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Author pens 'psycho-spiritual' thriller after researching past-life regression therapy

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What Jonah Knew by Barbara Graham

Bay Area author Barbara Graham was inspired to write her psychological thriller after doing research for a magazine article about past-life regression therapy.

Barbara Graham


Her first novel, “What Jonah Knew,” explores ideas about memory and trauma, life and the afterlife, when a 7-year-old boy seems to recall the memories of a missing 22-year-old musician. The book comes out July 5 and Graham will discuss the novel during a virtual event through Mystery to Me bookstore later this month.

Q: Tell me a little about yourself — where do you call home and what is your connection to Madison?

A: I live in the Bay Area, but one of my very dearest friends is a Madison native. She’s the one who got the ball rolling for doing the event at Mystery to Me. I’m really excited about it, and I’m especially excited about being in conversation with the wonderful Madison writer Dale Kushner.

Q: How do you describe “What Jonah Knew”?

A: It’s a psychological thriller about the unbreakable bond between mothers and sons, even when it seems that all is lost and the bond is ruptured beyond repair. The book takes place in upstate New York.

Q: Do you have a connection to New York?

A: I’m from New York City and I’ve spent a lot of time upstate. The novel is set in a mythical town in the Hudson Valley that’s kind of like Woodstock. It’s a hippie town that was once a thriving farming community.

Q: Major themes of the book appear to revolve around motherhood and loss. What inspired those ideas?

A: I’m the mother of a son, and even though the book is not remotely my own story, the mother-son relationship is so powerful. I’ve written a lot about motherhood in other forms, in essays and memoirs and plays. I think as soon as you become a mother you realize instantly that for the rest of your life your heart will be walking around outside your body. To me, the love of a child is the most exquisite and sometimes the most torturous love there is. I think motherhood is kind of a high-wire act between fiercely loving and protecting your children and progressively letting them go. As a writer I seem to always come back to motherhood, since it’s such a primal relationship to work with.

Q: You’ve written a lot, but this is your first novel, correct? What made you want to write a novel?

A: For years I earned my living as a journalist, writing a lot about health, psychology and spirituality. “What Jonah Knew” was actually inspired by a magazine assignment on past-life regression therapy. I learned so many interesting things, and the novel came out of that. There was a learning curve in writing fiction. Still, I had more fun writing the novel than anything I’ve ever done. As a novelist, you get to invent an entire world and populate it with whoever you want, but in memoir and personal essays you have to stick to the facts. You’re confined to your own life experience. When you write fiction, the field is wide open.

Q: I saw that the book is described as several different genres — psychological, magical, mystical — where do you think it fits best?

A: The form is a psychological thriller, but might best be called a psycho-spiritual thriller. There are a lot of spiritual and metaphysical themes that run through “What Jonah Knew” that aren’t usually explored in thrillers.

Q: Has writing this book changed your perspective on the concept of an afterlife?

A: I would say it deepened it. I learned a lot during the course of my research that confirmed my sense that there’s more to our existence than the life of the body. As a writer, it was rich and compelling territory to explore.

Q: Anything else about the book that stands out that people should know about?

A: There’s a lot in “What Jonah Knew” about letting go of our ideas about how things should be versus how they really are, including our expectations of our children. That’s the challenge of being human. We want things to be a certain way, but very often they’re not, and we have to learn to live with that. There is loss in the book, but ultimately the story is about how love is more powerful than loss, more powerful even than death.

"I think as soon as you become a mother you realize instantly that for the rest of your life your heart will be walking around outside your body."

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