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.

First Published June 29, 2011

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