What would you do if you had a second chance at life?
In Jessica Chiarella’s debut novel, four terminally ill patients receive a miracle cure—at a price. As participants in a revolutionary program called SUBlife, each person’s memories are transferred into a genetically perfect replica of his or her body. Cured but forced to relearn the skills they’ve possessed since childhood, the four grapple with the ramifications of reentering life in an unfamiliar body.
And Again delivers a stunning journey challenging the nature of identity, weaving four stories into a cohesive narrative. You’ll meet Hannah, an artistic prodigy, David, a congressman, Connie, an actress, and Linda, a wife and mother who lived completely paralyzed for eight years. As Chiarella gradually reveals the characters’ pasts in tandem with their present courses, she illuminates the reality that their bodies—and our own—determine identity far more than expected.
Paste caught up with Chiarella to discuss how seeking a cure for cancer inspired SUBlife, the challenges of writing a paralyzed character’s recovery and what she’s working on next.
Paste: What sparked your imagination to write And Again?
Jessica Chiarella: It was really the culmination of a lot of ideas that I’d been walking around with for a while before I began to write. Ideas about how much of a person’s identity is derived from their body and the way beauty functions within our society have never been far from my mind, particularly when I was a bit younger. But the idea for SUBlife actually came to me when I was thinking about what a cure for cancer might look like—and how it might be something completely unexpected, instead of the right pill or the right diet or the correct combination of treatments. So being able to synthesize all of these seemingly disparate ideas—about beauty, about the body being a physical record, about how serious illness impacts identity—it had so much possibility. I had to write about it.
Paste: Science and medicine play crucial roles in the novel. What was your research process like for this story?
Chiarella: I actually tried not to go down the rabbit hole of scientific research for the book, because it is so much more about the characters than about how SUBlife works. SUBlife functions as more of a magical element in the story, because to create a process of transferring memories into a clone and justify it with actual science would require a huge amount of explanation, and I felt that would detract from the practical experiences of the characters. So I tried to find small details that would be enough to convince the reader that whatever was going on behind the curtain made sense, but never actually get into the practicalities of how it works. That way the characters can grapple with discovering what this process has meant for them personally instead of spending a lot of time explaining why it works scientifically.
Paste: Which character’s point of view was the most challenging to write?
Chiarella: Linda was the most difficult, by far. I spent a lot of time trying to imagine what it would be like to be paralyzed in the way she was and how taxing it would be to then be shoved back into the world. This is a woman who has totally given up, whose most significant relationship is with a television show, trying to reintegrate herself into her family. And I had to be very careful with her, particularly with her ambivalence about motherhood, to try to demonstrate that this is not a woman who is simply unable to engage emotionally with the people around her. This is a woman who was made the way she is by time and circumstance, but that also does not make her desires and her needs any less valid in the narrative present. She is so profoundly lost, and I think that’s what drew me to her more than anything.
Paste: If SUBlife actually existed and you had a life-threatening illness, would you participate in the program?
Chiarella: Absolutely. I’m very much like David in that respect; if I have a gun to my head, medically speaking, there’s very little I wouldn’t do to save myself. Perhaps I wouldn’t go as far as he did, morally speaking, but I can identify with the impulse to do absolutely whatever it takes. I think it was a very comforting thing for me, writing about a world in which a miracle cure exists. I would love it if technology like SUBlife existed; it would render toothless so many of the things I’m afraid of.
Paste: Can you share any details about what you’re writing next?
Chiarella: It’s another speculative novel, also set in Chicago. I’m hesitant to give too many details, because, in my experience, so many things can change between the first draft of a book and the last. But as it stands, it’s about a family of women who can see imminent death by touching people. So, another really chipper subject!