Springfield’s Own Magazine: Kathleen H. Wheeler
Story by Whitney Barnes | Photos by Immanuel Ahiable
It is a disease that attacks not only the body but the family as well. Local author Kathleen H. Wheeler has used her family’s struggle with the earth-shattering disease as inspiration for her award-winning first novel Brought to Our Senses released in November of 2016.
“The book is a family saga based on siblings who don’t get along but have to work together when their mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s,” Wheeler said. Wheeler said she decided to turn her story into someone else’s for three reasons.
“First, to honor my mother and her struggle with Alzheimer’s. No one should suffer the way she did, and no one’s final years should be as horrific as hers, no matter what age,” Wheeler explained.
“Second, as a writer, I wanted to tell a fantastic and engaging story. I felt the intersection of dementia and family conflict was the way I could do that based on my own experience with the disease,” she said.
“Third, I wanted to raise awareness about the absolute devastation of Alzheimer’s, not just on those afflicted but on the families and loved ones who are left to watch helplessly and deal with it. The disease leaves a wide path of destruction and drains everyone involved—physically, emotionally, financially. A cure must be found before this disease becomes the epidemic that is predicted,” she said.
The novel began as Wheeler’s own memoir.
“I realized as I was writing that while it was doing a lot of good for me, I just didn’t think it would be very interesting,” Wheeler said.
So, she decided to try her hand at fiction.
“All writers want to write their book,” Wheeler said.
“Until my mother got Alzheimer’s, I never really had anything I wanted to write about on my own or a specific topic. After dealing with my family in my mother’s steady decline, it gave me a really good story idea,” she said.
Wheeler’s mother, who developed early onset dementia in her fifties, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2000 and was finally taken from earth by the disease in 2009.
“It was a long time; it was a big struggle. The book follows her progression. That’s how I know the story really well,” Wheeler said of the stress on a family trying to deal with the saddening disease.
As a working woman with two young children, Wheeler said she had to be proactive about finding time to write.
“You have to be organized and set aside time. For me it was always early morning before things got crazy. I would get up around 5 a.m. when no one in the house was up. I could have peace and plan what I needed to get done for the day. It’s just a matter of having the persistence and determination to make the time to do something if you really want to do it,” Wheeler said.
Growing up without a computer, Wheeler started with a pen and paper, letting the words flow through her onto the page until she had something she was ready to type into her computer.
Writing fiction was a new experience for the author, who has 25 years of communications experience and currently works in corporate communications at Levi Ray & Shoup, Inc.
“It was hard to go from professional writing to creative writing. It’s a different animal. I had to learn and conquer it,” Wheeler said, though her corporate writing helped her with the editing process.
A Springfield native, Wheeler used her hometown as the setting for her characters’ struggles and the story incorporates some of our town’s local hotspots, including Gabatoni’s Pizza and Mel-O-Cream Donuts, where an important scene takes place.
Although her family’s experiences with her mother, medical and care professionals, and her siblings, documented in her diary over the years, were used as inspiration and background, her characters are of her own creation.
“I think you kind of take things from here and there. A lot of writers just listen to people when conversations are going on or take notice of certain persons, pulling from here and there to put characters together. You beg, borrow and steal to bring people to life,” Wheeler said.
One person she ‘borrowed’ from is her favorite artist, Sting, whose song lyrics are featured at the beginning of each chapter.
A music enthusiast, Wheeler said she was constantly hearing his music in her head as she was writing and felt she needed to include him on the pages.
“That’s kind of what I was aiming for — to have every chapter have a soundtrack behind it. So each chapter is titled after a Sting song, and each chapter has some lyrics from the song that introduces the chapter and also hint at what’s going to happen. If you’re a fan you may hear some of that tune playing as you’re reading. But the lyrics definitely reinforce something that is going on,” Wheeler said.
Sting’s song, “I Was Brought to My Senses,” was also her inspiration for the novel’s title.
Finally, after seven years and four drafts, she felt her story was complete.
“I just kept plugging away over the years to try to make it work, but I definitely didn’t want to publish anything I didn’t think was a good story. I think what I’ve come up with is a very good story,” Wheeler said.
“After draft four, I thought this is really good. I had proofed it enough and had other people proof it, beta readers and other readers who said this is really, really good, and I thought, ‘Ok it’s time. It’s either time to do this or give up my dream of writing a book,’” Wheeler said.
