real; gravitational waves really do make ripples in space-time. If you want to totally tank your goal-setting method, try reading about how the past, present, and future all coexist simultaneously in the current now, whatever that turns out to be. Wild thought-bending ensues!

The critical center of the novel for me was to understand what happens to this family. Before I started, I was well-acquainted with grief and how in real life it creates an irrefutable break in a person’s timeline. There’s before and there’s after. 

My experience is that grief doesn’t have an endpoint when you’re done with it, when the healing has taken place and life goes on as it was before. For me, it has been a force that has changed shape many times and eventually become less painful but it’s always there in the landscape. Yet in the dream, as in the myth, there’s another possibility, and I wanted to find out if there was any way for these characters, these beautiful, forceful, fragile people, to prevail.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

This excerpt comes from the beginning sections of the book. I chose it because I wanted it to serve a couple of purposes. I wanted it to help the reader get a sense of what kind of story it is, to provide enough of a trailer that a reader could make a decision about continuing with it. I also wanted the excerpt to leave questions unanswered. It has to reveal something about the people involved and bring up a couple of inquiries. It’s one of the few pieces that is comprehensible without giving miles of setup and exposition beforehand.

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book?  

My family has been populated with librarians, bookworms, and authors for a very long time. I can track the librarian strain back as far as the 1800s. On both sides, we are a very literature-, crossword-, and spelling-bee-oriented bunch. We grew up surrounded by shelves and piles of books. We are people who buy books (too many!), give books (several at a time), and borrow books (often permanently). Sometime in the midst of various college jaunts, I lived in New York and Los Angeles and stayed up way too late with friends who were playwrights, artists, screenwriters, photographers, actors, singers, dancers, and composers. As well as sharing our lives, we shared stories, ideas, drafts and books and more books. It was an unparalleled university of the arts.

Eventually, I returned to my home state of Colorado, where I earned my creative writing degree. I found what was then a fledgling literary community called Lighthouse. It was a place where I could learn and connect and hang out with other writers, which I can’t recommend highly enough. Now it’s a fantastic international literary center, and when the stars align, I teach there and bask in that heady atmosphere. It was there that I met Sandra Bond, my lovely agent, who made it possible for “Once Again” to find a home with Alcove Press.

Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own? 

Yes! Oh my gosh! There were so many sharp turns and surprising revelations and also moments of illumination and serendipity. I’m an enthusiastic proponent of writers allowing the subliminal to direct the process. It takes more work to make it all coherent, but I think it brings greater texture and risk and humanity to the effort. When it happens with a character, or even better, with all of the characters, it’s very gratifying and it feels like you’re working in an extraordinary ensemble.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

By far the biggest challenge was creating a realistic modern version of Hades, the god of the underworld in the myth of Persephone. I started developing him from mythic sources, but I also incorporated contemporary psychological profiling to make him more dimensional. 

In fiction like this, the power of the narrative depends on the strength of the antagonist, so I knew I had to get it right. But it was incredibly difficult work. On a lesser note, it was also a hard thing to do to cut scenes and whole characters that I loved. In a subplot that had to go, there was a ghost — a young woman whose job was to unstitch and release the spirits of the dead from their bodies. She’s diligent and exquisitely good at what she does because she can release them without pain or fear, but, for emergency reasons, she has to leave the safety of her woods and set out over war-torn terrain. Gotta get back to that one.

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them? 

Overall, people have responded so positively to this story, and I’m always so thrilled to know what they think. I was troubled, however, when one person said, “Well, you know, women don’t like stuff with science and men don’t like reading about women.” I wish I could have seen the look on my face. I was… dismayed. 

Not only is that horrifying to think about from every angle, it’s not even true, at least not in my experience, not universally. And I’d love to know other people’s opinions about that. I understand that no novel can appeal to everyone. And frequently, it’s simply not the right time for a certain book in a reader’s life. So I completely sympathize if that’s the case. But for the most part, people have gone out of their way to share kind words with me, and I’m deeply grateful.

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

Years ago, I was caught in that loop of not having enough time to write. I was making no headway. And whenever I did finally get around to writing, my creativity for whichever idea had gone cold. 

Eventually, I realized I needed to schedule my creative work for first thing in the day; and back then, that meant getting up and getting to work at 4 a.m. I trained my circadian rhythm to wake me without fail, without the racket of an alarm, and I became much more productive. 

And now, all these years later, I’m still on that schedule. Even though now I can write whenever I want to, I can’t untrain that internal clock! So — I’m up at 4, before the birds. I make myself a medical-grade cup of coffee, feed the dogs, and open my mind to the work. 

I’ve always been a huge fan of Margaret Atwood, and I once read an interview about her process. She calls it a rolling barrage, and I’ve adopted a version of it: First, to get started, I write mostly in longhand. I have a fancy pen-and-pencil set I’m quite fond of, and I write in my notebook, which is essentially an artist’s sketchbook with a nice cover. The following day, I type what I wrote into a document, which gives me a chance to shape it a little bit, and then I go back to writing longhand.

It’s sort of a hybrid of old style and current tech that works well for me. I’m not a fast writer, though I wish I were. I spend a lot of my time gazing off into the middle distance, watching scenes play out or grind to a halt; I scribble and cross out and draw arrows, and when things get really bad, I can end up with my own Kandinsky on the page. Eventually, though, I get it sorted and start fitting together the puzzle pieces.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

What happens when you ask yourself, What if? 

Once Again” is about a second chance. As far as we know definitively now, that concept is limited to science fiction. Although, every day, we seem to discover that we have no idea how much we don’t know. 

Scandinavian physicists attached a particle of matter to a photon and moved it from one location to another. So who knows what’s possible? But for the purposes of this question, let’s dive in from where we are. 

I’m always astounded by people who say they have no regrets. With a past of muddling-through-and-often-lost in my wake, I have plenty of things I wish I’d done differently. There are people whose feelings I hurt because I was stupid and insecure in my own place in the world, and I wish so hard that I could take back what I said. 

So what would you do differently if you were given a second chance? I like to imagine that I could go back and fix isolated things without changing the big picture of my life because I wouldn’t want to lose any of the amazing good fortune I have or the people I love. 

But what if each minor decision changes everything that comes after? What ripples might follow? The next novel I’m working on asks some related questions. It asks about the fleeting nature of things, the unfinishedness of life, the embrace of imperfection.

Tell us about your next project.

I’m working on a story now that is completely different from “Once Again” but in the same lane of literature. Hopefully, the timeline will be linear for this one. The story is set in the near future, and it involves two settings of high contrast and, well, actually, I can’t say more at this point. 

My plan is for this new story to have similar pacing and length, but it’s hard to tell. For me, a new novel is like producing a film — there’s no way to know what it will look like until after the final edit.


Read an excerpt from the book.

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