I wanted to explore what Alzheimer's does to people, relationships, and families

Turn of Mind

Alice LaPlante teaches Creative Writing at Stanford University and San Francisco and lives in Palo Alto, California, with her daughter and her partner. Turn of Mind is her first novel and received multiple literary awards.

What made you want to tackle Alzheimer’s disease?

My mother had Alzheimer’s (she died almost a year ago) and so I’d been living with the disease and thinking about it for nearly 10 years. I’d tried to write other pieces about Alzheimer’s, both fiction and non fiction (essays), but none of them were working. It wasn’t until I had the idea to put it in the shape of a mystery that I was able to write about it.

Isn’t it a crazy challenge to write a mystery novel where the narrator has a degenerative disease?

Yes! Having such an unreliable narrator—who is deteriorating as the book progresses—created quite a few writing challenges! Trying to figure out how to give the readers a sense of what was real and wasn’t given that Jennifer was so far from reality at times was especially tricky. But it was fun trying to work around these challenges.

Could you tell us a few words about the writing and splitting of the novel in four parts?

I wanted each of the four parts to show a different kind of deterioration in Jennifer (the narrator). The first part she is still living at home, with a caregiver, and is still fairly lucid although she is having episodes of violence and anger. The second part, she has deteriorated enough to be put in what we call here an “assisted living” facility, because she can’t be trusted in her own home anymore. Both those sections she is still having moments of lucidity, and usually knows who she is, so I wrote those in first person. The third section, when she escapes from the facility and is on the streets of Chicago, she has deteriorated significantly, and is having hallucinations and imagines she is young again. I used second person there to show how she is becoming distant from herself. Finally, in the fourth section, in the state hospital, I used third person, to show that she has quite lost her sense of self.

Dr Jennifer White is a strong-minded woman, with a cold temper, who shows outbreaks of violence because of her disease. Was this character easy to create?

Yes, I felt I knew Jennifer White right from the beginning, and who she was. In fact, the whole book came very easily and quickly—I was surprised at how quickly! I think I had been thinking about the issues related to Alzheimer’s for so long that much of the book was already pent up in my head when I began to write.

Why is the novel set in Chicago?

I grew up in Chicago, and love the city, and know it well. It seemed a natural fit.

Is Turn of Mind a mystery novel or a novel about Alzheimer’s?

It’s really a novel about Alzheimer’s. I consider the mystery part secondary. It provided a frame for me to write within, and gives readers a frame to hold onto when reading about a very depressing subject. But ultimately I wanted to explore what the disease does to people, relationships, and families.