Josh Rank is a debut writer with guts. In his first published novel, The Present is Past (from Unsolicited Press), he tells the story of Mary, a middle-aged teacher whose life has been thrown into disarray by dementia. Whilst less courageous writers would perhaps tip-toe around the subject of cognitive decline, Rank immerses the reader in disorientation – the story is dream-like, infused with magical realism, blurring our concept of memory and pushing the limits of reality.
Rank was kind enough to answer some questions about his writing process and how his own family’s experience with dementia prompted him to write a book about it.
What inspired you to write a novel about dementia? What sort of research was involved?
My mother’s battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s started around 2015. I was living across the country at the time so it was easy for me to miss the warning signs. And once it became undeniable, the distance came in handy for avoiding the reality of the situation. I came across a quote somewhere that basically said that you should write about the thing that scares you the most. It was immediately obvious that my mother’s illness was that thing, so I did the brave thing and avoided it for years. I decided to tackle it toward the end of 2019. My only research was my own experience watching her and the rest of my family as the disease got worse.
In this novel, you’ve done a brilliant job of conveying the fluid nature of memory, with many of the main characters experiencing a blurring of the past and present in dream-like, surreal scenes. What made you decide to tell this story through the lens of magical realism?
I’ve always loved stories that blur the line between the real world and something just outside of what’s possible. I found this blurring was a useful device in this story to mimic the experience of a person with Alzheimer’s since they can have difficulty determining what’s real, what’s an out-of-place memory, and hallucinations. The magical elements are meant to put the reader in this state of questioning events while also having no choice but to accept what is presented to them.
Mary is often troubled by her fading memory but overall, she appears to be rather calm in the face of her cognitive decline. A lot of people dealing with dementia tend to exhibit distress and challenging behaviours, like aggression and personality changes. What prompted the decision to present such a subdued picture of dementia?
Dementia can change a person. Those who were mean can become nice, and vice versa. Luckily, my Mom remained a sweetheart until the very end. Mary has her struggles with letting go of control and coming to terms with the inevitability of the disease (there’s no treatment so it only gets worse) but her core feature of being a caregiver never wavered. I eventually read some books about caring for a person with dementia and I learned that Alzheimer’s is different for everybody. The rate in which it progresses, the symptoms they experience, how they act toward those around them–there’s no clear path from point A to point B. I always expected my mother to grow mean, but she never did. So neither did Mary.
Whilst you’ve had short stories and essays published before, this is your first novel. How did you find the process of writing a novel differed from short-form work?
This is my first published novel, but far from my first experience writing one. The Present is Past is actually the fifth one I wrote. I started writing the first one in the summer of 2006, so it’s been a long road to publication (thanks Unsolicited Press!). I actually much prefer the process of writing a novel compared to short-form stories. Of course, they all have a time and place but the act of sitting with a singular group of characters for months at a time is really cathartic and satisfying. After five tries (and two more since the publication of this book) I’ve found a nice rhythm that feels right to me. I do extensive outlining beforehand. Enough so that I consider it a first draft. Each chapter is arranged with a short synopsis so I know what I need to accomplish. Then I move into the drafting phase where I try to write a chapter each day until it’s complete. After letting it rest for a few weeks, I go back for another read-through and clean up whatever I learned during the first draft. I have some generous friends that read these early drafts and provide feedback. This is where I send it out to them. Then I go through their feedback and do another run through the manuscript. And if everything feels good, I dive into the submission process.
One of the most interesting parts of this novel is the complex dynamics within Mary’s family. What inspired this?
I’ve heard countless times that Alzheimer’s is harder on the family than it is on the person that actually has it. And while I don’t think that’s true, it definitely is incredibly tough on the family. It puts a strain on relationships that can cause anything bubbling under the surface to rise to the top. I’ve had my own feelings of shame and regret from living out of state while my mother got worse, so I wanted to explore that from every angle. And in an effort to make the part about myself only a small aspect of the story, I built more conflicting relationships around the main theme because nothing happens in a vacuum. I wanted everyone to have an equal share of the spotlight to show how hidden conflicts can play a role in larger scenes. And in order to do that, they each needed their own problems, faults, and goals. Plus, stories are just more fun when there’s a web to untangle.
You can get your copy of The Present is Past here.
Josh Rank graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee before moving to various cities around the country only to return to his hometown. His fiction has appeared in The Emerson Review, The Feathertale Review, Hypertext Magazine, and elsewhere. He keeps himself busy putting together ugly woodworking projects, cooking for his wife, and wishing his dogs were better behaved.