“My mind was blank of what happened, and none of the people who were with me through this — my husband, friends, family I grew up with — wanted to talk about it because they were so traumatized themselves,” she told The Washington Post.
On a psychiatrist friend’s suggestion, she channeled her experience into a novel, 2003’s “Coming Back to Me” — “about a woman like me, who went into a coma after having a baby and didn’t remember anything” — but despaired to find that she “didn’t feel all that much better,” she said. “I still had these terrible triggers. Certain colors would make me nauseous, certain smells would drive me crazy, and I could not go to sleep. I was terrified.”
Last year, during cognitive therapy — which aims to replace old thinking and behaviors with new ones — her therapist suggested, “What if you write about somebody whose experience was different than yours?” Leavitt recalls. “That made me feel full of hope.”
Leavitt’s new novel, “With or Without You,” imagines a new kind of coma aftermath. On the eve of a possible big break for aspiring rock star Simon, a drug reaction sends his nurse girlfriend, Stella, into a months-long coma. Where Leavitt woke up haunted by the time she lost, Stella remains semiconscious throughout and emerges to find the world wondrous. She’s essentially rebooted, with a new personality and stunning artistic talent. Her reinvention also shifts the destinies of those around her — including Simon and Stella’s steely friend Libby, a doctor, as all three get jarred awake in different ways.
“When I was writing the first coma book, I felt sad and scared,” Leavitt said, “but this novel had a lightness to it, a sense of possibility: Who knows what can happen? And I actually began to feel better. To me, that was the big gift of the novel.”
The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
Q. Stella comes out of her coma a new person: She has insatiable adrenaline; she’s no longer interested in her former passion, nursing; and she has a fully realized artistic talent. Is such a scenario possible?
A. When I started writing this book, I did a lot of research with a friend, Joseph Clark, who’s a researcher in neurology at the University of Cincinnati, and he was telling me amazing things. Your neurons are always firing, and if they fire in the right time and right way, you actually can become a completely different person, right down to the memories you have. There actually was one guy who came out of a coma and thought he was Matthew McConaughey. It was embedded in his mind. People thought it was funny, but it wasn’t funny for the guy. He was really, really frustrated.
I’m in no way an expert on coma. I’m a quantum-physics-for-the-layperson junkie, and I’m interested in the idea of alternate realities and how we can change ourselves, how the brain can rewire. It’s not New Age-y or woo-woo. Science offers these amazing possibilities, if we dare to explore them.
Your doctors gave you memory blockers. Even though it potentially obscured some trauma, did that feel like a violation?
Yeah, it absolutely did. I was really mad when I found out. What if I’d had a near-death experience? I don’t get to remember that. And what were they doing to me? I had no power, no control. When I did wake up, it was all so terrifying. I kept thinking if I had some facts to hold onto, it would have been easier. And the doctors were very cut and dried: “This is what we had to do, this is what was done, and you’re alive now, so it’s no big deal.” The nurses were much more, “I know, I know. I’m sorry that happened to you.” Yeah, I was mad. I’m still mad.
Was your positive experience with the nurses a reason you chose to make Stella a nurse, as a homage?
Absolutely. At first I had Stella and Libby both be doctors, and then I thought, ‘No, she has to be a nurse.’ The nurses were so amazing to me, anticipating things I never would have thought of. They know as much as the doctors, and I was surprised to find just how much there is still a prejudice. One nurse told me she was on a flight when somebody was having a heart attack, and she knew exactly what to do but was pushed aside and told, “No, we’re going to wait for a real doctor.” It was the nurses who knew — because they saw me every day, sometimes three times a day — what was going on with me physically. I always tell people going to the hospital, be really nice to the nurses. They’re your advocates.
During Stella’s coma, she feels like she’s floating; she “maps out time by noise, music, scent, and heat”; and even after she wakes up, she “longs to go back to that warm, buoyant feeling again, the touch of the colors she had seen.” Safe to say, her experience was as delightful as they come?
From the research I did, I don’t remember anybody saying, “I want to be back in coma” — nobody ever said that. But when I came out, there was that sense of wonder: This is a whole different world. Everything is different. And I wanted to give that to Stella. That wonder is something I still try to hold onto when I can — especially now, with things being so bleak — the feeling that any minute, something can change in a wonderful way.
The novel explores the desire for fame, a state you liken to “being dipped in gold.” Simon had a taste of fame that dried up, and now he longs for more to prove he mattered to his disapproving father. Stella never wanted it but stumbles upon it, and only appreciates it as a means of creating more art. After decades as a novelist, is there a personal relationship with fame that you were drawing on?
I’ve had a very strange career. I published a first novel in my 20s and had a moment of fame where I was the flavor of the month and was flown everywhere and thought, “Oh, I’m going to be like this forever.” And it wasn’t that way. My second novel did not do that well, my third, the publisher went out of business.
Meanwhile, my friends were starting to go up the ladder. My ninth book was rejected on contract by my publisher, who said, “It’s just not special.” I thought, “Well, my career is over.” I called all my friends crying, and one said, “I know an editor at Algonquin, I want to take your book there.” She did; and that editor took the book, “Pictures of You,” and got it into six printings before it was even published. It was a New York Times bestseller, and all of a sudden, people knew who I was. Even the editor who had told me it was not special called my agent and said, “Does Caroline want to come back to us?” I was famous again, but it didn’t mean what I thought it would — “Oh, I’m so happy!” — and instead I realized this is because of luck and timing and having a wonderful publisher, and is going to give me the opportunity to write another book. Like Simon, my yearning for fame was about wanting to be seen. But you can’t depend on other people to tell you that you matter.
At the very least, being pursued by the publisher who rejected you must have felt redemptive.
Oh, they would have to get a forklift to get me to leave Algonquin. They’re like family.
Rachel Rosenblit is a freelance writer and editor in New York.