The delicate topics of afterlife and the paranormal have spawned heated debates, mountains of doubt and a flurry of reality shows. But exploration of these subjects in Devine Intervention isn’t rooted so much in controversy as it is in the comedy-laden mishaps of two troubled teens.
One, Heidi, is an Amazon-like outsider who would rather retreat into her self-conscious shell than be social. The other, Jerome, is a wisecracking troublemaker, who thanks to an afterlife rehabilitation program meant to realign his soul, just happens to be Heidi’s guardian angel. Jerome means well, but by not reading his celestial handbook he royally wrecks Heidi’s life, thereby threatening both of their fates.
Here, Martha Brockenbrough reveals the hiccups in choosing a narrator, the brilliance of G-rated cursing and pop-culture influences from yesteryear.
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This is your first novel. Was there any hesitation in using a dual narrative?
When I originally started the story, it was all about Heidi, the girl who died before her life really began. Oh, woe and sadness! Pass the tissues! This tragic conceit lasted about five minutes before Jerome showed up and started swearing in my ear. Once I started writing in his voice, I couldn’t stop. I had doubts along the way, but I was excited about the challenge of making it work, and it fit nicely with how I wanted to set up the climax.
How did you decide that Jerome's chapters would receive first-person treatment while Heidi's are told in third person?
I did want readers to know right away whose head we were in, so I thought first- and third-person would make for an easy distinction. As I wrestled with it, though, I tried making Heidi first person, too. I wanted her to be every bit as vivid as Jerome. Ultimately though, her character and situation called for a bit more distance. She wasn’t really living a first-person life inside her own head, if that makes sense, and I wanted her point of view to reflect that.
Do you consider your book to be first and foremost an exploration of the paranormal or something else entirely?
Oh, I could talk about such things for hours. For me, the paranormal aspects of the story are the many blades and pointy bits of a writer’s Swiss Army Knife. For one thing, it opened up all sorts of comic possibilities. I amused myself for hours imagining what a soul rehab program in heaven would be like. How homely and earnest the carpets would be, how utilitarian the folding chairs would be and exactly what sort of arts and crafts the rehab candidates would take part in. The paranormal also allowed me to move characters quickly through time and space. But even more, it allowed me to create some metaphors that I hope resonate. If you learn about someone by walking a mile in another man’s moccasins, imagine how much more you can learn by running several city blocks in another squirrel’s paws.
Jerome invents a few curse-word space fillers like chevy and flask. Do you have an everyday space filler—or do you just go for the gold?
One of my children is a genius at inventing artificial curse words. She’s been doing this since she was a 2-year-old and unaware of actual swearing, and she remains a huge inspiration for me. Among her coinages: “You…you…bumblesnout!” Or the alternate, directed at her sister: “You little bang-bang!” Just last week she said, “Oh, burgundy!” when she realized she’d forgotten some important piece of equipment. I will admit to sometimes going directly for the gold, or the brown, in moments of great frustration. I try not to do that in print, however. That sort of thing is harder to disavow on Judgment Day.
With your ending, did you feel that you were running the risk of tying up the novel with an all-too-neat bow?
Oh, the ending. Without spoiling it, I can say that it has been controversial with some readers. I naturally wanted to tie up a lot—even the weather had to resolve itself thematically for the ending to work for me. Mostly, I wanted the ending to be surprising but also feel right. One version of the ending, which involved a certain sort of divine happiness for a squirrel, was alas not quite right for the story. I’m so, so sorry, squirrel.
Your novel is hilarious, endearing and wonderfully irreverent. But what do you say to readers who might shy away from reading something they feel could be anchored in religion?
First, thank you for those very kind words. That’s exactly the kind of company I’d love to be for readers. I do understand squeamishness about books that involve religion. If it makes anyone feel better, I’m the child of a mixed-religion marriage, and I married someone from an entirely different tradition. That stuff can be the fertilizer of excellent comedy, or so I say!
It's a Wonderful Life or Heaven Can Wait?
Those are two of my favorite movies—I couldn’t possibly choose. Throw in a bit of Steve Martin and Monty Python and you have summarized my biggest childhood pop-culture influences.