I am pretty pleased to introduce you to Trina St. Jean, a new Canadian YA writer . Interestingly story, I met Trina when I lived in Montreal through a mutual friend in the early part of the 2000s and she was talking about attending this mythical school where one could study children’s literature and work with writers like, Tim Wynne-Jones. It was only a few years later that I made the connection that it was the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
When I discovered that Trina’s new YA novel, Blank —about a teen who wakes up with amnesia– was being published this year I knew that she had to come on the blog to talk about the process of writing it, and to bring an element of the past back. It is always interesting to me when people from the past return and we find more connections than every before.
All Jessica knows is what she’s been told: she’s fifteen, and thanks to a run-in with a bison bull she is stuck with a brain injury. The rest of her life is a blank her brain no longer fills in. The doctors send her to home to piece together her shattered life, but no matter how hard she tries, she can’t be the old Jessie everyone misses so much. When a new friend comes along with an alternative to staying in her old life, Jessica must face the reality of what it means to truly leave her past behind.
Trina St. Jean grew up in a small town in northern Alberta, Canada, but left in pursuit of degrees in psychology and education. During a decade out east, she picked up a husband with a cute accent and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. She now lives in Calgary, where she teaches ESL and tries to stay out of trouble with her husband and two daughters. Blank is her first novel. You can pay Trina a visit at http://www.trinastjean.com or like Author Trina St. Jean on Facebook.
Mel: You mention in your authors note that writing Blank was a way for you to answer some questions you had around memory. Did you find the answers you were looking for? Or, did it just lead to more questions?
Trina: The biggest question I had around memory was whether there is something inside of us, a sense of who we are as a person, that will remain even if we don’t remember significant parts of our past. Would we, for example, still be able to feel love for the people we’ve always loved even if many or most of the happy moments we have shared are erased from our memory? Will our personality still shine through, even if we have lost the same sense of self we had before the memory loss? And though I didn’t find a clear answer, what I did find was a sense of hope. Hope that yes, there can be something deeper, a feeling about a person and a sense of who we are, that remains even if the memories are gone.
In some of the real cases of amnesia I read about through my research, people talked about still trusting and feeling affection for people they didn’t remember. Like Terry Evanshen, an ex-CFL football player, who had a car accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury with severe memory loss. He didn’t remember his wife or family at all but they stuck together through the whole rehabilitation process and he knew she was on his side. Even if he couldn’t remember the years they had spent together, that feeling of trust was there.
In the end, I suppose I may have created the answer I wanted: I wanted Jessica to feel love again, to connect with her family in a deep way. Family is really important to me, and I needed her to “come back home” emotionally.
Mel: Jessica wakes up with no memory of her life or the events that led to her accident, did you know what her life was like before the accident when you started writing the novel, or was that something that developed as Jessica did?
Trina: I did have a vague sense of her life before the accident – that she was a farm girl with a warm, supporting family, that she was a good kid, that she loved her brother – but a lot the details about her life slowly revealed themselves as I wrote the book. I felt like I was discovering who the old Jessica was alongside the new, post-accident Jessica, in real time. And like the new Jessica, I didn’t ever get all the full answers. This was a deliberate choice, as I felt like if I knew everything about the girl before the accident, I couldn’t have really seen things through the character’s eyes. In the same way, even though I did a lot of research about brain injury and amnesia, I didn’t want to actually interview a person who had gone through this because I was afraid that person would influence who Jessica is in my mind. I wanted to be “blank” too while writing.
Mel: You play a lot with this interesting idea on who Jessica believes she is supposed to be and who she actually is or was. Perhaps you can talk about this a bit.
Trina: I think this idea relates to something many of us go through at times in our lives – especially teens. It’s this feeling of trying to fulfill other people’s expectations, trying to be “nice” or “smart” or “athletic”, or whatever we think people want us to be. And when we don’t feel like we’re living up to these ideals, we feel like we are disappointing our family or friends. Jessica is going through this struggle on a much larger scale because, having lost large portions of her past, she has a sense of distance from her old life that allows her to see what kind of person she was from an outside perspective.
Mel: How did Tarin’s story inform Jessica for you?
Trina: Tarin was, now that I think of it, a representation of the kind of person Jessica wanted to be after she went home from the hospital: Tarin was rebellious, didn’t care what other people thought, had a dark edginess to her. When Jessica was feeling angry and disconnected, Tarin seemed to be more like her than anyone else in her old life. But as Jessica gets to know her better, she sees below that tough exterior, and what she sees makes her sad.
Tarin is not as tough as she appears; she’s hurting but not really doing much to improve her situation. Realizing that she is not entirely like Tarin, I think, brings Jessica closer to understanding the girl she was before the accident and reveals, at least a little, what her true personality is.
Mel: From Jessica’s confused sense, we get quite an understanding of Jessica’s family. What questions emerged for you while you were crafting their dynamics and how to represent that?
Trina: In earlier drafts of the book, Jessica’s mom was a very over-powering, sometimes angry character. As I did rewrites, though, she seemed over-the-top to me, and the tension she created wasn’t what the heart of the novel was. So the relationship evolved into something more like a typical teen/mother dynamic. The relationship she has with her brother was always there, from the very first drafts. It was therapeutic for Jessica to feel some kind of connection with one family member, so showing her affection for Stephen was important in that it allowed her some relief from her scary situation.
I recently read an article about a teen in England who had amnesia after brain surgery and claims many of her memories came back after she hugged her little brother. Although I don’t know if the medical world would vouch that this is plausible, it reminded me of Jessica and Stephen. How a feeling of love could maybe, sometimes, bring about some healing.
Mel: What were some of the most interesting things you had learned about brain injuries that didn’t make it into Jessica’s story?
Trina: Brain injury is a huge issue. It’s heartbreaking to think about how many people’s lives have been changed in the blink of an eye by some kind of unfortunate accident – a sports injury, car accident, slip on the ice, a fall off a ladder. The most interesting thing I learned was how even the seemingly mild brain injuries can have devastating effects on the sufferer, and that the symptoms might not be visible to the rest of us.
A high profile example of that is the tragic story of Liam Neeson’s wife, Natasha Richardson. She had a fall on a beginner’s slope on a ski hill in Quebec, but was walking and talking afterwards, insisting she was fine. A few days later, she passed away. And there millions of people across the world dealing with the symptoms of brain injury every day: memory loss, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, headaches, etc. Learning about their struggles made me wish I could pay homage to them in same way. In the end, I hope Jessica’s story is respectful of what they go through.