Susan Kraus talks about When We Lost Touch
Author Susan Kraus was interviewed by Pam Grout, #1 New York Times best-selling author of E-Squared, Thank & Grow Rich, Art & Soul, Reloaded and 16
other books and hundreds of travel articles. Pam and Susan both live in Lawrence, Kansas, a university town so stuffed with festivals, parades, creativity, fab food, great music and overall fun that visitors often ask "Are you sure we're still in Kansas?" For more information on Pam's work, go to www.pamgrout.com
What made you want to write a book about COVID?
When I told a friend I was thinking about writing this book, she said, “Nobody wants to read a novel about COVID” because we’ve all lived through it. It’s so fresh in our minds, and we read novels as an escape from reality.” But, during COVID, we went through so many different experiences, in such a relatively brief period of time, that people have already forgotten what COVID was like in the beginning. Even if we remember our own COVID experiences clearly, we don’t know much about the individual experiences that are different from ours, like those of frontline medical workers. So much of COVID was behind closed doors. In When We Lost Touch, readers engage with characters and feel empathy.
You’ve called this book “contemporary historical fiction.” Is that a real genre?
Technically, no. Historical fiction takes events from the past and places characters in a certain time period. It communicates the ambiance and challenges of the period. When we think of historical fiction, we think of books set in a specific time decades or centuries ago. When We Lost Touch takes place between January 2020 and July 2021, plus an epilogue. But, as I was writing the book, it felt like I was writing historical fiction because our experiences during the pandemic were so unique. So much happened in such a short period of time. People wrote about the Vietnam War right after it happened. It wasn't necessarily “historical” writing because the events were still fresh, but the writing was still historical because of how they documented the experiences of soldiers and people at home. Our COVID experiences, our collective and individual "war with a pandemic," are just now being documented. So, When We Lost Touch is a contemporary novel that will age into historical fiction.
Since you’re writing about the “collective experience,” are parts of the book inspired by your COVID experience?
When I was in grad school for English, decades ago, we were told to never mix autobiography and fiction. But that’s not the case anymore. This novel is my foray into “auto-fic.” The experiences of my characters are fiction, but some of their experiences reflect what my family and friends went through. The book starts off with Grace going on a cruise as COVID looms. I was on a cruise at that same time. Grace was naïve and thought COVID would never spread to the United States, and it would all blow over in time. I had very similar thoughts when I was on my cruise, and just like Grace, I returned home and found everything turned upside down. Another auto-fic element was Mickey building a sauna in Grace’s backyard. My husband and I did the same thing. The hospice chapter is based on home hospice with my mom in our family room. There are many, many elements in the book that are completely fiction, but there are elements woven in from my own life as well. And many of the characters are based, loosely, on the experiences of real people.
Can you talk a little about the research that went into this book?
I’ve always done research for my books. When I wrote Fall From Grace, I didn’t want to write an autopsy scene from reading about them, so I finagled getting to spend a night in a morgue in Kansas City where they do homicide autopsies. I couldn’t do that same kind of hands-on research when writing this book given how contagious COVID is, so I did most of my research for When We Lost Touch by interviewing other people. I felt it was important not to just read articles but actually talk to people about their experiences. I interviewed a man who graduated from respiratory therapy school in December, 2019, and started working in January 2020. Like Theo, within weeks of starting as an RT, his job morphed into something totally different. Talking with people on the front lines helped me understand just pieces of the trauma they went through. I interviewed a man and learned about DMORT. It was intense research, but makes the characters more authentic and realistic.
What was the inspiration for all your different plotlines?
When We Lost Touch follows characters from my Grace McDonald series like Grace, a therapist now in her sixties; Molly, her daughter; Max, her grandson; Mickey, her (now) partner; and Katrina, her best friend. But many of the other characters in this book are new to me. The other main plotlines follow Theo, Ian, Nell, Zed, Cherry, and the grief group. I wanted to write about a respiratory therapist rather than a nurse or doctor since COVID affects how people breathe. I did a lot of my research for Theo by talking to a friend’s son who is a respiratory therapist. I was able to get connected with a man who worked for DMORT—the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team—during COVID. I was intrigued because most people have never heard of DMORT before. Right as COVID was starting, I knew some people who had family members who’d been sucked into QAnon, and their experiences were woven into Zed and Cherry’s characters. Lastly, there’s the COVID grief group which consists of eight characters who all lost loved ones to COVID. One of the grief group members, Kayla, was inspired by a barista I met in Arkansas.
How did a barista inspire a character? Can you explain that some more?
