Screenwriter Goes Spooky in Her New Mystery Novel, 'Jane Was Here'

After four decades in the movie business, Sarah Kernochan found her bliss writing a book about reincarnation and dark karma

By Jessica Testa
Sarah Kernochan Jane Was Here image
Photograph: Kelley & Hall Book Publicity

In 1972, director/producer Sarah Kernochan won an Academy Award for her first film, Marjoe, a documentary about a wildly popular and totally fraudulent evangelical preacher. Since then, the 63-year-old New Yorker has built a modern-day renaissance career, writing songs and soundtracks, stories and screenplays (9 1/2 Weeks, Impromptu, What Lies Beneath) and earning another Oscar for Thoth, a 2002 documentary short about a street performer. But it wasn’t until Kernochan, who had also published a novel, Dry Hustle, in 1977, began writing a second book more than three decades later that she found “pure ecstasy” in taking ownership of her work.

With Jane Was Here (Grey Swan Press), the writer lets her imagination loose on a small Massachusetts town, exploring reincarnation, karma and religion in a dark and suspenseful mystery. A week after the novel’s release, More spoke to Kernochan about the trials and rewards of following your passion.

MORE: You’re a screenwriter, filmmaker, novelist and musician. What’s the common thread in your career?

Sarah Kernochan: The common thread is simply writing or, in the general sense, creating. When ideas come to me or stories present themselves, I don’t immediately say I’m going to write that. I say, what form will this be best presented in? Sometimes it’s just a tiny idea that fits in a song.

When it comes to the two documentaries that I’ve made, the characters were so flamboyant that you could not possibly invent them. They properly belonged in a documentary. And a documentary is a form of writing. There is the same amount of storytelling structure.

Screenplays were a way to make money—plus, I love movies—and that is more of a profession for me. It was many years before I got around to writing a script for my own pleasure.

Writing a novel right now was very, very important to me. As a screenwriter at my age, you can feel the opportunities ebbing. Part of it has to do with the economy but part of it has to do with a long-acknowledged bias against age in the business. It’s a rude awakening when it happens to you. You walk into a meeting and it’s like you’ve interrupted your son’s frat party. I’m still working and it’s still fun and it’s still lucrative, but finally as I see the next couple decades in front of me, I have to clear things away so that I own my work. The hoops you have to jump though on a movie are unending. It means that only when you write the first draft of a script are you alone to do what you want. So I really needed to do a book, and that was pure ecstasy for me.

More: What inspired Jane Was Here?

SK: I kept coming back to this idea of having blood on your hands for a crime that you couldn’t even remember, because it happened in a previous life. That image of blood appearing spontaneously on someone’s hands—an ordinary housewife even, who doesn’t know why this is happening to her.

I could never figure out what story to build around it. I think what finally switched it on for me is that I read a story in a book by [medical intuitive] Caroline Myss. She met a guy who claimed to remember not his previous life but where he was in between. It made him unable to connect with his current life. He felt very dispirited about this lifetime because he remembered too much. He had been let through from one life to the next without having his memory cleansed.

That’s what gave me the idea of a character who can’t really relate to her present life until she finds out the mystery of what happened to her 150 years ago. Obviously it requires a stretch for a reader who doesn’t believe in reincarnation, but I know there are people out there who are willing to suspend belief for a story like this.

More: What was your biggest challenge in writing the book?

SK: Getting the time to write it. I have a busy career as a screenwriter. The book actually took four years. The first two-thirds were written in my spare time, and then I took a year off to finish.

The hard part was really playing the part of God. You have to put yourself in the place of a divinity who is designing the next incarnation to balance the previous incarnation. You have to say, how shall this person answer for sins of the past? What things will they carry over? Sometimes if you die of a certain thing in a previous life, it returns as a phobia or a weakness in your body. Someone who died of tuberculosis might have asthma. For all of the characters who have corresponding incarnations in the past, I had to contrive present lives for them that were very full and rich in detail and yet had echoes of the past so that the reader can make the connections.

More: What kind of reader did you have in mind?

SK: I was hoping to appeal to the reader who is interested in the more gently paranormal mystery, like The Lovely Bones. Obviously with young adults, they’re all interested in the paranormal. It’s always been an interest of mine, but I feel like vampires and werewolves are really tired stuff. I’m more interested in exploring my own beliefs through a richly plotted story so readers aren’t really aware of the author’s spiritual beliefs—in the same way that Alice Sebold had her own views of heaven in The Lovely Bones, but she didn’t hit you over the head with it.

More: Your last book came out in 1977. What was it like to return to writing in novel form, reinventing your career nearly 40 years later?

SK: Nora Ephron is a friend and is very inspiring to me. She seems to reinvent herself every decade. She was one of the early bloggers at a point when she felt like she hit a bump in the road. She was blogging because, like me, she just has to write. That led into a complete resurgence of her career. If you just keep expressing yourself, the means in which you express yourself are going to change according to your life changes. I never sat down and decided, I’m in my sixth decade now, I’ve got to be completely different, I’ve got to write a novel. It’s all the same urge that has ruled me my whole life. I don’t know what retiring is, and I know other people like that because they’ve never needed permission to do what they do. I don’t need anyone’s permission to write.

More: You prefer writing novels, then?

SK: It’s all I ever wanted to do. But it’s a very difficult way to make a living. Now, in particular, when not as much fiction is being bought by publishers and it’s not being read as much, it feels like a luxury to write novels.

More: You made a trailer for Jane Was Here. Did your roots in the movie industry have anything to do with that?

SK: Making trailers for books is being done more and more. If you’re lucky enough to get it to go viral, you can really sell your book. This is something I know how to do, so it’s pretty easy. I wrote a script and I went up to Boston where I was teaching advanced screenwriting at Emerson College and directed it using the Emerson students as crew and the cinematography teacher and Emerson equipment for free.

More: Can you see the book ever becoming a movie?

SK: I’m a screenwriter and I’m not sure how I would adapt that book. There are very few reincarnation movies—maybe four or five. That’s because if you’re really going to show those parallel lives, the audience can get very confused. If you’re doing it properly, no one resembles himself from one life to the next. If you have Cameron Diaz living one life and Mel Gibson living the next life, the audience can’t follow it. I’d love to see Jane Was Here as a movie, but I’m not holding my breath.

More: Books with supernatural themes are very popular right now. What do you think sets Jane Was Here apart?

SK: I think it’s more plotted as a mystery. It was conceived as a puzzle. I can’t think of any other paranormal books that are this sort of interlocking jigsaw, which to me is how I see karma and reincarnation—I do see it that way, as a beautiful puzzle that we only understand a little tiny fraction of.

More: What’s next for you?

SK: I’m in the middle of a script now, but these things are so transient. I’m going to be writing another script soon, but this time with my daughter. It’s a mother-daughter comedy.

It’s important not to look self-consciously to the future, but to simply do the work that’s in front of you, without looking up. Time will unroll at it’s own speed, but as long as you’re doing something which engages you in the moment, you will be happy.

I think that’s why older women like gardening so much. It’s a project and it necessitates your attention and it’s a great pleasure to grow things. Simply do the work in front of you with pleasure, or take the trip that you’ve always wanted to take without thinking of it ending.

Jane Was Here is available for purchase in hardback or digital copy at Amazon.com and other online retailers.

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Read along as Lucie Arnaz reflects on career and family memories.

First Published Wed, 2011-06-29 11:04

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