As a teacher of creative writing at both San Francisco State University and Stanford, where she was a Stegner Fellow, Alice LaPlante knows how to tell a story. She has even authored a textbook on the subject: “Method and Madness: The Making of a Story.”
Her first novel, 2011’s “Turn of Mind,” became a New York Times, NPR and American Independent Booksellers Association best-seller within a month of its release; was one of The Chronicle’s 100 recommended books of 2011; and was the first work of fiction ever to be awarded the Wellcome Trust Prize, given annually to books on the theme of medicine. Vivienne Parry, chair of the judging panel, said in the award statement that “Turn of Mind” “emphatically confirms the ability of literature to tell us more about the heart and soul of an illness than any textbook.”
The book, which tells the story of a murder suspect who has Alzheimer’s, gave LaPlante the framework she needed to successfully write about the disease, from which her mother suffers. She had been writing about the topic through nonfiction, short stories and journal entries, but it wasn’t until she had the idea for the novel that she was able to write uninhibited.
This week, LaPlante is celebrating the release of her second novel, “A Circle of Wives.” It begins with the death of a respected Stanford doctor who, it turns out, was married concurrently to three women. Told from the wives’ perspectives, the book has many of the elements that made “Turn of Mind” so appealing: mystery, the question of identity and the mind’s place in relation to matters of the heart.
The story is inspired by true events. “I read a news article about eight years ago,” LaPlante said by phone, “about a guy who died and it came out that he had three wives, and that just intrigued me. And I thought, ‘How could that be? And how could that work out?’ and then eventually I sat down to write about it.”
Like “Turn of Mind,” LaPlante says she wrote “A Circle of Wives” intuitively, without planning out the plot. She has stated that she didn’t know who committed the murder in her first novel until she reached the last 50 pages; when asked if she had any surprises while writing “A Circle of Wives,” she said that there were but that she couldn’t reveal them “because they’ll ruin the surprise.”
One thing she did reveal, in an interview with her publisher, was how she felt about the doctor’s character. “Writing books always changes your opinion about what you’re writing about,” she said. “It was that way with ‘Turn of Mind,’ and it was that way with ‘A Circle of Wives.’ I think before I wrote it, I would have been more inclined to judge a man like John Taylor harshly for his deceptiveness. Now I see that he brought real happiness to each of the women in his (busy) life. He wasn’t a monster … just had unconventional ways of having his needs met.”
IF YOU GO
Alice LaPlante: 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Free. Mrs. Dalloway’s, 2904 College Ave., Berkeley. (510) 704-8222.
Photo by Anne Knudson