I was writing at a coffee shop while doing a residency at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. This young person walked past my table. I was so entranced by their look—distinctive eye makeup, kind of a mix of Goth and Kabuki—wearing hiking boots, a skirt, a corset-like top. I literally got up, abandoned my laptop, followed them to ask if I could take their picture--- to remember it all --and found out they were a barista. The character is completely fictional, but Kayla’s “vibe” was inspired by this barista. That’s who I saw in every scene.
Max, your character on the autism spectrum, seems to have a bigger voice in this book. Can you talk a little more about him? What motivated that voice? Why was it important for his voice to be heard?
We first met Max in All God’s Children when he was seven years old. He wasn’t as big of a character in that book, but in When We Lost Touch, he’s eleven years old and starting to grow up. Max is on the autism spectrum, and I think he really developed a personality during this book because he’s comfortable and able to be himself at home when his family is quarantined. He didn’t have to adapt to rules or mask his behaviors like in a classroom. He was reading and researching on his own, playing a lot of games on the computer. Over the course of 18 months, he becomes a different child. He develops new interests and gets intrigued by science. Max learns so much that might not have happened if he’d spent those months in a classroom. For a lot of people, COVID was isolating and took a toll on relationships. But for people like Max, who don’t thrive in social situations, the isolation was liberating. Max provides a youthful perspective to quarantine that contrasts with what Mickey, Grace, Molly, and Katrina go through.
Many of the relationships in the novel flourish despite what’s going on around them. We saw more of Mickey and Grace’s relationship in this novel, and Molly has a relationship with a man over Zoom. Can you talk about the relationships in this book and how they’ve grown?
Mickey and Grace met in Fall From Grace. They had an intermittent friendship, slowly developing into a romantic relationship.
Grace was gone for 10 years after her husband was murdered, but she moved back to Kaw Valley to help Molly raise her son. Molly grows a deeper connection with an old friend, Mike—who was part of a complicated custody battle in All God’s Children—over Zoom. The thing about COVID is that relationships had to grow in very different ways since we couldn’t see each other in person or even touch each other. Since we were so distant from our friends living in the same town as us, a friend living several states away felt as close as a friend who lived down the block.
There are so many weaving plotlines in this book. Do you think there are too many characters to keep track of? Why do you have such a large cast of characters in your novels?
There are a lot of characters in this book. I approached this book differently since it’s so character based. I started by writing each character’s plotline separately, and then I wove them together into one cohesive story. As I kept writing, more characters kept coming to me. I swear, I’d wake up in the middle of the night and a character would be, figuratively, sitting at the end of my bed saying “Hey, I’m Ian, and I’m a mortician who should be in your book.” Or I’d go into a coffee shop, meet a young barista with cool eye makeup and think, “Well, she is definitely a new character.” More characters kept coming up, and I wanted to capture as many of their experiences as I could. This book is very character heavy, but I think that’s what makes it powerful.
The title of this book is different from what you’ve written in the past. What made you choose the title When We Lost Touch?
Each of the words in the title have their own baggage or their own explanation. The “when” reflects a particular time and place, so the 18 months between January 2020 and July 2021. The “we” reflects everyone. So many people were lost in this pandemic, and nobody got through it completely unscathed. The “we” in this book is mostly the people in Kaw Valley, a university town in Kansas, though some characters are not from Kaw Valley. The “lost” reflects all that was lost in COVID. Even if you didn’t lose a loved one to COVID, we lost emotional connection, experiences, livelihoods, savings, and touch. The last word in the title, “touch,” has a double meaning. We lost physical touch, we couldn’t shake hands or hug people, or even see them in person. We were terrified of touching things at the grocery store because we were so scared that touching other people and things would get us sick. If we were lucky, we were able to develop a small group, or pod, to interact with, the people in our household or a friend or two who did not interact with anyone outside of the pod to prevent spreading COVID. We had to trust each other enough to not do anything dangerous that would put everyone in the household or pod at risk. The word “touch” also reflects the grasp we have on reality, particularly with Zed and Cherry. Their perspective on life is changed when they discover Q Anon, and as they try to become more “aware” of how the “elite” are controlling the world, they’re slowly spiraling out of reality and believing in conspiracies.
Is this book part of your Grace McDonald series?
In short, no, it's a standalone.
The more complicated answer is that this book follows the same central characters from the Grace McDonald series (Grace, Molly, Max, Mickey, Katrina). However, I consider this book to be a standalone because unlike my other novels, there's no mystery involved. There is way too much dying, so maybe the mystery is how could it have gotten so bad compared to other developed nations. It still covers provocative social issues like the rest of my books, but it has a different feel. I summarize enough of the events from prior books that readers can jump right in without feeling lost.
I suggest reading the Grace McDonald series at some point, either before or after reading When We Lost Touch, so you can learn about each character's backstory. But no, you don't need to read my series to understand When We Lost Touch.