Sci-Fi writer Nicholas Conley drops by to talk with us about his novel Pale Highway:
Pale Highway (genre: sci-fi/fantasy; length: 319 pages)
Gabriel Schist is spending his remaining years at Bright New Day, a nursing home. He once won the Nobel Prize for inventing a vaccine for AIDS. But now, he has Alzheimer’s, and his mind is slowly slipping away.
When one of the residents comes down with a horrific virus, Gabriel realizes that he is the only one who can find a cure. Encouraged by Victor, an odd stranger, he convinces the administrator to allow him to study the virus. Soon, reality begins to shift, and Gabriel’s hallucinations interfere with his work.
As the death count mounts, Gabriel is in a race against the clock and his own mind. Can he find a cure before his brain deteriorates past the point of no return?
Your book Pale Highway deals with two big hot button topics: Alzheimer’s and vaccination. Can you talk about that and how you settled on these as themes of your story?
The decision to write about Pale Highway was based on my real life experience working as a caregiver in a nursing home. After seeing that world, becoming friends with the residents I took care of… it changed my views on life, and it gave me a burning desire to write about the painful experiences I saw these people going through, to put it out there, to bring outsiders into the inside of a world that society would rather look away from. The majority of people in nursing homes have Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, and once they’ve been placed into the facility, they’re essentially forgotten by the world: the caregivers do their best, and the families try their hardest, but the overall bureaucratic system has designated these people as no longer possessing any use to society. But this paradigm is wrong, terribly wrong, because these people are people, they do matter, and they deserve the same rights and respect as anyone else.
By having my protagonist be a brilliant scientist now plagued by Alzheimer’s, I wanted to demonstrate how this disease can impact anyone, anywhere, no matter who you were before.
As far as how vaccination plays into the storyline… the notion I wanted to explore here, for thematic reasons, is that even the best medical advances or new technologies can have unexpected consequences. Now, I fully believe in vaccination, and there’s no question regarding how many lives it has saved. But after working in healthcare, it’s hard not to see the flaws of the pharmaceutical-driven Western medical model, and how it often leads to patients being overmedicated for somewhat less-than-dramatic diseases, like the common cold or the flu, instead of simply letting that flu run its course. This overmedication leads to the birth of increasingly resistant superbugs like MRSA and C-Diff. There’s an escalation that occurs here, which is something that we really need to be mindful about.
How did you get into the head of your main character, aging genius Gabriel Schist?
After spending years working with Alzheimer’s patients, getting into Gabriel’s head was actually surprisingly easy; the challenging part was staying there, feeling the helplessness he feels. Gabriel is a man struggling to break away from the confines that both society and his own mind place upon him, and often, he fails to do so. Gabriel is already a deeply flawed individual well before the Alzheimer’s hits, a man who failed many times before finally finding success — at the cost of family — and this cognitive disease is really like the final push of life’s big button. He’s a deeply human character, but definitely a painful one to be inside the head of.
Gabriel is not your typical hero. How did you come to the idea of using an octogenarian as your protagonist?
When I decided that I wanted to write about Alzheimer’s disease, I knew immediately that I had to write that story from the perspective of a person with Alzheimer’s. Whenever I see Alzheimer’s depicted in popular media, it’s almost always from the perspective of a family member or caregiver, and the person with the disease is more of a prop or story device than a legitimate character; often, it’s as if that person’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis somehow negates their ability to be a real player in the narrative.
With Gabriel, I wanted to break the stereotype. Gabriel, as an elderly nursing home resident, is pretty far from the standard sort of hero that we’re used to seeing—but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a hero, doesn’t mean he can’t change the world. In that way, he’s the ultimate underdog, fighting for what he believes to be right, even when everyone else thinks he’s insane.
Memory is a character in this novel. You use flashbacks to flesh out your character but also as a tool for suspense. There is also a palpable fear around losing memory, a commentary on creating new memories. Can you talk about that a bit?
Alzheimer’s causes memory loss. It’s probably the most famous symptom, right? But it also causes memory displacement, wherein the person suddenly “wakes up” with a familiar certainty about being younger, their location being different, etc.
To get into the head of someone with this disease, and to explore what made Gabriel who he is today, I felt the best method was to slowly unravel his past using flashbacks, staggered in such a way as to connect to similar events happening in the present. For Gabriel, time isn’t necessarily as sequential as it once was, and so these events are almost unfolding for him on dual streams, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes not, something intersecting. He also doesn’t know which memories are real or not, on some level, and as his memory loss worsens throughout the novel, this becomes a bigger and bigger issue.
What are you currently working on?
My next novel, which is contracted with Red Adept Publishing, will be of a somewhat similar nature to Pale Highway, in that it’s a mix of real world issues with science fiction overtones. This one is also inspired by my work in healthcare, since the major plot thrust of the book will involve a traumatic brain injury occurring to a teenage boy.
But Alzheimer’s disease and TBIs are very different beasts, and thus these two novels will also be very different in theme, style, and plot. This new one also won’t have the talking slugs from Pale Highway, but there’ll be plenty of other weird stuff to make up for it!
Pale Highway isn’t what you expect. The story is often times uncomfortable and you may walk away from it several times; but this reader always went back. There is something evocative here, words that aren’t easy to hear but need to be said. KEMPS thanks Nicholas Conley for stopping by and giving us an insider’s view to Pale Highway!
Kate E. Stephenson is a freelance communications specialist whose business encompasses content writing, comprehensive editing and quality resume services. Lexicon is her brainchild, a blog all about Language—insight into today’s job market and hiring tips, book releases and reviews, and general folly concerning the many mysterious facets of the English language and human communication. Be sure to read more about Kate, check out a full listing of services, and enjoy her columns here on Lexicon and on Kate.Book.com!