Lisa Genova goes inside the mind of autistic boy with third novel 'Love Anthony"

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Lisa Genova goes inside the mind of autistic boy with third novel 'Love Anthony"

TORONTO - Lisa Genova has what she describes as a "beautiful" home office overlooking a salt-water river in Cape Cod, a tranquil setting that almost any author would kill to call their own.

But surprisingly, this picturesque milieu is not where the Massachusetts novelist, who has just published her third book, chooses to write.

The mother of three children, including a two-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, trundles off each weekday to her local Starbucks to settle in for a few hours of writing after dropping the little ones off at pre-school.

"I can't be at home, they'll find me," Genova says of her kids during a recent phone interview from Boston, where she was visiting relatives.

"Or I'll think, 'What's in the refrigerator?' Or 'I should do a load of laundry' or 'I should clean up all those toys.'

"So I just get out of there."

Yet there is nothing idyllic about her local coffee purveyor, Genova insists.

"I'm not even in a beautiful Starbucks. Our Starbucks is inside a Stop and Shop. I'm like literally in the produce section of a supermarket," she admits with an infectious laugh. "It's so not glamorous, it's so not like beautiful Cape Cod. It's the opposite of that."

Still, it's an environment that has given rise to Genova's most recent novel, "Love Anthony," a poignant exploration of the mysteries of autism as seen through the eyes of a non-verbal 12-year-old boy with the disorder — or rather, through a stranger who has somehow tuned into the working of the child's mind.

Genova is well-placed to grapple with such a complex topic.

As with her previous novels, the Harvard-trained neuroscientist has focused on themes that examine the diseases and disorders that can affect the brain.

Her debut novel, "Still Alice," centred on a woman dealing with the progressive destruction of her mind and memory from Alzheimer's, a character inspired by her grandmother who was diagnosed with the disease. In "Left Neglected," the main character contends with a traumatic brain injury that has left her with no sense of the left side of her body or the objects that inhabit that sphere.

"I'm really lucky, I think," Genova says of her former vocation. "All my books are extensively researched. And it's great to be able to have the credibility to talk to anybody you want to."

That has meant being able to pick the brains of expert clinicians, among them the chief of neurology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

"Likewise, with each book I've been able to get inside the community of people, both medical and the families who live with this," she says of neurological disorders. "And I think the neuroscience background gives people reassurance that they're talking to someone who has done their homework and is taking this information seriously and responsibly.

"So it just allows me to get in the door."

Even so, writing about a child with an autism spectrum disorder was a daunting task because so little is known about the underpinnings of the conditions.

"We are really in the infancy of understanding the neurobiology, the neuroanatomy, the neurochemistry or the neurophysiology of autism," she explains.

"So as a neuroscientist, I didn't have a whole lot to hang my hat on with autism. But there's a little bit. We understand a little bit about how the brain is disorganized."

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD), which include autism and Asperger syndrome, are often marked by difficulties with social interaction, communication problems, repetitive behaviours and interests, and cognitive delays.

Genova says various brain functions in people with ASD seem to be compartmentalized — what she describes as separate rooms off a hallway in "Love Anthony" — and lack the neurological connections needed to bring them together into functional harmony.

"So your vision is not connected to hearing, to memory, to emotions," she says, explaining one theory of how the autistic brain may work. "So I took sort of a poetic licence or a literary licence there and tried to imagine how that might be."

The result, "Love Anthony," is not only an imaginary — and possibly elucidating — journey through the corridors of an autistic child's mind, but it is also a story about love: between parent and child, between husband and wife, and for oneself.

Although a prolific author — "Love Anthony" is her third novel published in three years — Genova didn't grow up with a unquenchable desire to write.

Indeed, her lifelong ambition was to become a scientist.

"I didn't really take any writing classes. I took one English class in my freshman year in college. I've always been a reader ... I love reading everything, both fiction and non-fiction."

After earning her PhD, she spent a year doing research at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, then worked two years in Boston as a strategy consultant for the health-care industry.

After her daughter Alena, now 12, was born in 2000, she ended up not going back to work: her marriage had started unravelling and it ended three years later.

"So now I'm a divorced, single mom. I really should have gone back to my old job, which paid really well. I liked it. I was good at it."

But with her life shaken up and her future uncertain, Genova says she "started asking questions like: 'What do I want to do now? What do I want my life to look like? And why do I have to go back to my old job?'

"'If I could do anything I wanted to do, what would that be?' And my answer was I really wanted to try to write this book."

During her penning of "Still Alice" — she literally starts writing her novels by hand in a notebook, then bit by bit transfers the story to her laptop — Genova started dating, remarried and had her two youngest children, Ethan and Stella.

The book was a quest to answer the question: how does a person with Alzheimer's, like her grandmother, feel as their personal history slowly and relentlessly slips away?

"And for some reason I thought that writing a novel would get at that ... stories are what move us emotionally, and I thought maybe that could be a place where that question could be explored."

Initially self-published and sold out of the trunk of her car, "Still Alice" garnered a glowing review in the Boston Sunday Globe, which led to Genova signing an agent and inking a book deal with Simon and Schuster. The same publishing house is behind "Love Anthony," now out in Canada.

While "Love Anthony" isn't biographical, Genova's own experiences going through divorce and writing a first novel parallel those of the two main characters.

Her cousin's child, a 12-year-old with autism named Anthony, was the inspiration for the novel, she says. "So I do have a really strong personal connection to this story."

The subject of her next novel is Huntington's disease, a genetic disorder that causes parts of the brain to die, leading to progressive physical and cognitive decline, and eventually death. Symptoms typically don't appear until mid-adulthood.

Since children of an affected parent have a 50-50 chance of inheriting the Huntington's gene, they must decide whether to have genetic testing and learn their fate, says Genova, whose novel will explore that agonizing choice.

So with four works of fiction dealing with afflictions of the brain, does she plan to continue on the same theme in future endeavours?

"As a neuroscientist who has become a novelist, that's kind of the unique thing I bring to fiction, so I like writing about neuroscience.

"I have no plans to abandon that, but at the same time ... this one is much less in the neuroscience genre than the other two," she says of "Love Anthony."

"I really feel like in my first two books I was a neuroscientist writing a novel. But in this book, I really think I became a novelist."

Organizations: Starbucks, Stop and Shop, Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston U.S. National Institutes of Health Simon and Schuster

Geographic location: Boston, Cape Cod, TORONTO Massachusetts Canada

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