While researching possible publishers Wheeler said she kept hearing horror stories from other writers about major changes they were forced to make to their work — such as the ending, the name, or the whole thing.
To ensure the final product was exactly what she wanted she decided to form her own small press, Attunement Publishing, to publish her story.
“I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing for the book — to make sure it was a great story. I think there is a stigma attached to self-publishing in that there are a lot of things out there that are not very good. I wanted to make sure that was not the case with my book,” Wheeler explained.
The process required a lot of research and working with other people in the industry, including the people at Sony whom she had to go through to secure the rights to use Sting’s work.
“It used to be you couldn’t publish a book unless you were well known or a celebrity and you had a connection with some of the giants in the publishing industry. Now it is much easier to get in. You just have to do the research and figure it out,” Wheeler said.
To complete her journey, she hired a graphic designer to help bring her vision for the cover to life, communicating her ideas, but ultimately leaving it in the hands of the professional.
“The tree on the front cover is kind of symbolic, a family tree turned upside down. There is also a lot of mention of red because of the conflicts,” Wheeler said, noting that red is also the favorite color of the main character.
“It’s also a matter of perspective because maybe it’s not upside down. Maybe you’re just lying underneath the tree,” Wheeler said.
In the end, it all came together.
“I really love it. Every time I see it I’m just so proud. I think it looks so nice,” she said.
The critical reaction from the Alzheimer’s community has been quite positive. “They say it is very realistic, authentic, most people that read it say this author has obviously been through Alzheimer’s because she knows what she’s talking about here,” Wheeler said.
Outside the community, the novel has received praise from around the country. Diane Donovan, Senior Reviewer for the Midwest Book Review, wrote, “… Brought to Our Senses is one of the most true-to-life, gripping accounts on the complexities of interconnected family relationships that has appeared in recent years … Very highly recommended as a striking jewel that is a glowing standout from the growing stack of dementia fiction sagas.”
Locally, Ann Jirmasek, clinical gerontology specialist at SIU School of Medicine, Center for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders, wrote the book was, “An exceptional read and powerful crystal ball showing the life-changing impact one extraordinary woman with a cognitive impairment can have on an entire family. I couldn’t put this book down.”
Brought to Our Senses was selected as a finalist in the First Novel category of the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Known as the ‘Sundance’ for books, the international competition recognizes the most exceptional books published outside the ‘Big Five’ conglomerates through small presses, larger independent publishers, university presses, e-book publishers and self-publishers like Wheeler.
“To be selected I was very pleased and honored… For a first book, that’s a real honor. All that work and all that effort, it’s just so nice. It’s a validation to say you did something well with it,” Wheeler said. As for the future, Wheeler has some ideas but doesn’t really have anything specific in mind just yet.
“It took so long and right now I’m devoting so much time and energy getting the word out about this novel and trying to give it the best chance to be successful,” she said.
One of the successes she hopes to achieve is to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s and help other people going through their journey with the debilitating disease.
“There’s no hope with Alzheimer’s, Wheeler stated directly. “The one thing I kept coming up with ultimately was whoever has this is going to die,” Wheeler said.
The novel opens with a funeral and flashes back through the tapestry of the past.
“It’s kind of a back and forth thing. I knew since it was about Alzheimer’s, I just wanted to nip that in the bud that yes, she’s going to die. The first chapter opens at the funeral and circles back to what happens during that time of Alzheimer’s,” Wheeler explained.
When asked what advice she would give to other families struggling with Alzheimer’s, Wheeler said she would encourage them to work on their relationships within their family so they don’t’ have to weather the storm alone.
“I’m not talking about the loved one you’re caring for, but support from other people who can help you get through it. I know when my mother was first diagnosed it was hard to find information because the internet was very young,” she said.
“Also research to be prepared. I wish we would have had more time to be prepared to help my mother get through it.”
Wheeler notes researching for the present is important but vital to help families down the road as well.
Despite all the preparations, Wheeler admits that, at the end of the day, no one can ever be truly ready.
“Anyone who deals with dementia soon realizes it’s so unpredictable. There’s really no way to be prepared for anything that’s going to happen. Everybody’s different, how those symptoms progress, how they manifest, what’s going to happen, how you’re going to deal with it,” Wheeler said.
To learn more about the book visit The Blue Door Artist Gallery, The Corkscrew Wine Emporium, Mel-O-Cream Donuts, or Vono Medical Supplies locally, or pick up a copy online from all major booksellers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iBooks.