Interview, Breaking the Silence

Q. How would you describe Breaking the Silence?
A. Like most of my books, Breaking the Silence is part suspense, part mystery, and one hundred percent family drama. The plot is complex, with seemingly unrelated threads: a five-year-old girl who suddenly stops talking, an elderly woman who was involved in the CIA mind control experiments during the fifties, a commitment-phobic man who flies hot air balloons for a living, and a female astronomer who gradually pulls the threads of the story together.

Q. Who would enjoy reading Breaking the Silence?
A. My audience is generally made up of women of all ages, including young adults, who I believe will love the intergenerational story, the mother-daughter bond, and the romantic elements. I also have a faithful contingent of male readers, and they particular seem to enjoy Breaking the Silence because of the strong element of psychological suspense.

Q. How did you come up with the storyline for Breaking the Silence?
A. When thinking about ideas for a new book, I like to wander through the nonfiction stacks at the library to see what jumps out at me. I stumbled across a book on the CIA mind control program on one of those forays through the library and became fascinated by the devastating human stories inside. As I began reading about the toll the MK-ULTRA project took on its victims and their families, the idea for Breaking the Silence began to take shape in my mind.

While the mind control experiments gave me the idea for the book, the main focus in the novel is the relationships between the characters. I try to create characters who will have the most difficult time coping with the events in a particular story in order to increase the tension. In Breaking the Silence, I created Sarah, an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, and Emma, a little girl who doesn’t speak. They are two people at different ends of the age spectrum who have one thing in common-they can’t communicate about the secrets each of them carries.

Q. There are some heavy topics addressed in Breaking the Silence: Alzheimer’s, mutism, suicide, mind control. Can the book possibly have a happy ending?
A. Breaking the Silence ends on a realistic yet upbeat note that I think will satisfy my readers. I personally don’t care to read books that end tragically or with too much of the story left unresolved. That’s why I try to give my novels satisfying endings. Some things-Alzheimer’s, for example-are unfixable, but as long as my characters meet the challenge of handling their problems with courage and integrity, I think readers will cheer them on.

Q. For those readers unfamiliar with the CIA’s mind control experiments, can you tell us a little about them?
A. During the cold war, the US government was concerned that our enemies were perfecting mind control techniques which could be used against our military. As a result, the CIA developed a covert program, MK-ULTRA, to devise similar techniques. Every experiment needs guinea pigs, and in this case unwitting psychiatric patients, primarily at McGill University in Canada, became those involuntary subjects. They were kept in isolation for months at a time, subjected to extremely high levels of electroshock treatment, put into drug-induced comas, administered experimental drugs, etcetera. Many, if not most, of the records related to the program were destroyed prior to the investigation of MK-ULTRA by the Senate Intelligence Committee in the seventies. InBreaking the Silence, my elderly character, Sarah Tolley, is a nurse working at the fictional psychiatric hospital where the experiments take place.

Q. What themes do you explore in Breaking the Silence?
A. One of the strongest themes in Breaking the Silence is the value of every human being, whether he or she has Alzheimer’s, is a psychiatric patient, or a five-year-old child. The destructive nature of secrets, the bond between generations as well as between mothers and daughters, and the enduring power of love are other themes explored in the story.

Q. What was the most difficult part of writing Breaking the Silence?
A. It’s always a challenge to move back and forth between the past and present when writing a novel. Three quarters of Breaking the Silence takes place in the present, but the rest of it is Sarah’s story from her days as a psychiatric nurse. When I write a book set in two diverse time periods, I often write the entire past story first so that I don’t lose the sense of time and place or the voice of the character. I wrote Sarah’s story in its entirety. Then I built the current day events around it so that the pieces of the story flow together-seamlessly, I hope.

Q. Tell us about some of the research you did for Breaking the Silence.
A. Besides learning all I could about the mind control experiments, I needed to research Laura’s work as an acclaimed astronomer. I knew very little about astronomy, and that’s one reason I gave her that particular career: I don’t believe in writing about what Iknow so much as writing about what I want to know. Writing allows me to learn so much.

I’ve had both personal and professional experience with Alzheimer patients, but I wanted to learn more to be able to write Sarah’s story accurately. Emma’s selective mutism was another area I needed to research. Although my background is as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist, I’d never worked with a mute child, so I needed to understand the psychology behind Emma’s silence as well as how Laura would feel as she dealt with her daughter’s mutism.

Dylan is a hot air balloon pilot, so I needed to take a flight myself, of course! That was the biggest challenge of all my research, since foul weather led to the cancellation of the first seven flights I was scheduled to make. The eighth flight looked like a go, and I was in the chase vehicle as the first passengers of the evening took their flight. The wind picked up as they came in for a landing, though, and the basket crashed into our chase vehicle and was dragged across a field, coming to a stop only when the balloon ripped apart on top of a farmhouse! The ninth time, I was finally airborne-for about five minutes. Then the rains came and we had to make an emergency landing in a quarry. I’m happy I survived to write the book!

Q. You mention your background as a therapist. How did that influence this story?
A. As a psychotherapist, my first concern was to “do no harm,” so it was hard to imagine psychiatric workers taking part in something as horrific as the mind control experiments. That was one reason I wanted to write the story of the past from the point of view of a nurse rather than a patient. I believe it’s clear in the book how the charismatic psychiatrist in charge was able to persuade his staff that his approaches were at the cutting edge of the field.

I was also interested in how the therapist in the story would work with Emma, especially when Emma and Sarah are brought together during a session. Emma and her selective mutism intrigued me, but my heart went out to Sarah. There’s a tendency to forget that Alzheimer’s patients have a world of memories locked deep inside them. I liked creating a character who was still able to give something to the people around her in spite of her illness.

Q. What do you enjoy most about being a novelist?
A. I love being able to touch thousands of people around the world with my stories. One of my Japanese readers emailed me to say, “You make me believe that life is beautiful even if it is also filled with pain and rage.” Her words mean so much to me, and that is the message I’d love my readers to take away with them from Breaking the Silence.